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Numbers 21:1-9

Context
Victory at Hormah

21:1 1 When the Canaanite king of Arad 2  who lived in the Negev 3  heard that Israel was approaching along the road to Atharim, he fought against Israel and took some of them prisoner.

21:2 So Israel made a vow 4  to the Lord and said, “If you will indeed deliver 5  this people into our 6  hand, then we will utterly destroy 7  their cities.” 21:3 The Lord listened to the voice of Israel and delivered up the Canaanites, 8  and they utterly destroyed them and their cities. So the name of the place was called 9  Hormah.

Fiery Serpents

21:4 Then they traveled from Mount Hor by the road to the Red Sea, 10  to go around the land of Edom, but the people 11  became impatient along the way. 21:5 And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness, for there is no bread or water, and we 12  detest this worthless 13  food.”

21:6 So the Lord sent poisonous 14  snakes 15  among the people, and they bit the people; many people of Israel died. 21:7 Then the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord that he would take away 16  the snakes from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.

21:8 The Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous snake and set it on a pole. When anyone who is bitten looks 17  at it, he will live.” 21:9 So Moses made a bronze snake and put it on a pole, so that if a snake had bitten someone, when he looked at the bronze snake he lived. 18 

1 sn This chapter has several events in it: the victory over Arad (vv. 1-3), the plague of serpents (vv. 4-9), the approach to Moab (vv. 10-20), and the victory over Sihon and Og (vv. 21-35). For information, see D. M. Gunn, “The ‘Battle Report’: Oral or Scribal Convention.” JBL 93 (1974): 513-18; and of the extensive literature on the archaeological site, see EAEHL 1:74-89.

2 sn The name Arad probably refers to a place a number of miles away from Tel Arad in southern Israel. The name could also refer to the whole region (like Edom).

3 tn Or “the south”; “Negev” has become a technical name for the southern desert region and is still in use in modern times.

4 tn The Hebrew text uses a cognate accusative with the verb: They vowed a vow. The Israelites were therefore determined with God’s help to defeat Arad.

5 tn The Hebrew text has the infinitive absolute and the imperfect tense of נָתַן (natan) to stress the point – if you will surely/indeed give.”

6 tn Heb “my.”

7 tn On the surface this does not sound like much of a vow. But the key is in the use of the verb for “utterly destroy” – חָרַם (kharam). Whatever was put to this “ban” or “devotion” belonged to God, either for his use, or for destruction. The oath was in fact saying that they would take nothing from this for themselves. It would simply be the removal of what was alien to the faith, or to God’s program.

8 tc Smr, Greek, and Syriac add “into his hand.”

9 tn In the Hebrew text the verb has no expressed subject, and so here too is made passive. The name “Hormah” is etymologically connected to the verb “utterly destroy,” forming the popular etymology (or paronomasia, a phonetic wordplay capturing the significance of the event).

10 tn The “Red Sea” is the general designation for the bodies of water on either side of the Sinai peninsula, even though they are technically gulfs from the Red Sea.

11 tn Heb “the soul of the people,” expressing the innermost being of the people as they became frustrated.

12 tn Heb “our souls.”

13 tn The Israelites’ opinion about the manna was clear enough – “worthless.” The word used is קְלֹקֵל (qÿloqel, “good for nothing, worthless, miserable”).

14 tn Heb “fiery.”

15 tn The designation of the serpents/ snakes is נְחָשִׁים (nÿkhashim), which is similar to the word for “bronze” (נְחֹשֶׁת, nÿkhoshet). This has led some scholars to describe the serpents as bronze in color. The description of them as fiery indicates they were poisonous. Perhaps the snake in question is a species of adder.

16 tn The verb is the Hiphil jussive with a vav (ו) consecutive from the verb סוּר (sur); after the imperative this form may be subordinated to become a purpose clause.

17 tn The word order is slightly different in Hebrew: “and it shall be anyone who is bitten when he looks at it he shall live.”

18 sn The image of the snake was to be a symbol of the curse that the Israelites were experiencing; by lifting the snake up on a pole Moses was indicating that the curse would be drawn away from the people – if they looked to it, which was a sign of faith. This symbol was later stored in the temple, until it became an object of worship and had to be removed (2 Kgs 18:4). Jesus, of course, alluded to it and used it as an illustration of his own mission. He would become the curse, and be lifted up, so that people who looked by faith to him would live (John 3:14). For further material, see D. J. Wiseman, “Flying Serpents,” TynBul 23 (1972): 108-10; and K. R. Joines, “The Bronze Serpent in the Israelite Cult,” JBL 87 (1968): 245-56.



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