Sermon on Numbers, II Failure, C The Changes, 2 The Commencement 21:1-35, Text: Numbers 21, Title: The Path to Victory

Studies in Numbers, II Failure, C The Changes, 2 The Commencement 21:1-35, Text: Numbers 21, Title: The Path to Victory


In this chapter we see the beginning of the conquest of Canaan. We therefore also see the prerequisites for success in battle. By implication we see from the physical realm what we need in our spiritual struggles. This narrative naturally divides into three stages. As believers we pas through these stages in the battle of faith. They are the vow, the vipers, and the victories. The first thing Israel had to do was commit the cause to the Lord because they could not do it in their own strength. The second thing they needed to do was repent and get right with the Lord whom they had complained against. This occurred with the vipers the Lord sent and the remedy. The third and final thing they did was march into battle and obtain the victory the Lord had promised.


The story of the vow is found in verses 1-3, When the Canaanite king of Arad, who lived in the Negev, heard that Israel was coming along the road to Atharim, he attacked the Israelites and captured some of them. Then Israel made this vow to the Lord: “If you will deliver these people into our hands, we will totally destroy their cities.” The Lord listened to Israel’s plea and gave the Canaanites over to them. They completely destroyed them and their towns; so the place was named Hormah. There is always talk about foxhole repentance and foxhole promises, that is, when someone in great danger promises to change if God will just deliver them. They are often mocked, but some are legitimate and do result in real change. This situation is a little different. Israelites understood the importance of a vow. It was a serious matter and a good deal more common in that culture than in ours. In general Israel kept their vows, but when  they failed, God did not grant them success, and they were defeated. For example take the incident in Joshua 7. In verse 1 we read, But the Israelites were unfaithful in regard to the devoted things; Achan son of Karmi, the son of Zimri, the son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, took some of them. So the Lord’s anger burned against Israel. They came to the city of Ai, and Joshua sent spies they reported in verses 3-5, When they returned to Joshua, they said, “Not all the army will have to go up against Ai. Send two or three thousand men to take it and do not weary the whole army, for only a few people live there.” So about three thousand went up; but they were routed by the men of Ai, who killed about thirty-six of them. They chased the Israelites from the city gate as far as the stone quarries and struck them down on the slopes. At this the hearts of the people melted in fear and became like water. So Joshua fell before the Lord desperately trying to figure out why. The Lord’s answer is in verses 10-12, The Lord said to Joshua, “Stand up! What are you doing down on your face? Israel has sinned; they have violated my covenant, which I commanded them to keep. They have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen, they have lied, they have put them with their own possessions. That is why the Israelites cannot stand against their enemies; they turn their backs and run because they have been made liable to destruction. I will not be with you anymore unless you destroy whatever among you is devoted to destruction. Joshua complied and the nation was healed, and proceeded to be victorious in its next battle against Jericho.


The passage that follows is perhaps the best known in the book of Numbers. The image from this story is all around us in society. We see it on Dr.s cars, and offices, ambulances and as a symbol of emergency medical services, and the World Health Organization. It is called the Rod of Asclepius, and takes its name from the god Asclepius, a mythological  deity associated with healing and medicinal arts in Greek mythology. Another famous healing temple named after Asclepius was located on the island of Kos, where Hippocrates, the legendary "father of medicine", may have begun his career. Here in the book of Numbers we see its original roots Verses 4-9 tell us about the vipers the Lord sent when the people became impatient and complained against Moses and the Lord. They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!” Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, the lived. The fame of this passage can be attributed to the fact that Jesus refer to it in conversation with Nicodemus in John 3: 12-16, I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. There is a world of meaning hidden in God’s simple command to look and live. The serpent on the pole represents Jesus on the cross. The serpent represents sin. What is the connection between Jesus and sin. Paul tells us in II Corinthians 5:21, God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. This is the heart and soul, the core and crux of the atonement for sin. Jesus was constituted sin on the cross, that is, He bore our sins in His own body on the tree. Thus as Paul says He was made or constituted sin for us. When we believe, then we are constituted righteous in God’s sight. He gets our sin and we get His righteousness.


It would take an extensive lesson in Holy Land geography to identify all of the places mentioned in these verses. Suffice it to say that the two important ones are Moab and Amon. The Moabites and Amorites are historic enemies of Israel. They must be defeated to possess he promised land. In verses 10-20 we see the victory over Moab. The Israelites moved on and camped at Oboth. Then they set out from Oboth and camped in Iye Abarim, in the wilderness that faces Moab toward the sunrise. From there they moved on and camped in the Zered Valley. They set out from there and camped alongside the Arnon, which is in the wilderness extending into Amorite territory. The Arnon is the border of Moab, between Moab and the Amorites. That is why the Book of the Wars of the Lord says: “. . . Zahab in Suphah and the ravines, the Arnon and the slopes of the ravines that lead to the settlement of Ar and lie along the border of Moab.” From there they continued on to Beer, the well where the Lord said to Moses, “Gather the people together and I will give them water.” Then Israel sang this song: “Spring up, O well! Sing about it, about the well that the princes dug, that the nobles of the people sank—the nobles with scepters and staffs.” Then they went from the wilderness to Mattanah, from Mattanah to Nahaliel, from Nahaliel to Bamoth, and from Bamoth to the valley in Moab where the top of Pisgah overlooks the wasteland. In this passage we have an unusual feature. A fragment or passage is here quoted from a poem or history of the wars of the Israelites, principally to celebrate the victory that results when God is honored and when He keeps His promise. The same thing is repeated in the last part of the chapter, verses 21-35,  Israel sent messengers to say to Sihon king of the Amorites: “Let us pass through your country. We will not turn aside into any field or vineyard, or drink water from any well. We will travel along the King’s Highway until we have passed through your territory.” But Sihon would not let Israel pass through his territory. He mustered his entire army and marched out into the wilderness against Israel. When he reached Jahaz, he fought with Israel. Israel, however, put him to the sword and took over his land from the Arnon to the Jabbok, but only as far as the Ammonites, because their border was fortified. Israel captured all the cities of the Amorites and occupied them, including Heshbon and all its surrounding settlements. Heshbon was the city of Sihon king of the Amorites, who had fought against the former king of Moab and had taken from him all his land as far as the Arnon. That is why the poets say:“Come to Heshbon and let it be rebuilt; let Sihon’s city be restored.“Fire went out from Heshbon, a blaze from the city of Sihon. It consumed Ar of Moab, the citizens of Arnon’s heights. Woe to you, Moab! You are destroyed, people of Chemosh! He has given up his sons as fugitives and his daughters as captives to Sihon king of the Amorites.“But we have overthrown them; Heshbon’s dominion has been destroyed all the way to Dibon. We have demolished them as far as Nophah, which extends to Medeba.” So Israel settled in the land of the Amorites. After Moses had sent spies to Jazer, the Israelites captured its surrounding settlements and drove out the Amorites who were there. Then they turned and went up along the road toward Bashan, and Og king of Bashan and his whole army marched out to meet them in battle at Edrei. The Lord said to Moses, “Do not be afraid of him, for I have delivered him into your hands, along with his whole army and his land. Do to him what you did to Sihon king of the Amorites, who reigned in Heshbon.” So they struck him down, together with his sons and his whole army, leaving them no survivors. And they took possession of his land. As we look at this chapter there is much historical detail that we will neither understand or remember. However, we should never forget the example of Israel in the wilderness which teaches us so much about our  journey through the wilderness of this present evil age.


In the beginning God has promised victory to those who are faithful. This requires a spirit of repentance which we see in the episode of the fiery serpents. And now the battle is joined. We will no more ride to heaven on flowery beds of ease, then they could enter the promised land on flowery beds of ease. They will have to fight as we have to fight the good fight of faith. How many survive, having gone through discipline like this? So, in order that the earthly temper may be taken out of us, we have to cross desert after desert, to make long circuits through the hot and thirsty wilderness even when we think our faith complete and our hope nigh its fulfillment. Those who overcome enter the kingdom. Not as “the world’s poor routed leavings,” not obtaining permission from Edomites or Amorites to slip ingloriously through their land, but as those who with the sword of the Spirit can hew our own way through falsehoods and bring down the lusts of the flesh and of the mind, as warriors of God we are to a reach and cross the border. How many survive, having gone through discipline like this? How many overcome and have the right to pass through the gate into the city? I trust you will, for that is the lesson here.