It doesn’t rain unless it pours. Numbers is an odd book; a good half of the chapters are nothing but Levitical drudgery, and then we get chapters like these, where the narratives just seem to be breathlessly jammed together.

As the Hebrews are travelling through Atharim, they are attacked by the king of Arad, a Canaanite. This appears to have been a small skirmish, since we’re given no death tally and only told that he took some of the Hebrews captive.

The Hebrews then call to God for help and, while reticent to provide them with the necessities of subsistence, he seems quite happy to help when it involves killing people.

With God’s help, the Hebrews are able to “utterly destroy” the Canaanites, as well as their cities. Because of this, they name the area Hormah, which my Study Bible notes means “destruction.”

Waaay back in Numbers 14:39-45, we heard of a different battle in which some of the Hebrews run up into the hill country and are attacked by the Amalekites and Canaanites. In that battle, the Hebrews are destroyed and their remainder pursued “even to Hormah” (Num. 14:45).

The similarities between the two stories are interesting: the initial defeat at the hands of Canaanites, and the mention of Hormah. A possible interpretation of this Numbers 21 story is that it is a continuation, explaining what happened after the Hebrews (whether the initial group or the larger group following) arrived at Hormah and retaliated.

Enter the serpents

From Mount Hor, the Hebrews set out to go around Edom (having been denied through-passage in Numbers 20). On the way, however, the people start griping again about the lack of variety in their diet. As punishment, God sends “fiery serpents” (v.6) among them, the poison killing everyone bitten.

Moses and the Brazen Serpent, by Sébastien Bourdon, 1653-1654

Moses and the Brazen Serpent, by Sébastien Bourdon, 1653-1654

Moses prays on behalf of the people and God, once again, relents. However, while sending miracles that kill masses of people is easy-peasy for God, removing them seems to be a bit on the “rock so heavy even God cannot lift it” side of things, so he needs Moses to perform some magic.

To pull this one off, Moses must build an idol – specifically, a bronze serpent set on a pole. Anyone who has been bitten and sees the idol will survive.

I think that this is a similar situation to the Golden Calf story. Indeed, we’ll see in 2 Kings 18:4 that this idol – later called Nehushtan – was considered in violation of the cultic prohibitions and was destroyed.

According to J.R. Porter:

This is the origin of the bronze serpent that stood in the Temple of Jerusalem. It was originally a symbol of Canaanite religion, but is here attributed to Moses, although its original significance as part of a cult involving serpent worship has been neutralized. (The New Illustrated Companion to the Bible, p.61)

The symbolism of the serpent as a sign of healing was not at all uncommon in the Near East. The Rod of Asclepius is probably the one most people are familiar with (even if they don’t know the name), though there are plenty of other examples.

I think it’s probable that this symbol was in circulation and somehow got included in Hebrew cultic iconography. At some point, the icon was associated with Moses, and this story made it into Numbers. At some later point, there was an iconoclast crackdown and the idol was destroyed.

It seems to me that the bronze serpent is quite clearly a violation of the Exodus 20:4 prohibition of idolatry. Even if the idol is commissioned by God, it’s still an idol (and, one might argue, all idols are commissioned by a god or gods).

Brant Clemens of Both Saint and Cynic explains that “idolatry has been defined as the sin of mistaking the good for the best.” To extrapolate, the idol – at the time of its creation – is seen as merely an earthly tool for God’s use, not a conduit or representation of God himself. Once this changed and people started worshipping the idol, it was destroyed.

Interesting side-note, Brant also mentioned that “the snake on the pole is used in Christian art (and preaching, I’m sure) as a figure of Christ on the cross.” This was totally new to me but, when I was searching for images to use for this post, I had no trouble finding examples of it.

Numbers 21 - Serpent Christ

Journey to Moab

We haven’t had a proper son in quite a while, and someone apparently realized that they weren’t meeting quota. Through the rest of this chapter, we get three of them, all up next to each other like it’s perfectly normal to stuff all the songs in one place or something.

A long section of the chapter simply lists the pit-stops taken by the travellers:

  1. Oboth
  2. Iye Abarim, west of Moab
  3. The Zered Valley
  4. Alongside the Arnon, which is the border between Moab and the Amorites
  5. Quite interlude to quote a poem from the lost Book of the Wars of the Lord
  6. Beer, which means “well,” where the people break into song about how awesome wells are
  7. The wilderness of Mattanah
  8. Nahaliel
  9. Bamoth
  10. The valley in Moab where the top of Pisgah overlooks the wasteland

Defeat of Sihon and Og

In a near-identical passage to their request of the king of Edom in Numbers 20, the Hebrews ask Sihon, king of the Amorites, for permission to pass through his territories.

Once again, they are refused. This time, however, the refusal apparently comes with a rather brutal and – if the text is to be taken at face value – totally uncalled for attack.

Sihon and his army find the Hebrews at Jahaz, where the Hebrews retaliate and conquer his lands “from the Arnon to the Jabbok” (v.24). But they are stopped at the Ammonite border because they have hard, protective shells.

Then we get our third, and final, song of the chapter, which goes on about how woe’d and destroyed the enemies of the Hebrews are, and how the Israelites have settled in the lands that they formerly owned.

After their victory, Moses sends spies to Jazer and the Israelites drive out the Amorite residents. They then head up toward Bashan and fight against the army of King Og at the battle of Edrei, which the Hebrews win.