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Bible: What Does Numbers 21-24 Teach Us About Faith and Unfaithfulness?
The Bronze Serpent
Looking at Nehushtan
Israel encounters still more opposition, this time at the hand of the Canaanite king of Arad (v. 1a).
Suffering the loss of some men through capture, Israel vows to destroy Arad’s cities if Yahweh would deliver up the Canaanites (vv. 1b-2).
The LORD honors their promise in Hormah— “Utter Destruction” (v. 3).
On their way around Edom via the Sea of Reeds, however, Israel loses heart and starts griping about the food again (vv. 4-5).
This time the LORD’s chastisement/judgment comes in the form of fiery serpents whose bite kills many people (v. 6).
Witnessing these horrible deaths prompts Israel to confess their sin and ask Moses to intercede (v. 7).
Yahweh commands Moses to make a bronze serpent and set it on a pole; He then tells his servant that anyone bitten may merely look at it and live.
Look To the Cross
"Look and Live"
At this point, the nehushtan serves as a test of Israel’s faith. Will they look at the bronzed serpent, thereby showing their trust in God’s word, or will they refuse to look?
Later, the serpent became an idol that Israel had to destroy (vv. 8-9; cf. 2 Kings 18:4).
[Jesus uses this episode to symbolize His own lifting up (in His case, onto a cross) and of humanity’s need to “look” to Him (that is, trust) to live (eternally) [cf. John 3:14-15].
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Israel now makes several journeys: from Oboth to Ije Abarim, east of Moab, to the Valley of Zered, to the other side of the Arnon (a river which forms the border of Moab, between Moab and the Amorites (mountain-dwelling Canaanites) [vv. 10-13].
Moses quotes from the non-canonical “Book of the Wars of the LORD,” citing ancient unknown places (vv. 14-15).
From the Arnon camp they travel to Beer where Yahweh gives them water, and Israel celebrates with song (vv. 16-18).
After Beer come several other stops in Moab until they arrive at the top of Pisgah, a mountain from which they see Jeshimon (the wasteland) [vv. 19-20].
Desiring to pass through the land of Sihon king of the Amorites without confrontation, Israel sends messengers to him (vv. 21-22).
Sihon, however, distrusting the promises of the messengers, gathers an army against Israel and attacks God’s people at Jahaz (v. 23).
They defeat Sihon and take possession of all of his villages and cities from the Arnon to the Jabbok, including Heshbon, Sihon’s headquarters (vv. 24-26).
Parables/proverbs speak about the need to reconstruct Heshbon which Israel took from Sihon and devastated (vv. 27-30).
[Sihon had earlier defeated a former Moabite king and had taken this land (see 21:26, 29)].
Later, Israel dwells not only in Heshbon, but also in Jazer and its villages (vv. 31-32).
On the way to Bashan Israel fights against Og at Edrei (v. 33).
Assured of the LORD’s victory over His enemies, Israel defeats this foe, completely annihilates his people, and takes possession of his land (vv. 34-35).
[Israel’s intentions are peaceful; however, these pagan nations perceive them as threatening and thus instigate war].
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Balak and Balaam
Another move brings Israel to the plains of Moab near the Jordan and opposite Jericho (v. 1).
When Balak, the king of Moab, learns from the elders of Midian about his people’s fear that mighty Israel would consume them, he sends delegates from Moab and Midian to Balaam at Pethor (a place near the Euphrates River) to ask him to curse this new power for a fee (vv. 2-7).
[Apparently, Balaam’s reputation for divination (cursing and blessing) precedes him (v. 6b-7)].
Balaam shows these messengers overnight hospitality while waiting upon the LORD (v. 8).
The prophet then takes the message he receives from God—“Do not go with them to curse Israel, for this people is blessed”—to the princes (vv. 9-13), and the latter return to Balak with it (v. 14).
Not content with their answer, Balak sends higher emissaries with greater rewards, even a “blank check” (vv. 15-17).
Balaam does not act unfaithfully at this point, adhering to his commitment to obey the LORD’s word; still, he consults with God at night (vv. 18-19).
Yahweh tells the prophet to go with them if they come to call him, but to speak only what He tells him (v. 20).
Apparently, Balaam goes without being called on, for the LORD becomes angry with him (vv. 21-22a).
[See a more likely explanation later (v. 35)].
The Angel of the LORD, Balaam, and His Donkey
The pre-incarnate Christ (the Angel of Yahweh) confronts Balaam as he rides on his donkey, his servants accompanying him (v. 22b).
Seeing the Angel ready for battle standing in her way, the donkey heads for the field (v. 23a).
Notwithstanding Balaam’s chastening hand, the donkey tries to avoid the Angel as He again stands in a narrow way, impeding her path (vv. 23b-24).
Again, Balaam strikes the poor beast for causing his foot to be crushed against a wall (v. 25).
One last time the Angel blocks the animal’s progress, but on this occasion she cannot escape (v. 26).
Having no alternative, the donkey lies down under Balaam, driving the prophet to use his staff on her (v. 27).
This amazingly funny episode continues, as the LORD enables the donkey to complain verbally to Balaam about his treatment of her (v. 28).
Not only does Balaam respond to her, claiming abuse/mockery (v. 29), but the donkey reasons with the prophet, reminding him of her past faithfulness (v. 30).
And he agrees with her (v. 30)!
Now, with his spiritual eyes opened, Balaam sees the Angel decked out in military garb, and the prophet falls flat on his face (v. 31).
The Angel informs him that his dumb donkey had saved him from death by turning aside (vv. 32-33).
Recognizing now that his way is contrary to God’s will, Balaam confesses his ignorance and offers to turn back (v. 34).
The LORD permits the prophet to continue his journey, but warns him to speak only what He tells him to speak (v. 35).
[Apparently God stood against him not because Balaam went without the princes’ calling him, but because the prophet was intent upon cursing Israel when God told him not to do so].
Moab's Watery Boundary
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King Balak meets Balaam at the Arnon, the boundary of his land (v. 36).
When he contends with the prophet about the latter’s reluctance to come to him, Balaam confesses his impotence to speak any word but God’s (vv. 37-38).
After accompanying the king to the city of Huzoth, Balaam receives gifts from Balak (vv. 39-40).
On the next day Balaam witnesses the greatness of Israel’s number from certain high places of Baal (v. 41).
Mt. Pisgah (probably Mt. Nebo)
Upon hearing Balaam’s request Balak builds seven altars, and sacrifices a bull and a ram on each (vv. 1-2).
While Balak stands by his offering, Balaam seeks God’s guidance in a desolate height (v. 3).
After telling God what he has done thus far, Balaam receives the LORD’s message and returns to Balak (vv. 4-6).
But instead of cursing Israel, as Balak desired (vv. 7, 11), Balaam blesses this “people dwelling alone, not reckoning itself among the nations,” claiming that he cannot curse this great multitude which God has not cursed (vv. 8-10).
In response to Balak’s complaint, Balaam falls back upon his commission to speak only God’s message (v. 12).
Thinking that by obtaining a different perspective at Israel that Balaam will change his attitude, Balak takes him to another location (namely, the top of Pisgah).
The king again asks him to curse them, and he sacrifices another fourteen animals (vv. 13-14).
In his meeting with God, Balaam receives “a word in his mouth” (vv. 15-16).
Rejoining Balak, who now stands with Moabite princes (v. 17), Balaam delivers the LORD’s stirring reply, saying, in effect, that God will not change His mind regarding Israel; He will not curse her, for He has determined to bless her (vv. 18-20).
[It is fascinating that Balaam should report God as saying, “He has not observed iniquity in Jacob,” for that is all He has seen since He redeemed them with a mighty arm from Egypt! (vv. 21-22)].
Undoubtedly because He is with them (v. 21b) and because He has done a great work (v. 23), He will make Israel victorious in spite of herself (v. 24).
Totally frustrated, Balak tells Balaam not to curse or bless Israel; Balaam responds as before: “I can only say what God has told me” (vv. 25-26).
Once more, Balak and Balaam travel to a new location—the top of Peor overlooking the Jeshimon—, and repeat the same ritualistic sacrifices as before (vv. 27-30).
Balaam: A True Prophet or a Greedy Apostate?
Was Balaam a greedy apostate, or was he a chastened prophet?
This time, however, instead of leaving Balak “to seek to use sorcery,” (v. 1a), Balaam faces the wilderness where he sees the Israelites in their camps, and God’s Spirit comes upon him (vv. 1b-2).
[In what sense did Balaam “seek to use sorcery” (enchantments) at other times?]
Balaam speaks now as one with spiritual insight, as one who has seen God in a vision (vv. 3-4).
Ending with a statement from the Abrahamic promise (v. 9b; cf. Gen. 12:3), Balaam emphasizes Israel’s beauty as God’s people (vv. 5-6).
Yahweh will greatly multiply and bless them, exalting His kingdom through the defeat of His enemies (vv. 7-9).
Fed up with Balaam’s blessings, Balak finally dismisses him without the promised payment (vv. 10-11).
Balaam furnishes a rejoinder: in brief, “I told you so.” He can only faithfully execute his commission from the LORD (vv. 12-13).
The prophet leaves Balak with one final word regarding Israel’s treatment of his people in the “latter days” (v. 14).
Balaam issues four separate oracles: one for Moab and Edom (vv. 15-19), one for Amalek (v. 20), one for the Kenites (vv. 21-22), and one for various lands (vv. 23-24).
Again, Balaam becomes aware of increased spiritual insight, because El Shaddai has appeared and made Himself known to him (vv. 15-16).
He seems to prophesy about the coming of the Messiah in the distant future during which time this Ruler will wreak destruction on both Moab and Edom, and Israel will perform mightily and possess their land (vv. 17-19).
Despite their proud beginning, Amalek is doomed (v. 20); despite their present security, the Kenites will become captives in Assyria (vv. 21-22).
Cyprian ships will inflict death upon the lands of Assyria, Eber and Amalek (vv. 23-24).
Finally, the two main characters leave each other and return to their places (v. 25).
© 2014 glynch1