Numbers 20:14-21:9 Exploring the Passage

Below are some preliminary questions to assist in the study of this passage. For a comprehensive study of the passage, download the Study Guide (PDF download).

1. How do the Israelite messengers appeal to the king of Edom and what is his response? See Numbers 20:14-18 (printed below)

Moses sent messengers from Kadesh to the king of Edom, saying, This is what your brother Israel says: You know about all the hardships that have come upon us. (15) Our forefathers went down into Egypt, and we lived there for many years. The Egyptians mistreated us as well as our fathers. (16) But when we cried out to Jehovah, he heard our cry and sent an angel and brought us out of Egypt. Now we are here in Kadesh, a town on the edge of your territory. (17) Please let us pass through your country. We will not go through any field or vineyard; neither will we drink water from the wells. We will travel along the king’s highway; we will not veer off to the right or to the left until we have passed through your territory. (18) But Edom answered, You may not pass through my country. If you attempt to do so, I will come out against you with the sword. (Numbers 20:14-18)

The Israelite ambassadors appeal to the blood relation that existed between themselves and the Edomites, identifying themselves as “your brother Israel.” Also, they appeal to Edom’s mercy by recounting all the adversity they have suffered at the hands of the Egyptians (Numbers 20:15). The ambassadors explain that the people of Israel are merely requesting permission to pass through Edom along the king’s highway, they have no intention of settling within Edomite territory or plundering the land (Numbers 20:17). But Edom refuses to grant permission, threatening to make war against Israel if they enter Edomite territory (Numbers 20:18).

2. After being turned away from Edom, what happens next to the people of Israel? See Numbers 21:1 (printed below)

When the Canaanite king of Arad, who lived in the Negev, heard that Israel was coming along the road to Atharim, he attacked them and took some of them captive. (Numbers 21:1)

Despite Israel’s pleading and even their promise to pay for the use of water, Edom adamantly refuses to allow the people to pass through their land (Numbers 20:19-20). To make matters worse, Israel in now attacked by the Canaanite king of Arad (Numbers 21:1). Feeling threatened by Israel’s presence, he sends out a military expedition against them, taking some of the people captive.

3. Describe the events recorded in Numbers 21:2-4 (printed below). Why were the people discouraged?

Then Israel made this vow to Jehovah: If you will deliver these people into my hand, I will devote their cities to you by totally destroying them. (3) Jehovah listened to Israel’s vow and delivered the Canaanites to them. They completely destroyed them and their cities; so that place was named Hormah. (4) Then they traveled from Mount Hor along the route towards the Red Sea, in order to go around the land of Edom. The people became very discouraged in spirit because of the route they were obligated to take. (Numbers 21:2-4)

Despite the fact that the Lord gives Israel a military victory over the king of Arad and his people, He will not let Israel advance north directly into the land of Canaan. The Lord instructs Israel to journey south in order to go around the land of Edom and eventually approach Canaan from the east along the Jordan River (Numbers 21:4a). So it was that “the people became very discouraged in spirit because of the route they were obligated to take” (Numbers 21:4b).

4. When the people of Israel allow their disappointment to turn into blasphemous protest, what does the Lord do? See Numbers 21:5-6 (printed below)

The people spoke against God and against Moses, saying, Why have you brought us up out of Egypt in order to die in this wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food! (6) Then Jehovah sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. (Numbers 21:5-6)

In response to Israel’s attitude and behavior, the Lord demonstrates that He will not tolerate spiritual temper tantrums, and He will not allow His sacred Name to be blasphemed. The Lord sent venomous snakes among the people (Numbers 21:6a). Note: the wilderness was infested with venomous snakes and scorpions (Deuteronomy 8:15), but Israel had been graciously spared, until now. Numbers 21:6b reports, “they bit the people and many Israelites died.” The terrors to which we expose ourselves when we blaspheme and forsake the protective care of Christ are very real and deadly.

5. When the people repent, how does the Lord provide for their salvation? See Numbers 21:7-9 (printed below)

The people came to Moses and said, We sinned when we spoke against Jehovah and against you. Pray that Jehovah would take the snakes away from us. (8) Jehovah said to Moses, Make a replica of a venomous snake and put it on a pole; when anyone who has been bitten looks at it, he shall live. (9) So Moses made a bronze snake and put it on a pole. And it happened that, if anyone was bitten by a snake, when he looked at the bronze snake, he lived. (Numbers 21:7-9)

When the people return to the Lord, He is faithful to receive them back and to provide for their deliverance. Moses is instructed to make a bronze replica of the deadly, venomous snakes (Numbers 21:8a). That bronze snake was attached to a pole and prominently displayed for all to see (Numbers 21:8b). In order to be saved, the bitten, perishing Israelites had to look at the bronze snake, trusting that the Lord would save them (Numbers 21:8c). The bronze snake attached to the pole was an Old Testament representation of the Lord Jesus Christ (note John 3:14-15, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, in the same way must the Son of man be lifted up; so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”)