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Numbers 21:4-10

Numbers 21:4-10

Background to the Book of Numbers:
History within the text:The Book begins with a census taken of the people who experienced exodus and who will not enter the promised land. However, the second census list are those of the new generation and these will be the people to enter the promised land (Num 26). The Book of Numbers contains itineraries, statutes, ritual and priestly prescriptions, wilderness stories, including a murmuring tradition. Some quite peculiar elements are present: a talking donkey, bronze snakes which have healing powers, the earth swallowing up people, poetic oracles and a well-known benediction (The Lord Bless you and Keep you, Num 7:24-26). The promise of land is ever present in the Book of Numbers and the journeys depict a gradual process of getting to the edge. Indeed, Num 26 assumes conquest of land.

This not the first occasion that the people have murmured against God and Moses. In
Exod 15:22-17:1-7, the complaints are lack of water, lack of food, and lack of water. In response God provides water on two occasions, manna, and quails with conditions attached to the provision. The great affirmation of the people in Exod 14, that they believed, having seen how God rescued them from Egypt, does not carry through for very long. The Israelites are not able to trust God when things get hard (Exod 15:22-25, 16:1-36). Certainly, it would be scary in the wilderness if food was scarce, but it didn't take long for the murmurings to start with a very one-sided memory of Egypt. Moses confronts them with the fact that their murmurings are not against he and Aaron - they are nothing, but against the Lord. This is their greatest sin, their lack of trust in God and the ease, which they can murmur against Yahweh. Again, this provision of food from God will remind them who rescued them from Egypt (Exod 16:.6).

However, it is a very different story in Numbers 11 in which the Israelites move out form Sinai and begin the journey towards Kadesh. They complain that they are missing the exotic foods of Egypt (Num 11:5) and they are fed up with manna. They very easily forget that they were slaves in Egypt. In Exod 15 God answered their murmurings, but in Numbers God turns the food bad and they die from a plague. The first occasion on which the people murmured/complained against God was before they received the Law at Mt Sinai. The second occasion happens after they know how to behave and with the revelation of God there ought to have been a growing trust. The theme of murmuring in the pre-Sinai material uses ‘to test’ as its strongest verb and has no judgment on the Israelite’s behaviour. God’s reaction is to hear and help. No mention of impatience or judgment in pre-Sinai, but we encounter both in the Number’s material. Another story of complaint is that told in Num.12 in which Miriam and Aaron speak against Moses, supposedly because he was married to a foreign woman. His first wife, Zipporah was also a foreigner – a Kenite whose father was a priest. In Num 12 Miriam is punished with a leprosy type disease, but Aaron escapes. Moses is elevated to even higher authority in this story.

Apparently the Israelites spent about forty years around Kadesh before moving on and there are further stories about rebellious people in Num 13-16. The Israelites suffer defeat at the hands of the Amalekites and Canaanites because of their failure to be faithful. As the people moved northeast onto the King’s Highway they began to encounter the inhabitants of those lands. The King of Edam refused to allow them to pass and this is mentioned later in the oracles against the nations ( Jer 49, Ezek 25). The Israelites fought the Ammonites and won that battle (Num 21). From there they set out across the plains of Moab and because the King of Moab is afraid of the Israelites he sends for Balaam to curse the Israelites. In Num 22-23 we have this story in which Balaam’s donkey can see the angel and refuses to move. There are contradictory instructions from God: Balaam is told to go with the messengers and almost immediately God is angry because he went (Num 22: 20-22). Balaam has three encounters with God and is true to what God tells him. He is unable to curse the Israelites much to the displeasure of the King of Moab. In the end we have the model of a foreign prophet who hears God’s voice and is totally obedient. Indeed, the Spirit of God comes upon Balaam and at the end of his prophecy in Num 24:3-9 we find similar words to those spoken to Abram in Gen 12:1-3. It is a timely reminder to us that we cannot control the Spirit of God: God is free to choose anyone to be a channel of God’s word.

Literary:The Priestly writer appears reasonably dominant in the book of Numbers, especially in Num 1-10 in which there are more laws relating to tabernacle and sacrifice. The familiar references to ‘generations’ is present in Num 3 in which the generations are named since the time of Moses. It demonstrates in a very practical fashion how the promise to Abram of descendants like the stars (Gen 12:1-3) is coming true. The material in Numbers chapters 10 to 20 is connected directly with Exodus 16 to 18 and gives in greater detail some of the Israelites' experiences and their wanderings in the desert. All attempts to enter the land by their own power were frustrated by the Amalekites and the Canaanites.

We find the people have moved on from Sinai, first to Kadesh and then to Moab. The material in the Book reflects these different periods: Num 1-10 in the vicinity of Sinai: Num 13-19 in the wilderness near Kadesh: Num 22-36 on the plains of Moab. Before they move to Kadesh there is a repeat of the Passover ritual, which is first told in Exod 12-13. New elements have been added which reflect concerns of a later writer. As the people are moving out we have what is often called the ‘murmuring tradition”. This particular verb (to murmur) is quite rare in the Old Testament, used only in Exodus, 15:22-27- 17:1-7, Numbers 11, 20 and 1 occasion in Josh 9:18.

The Book of Numbers records the death of Moses (27:12-14), and the commissioning of Joshua which is then dealt with in more detail Deut 32:48-52, 34:1,7-9. The Book finishes as the people are close to the Jordan with the city of Jericho on the other side. Before we get to the crossing of the Jordan we have the Book of Deuteronomy, which interrupts the move into the land and recounts laws for everyday living.
Context of Num 21:4-10
The lectionary reading is part of the transition as the people move from Kadesh to the Plains of Moab (Num 20-21). They have spent forty years at Kadesh in which the writer has incorporated laws relating to the priests and cleansing. The story at the beginning of Num 20 is a repetition of that told in Exodus 17, except here the wilderness is named as Sin and not Zin. During this part of the journey the King of Edom refused to allow them to pass through his land along the King's Highway. This Highway ran all along the East side of Canaan from Syria down through Edom and Moab to the port of the Gulf of Aqaba. Travellors from the Mesopotamia region where the great civilisations flourished (Assyria, Babylon, Persia) would either use this route or the one that ran along the Mediterranean coast and down into Egypt. The people arrive at Mount Hor where we are told that Aaron is buried - it takes 26 lines to describe the event. At the beginning of Num 20 Aaron's sister was buried at Kadesh, which took 1 line. The next king who tried to obstruct the passage of the Israelites was a Canaanite king called Arad. It is the same name as a place which is north west of Kadesh and east of the Dead Sea. The battle went in favour of the Israelites who after victory did the usual destruction of the enemy towns. The lectionary reading talks about the Israelites trying to go around Edom and further complaints against God. The narrative continues with a description of the places at which the Israelites camped. They headed south from Arad crossed The Araba and headed north either through or around Edom and Moab to the border with the Amorites. These people were defeated and the people dwelt around this area for a period of time. After this description of their travels the narrative is interrupted with the story of Balaam and how the King of Moab wanted this non-Israelite to curse the Israelites (Num 22-24).
Insights/Message of Num 21:4-10
Literary:This must be one of the last stories about the people's complaints against God and Moses. It comes after they have defeated the Canaanite King, Arad. In response to their complaint the Lord is understood to have sent 'fiery serpents' to attack the people. The literary format of this section is structured thus: people complain - people punished - people repent - Moses intercedes - Yahweh's response - people saved. Immediately after this incident they are on the move again to a place called Oboth. It is a curious story in which Moses is instructed to build 'a fiery serpent' but instead builds 'a bronze serpent'. There is an inconsistency about the manner in which it is described - it bites and heals. The Hebrew word (serapim) means poisonous and comes from the verb to burn so leads to the translation of fiery serpent (Dozeman:163). Sometimes they are called flying serpents (Isa 14:29, 30:6-7). We find the 'bronze serpent' has a literary play on the Hebrew word for bronze 'nehoshet' and serpent 'nehash' which is referred to in the later history. King Hezekiah destroyed a 'bronze serpent' referred to as Nehushtan which was present in the temple and came to be worshipped as a divine object (2 Kgs 18:4). There must be some links other than the literary reference to Moses, but we lack precise details. The symbol of the serpent in the cultures which surrounded the Israelites as they moved through the desert and gradually settled into the land was significant in different ways. A serpent could be a symbol of evil power and chaos in some cultures while in others it was a symbol of life, fertility and healing. In Num 21:4-9 it encompasses both these extremes - a means of death and a way of healing.

Message:This story is one more in the gradual ending of the old wilderness generation which came out of Egypt, but will not be present as they enter into Canaan. The final remnants of this group die in the apostasy and rebellion in Num 25 before a second census is taken which will name those people who enter the promised land. Again God provides a way of healing after first punishing the people for their continuing unwillingness to trust completely in Yahweh. It seems that no matter how many times God demonstrates his desire to provide and lead them, they get afraid and angry at the first immediate hurtle. It must be noted here that their complaint about the lack of food is not answered, unlike in Exod 16-17 in which God provides meat, food and water. Olson suggests that the references in John's gospel to the Son of Man lifted up as Moses lifted the serpent, in both instances lead to new life and salvation (Olson:137).
Resources/Worship for Num 21:4-10
Worship:The order of worship could be modeled on the elements which are present in Num 21:4-9: people complain - people punished - people repent - Moses intercedes - Yahweh's response - people saved. The readings, prayers and songs could be fitted into the movement of the Scripture with an explanation to the congregation about what is happening in the process. Basically the service is sitting under the Scripture and it is the Scripture which dictates the flow of worship.

Resources/ Commentaries: The Old Testament Guides (OTG) by Sheffield Academic Press are an excellent small resource which give many suggestions for readings on particular aspects in the book.

The New Interpreter's Bible is another very helpful resource and published in the late 1990's - 2002 is more up to date than some earlier works.

Ashley, Timothy R. The Book of Numbers. NICOT. Grand Rapids, Mich., W. B. Eerdmans, 1993.
Budd, Philip J. Numbers. WBC. Waco, Tex.: Word Books, 1984.
Davies, Eryl W. Numbers: Based on the Revised Standard Version. London: Marshall Pickering; Grand Rapids, Mich.: W. B. Eerdmans, 1995.
Dozeman, Thomas B. “The Book of Numbers: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections.” In The New Interpreter’s Bible. Vol. 2. Nashville: Abingdon, 1998.
Levine, Baruch. Numbers 1-20: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. AB. New York: Doubleday, 1993.
Levine, Baruch. Numbers 21-36 AB. New York: Doubleday, 2000
Noth, Martin. Numbers: A Commentary. OTL. London: SCM, 1968.
*Olson, Dennis T. Numbers. Int. Louisville, Ky.: John Knox Press, 1996.
*Sakenfield, Katharine Doob. Journeying with God: A Commentary on the Book of Numbers. ITC. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W. B. Eerdmans, 1995.
*Wenham, Gordon J. Numbers. OTG. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997.

The Dramatised Bible: ed. Michael Perry. London: Marshall Pickering: Bible Society, 1989

Web sites with helpful lectionary resources: 

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