Now, about 38 years after the embarrassment at Hormah, the Israelites return, and they will enjoy very different results: “When the Canaanite, the king of Arad, who lived in the Negeb, heard that Israel was coming by the way of Atharim, he fought against Israel, and took some of them captive. And Israel vowed a vow to the LORD and said, ‘If you will indeed give this people into my hand, then I will devote their cities to destruction’” (Numbers 21:1-2). In other words, they would destroy the cities and take nothing of the booty, the people or the animals for themselves. “And the LORD heeded the voice of Israel and gave over the Canaanites, and they devoted them and their cities to destruction. So the name of the place was called Hormah (Numbers 21:3).
“Hormah” means “destruction”. It is the first victory for the Israelites against Canaan. It takes away the shame of the first battle of Hormah. We can only imagine the enthusiasm that ran through the camp – Yahweh gave us victory over the Canaanites who were so terrifying four decades ago! Who can stop us now? Certainly we will head directly north and conquer the whole Promised Land.
But Yahweh has other plans: From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom (Numbers 21:4). Instead of following in the path of victory to the north, Yahweh is taking them in the opposite direction! They’ve won the victory, but they’re backtracking as if they’ve been defeated. Therefore, “The people became impatient on the way” (Numbers 21:4).
Yahweh disciplines His people again… and He saves them again (we’ll see more on this subject below). They continue around Edom, Moab and Ammon. As Yahweh explains to them in Deuteronomy 2:4-5, 9, 19, He doesn’t allow the Israelites to attack them because they are related (Edom / Esau was the brother of Israel / Jacob; Moab and Ammon were the sons of Lot, Abraham’s nephew) and because Yahweh has given them the territory they possess. Therefore the Israelites march north but far to the east of the Promised Land… until they come to the territory of the Amorites (one of the Canaanite tribes).
The Israelites are encouraged again. Songs break out as they approach the Promised Land. They defeat Sihon, the Amorite king, and for the first time since the patriarch Jacob, the Israelites take land for their own possession: “Thus Israel lived in the land of the Amorites” (Numbers 21:31; on Jacob, see Genesis 48:22). They even preserve a ballad or poem of the Amorites they defeated to preserve information about the border of their new territory (Numbers 21:26-30).
Then Og, the king of Bashan, prepared to attack the Israelites: “But the LORD said to Moses, ‘Do not fear him, for I have given him into your hand, and all his people, and his land. And you shall do to him as you did to Sihon king of the Amorites, who lived at Heshbon’” (Numbers 21:34). After decades of waiting, Moses finally sees the first steps of Yahweh’s fulfillment of His promises about the land, first in Sihon and now in Og: “So they defeated him and his sons and all his people, until he had no survivor left. And they possessed his land” (Numbers 21:35). ¡Glory to Yahweh for His faithfulness! Although these territories are not part of the land promised to Abraham, these newly conquered regions to the east of the Jordan River will be a part of Israel for many generations.
The movement of the Israelites and their first three victories over the Canaanites are the main theme of this chapter. But we Christians appreciate it for another reason. When Yahweh sends fiery serpents among the Israelites, they repent, and Moses intercedes for them in prayer. “And the LORD said to Moses, ‘Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.’ So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live (Numbers 21:8-9). If the Israelites look at the serpent with faith in what Yahweh said, He saves them and heals them from the deadly bites caused by their sins.
Many centuries later Jesus Christ will say about His purpose in coming and His crucifixion, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15). Jesus Christ would be lifted up on a cross for the salvation of His people, so that all who look upon Him with faith would have eternal life.
If you were with the Israelites on their journey through the desert and were bitten by a poisonous serpent, would you look with faith at the bronze serpent on the pole to be saved from certain death? In the same way today: Will you look with faith at Jesus Christ crucified in order to be saved from eternal death for your sins?