Biblical Commentary

Numbers 21:4-9



This incident takes place near the end of Moses’ life and the conclusion of Israel’s wandering in the wilderness. Yahweh will soon command Joshua to commission Joshua as his successor (27:12-23; see also Deuteronomy 31:1-8). The Israelites will soon conquer the Transjordan (32:1-41) and delineate the boundaries in the Promised Land (34:1-15). However, neither the death of Moses (Deuteronomy 34) nor the crossing into the Promised Land (Joshua 3) are narrated in this book.

The Israelites are near the Promised Land, approaching it from the south. Edom has denied Israel the right of passage (20:14-21). The Israelites came to Mount Hor where Aaron died (20:22-29)—Aaron was Moses’ brother and Israel’s first high priest. The king of Ar’ad, a Canaanite who lived in the Negeb (southern portion of the Promised Land) fought against Israel, but Israel prevailed (21:1-3).


4They traveled from Mount Hor by the way to the Red Sea, to compass the land of Edom: and the soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way. 5The people spoke against God, and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no bread, and there is no water; and our soul loathes this light (Hebrew: qeloqel­­—worthless, unappetizing) bread.”

“They traveled from Mount Hor by the way to the Red Sea, to compass the land of Edom (v. 4a). We don’t know the precise location of Mount Hor. Because of the context, we believe that it was located near Edom, a land that occupied the Rift Valley from the south end of the Dead Sea to the north end of the Gulf of Aqaba. The Israelites would have considered Aqaba to be an arm of the Red Sea. Josephus located Mount Hor near Petra, about 50 miles (80 km) south of the Dead Sea.

As noted above, Edom had refused Israel the right of passage and had backed that up with a heavily armed force (20:14-21). Israel had to decide whether to fight or to bypass Edom. They chose the latter, going south to pass around Edom’s southern border near the Gulf of Aqaba.

“and the soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way (v. 4b). The Israelites were never a particularly patient people, and this latest setback (having to go south to bypass Edom when they wanted to go north into the Promised Land) did not set well with them.

“The people spoke against God, and against Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no bread, and there is no water; and our soul loathes this light (qeloqel—worthless, unappetizing) bread'” (v. 5). The author notes that, while their complaint is seemingly against Moses, it is first and foremost against Yahweh.

This isn’t the first complaint of this nature that the Israelites have made:

• Shortly after Israel departed Egypt during the Exodus, they found themselves pursued by the Egyptian army and blocked by the Red Sea. They said to Moses, “Because there were no graves in Egypt, have you taken us away to die in the wilderness? Why have you treated us this way, to bring us out of Egypt? Isn’t this the word that we spoke to you in Egypt, saying, ‘Leave us alone, that we may serve the Egyptians?’ For it were better for us to serve the Egyptians, than that we should die in the wilderness” (Exodus 14:11-12). On that occasion, Yahweh divided the Red Sea to allow Israel to escape. That also became the means by which Yahweh destroyed the Egyptian army.

• Then, in the very next chapter, the people complained about the bitterness of the water at Marah, saying “What shall we drink?” (Exodus 15:24). Yahweh showed Moses a stick of wood and told him to throw it into the water. When Moses did so, the water became sweet.

• And in the next chapter, “The whole congregation of the children of Israel murmured against Moses and against Aaron in the wilderness; and the children of Israel said to them, ‘We wish that we had died by the hand of Yahweh in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots, when we ate our fill of bread, for you have brought us out into this wilderness, to kill this whole assembly with hunger'” (Exodus 16:2-3). Yahweh responded by giving them quail and manna to satisfy their hunger (Exodus 16:13-15).

• Then, at Rephidim, “The people quarreled with Moses, and said, ‘Give us water to drink.’ Moses said to them, ‘Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test Yahweh?’ The people were thirsty for water there; and the people murmured against Moses, and said, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt, to kill us, our children, and our livestock with thirst?'” (Exodus 17:2-3). So Yahweh ordered Moses to strike the rock at Horeb with “the rod in your hand with which you struck the Nile” (Exodus 17:5) When Moses did so, the people received water. Moses “called the name of the place Massah, and Meribah, because the children of Israel quarreled, and because they tested Yahweh, saying, ‘Is Yahweh among us, or not?'” (Exodus 17:7).

• At Taberah, the Israelites, tired of eating manna, cried, “Who will give us flesh to eat? We remember the fish, which we ate in Egypt for nothing; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic; but now we have lost our appetite. There is nothing at all except this manna to look at” (Numbers 11:4b-6). Yahweh, whose patience had already grown thin (Numbers 11:1-3), sent vast numbers of quail for them to eat (Numbers 11:31). However, when they ate the quail, “the anger of Yahweh was kindled against the people, and Yahweh struck the people with a very great plague” (Numbers 11:33).

• When Moses sent twelve men to spy out the land of Canaan, Caleb and Joshua brought a favorable report (Numbers 13:30; 14:6-9), but the rest of the spies warned that the inhabitants of the land were too powerful to conquer, saying, “we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight” (Numbers 13:33). The Israelites believed the ten unfaithful spies, and complained, “Why does Yahweh bring us to this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will be a prey: wouldn’t it be better for us to return into Egypt?” (Numbers 14:2-3). As punishment for their lack of faith, Yahweh decreed that all of the Israelites who complained, age twenty and upward, would die in the wilderness.

• Then Dathan and Abiram complained to Moses, “Is it a small thing that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness, but you must also make yourself a prince over us? Moreover you haven’t brought us into a land flowing with milk and honey, nor given us inheritance of fields and vineyards” (Numbers 16:13-14).

• At Meribah, lacking water, “The people strove with Moses, and spoke, saying, “We wish that we had died when our brothers died before Yahweh! Why have you brought the assembly of Yahweh into this wilderness, that we should die there, we and our animals? Why have you made us to come up out of Egypt, to bring us in to this evil place? It is no place of seed, or of figs, or of vines, or of pomegranates; neither is there any water to drink” (Numbers 20:3-5). Yahweh ordered Moses to command the rock to yield its water, but Moses instead struck the rock with his staff. Water flowed from the rock, but Yahweh punished Moses for his disobedience by saying, “Because you didn’t believe in me, to sanctify me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them” (Numbers 20:12).

• Now the people have spoken against God and Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no bread, and there is no water; and our soul loathes this light bread.” That has begun to sound familiar, hasn’t it!

I must confess that I sympathize with the Israelites. While Yahweh has provided for them time after time in ways that should have cemented their faith, frequent shortages of water in the desert would be unnerving—and eating manna morning noon, and night, would get monotonous. Manna tasted like “wafers with honey” (Exodus 16:31). I have, on occasion, eaten too many sweets. When that happens, I start wanting something not sweet—and wanting it desperately. At that point, nothing gets my attention like the smell of cooking onions or roasting meat. Pie and cake hold absolutely no interest for me then, but the thought of pot roast with potatoes and carrots becomes compelling.


6Yahweh sent fiery serpents (Hebrew: nahas) among the people, and they bit the people; and many people of Israel died. 7The people came to Moses, and said, “We have sinned, because we have spoken against Yahweh, and against you. Pray to Yahweh, that he take away the serpents from us.” Moses prayed for the people.

“Yahweh sent fiery serpents (nahas) among the people, and they bit the people; and many people of Israel died” (v. 6). See the comments in verse 8 regarding the two Hebrew words for serpent.

There is no shortage of serpents in this desert land. They include horned vipers, puff-adders, cobras, and an especially lethal serpent known as the carpet viper (Cole, 347).

This is the second time when Yahweh has inflicted physical punishment on the Israelites for their complaining. The first time was the sickness and death brought about by eating the quail in Numbers 11.

“The people came to Moses, and said, ‘We have sinned, because we have spoken against Yahweh, and against you. Pray to Yahweh, that he take away the serpents from us (v. 7a). The Israelites, stunned by the presence of these deadly serpents, recognize what is happening as punishment for their complaints, so they quickly repent and ask Moses to intercede with Yahweh to save them.

“Moses prayed for the people” (v. 7b). This is not the first time that Moses has interceded with Yahweh in behalf of the Israelites. When Aaron made the golden calf for them to worship, Yahweh told Moses, “I have seen these people, and behold, they are a stiff-necked people. Now therefore leave me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them, and that I may consume them; and I will make of you a great nation” (Exodus 32:9-10).

But Moses responded by praying, “Yahweh, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, that you have brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians speak, saying, ‘He brought them forth for evil, to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the surface of the earth?’ Turn from your fierce wrath, and repent of this evil against your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, to whom you swore by your own self, and said to them, ‘I will multiply your seed as the stars of the sky, and all this land that I have spoken of I will give to your seed, and they shall inherit it forever'” (Exodus 32:11-13). What an eloquent (and supremely unselfish) argument!

So Yahweh changed his mind and did not bring destroy his people (Exodus 32:14). However, he did send a plague on them because of the golden calf (Exodus 32:35).


8Yahweh said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent, (Hebrew: sarap) and set it on a standard: and it shall happen, that everyone who is bitten, when he sees (Hebrew: ra’a) it, shall live.” 9Moses made a serpent of brass (Hebrew: nehoset), and set it on the standard: and it happened, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he looked to the serpent of brass, he lived.

“Yahweh said to Moses, ‘Make a fiery serpent, (sarap) and set it on a standard: and it shall happen, that everyone who is bitten, when he sees(ra’a) it, shall live'” (v. 8).

In verse 6, the word was nahas, which is a general word for serpent. However, here it is sarap, which “generally refers to a poisonous snake, deriving its origin from the burning sensation of the serpent’s bite” (Baker & Carpenter, 1201). For this reason, some translations translate both nahas (v. 6) and sarap (v. 8) as “fiery serpents.”

Given Yahweh’s prohibition of graven images (Exodus 20:4), the remedy that Yahweh prescribes seems peculiar. Moses is to fashion a serpent and set it on a pole. Anyone who has been bitten by one of the serpents is to look (ra’a) at the serpent on the pole, and they will be spared.

The word ra’a means “see,” but can carry the connotation of gazing intently­­—or seeing and believing. The Israelites had to do something more than glancing in the direction of the serpent on a pole to experience its miraculous properties.

“Moses made a serpent of brass (nehoset), and set it on the standard: and it happened, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he looked to the serpent of brass, he lived” (v. 9). The word nehoset can mean bronze (an alloy of copper and tin), brass (an alloy of copper and zinc) or copper (a metal in its own right). Archeological studies in this region have found evidence of copper refining, which has led scholars to believe that this serpent was copper rather than bronze.

The serpent that Moses fashioned proved efficacious when the people did as Yahweh had commanded. The people were allowed to live.


Both Old and New Testaments allude to this story.

In the seventh century, B.C., King Hezekiah, son of Ahaz, “did that which was right in the eyes of Yahweh, according to all that David his father had done. He removed the high places, and broke the pillars, and cut down the Asherah: and he broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made; for in those days the children of Israel burned incense to it; and he called it Nehushtan” (2 Kings 18:3-4).

In other words, the Israelites had kept the copper/bronze snake that Moses had fashioned. As could be expected, they invested it with supernatural powers and “made offerings to it”—a phrase that implies worship. In other words, the bronze/copper snake became an occasion for idolatry. Hezekiah did right to destroy it.

In the New Testament, Jesus said, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:14-15; see also John 8:28; 12:32). Jesus established a parallel between the serpent on the pole and his own crucifixion on the cross. Just as the serpent on the pole spelled salvation for the Israelites who looked on it, so also Jesus’ death on a cross spells salvation for those who believe in him.

SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible(WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.


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Copyright 2012, Richard Niell Donovan