It was at Punon in the Arabah, south of the Dead Sea, that the invasion of snakes into the camps of the Israelites occurred. At first they caused more terror than pain. It wasn’t long, however, before those who were bitten became very feverish and ill. Their bodies became inflamed and swollen. Agonizing death soon followed.
The number of victims grew swiftly as the hours passed, and Israel began to understand that it was possible that all the people could be wiped out by a horde of poisonous snakes (Num. 21:4-6)!
Frantic, worried Israelites gathered in a somber crowd before Moses’ tent. This time they didn’t yell and chant and scream insults at their leader. This time they came to humbly plead with Moses for his help.
“We are sorry about the wrong things we said about you and the complaints we made against manna,” a spokesman from the crowd anxiously told Moses. “Would you please ask God to forgive us and take away these terrible snakes?”
Even as Moses was being addressed there was a loud and violent commotion in the crowd. Snakes had slithered in among the assembled people, and many were being bitten.
Moses was convinced that most of those who had complained and had made spiteful remarks against God and against him were truly regretful of what they had done. He went at once to the tabernacle to entreat God to have mercy on the people and spare them from the poisonous bites of the serpents (v. 7).
“Instruct your best craftsmen to mold a brass serpent that looks like the type of serpent that is plaguing the people,” God told Moses. “Have them mount it on a long pole, and erect the pole in the center of the camps as a sign of My healing power. Then tell the people that any who have been bitten will be healed and spared from death simply by gazing on the brazen serpent” (vs. 8-9).
Moses hastily obeyed, and very soon the metal snake was raised on a pole close to the tabernacle and the people told what it was for. Throngs of suffering victims gathered to peer at the brass serpent.
Before God’s orders could be carried out, however, thousands more had been bitten by snakes in the surrounding dry, rocky areas. This resulted in an increasing crowd of frantic, sick and groaning people to gather within sight of the brass snake. Thousands had died before it was made but all those who lived long enough to view the snake on the pole were healed.
God caused the poisonous serpents to depart from the area in which the Israelites were camped. The plague was ended because the offenders regretted what they had done and because of Moses’ prayer to God. The removal of the serpent plague was entirely a matter of repentance, prayer, obedience, and faith. The serpent on the pole represented the penalty of sin being taken away. It reminded the Israelites of a coming Savior who would be beaten and then crucified on a pole to pay for the sins of the world (John 3:14-15). However, in later times the people of Judah did worship that serpent until righteous King Hezekiah destroyed it, reminding the people it was only a piece of brass with no power (II Kings 18:4-5).
After the serpent plague, the Israelites continued to move northward by the route called the Way of the Red Sea, passing across the route taken by the scouts who went into Canaan almost thirty-eight years previously. The scouts had at that time followed a course to the west of the Dead Sea, but Israel now turned to the right.
One of their camp sites was close to a small river called Zared or Zered. Here was plenty of fresh, clear water supplied by spring rains in the mountains to the east in Edom. The stream flowed westward into the south end of the Dead Sea. Here Israel was at the northern border of Edom and the southern border of Moab, a nation extending about halfway up the east side of the Dead Sea.
After crossing the Zared River, the Israelites had no more to fear from the Edomites. Their next important campsite was just beyond another mountain stream about thirty miles to the north. The Arnon River, like Zared River, was a small stream in the dry season. In fact, it was possible in extremely dry seasons for it to dry up almost entirely where it flowed into the Dead Sea, but in the area where Israel passed over; there was sufficient water, fresh from the mountain springs that fed it, to take care of the Israelites’ needs. The Arnon River was the north border of the land of the Moabites and the south border of people to the north called Amorites (Num. 21:10-13).
From there the Israelites continued northward. At one area, where they were short of water, God told Moses where the people could find water. They dug down a few feet and found plenty of water for the millions of people and their vast herds and flocks.
The people were so thankful for this needed supply of clear, cool water that they expressed their thanks to God through a great concert of voices and musical instruments (vs. 14-18).
Moses felt that Israel shouldn’t progress very far into Amorite country without permission. Already the caravan was headed along the edge of the high plain country just east of the Abarim Mountains, and was running the risk of encountering Amorite soldiers.
Moses knew who the Amorite ruler was, and which city was the capital. He sent messengers to the king, whose name was Sihon, to ask for passage through his country. Moses assured him that no wells nor fields nor orchards would be touched by the Israelites, but that if the Amorites wished to sell them food or water, Israel would be pleased to pay whatever price was asked (vs. 21-22; Deut. 2:26-29).
When king Sihon learned that millions of people and animals were intending to pass through his little nation, he became quite excited. He sent the Israelite messengers back at once with the blunt reply that Israel would not be allowed to pass through the land under any circumstances (Num. 21:23; Deut. 2:30).
Moses was discouraged when he received the message. If the Amorite king could successfully block Israel from going farther north, it would mean that the giant caravan would almost certainly have to turn around to the south and go back over its path with little hope of reaching Canaan except by swinging westward around the south end of the Dead Sea and again facing the Canaanites who had once dealt them such a hard blow.
Moses realized that the Amorite king probably wouldn’t be satisfied by merely refusing passage to Israel. It was more likely that he would take advantage of this opportunity to attack the Israelite for the purpose of taking their possessions. Moses thanked God that the people were still encamped amid the eastward sloping ridges of the rugged Abarim Mountains. This meant that the Israelites had to protect only one side of their vast encampment and made it possible for many thousands of armed Israelites to station themselves on the south sides of the sharp ridges to the northeast of the camps of Israel.
This situation was inspired by God, who made it known that Israel would have divine help in battle and in crossing the Arnon River which was the south border of the land east of the Jordan that was later to be given to Israel.
“I shall help you win the battles to come in this land,” God told Moses. “Furthermore, I shall wipe out the wicked nations occupying this territory, and Israel shall be the sword by which it will be done” (Deut. 2:24-25, 31-31)!
Within only a few hours after the Israelite messengers had returned from king Sihon, a heavy force of armed men appeared on the north. The hidden Israelite soldiers waited until the oncoming enemy was well up on the ridges behind which the Israelites waited. Then they leaped out and fell on the Amorites in wave after wave of men with such sudden and surprising force that all the attackers, including king Sihon, were either slaughtered or put to flight.
After this encounter, Moses was certain that the best of Sihon’s army had been wiped out. Nevertheless, he directed the Israelites to quickly break camp and move swiftly toward the cities of the Amorites before their occupants could group themselves for defense. The Israelite soldiers reached the main Amorite city of Heshbon, only a few miles distant, to find that it was almost defenseless. They moved quickly in to slaughter all the people, including the family of king Sihon.
From then on the Israelites moved swiftly over the land to take over every city and town, slay the people and seize the animals and any other valuable things that could be taken with them. Within only a few days they became the conquerors and destroyers of this small nation (Num. 21:24-26; Deut. 2:33-36).
Many wonder why God had Israel to wipe out certain nations. The reason is that they were so miserably sinful that they would be better off dead. In Abraham’s time, their iniquity had not reached such a peak (Gen. 15:16). By the time the Israelites arrived, however, God said the Amorites should no longer live. This does not mean they are eternally lost. They, like the people of Nineveh, Sodom, Gomorrah, and all the world, will come up in a judgment period and will have an opportunity for salvation (Matt. 12:41-42; Mark 6:11; Rev. 20:11-13).
For a while, after conquering the Amorites, the Israelites rested in the conquered land, then continued to move northward.
In spite of the fact that they had gained a quick reputation for tremendous strength in battle, a king of the region northeast of the Dead Sea came out with his army to attack them. His name was Og, and he was a man of gigantic stature, probably nearly twelve feet in height. The Bible mentions that the bed in his palace was about eighteen feet long and eight feet wide (Deut. 3:11).
“Tell your soldiers not to be afraid of these fierce-looking men,” God had told Moses, “Remind them that the soldiers of Israel cannot fail because I am with them to help destroy their enemies” (Num. 21:33-34; Deut. 3:1-2).
Og’s forces were vicious, brutal, blood-thirsty men lusting for the opportunity to kill. The Israelite soldiers were almost the opposite, but when they made contact with the enemy, a strange thing happened. The attacking giants suddenly seemed to lose their desire for battle. They cringed, ducked, dodged and attempted to turn and run. They suddenly seemed to sense that they were in for certain defeat.
This abrupt cowardice by the enemy made it possible for the Israelite soldiers to swarm over Og’s soldiers in a crushing tide of death. Only minutes later Og and his blustering military men were things of the past.
Again Moses directed his soldiers to move swiftly about the nation to try to take Og’s cities in the manner of taking the cities of the Amorites. It turned out that most of Og’s forces had joined in the attack. Every city was lightly guarded by small numbers of soldiers, but many of these cities were surrounded by high walls in which there were strong, heavily barred gates.
Using knotted ropes thrown up and looped over the walls spikes, the Israelite soldiers swarmed over the walls and overcame the few fighting men who resisted. Then they unbarred the gates and flooded into the cities to slay all the people that were there. Only flocks and herds were spared, and these were taken, along with food, gold, silver, jewels and whatever wealth the Israelites found and wanted.
Sixty cities were taken. These centers of habitation weren’t mere villages surrounded by thin, short walls. They were fairly large centers of population whose well-built stone buildings and streets were large and wide. Solid stone walls were as much as eighteen inches thick, and were constructed of rock from that region almost as hard as iron (Num. 21:35; Deut. 3:3-11).
So many well-equipped, strongly constructed places of living wouldn’t ordinarily be found in a small country – much of it semi-arid, though fertile – so far from rivers or oceans or major highways. Some scholars used to think the Bible account of these cities was a work of some writer’s imagination. Nevertheless, those cities did exist.
Many of their ruins still clutter the plains of Moab and Ammon (ancient Moab and Ammon extended far to the north of what was Moab at that time) and the land east of the Jordan River up to the Mt. Hermon range.
Besides these sixty solidly fortified cities, Israel also took over many centers of habitation that weren’t protected by walls. That region was far more populated than the Israelites had expected. Unless God had willed that Israel should have His aid in the task of taking over these lands and their spoils, the Israelites would have been utterly wiped out by the military-minded occupants.
With God as their champion, it required only a few days for the Israelites to sweep over the land east of the Jordan. The soldiers of Israel were even more surprised at what they had done than were those who were their victims. Armed forces of the past had never dealt such swift and deadly destruction against such strong armies and so many well-fortified cities. It was a miracle that impressed at least a part of Israel more than certain miracles God had brought about at other times.
At this point a question will probably come up in the minds of some readers when they read of the Israelite soldiers slaying the women and children of enemy nations. It would be natural to conclude that all this slaughtering of human beings was nothing less than a mass disregard for the Six Commandment, which plainly states that we should not kill
God is neither fiendish nor unjust. He has referred to Himself as the potter and human beings as the clay. The potter decides how to use the clay and what part of it is to be discarded.
God chose to get rid of the wicked, idol-worshipping nations east of the Jordan because they were so awfully sinful that they could not possibly live normal happy lives. Besides, the land was not theirs anyway. He could have wiped them out with plagues or earthquakes. However, He chose to do it through Israel as His instruments. Who should question why the One with infinite wisdom chooses to do something?
God has told us that we shouldn’t murder. Many centuries after Israel entered Canaan, Christ explained that law in more detail by explaining that a Christian shouldn’t take a life even to protect his own or the lives of others, and that even the desire to murder meant breaking the intent of the Sixth Commandment.
In the case of the destruction of Israel’s enemies, God told Israel to slay them. It was a matter of obedience, just as it was when the Levites slew worshippers of the golden calf. As Author of all spiritual and physical laws, God is the only One who has wisdom to decide when a person or nation is sinful enough that death is a blessing.
It’s been a long time since God has told any military organization to destroy human life. It would be breaking God’s Commandments to go out and take the lives of others without God’s specific orders (James 4:2).And no such orders will be given again until Christ returns to rule the earth (John 18:36).
After conquering the Amorites, Israel’s tribes gathered together and encamped for several weeks of peace in an area a few miles northwest of Heshbon, the former Amorites capital.
Meanwhile, news of what had happened swiftly spread to the surrounding nations, whose rulers were somewhat shaken to learn that such a powerful army had suddenly emerged from the south. Probably the most worried ruler was Balak, king of Moab. He hadn’t realized when Israel had quietly passed along his nation’s east border, that these people possessed such a great military force.
Balak feared that Israel would turn back southward and swallow up Moab as it had done to the land of the Amorites. After much meditation and scheming, he decided that there was only one way of certain security. That was to hire some professional wizard to pronounce a curse on Israel!
Be watching for the next installment of The Story of the Bible.