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Numbers 21:10-35

Israel skirted Edom on the south and east, then made its way north along the plateau some miles east of the Dead Sea. Moab lies on the fertile high ground on the eastern side of the Dead Sea north of Edom and Israel traveled north by keeping to the east of Moab in the drier area to the east, between Moab and the desert. In Deuteronomy 2:9 we read that the Lord forbade Israel to provoke or go to war with the Moabites, so she skirted their territory as she had the territory of Edom to the South.

Text Comment

Vv. 10-20 intersperse portions of the travel log, as you can see if you compare these verses with those of the travel log itself in 33:41-49. It appears that this section of Israel’s itinerary covers the occasions of the battles against Sihon and Og which will be described in greater detail in vv. 21-35, for they were the Amorites of which mention is made in v. 15. Israel had to meet Sihon before she arrived in the Jordan Valley as she has by verse 20. This is also confirmed in Deuteronomy 2 and 3. It is not possible precisely to identify the location of the places named here, but the Zered river flows into the Dead Sea from the east near its southern tip and the Arnon likewise flows into the Dead Sea near the mid-point of its eastern shore. The Zered formed the northern boundary of Edom and the southern boundary of Moab.

One commentator interestingly sums up these eleven verses by saying:

“The tempo of advance quickens as Israel approaches the promised land. Extracts from the travel log interspersed with fragments of old poems convey the sense of elation as the goal of their wanderings comes into sight.” [Wenham, 159]

This is the only mention in the Bible of The Book of the Wars of the Lord but we know of other ancient Israelite books and chronicles, such as the Book of Jasher, mentioned in Joshua and Samuel. This was probably a collection of Israel’s folk songs: songs of her past that celebrated incidents in her history. It may be that the “Song of the Well,” a few lines of which are cited in vv. 17-18, was preserved in this same book.

If this particular verse leaves you scratching your head – what about it deserves a citation here? – be aware that a few very minor and not unlikely changes in the consonantal Hebrew text produces this instead:

The Lord came in a whirlwind;
He came to the branch wadis of the Arnon.
He marched through the wadis;
He marched, he turned aside to the seat of Ar.
He leaned toward the border of Moab.

Ancient poetry poses particular problems both to the scribe copying it and the translator rendering it into another language. We may never know for sure, but read in this way, as many Evangelical scholars now think it ought to be read, the poem would celebrate the Lord as a divine warrior “sweeping through the territory of Moab toward the great battles in the Transjordan that anticipated the conquest of Canaan. [Wenham, 159-160; cf. Milgrom, 177]

The song celebrates another incident in which the Lord provide water for the people, an incident that is not otherwise reported in the biblical history.

Pisgah is either a peak or summit near Mt. Nebo, or mountain range. In either case it overlooks the Plains of Moab, the area on the eastern bank of the Jordan immediately north of the Dead Sea, the area through which Israel would pass as she crossed the Jordan and entered Canaan. The “wasteland” may well be that desolate and dry area on both sides of the Jordan at the northern tip of the Dead Sea.

Now we get a more detailed explanation of what happened when Israel arrived at the border of Amorite kingdoms, as mentioned earlier in v. 13. This southern kingdom occupied the territory east of the Dead Sea along its northern half and extended northward on the eastern bank of the Jordan to the Jabbok that enters the Jordan from the east some 25 miles north of the Dead Sea. Israel couldn’t skirt this territory because it blocked its only way into the Promised Land.

You get the drift of the poem: the Amorites took the land from the Moabites and the Israelites in turn took all of that land, the originally Moabite land and the Amorite land of Sihon, themselves by conquest. Israel in other words extracted vengeance on Moab’s behalf. Verses 27 through 29 seem to have been an Amorite poem celebrating their victory over Moab who originally occupied that territory. Verse 30 is the Israelite conclusion to the Amorite poem celebrating Israel’s victory over the Amorites of Sihon! Interestingly, Jeremiah cites vv. 28-29 in his prophecy against Moab in Jer. 48:45-46. He is reminding the Moabites of their ancient defeat at the hand of the Amorites. So Israel settled in the land of the Amorites.

Moses had no intention of settling this territory. If the two and a half tribes, Reuben, Gad and the half tribe of Manasseh, had not requested to do so, as we will read in chapter 32, it would have been left unoccupied. As it was, all of this land was not occupied and settled at this point as chapter 32 indicates. This statement is a prolepsis, a summary of what would eventually be the case, as two and half Israelite tribes eventually settled this territory east of the Jordan. As we learn in both Deuteronomy and Joshua the populations of these Amorite kingdoms were devoted to destruction as the population of Arad had been. They were Canaanite peoples and they deserved the judgment that they got.

This Og was an impressive man. We read in Deut. 3:11 that his bed was thirteen feet long and six feet wide! The earlier generation of Israelites would have cowered before such a man and his army, but this new generation had faith in the Lord and was undaunted.

The chapter concludes with Israel’s defeat of another king and kingdom, this one occupying the northern Transjordan, from the Jabbok northward on the east side of the Jordan river. This territory, biblical Gilead, would also eventually be occupied by Israelites: the tribe of Gad and half of the tribe of Manasseh. Og’s territory is later described (32:4) as famous for its oak forests and rich pasture so it is understandable that some Israelites would wish to remain there to settle. In this way this territory, in effect, became part of the Promised Land. The Lord was already rewarding his people’s faith with a good land, as he had hundreds of years before promised he would. The great lesson at the moment, of course, was that the Lord who had given them victory on one side of the Jordan would not fail to give them victory on the other. [Brown, 203]

What we have here in this relatively brief travel log of Israel’s journey from east of Edom to the Plains of Moab is a beautiful picture of what the Christian life is and must always be. Israel moves through the world on the path marked out for her by her God and Savior. Yahweh created the itinerary. We assume that the pillar of cloud and fire still led the people on their journey. It is not expressly said that it did. We read at the end of Exodus (40:36-38) that the cloud led the people throughout all their journeys and so it is natural to assume that it led them to the Plains of Moab across the Jordan from the Promised Land. It is possible that that is a generalizing form of speech and that the cloud was no longer moving in front of the people now these 40 years later. But, whether by the cloud, or instructions given through Moses, it is clear both here and in Deuteronomy that the Lord directed Israel along the route she took. The Lord required her to skirt Edom’s and Moab’s territory but he led her directly into conflict and confrontation with the Amorites at the border of Sihon’s territory.

Yahweh also provided for his people as he had throughout the forty years in the wilderness. Once more he provided water in a dry land. It is interesting that in one place very near where the Israelites would have been – a tributary of the Arnon – Arabs in modern times dig holes in the bed of a dry wadi and water gathers in the hole. These water pits are called bir, biyar the Arabic form of the same Hebrew word used in vv. 17 and 18 for “well.” [Milgrom, 178]

And he led them in conquest of their enemies. These great victories over Sihon and Og were often celebrated by later writers as evidence of God’s power and faithfulness on behalf of his covenant people. He says here, “I gave them into your hand.” [Josh. 2:10; Neh. 9:22; Pss. 135:11; 136:19-20] Indeed, if you remember, Rahab told the Israelite spies that their destruction of the Amorite kings had struck terror into the hearts of all Canaanites.

“…as soon as we heard it, our hearts melted, and there was no spirit left in any man because of you, for the Lord your God, he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath.” [Josh. 2:11]

All of this we have learned over and over again in the narrative of Israel’s pilgrimage through the wilderness. Yahweh is ever the faithful guide, provider, and protector of his people. Paul might have summed up this history by saying “if God is for us, who can be against us.”

But, typical of the Bible’s presentation of believing life, there is, at the same time, a great activity on the part of the people and this too is emphasized dramatically in this narrative. The Lord may guide, but the people must follow. Too often Israel had not, but this is a new generation of God’s people and they do what they are told. They go out of their way, accept some further delay in reaching the Promised Land, to skirt the territory of Edom and Moab. The Lord provided them water, but, as we read in v. 18, not without their digging for it. Indeed, even the princes of the people got down and dug their holes in the wadi floor. There were messengers, diplomats really, who placed before the Amorite court Israel’s request for passage. There were soldiers – virtually all adult Israelite men, because there would have been few to none older men left among the people after the death of the previous generation – men who went to battle twice and were victorious in the field. There were spies who scouted the defenses of Jazer to ensure that the Israelite army advanced with the proper tactics. And there were singers who celebrated the victorious advance of the people of God toward their goal. All of this activity is mixed together in the narrative with all that God did for Israel.

We are well used to this interplay between divine sovereignty and human responsibility, between divine grace and human faith and obedience, between what God alone can do and what we must do. Every page of Holy Scripture presents us with this dialectic, these two emphases that remain and must remain constantly in tension with one another. We must trust the Lord for our next step along the way, for victory over our enemies, but, at the same time, that progress toward the goal and that victory over whatever lies or whoever lies in the path of our godliness and fruitfulness and happiness in life require our active obedience and service. God is always sovereign, but the first generation of Israelites who left Egypt on eagle’s wings at the Exodus failed to make the Promised Land not because God failed her, but because they failed God!

It is so hard to remain on this knife-edge – poised between God’s grace and our believing obedience – we are so inclined to, in fact we do it every hour of every day, relax the tension by emphasizing one at the expense of the other: either count on God to do whatever he’s going to do in us and for us with little thought of our own responsibility and accountability or to begin thinking little of God’s provision and counting on our own efforts. We fail so frequently to keep that tension and to remain on that knife-edge that we must constantly be reminded that the Christian life is and must be always the simultaneous embrace of both realities. In speaking of the absolute dependence of man upon God and, at the same time, the absolute necessity of man’s active faith and active obedience, Charles Spurgeon said this:

“I believe in predestination, yea, even in its very jots and tittles. I believe that the path of a single grain of dust in the March wind is ordained and settled by a decree which cannot be violated; that every word and thought of man, every flittering of a sparrow’s wing, every flight of a fly…that everything, in fact is foreknown and foreordained. But I do equally believe in the free agency of man, that man acts as he wills, especially in moral operations – choosing the evil with a will that is unbiased by anything that comes from God, biased only by his own depravity of heart and the perverseness of his habits; choosing the right too, with perfect freedom, though sacredly guided and led by the Holy Spirit… I believe that man is as accountable as if there were no destiny whatever… Where these two truths meet I do not know, nor do I want to know. They do not puzzle me, since I have given up my mind to believing them both.”

Charles Simeon, the great Anglican preacher, is better still. Speaking about the age-old controversy regarding grace and free will, he writes:

“I love the simplicity of the Scriptures; and I wish to receive and inculcate every truth precisely in the way, and to the extent, that it is set forth in the inspired volume. … I have a great jealousy on this head; never to speak more or less than I believe to be the mind of the Spirit in the passage I am expounding. … I would run after nothing and shun nothing. … the truth is not in the middle, and not in one extreme, but in both extremes.”

And Simeon was talking about the very two subjects that are front and center in the narrative we have before us in Numbers 21: what God is doing for his people and what his people must do in obedience to God.

And is that not right? How do you get water? The Lord provides and the men dig. How do you conquer your enemies? The Lord gives victory as you do battle. The extraordinarily perceptive John Duncan, the celebrated “Rabbi” Duncan of 19th century Scottish Presbyterianism, had a knack for putting things in a fresh and memorable way. On this point he remarked, “That God works half and man the other half, is false; that God works all, and man does all, is true.” [W. Knight (ed.), Colloquia Peripatetica: Notes of Conversations with John Duncan, Edinburgh, 1907, 29-30, cited in Murray, Spurgeon v. Hyper-Calvinism, 84.] That is what we find in historical form here in Numbers 21: God doing all and man doing all. In Augustine’s famous phrase: “Who made us without us will not save us without us.” [Cited in Wainwright, Doxology, 490 n. 216] If we read the song in v. 14 the way some scholars think it should be read, it is a song about Yahweh’s march through the wilderness, as if he made the march himself and the people hardly figured at all. There is God doing all – laying waste Israel’s enemies before her as she marches northward. But, at the same time, isn’t it striking that Israel also sang about the princes digging the well. They knew that God had provided the water, but they sang about the well “the princes dug.” They wouldn’t have dug, wouldn’t have known where to dig had it not been for the Lord’s provision, but they not only dug to find the water, but then sang about their digging afterward, and the Holy Spirit saw to the preservation of those few lines of their song in Holy Scripture so that the story of the princes digging the well would be read for the inspiration of God’s people for ever. We have both songs given to us and cheek to jowl next to one another: Yahweh doing all and the people doing all.

There is a kind of Christian mind that is found in the Reformed church especially, I think, that thinks that if God provided the water, as he certainly did and as the Bible says he did here in v. 16 – Yahweh said, “I will give them water” – then it is of little importance that the men dug for it. What God does is what matters, not what men do. Give glory to God who alone saves his people and provides for them. And we can well understand that way of thinking. We want to give glory to God; Soli Deo Gloria. The problem is that it is not the way the Bible itself teaches us to think. The Bible wants us to know, even to celebrate both truths: that God provided the water and that Israel dug for it; that God gave victory in battle, but Israel fought for it.

Is that not what we find here in this picture painted for us, a pilgrimage, in Numbers 21? God is doing everything for Israel and Israel is doing all in the confidence of God’s working on her behalf. God provides but Israel digs; God gives the victory but Israel goes to battle. We are not told how many casualties Israel suffered in her battles with Sihon and Og. They were decisive Israelite victories, but we ought not to assume that there were no Israelite battle deaths or injuries. Israel fought a battle, God gave them victory, but soldiers die in hand to hand combat. In any case, we do not have God or man; we have both God and man at work. Not half God, half man, all God, all man. Not one or the other but both together. And so it is throughout the Bible to its end, in the New Testament as surely as in the Old.

We tend to struggle with this as an intellectual problem, an intellectual or doctrinal problem that divides Christians into various camps. Are we going to be a God-only kind of Christian or are we going to be a man-only kind of Christian? Are we going to be a God and man kind of Christian who gives half of the work to God and half of the work to men? So the arguments go, round and round. The Bible, however, simply asserts this reality. God is our Savior entirely but we absolutely must believe and obey to be saved. There are many who think it must be one or the other. Human reason demands it, so they think. God either wins the victory or the soldiers do. But it is the assertion of the Bible and the observation of Christian life that both God and the soldiers win the field. No Israelite army, however brave and well led, could have defeated Sihon and Og without the Lord giving the victory. We learned that when Israel was routed at the first battle of Hormah almost forty years before this. Nevertheless, God did not simply cause the Amorite soldiers to perish in their tents. Israel had to do battle and in dependence upon the Lord she won the day, just as she had to dig for the water the Lord supplied her.

And so it is for you and me today and every day. We can do nothing and accomplish nothing without the Lord. “Without me,” he said, “you can do nothing.” He must determine our steps, must provide our every need, he must grant us victory in the battles of our lives. Let no one take our crown in giving all glory to God our heavenly Father, and to Christ our Savior, and to the Holy Spirit our guide and provider.

But as true as that is, we must walk in obedience to the Lord, we must dig for the provisions he supplies for our journey, and we must fight the battles that lie before us on the route he has chosen for us. Whether we are talking about our own individual and private battles as Christians dealing with sin and temptation or about the battles we must fight together as the servants of God in the unbelieving world, we are to be doers! We are to be up and at it as Christians. Every day we are to be digging and fighting and traveling. Young people, this is your life to come: a life of hard work in following Christ to victory in the present and then at last to the Promised Land.

We want you to be great believers in God. We want you to live your lives looking to the one whence comes every good thing. We want you to wake up in the morning and to go to bed at night knowing full well that without the Lord you can do nothing. We want to hear you thanking and praising God for what he provided, how he granted you some victory, and how he led you unerringly from place to place.

But we also want you to be doers. We want to see you in action, digging wells and fighting battles as the Lord gives you occasion to do such things. And he will every day of your life.

And then, some day, some future generation of Faith Presbyterian Church will bring out some of the old songs and sing both of the Lord who led the people of this church through the wilderness with sure step and at the same time of the great deeds and exploits that the people did by faith in God. Believing and doing: that is the Bible’s description of the Christian life. Not one or the other, but both at the same time.

I suspect it is true of every one of us that we are not aspiring to nearly enough in our lives. We are not expecting nearly enough or setting out to accomplish nearly enough in our lives. There is that that lies before us to do for the glory of God and the good of others that we are not doing, or not doing with nearly enough determination, intention and zeal. And why is that? Because, no doubt, we haven’t as strong faith as we ought to have. We do not trust the Lord to lead us to where we need to go, to provide what we need to have, and to give us victory in our battles with our own sinfulness and with the temptations and opposition of the world and the Devil. But the index of the weakness of our faith is precisely that we are not doing what we should; we are not taking on the enemy, we are not digging the well, and we are not following close behind our leader in the pilgrimage he has marked out for us in this world.

I could give examples; many examples. But I suspect that you can immediately apply this lesson to your own life and your own situation. You know where do not believe as you ought to believe and you know where you are not doing as you ought to do. The two go together. Don’t worry overmuch about theoretical questions: how much is belief and how much is action; which comes first; how can I be sure that I am doing both?
Let me give you one example, one that we need to have clear in our minds because it has become an issue in our day and we will have the opportunity to say this to people more and more. You have a friend who struggles with a homosexual orientation. He wonders why he should have this particular problem in life, why he should be exposed to these temptations and he particularly wonders why he should have to deny them at every turn. His life, his pilgrimage, has become in this way very, very difficult. It is very difficult to preserve yourself in sexual purity whether a homosexual or a heterosexual. It is perhaps particularly difficult for someone with a homosexual orientation. But the fact is, here as everywhere else in the Christian life, God leads us where he would have us go. There are difficulties, there are dangers, and there is hard, hard work for us to do wherever and on whatever route the Lord takes us on our pilgrimage through this world. Have you ever charged a line of swordsmen, armed also with lances and shields? These are men who have no other purpose but to take your life from you. I suppose none of you has done that. Do you realize what courage that would take and then to see some of your fellows dropping by your side as the combat is begun and the enemy is engaged? Can you feel the fear taking hold of you? It takes great courage to do that and strength to prevail. Well so here. So with a man offering himself in purity to our holy God and Savior. What if it wearies you, exhausts you and wears you out to dig that well? It is how God gives you the water of life. For that homosexual friend of yours as for yourself it will take courage and hard, hard work; but that is the Christian life for every Christian; always, everywhere at every time.

Look to the Lord for what you require. Count on him to provide, to guide, and to help. This is the life of faith expressed in prayer. And at the same time be up and doing what you know very well you are supposed to do. And then, some day, other believers will sing the old songs about what God did and about what you did by his grace and his power.