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Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 6: Harmony of the Law, Part IV, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at

Numbers 21

Numbers 21:4-20

4. And they journeyed from mount Hor by the way of the Red sea, to compass the land of Edom: and the soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way.

4. Et profecti sunt de Hor monte per viam maris Suph, ut circuirent terram Edom: et angustiis affecta est anima populi in via.

5. And the people spake against God, and against Moses, Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? for there is no bread, neither is there any water; and our soul loatheth this light bread.

5. Itaque loquutus est populus contra Deum et Mosen, Ut quid ascendere nos fecistis ex Aegypto, ut moreremur in deserto? Non est enim panis neque aqua. Et taedet animam nostram super pane levi (aut, vili.)

6. And the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died.

6. Misit igitur Jehova in populum serpentes urentes, qui momorderunt populum: ita ut morcretur populus multus ex Israele.

7. Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, We have sinned; for we have spoken against the Lord, and against thee: pray unto the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us. And Moses prayed for the people.

7. Tunc venit populus ad Mosen, et dixerunt, Peccavimus, quia loquuti sumus contra Jehovam et contra te: ora Jehovam ut auferat a nobis serpentes istos. Et oravit Moses pro populo.

8. And the Lord said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live.

8. Et dixit Jehova ad Mosen, Fac tibi urentem, et pone eum super vexillum: et erit, quicunque morsus fuerit, et aspexerit ilium, tunc vivet.

9. And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole; and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived.

9. Fecit ergo Moses serpentem aeneum, quem posuit supra vexillum: et fuit, quando momorderat serpens quenquam, aspiciebat ad serpentem aeneum, et vivebat.

10. And the children of Israel set forward, and pitched in Oboth.

10. Et profecti sunt filii Israel, et castrametati sunt in Oboth.

11. And they journeyed from Oboth, and pitched at Ije-abarim, in the wilderness which is before Moab, toward the sun rising.

11. Profecti vero ex Oboth casstrametati sunt in Ije-abarim in deserto, quod erat in conspectu Moab ab ortu solis.

12. From thence they removed, and pitched in the valley of Zared.

12. Inde profecti castrametati sunt in valle Zered.

13. From thence they removed, and pitched on the other side of Arnon, which is in the wilderness that cometh out of the coasts of the Amorites: for Arnon is the border of Moab, between Moab and the Amorites.

13. Profecti deinde illinc castrametati sunt citra Arnon, qum est in deserto, et portenditur a termino Emorrhaei. Arnon enim est terminus Moab inter Moab et Emorrhaeum.

14. Wherefore it is said in the book of the wars of the Lord, What he did in the Red sea, and in the brooks of Arnon.

14. Ideirco dicetur in narratione praeliorum Jehovae, Vaheb in Suphah, et torrentes ad Arnon.

15. And at the stream of the brooks that goeth down to the dwelling of Ar, and lieth upon the border of Moab,

15. Et decursum torrentium, qui pergit ut quiescat in Ar, et recumbit in termino Moab.

16. And from thence they went to Beer: that is the well whereof the Lord spake unto Moses, Gather the people together, and I will give them water.

16. Illinc in Beer. Is est puteus de quo dixerat Jehova ad Mosen, Congrega populum, et dabo illis aquam.

17. Then Israel sang this song, Spring up, O well; sing ye unto it:

17. Tunc cecinit Israel carmen hoc, Ascende Beer, canite ei.

18. The princes digged the well, the nobles of the people digged it, by the direction of the lawgiver, with their staves. And from the wilderness they went to Mattanah;

18. Puteus quem loderunt principes, loderunt eum principes populi cum legislatore baculis suis. Et e deserto in Mathanah.

19. And from Mattanah to Nahaliel; and from Nahaliel to Bamoth;

19. Et e Mathanah in Nahaliel: et de Nahaliel in Bamoth.

20. And from Bamoth in the valley, that is in the country of Moab, to the top of Pisgah, which looketh toward Jeshimon.

20. Et de Bamoth Hagaie, quae est in regione Moab, in vertice coilis, et respicit contra faciem deserti, (vel, Gessimon.)


4. And they journeyed from mount Hor. This also is narrated in their praise, that they bore the weariness of a long and circuitous march, when they were already worn down by their wanderings for forty years. Moses, therefore, tells us that, since God had forbidden them to pass the borders of Edom, they went by another way; but immediately afterwards he adds, that they basely rebelled, without being provoked to do so by any new cause. They had before been rebellious under the pressure of hunger or thirst, or some other inconvenience; but now, when there were no grounds for doing so, they malignantly exasperate themselves against God. Some understand that they were afflicted in mind because of the way,  117 so that the ב, beth, indicates the cause of their grief and trouble. It might, indeed, be the case that their passage through the mountains was steep and difficult; but a pleasant region was almost in sight, gently to attract them onward. Again, they falsely complain of want of water, in which respect God had already applied a remedy. Nothing, then, could be more unfair than odiously to recall to memory a past evil, in which they had experienced the special aid of God. But their depravity is more thoroughly laid open in their loathing of the manna, as a food affording but little nutriment, or contemptible.

The verb  118 קצר, katzar, is used first, which signifies to constrain; thus some explain it, that they were rendered anxious by distress. But since the same word is used for to shorten, others translate it that their minds were broken down with weariness, so as to faint by the way. In any case, a voluntary bitterness is indicated, whereby they were possessed, so that their alacrity in advancing altogether failed them. The verb  119 , קצה, katzah, which Jerome renders sickens, is not used simply for disgust, but signifies that weariness which excruciates or agonizes the mind.

They call the manna “light” food; as much as to say that it inflates rather than satisfies or nourishes; or, as I deem more probable, the word קלקל, kelokel, is used metaphorically for vile, or contemptible, and valueless.

5. And the people spake against God and against Moses. Either because they murmured against God in the person of Moses, or else because their impiety broke forth to such a furious extent, that they openly blasphemed against God; and this latter opinion is most in accordance with the words, because by their use of the plural number they accuse two parties together.  120 But, inasmuch as Moses had nothing separate from God, no one could enter into a contest with him without warring also against God Himself. Here, however, as I have said, their insolence proceeded still further, so as not only to rail against the minister, but to vomit forth also their wicked blasphemy against God Himself, as if He had injured them most grossly by their deliverance.

6. And the Lord sent fiery serpents. Their ingratitude was justly and profitably chastised by this punishment; for they were practically taught that it was only through God’s paternal care that they had been previously free from innumerable evils, and that He was possessed of manifold forms of punishment, whereby to take vengeance on the wicked.

Although deserts are full of many poisonous animals, still it is probable that these serpents suddenly arose, and were created for this special purpose; as if God, in His determination to correct the people’s pride, should call into being new enemies to trouble them. For they were made to feel how great their folly was to rebel against God, when they were not able to cope with the serpents. This, then, was an admirable plan for humbling them, contemptuously to bring these serpents into the field against them, and thus to convince them of their weakness. Consequently, they both confess their guilt and acknowledge that there was no other remedy for them except to obtain pardon from God. These two things, as we are aware, are necessary in order to appease God, first, that the sinner should be dissatisfied with himself and self-condemned; and, secondly, that he should seek to be reconciled to God. The people seem faithfully to fulfill both of these conditions, when they of their own accord acknowledge their guilt, and humbly have recourse to God’s mercy. It is through the influence of terror that they implore the prayers of Moses, since they count themselves unworthy of favor, unless an advocate (patronus) should intercede for them. This would, indeed, be erroneous, that those who are conscience-struck should invite an intercessor to stand between them and God, unless they, too, should unite their own prayers with his; for nothing is more contrary to faith than such a state of alarm as prevents us from calling upon God. Still the kindness of Moses, and his accustomed gentleness is perceived by this, that he is so readily disposed to listen to these wicked ones; and God also, on His part, shews that the prayer of a righteous man is not unavailing, when He heals the wound He had inflicted.  121

8. Make thee a fiery serpent. Nothing would, at first sight, appear more unreasonable than that a brazen serpent should be made, the sight of which should extirpate the deadly poison; but this apparent absurdity was far better suited to render the grace of God conspicuous than as if there had been anything natural in the remedy. If the serpents had been immediately removed, they would have deemed it to be an accidental occurrence, and that the evil had vanished by natural means. If, in the aid afforded, anything had been applied, bearing an affinity to fit and appropriate remedies, then also the power and goodness of God would have been thrown into the shade. In order, therefore, that they might perceive themselves to be rescued from death by the mere grace of God alone, a mode of preservation was chosen so discordant with human reason, as to be almost a subject for laughter. At the same time it had the effect of trying the obedience of the people, to prescribe a mode of seeking preservation, whichbrought all their senses into subjection and captivity. It was a foolish thing to turn the eyes to a serpent of brass, to prevent the ill effects of a poisonous bite; for what, according to man’s judgment, could a lifeless statue, lifted up on high, profit? But it is the peculiar virtue of faith, that we should willingly be fools, in order that we may learn to be wise only from the mouth of God. This afterwards more clearly appeared in the substance of this type: for, when Christ compares Himself to this serpent which Moses lifted up in the wilderness, (Joh 3:14,) it was not a mere common similitude which He employs, but He teaches us, that what had been shewn forth in this dark shadow, was completed in Himself. And, surely, unless the brazen serpent had been a symbol of spiritual grace, it would not have been laid up like a precious treasure, and diligently preserved for many ages in God’s sanctuary. The analogy, also, is very perfect; since Christ, in order to rescue us from death, put on our flesh, not, indeed, subject to sin, but representing “the likeness of sinful flesh,” as Paul says. (Ro 8:3.) hence follows, what I have above adverted to, that since “the world by wisdom knew not God,” He was manifested in the foolishness of the cross. (1Co 1:21.) If, then, we desire to obtain salvation, let us not be ashamed to seek it from the curse of Christ, which was typified in the image of the serpent.

Its lifting up is poorly and incorrectly, in my opinion, explained by some, as foreshadowing the crucifixion,  122 whereas it ought rather to be referred to the preaching of the Gospel: for Moses was commanded to set up the serpent on high, that it might be conspicuous on every side. And the word נס nes, is used both for a standard, and the mast of a ship, or any other high pole: which is in accordance with the prophecy of Isaiah, where he says that Christ should be “for an ensign” to all nations, (Isa 11:10) which we know to have been the case, by the spreading of the doctrine of the Gospel through the whole world, with which the look of faith corresponds. For, just as no healing was conveyed from the serpent to any who did not turn their eyes towards it, when set up on high, so the look of faith only causes the death of Christ to bring salvation to us. Although, therefore, God would give relief to their actual distress, it is still unquestionable that He even then admonished all believers that the venomous bites of the devil could only be cured by their directing their minds and senses by faith on Christ.

The brazen serpent is, furthermore, a proof to us how inclined to superstition the human race is, since posterity worshipped it as an idol, until it was reduced to powder by the holy king Hezekiah. (1Ki 18:4.)

10. And the children of Israel set forth. Moses does not here enumerate all the stations, which will be mentioned hereafter, when he recapitulates them all separately and in order: for, in hastening to record certain memorable circumstances, he passes over those of minor importance, which, however, he does not omit elsewhere; since the account of their circuitous course, when they were turning away from the Edomites, was of some moment. For it was, as we have observed, no ordinary proof of obedience, when God had forbidden them to attack the Edomites, that they should undertake a difficult and rugged march. Still in this place Moses deemed it sufficient to mark the principal places in which they stopped. Meanwhile, what I have stated appears to be the case, that he hastens onwards to relate circumstances of much importance, for, when they came to Arnon, he highly magnifies the power of God, with which He succoured His people.

13. From thence they removed, and pitched. I will presently add, what Moses relates in Deuteronomy respecting the Moabites and Ammonites. Since here he only briefly touches upon the main facts, he only specifies that the people came to the borders of their enemies, where it was necessary to give battle, because there was no means of entering the land of Canaan, except by force of arms. Here, then, was the end of their journeying, for, when the Amorites were conquered, they began to inhabit their cities. He, therefore, immediately adds, that this place would be memorable in all ages, because in it God again exerted His power, by putting to flight their enemies. Still translators appear to me to be mistaken as to the meaning of the words. Almost all of them render the word ספר, sepher, “the book;” and afterwards eagerly discuss what book it is, without coming to any satisfactory conclusion. I rather understand it to mean “narration;” as if Moses had said, that when the wars of Jehovah shall be recounted, the memory of this place would be celebrated; as David, when he is recounting, and magnifying God’s mercies, expressly mentions that king Sihon and Og were conquered.

There is also another ambiguity in the following words: for some suppose Vaheb to be the proper name of a city, and Suphah a noun common, which they translate “in a whirlwind;”  123 but, since the shore of the Red Sea was not habitable, I do not see how mention could be suitably made of any city situated there. But if they think it was a city near Arnon, it is surprising that it should never be spoken of elsewhere, and yet here referred to, as if it were well known. I therefore rather incline to their opinion, who explain it as a vero, and suppose that ו (vau) is used for י (yod,) so that the sense should be; As God had begun to fight gloriously for the Israelites at the Red Sea, so also He continued the same grace at Arnon. I admit, that if the points be scrupulously insisted upon, this meaning would not be altogether accordant with grammar; but I prefer eliciting a probable meaning at the cost of a single point, than to go out of the way in search of poor conjectures, as they do who imagine Vaheb to be the proper name of a place. Appropriately, indeed, does Moses compare Arnon with the Red Sea, in order to shew that God’s grace, at its end, is thoroughly in accordance with its commencement. He had mightily fought against the Egyptians, and had destroyed the army of Pharaoh in the Red Sea, but small would have been the fruit of this deliverance, unless, with equal efficacy, He had succoured His people when they had to contend with the Canaanitish nations: for the question here is not as to God’s blessings in general, but only as to the victories, wherein it was manifested that the Israelites did not fight without the approval and guidance of God. Moses, therefore, does not recount the miracles performed in the desert: but only says, that in the history of the wars of God the name of Arnon would be equally renowned with that of the Red Sea. Still, in the word Arnon it must be observed that there is a synecdoche; forMoses comprehends in it all the subsequent battles. Since, therefore, from the time that the people arrived at Arnon, where their enemies came forth to meet them, God again lifted up His standard, and gloriously honored His people by continued victories — hence the special celebrity of the place arose. There is a poetical repetition in the verse, where, for the torrents, the stream of the torrents  124 is spoken of, which descends to Ar, and reposes in the border of Moab.

16. And from thence they went to Beer. Some think that a circumstance is here narrated, which had never been mentioned before, since a song is recorded, which we do not find elsewhere. But since Moses repeats the same words which he had used before, and speaks as of a very notorious matter, that he was there commanded to assemble the people, to partake of the water which God had given, it appears probable to me that the name was given to the place, whereby both God’s goodness and the people’s ingratitude might be testified to posterity. I do not, however, contend that this is the same place, from whence we previously read that water was extracted: for it was not there only that the people was satisfied by drinking it, but it flowed forth beside them wherever they went. In which sense Paul writes that “the Rock followed them,” (1Co 10:4;) not that the rock was torn from its roots, but because God miraculously drew on the water which flowed from it, so that it should accompany them, and thus continually supply them with drink. And this we gather also from the next verse, where Moses says, that the people “sang this song, Ascend, Beer.”  125 For when they saw that, contrary to nature, the water rose into higher levels from the source which was recently called into existence, so as to supply them with drink in dry places, they began to pay more attention to the miracle, and to celebrate the grace of God. Still it might be the case that the water did not flow down like a river, but bubbled up from the open veins of the earth, whenever it was required. At any rate, by its ascent he indicates an extraordinary effect produced by God. When it is said, that “the princes digged the well,” there is, in my opinion, an implied contrast between a few persons, and those but little fitted for manual labors, and a great body of engineers. Whenever armies have need of water, the soldiers dig wells with much labor; here quite another mode of proceeding is expressed, viz., that the leaders of the people, together with Moses, dug the well, not by artificial or mechanical means, but by the simple touch of a staff. Moses, indeed, speaks of “staves,” in the plural nmnber, because mention of the princes is made; but I have no doubt but that the rod of Moses is contrasted with all other implements, in order to exalt the power and grace of God. I think, too, that the name of Beer was given to the place, where that water forsook the Israelites; since they had come to well-watered regions, which would supply water in abundance without miraculous interference. Let us, however, learn from this canticle, that, although the people had at first impiously rebelled against God, still, by long experience of the blessing, they were at length induced to gratitude, so as to burst forth into praise of God. Hence we gather, that they were not obstinate in their senselessness.



Heb. בדרך Lat, in via. A.V. “because of the way.” “In often noteth the cause of a thing; as, ‘the Lord’s soul was grieved in (that is, for, or because of) the misery of Israel,’ Jud 10:16; or, according to the like phrase in Zec 11:8, their soul ‘loatheth the way,’ both for the longsomeness of it, and for the many wants and troubles they found therein.” — Ainsworth in loco.


A. V., “discouraged;” margin, “or, grieved; Heb. shortened.” קצר, To shorten, to cut short, to cut off, and hence to reap. S.M. says, “Their spirit was shortened, i.e., became impatient; being a species of antithesis to longanimity, or long forbearing.” — W.


A. V., “loatheth.” קצה is likewise to cut off, but is said by the lexicographers to borrow a meaning in this instance from קוף to loathe, and be weary of. It would be simpler to say that קצה is the praet. 3d. pers. of קוף, and that a feminine verb is required by the subs. נפשנו — W


Addition in Fr., “sinon qu’ils s’addressent aussi a Aaron;” unless they also address Aaron.


Addition in Fr., “si tost;” so speedily.


C. here is opposed to the great body of the commentators, although he has with him “some of reverent account in the Church,” as Attersoll calls them. Perhaps it may be admissible to include, with Lampe, both views: “Exaltatio serpentis hujus in pertica primo quidem designat exaltationem in cruce, ita tamen ut pertica simul possit emblema gerere praeconii Evangelici, per quod Christus crucifixus mundo innotuit.”—In Johan. 3:14.


את-והב בסופה eth-vaheb b’suphah. None of the most ancient translations can be said to be in unison with the present reading of the Hebrew in this clause. The LXX. appear to have read זהב and render it τὴν Ζωὸβ ἐφλόγισε The Chaldee Paraphrast, Onkelos, has על ימא דסוף, “By the sea of Suph,” i.e., the Red Sea. The Syriac has, “A flame with a whirlwind,” translating סופה instead of treating it as a proper name, and having apparently read some form of להב instead of את-והב. The V. has, “Sicut fecit in mari rubro;” our A.V. “What he did in the Red Sea,” but in the Margin, “Vaheb in Suphah.” The translation of S. M. agrees with that in the text of A. F.; but in his notes he says, “Kimchi interprets והב to be the name of a place, but R. Salomon treats it as equivalent to יהב he gave, and expounds the clause thus, As God gave many signs by the Red Sea, so was He wonderful in his works by the brook Arnon. — W


A.V. “the brooks” — “the stream of the brooks.”


See Margin A.V. The original word for a well is בארBeer. W.

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