Commentary on Numbers 21:21-35

Notes (NET Translation)

21 Then Israel sent messengers to King Sihon of the Amorites, saying, 22 “Let us pass through your land; we will not turn aside into the fields or into the vineyards, nor will we drink water from any well, but we will go along the King’s Highway until we pass your borders.”

23 But Sihon did not permit Israel to pass through his border; he gathered all his forces together and went out against Israel into the wilderness. When he came to Jahaz, he fought against Israel.

King Sihon does not merely show his force, as the Edomites did earlier (20:14-20), he actually attacks the Israelites. Jahaz is mentioned in the Mesha Stele (lines 18-21) as somewhere near Dibon. Note that Israel is in the wilderness when it’s attacked (Deut 2:26 calls it “the wilderness of Kedemoth”).

24 But the Israelites defeated him in battle and took possession of his land from the Arnon to the Jabbok, as far as the Ammonites, for the border of the Ammonites was strongly defended.

The land possessed by the Israelites is bordered by the Arnon river to the south, the Jabbok river to the north, and the land of the Ammonites to the east. The Jordan River is undoubtedly the unnamed border to the west. Deut 2:19 says the Ammonites were not attacked because they were descendants of Lot.

The early existence of the Ammonite kingdom seems evidenced by the discovery and excavation of a Middle to Late Bronze Age temple near the Amman airport as well as other sites in the region, such as Tel el-Umeiri, Hesban, Jalul, and Tell el-Jawa.1

25 So Israel took all these cities; and Israel settled in all the cities of the Amorites, in Heshbon, and in all its villages.

The Israelites did not begin to settle the Transjordan immediately (Num 32).

26 For Heshbon was the city of King Sihon of the Amorites. Now he had fought against the former king of Moab and had taken all of his land from his control, as far as the Arnon.

This verse explains Sihon’s presence at Heshbon and identifies him with the subject of the song in verses 27-30.

27 That is why those who speak in proverbs say, “Come to Heshbon, let it be built. Let the city of Sihon be established!

The Hebrew word meshalim is translated “proverbs” by the NET. It is the plural of mashal. Other understandings of the term are “balanced verse” and “parable”. Verses 27b-30, which are difficult and ambiguous, appear to be describing an Amorite victory over the Moabites. It shows that Israel took the land from the Amorites, not the Moabites (cf. Judges 11:12-33). Verse 27 is a call to rebuild Heshbon after it has been conquered.

28 For fire went out from Heshbon, a flame from the city of Sihon. It has consumed Ar of Moab and the lords of the high places of Arnon.

Fire is used as an image for war.

The Targum took heights (bāmôṯ) in the sense of “high places,” i.e., Canaanite shrines, and the “lords” (in MT) to be Canaanite priests. But bāmôṯ here probably means only “high country” (Mic. 3:12; Jer. 26:18; Ezek. 36:2), or perhaps “the strategic places” (i.e., “the high ground”; Deut. 32:13; Isa. 58:14).2

29 Woe to you, Moab. You are ruined, O people of Chemosh! He has made his sons fugitives, and his daughters the prisoners of King Sihon of the Amorites.

Chemosh is the national god of the Moabites (Judg 11:24; 1 Kgs 11:7, 33; 2 Kgs 23:13; Mesha Stele, lines 14ff.). “He” and “his” probably refers to Chemosh. Jeremiah (48:45-46) uses language similar to verses 28-29 in his prophecy against Moab.

30 We have overpowered them; Heshbon has perished as far as Dibon. We have shattered them as far as Nophah, which reaches to Medeba.”

31 So the Israelites lived in the land of the Amorites.

32 Moses sent spies to reconnoiter Jaazer, and they captured its villages and dispossessed the Amorites who were there.

33 Then they turned and went up by the road to Bashan. And King Og of Bashan and all his forces marched out against them to do battle at Edrei.

The Bashan was the fertile area of Transjordan north of Gilead, or, if you will, north of the Yarmuk river and east of the Sea of Galilee (Kinneret). It reached to the Hermon, possibly to Jebel Druze.3

34 And the LORD said to Moses, “Do not fear him, for I have delivered him and all his people and his land into your hand. You will do to him what you did to King Sihon of the Amorites, who lived in Heshbon.

Deut 3:11 notes that Og’s bed/sarcophagus is about 13.5 by 6 feet. If this reflects his actual size (to some degree) he may have been an imposing man. Og and his country were put to the ban (herem, v 35, Deut 2:34-35).

35 So they defeated Og, his sons, and all his people, until there were no survivors, and they possessed his land.

The Israelites faithfully obey the Lord. The victory over King Og of Bashan is re-told in Deut 3:1-11.


Ashley, Timothy R. The Book of Numbers. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993.

Brown, Raymond E., Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and Roland E. Murphy, eds. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1990.

Cole, R. Dennis. Numbers. Kindle Edition. The New American Commentary. Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000.

Friedman, Richard Elliott. Commentary on the Torah. First Edition. San Francisco, Calif.: HarperOne, 2001.

Levine, Baruch A. Numbers 21-36. The Anchor Yale Bible. New York: Yale University Press, 2000.

Mays, James L., ed. The HarperCollins Bible Commentary. Revised Edition. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2000.

Milgrom, Jacob. Numbers. The JPS Torah Commentary. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989.

Wenham, Gordon J. Numbers. Kindle Edition. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. IVP Academic, 2015.

  1. Cole 2000, Kindle Locations 10283-10285 
  2. Ashley 1993, 425 
  3. Levine 2000, 109 

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