The Scriptures are an arrangement of selected material, not the detailed record of every occurrence in the history of the people of God. While thirty-eight years had passed since the close of Numbers 19, Numbers 20-21 show that obstacles continued to confront God’s covenant people. But in due time His promises prevailed. Numbers 20 begins with the death of Miriam—who was of the generation sentenced to death outside of Canaan—and Numbers 21 concludes with the initial conquest of the Promised Land!
Numbers 20-21 catalogues four events that represent the internal and external challenges Israel faced as they awaited entrance to Canaan. First, Miriam died in Kadesh (Num 20:1) and Aaron passed away on Mount Hor (Num 20:22-29)—both outside of the Promised Land. Miriam’s death frames the previous scenes in Numbers with the events in Numbers 20 and following. Miriam was of the generation sentenced to wilderness wandering (Num 14:20-23). Israel’s arrival at the Transjordan plains coincided with the aging of the unfaithful generation. God had been faithful to His word of discipline against those who failed to trust Him (Numbers 13-14) and the new generation was prepared to take the land.
Second, for their irreverence, the Lord sentenced Moses and Aaron to death outside of the Promised Land (Num 20:2-13). Even though the people had complained (again!), it was Moses and Aaron who received the Lord’s rebuke for their impatience: “Because you did not trust Me to show My holiness in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this assembly into the land I have given them” (Num 20:12).
Third, Edom denied Israel passage through their land on the near-east side of the Dead Sea (Num 20:14-21). While Jacob and Esau had separated on gentlemen’s terms, Esau’s descendants (see Genesis 36) were not hospitable in the least to those of Jacob’s line. The present refusal of passage became yet another obstacle to God’s people entering the Promised Land and Israel was forced to take the longer, less convenient route toward Canaan.
Finally, though victorious over the Canaanite king in the Negev (Num 21:1-3), the people became impatient for having to travel around Edom (Num 21:4-5). Their complaint prompted the Lord to send poisonous snakes into the territory killing many—and only those who looked upon the mounted bronze snake were cured of the venomous attack (Num 21:6-9).
While Israel was beset by obstacles to the covenant, in time God’s promises prevailed. The remainder of Numbers 21:10-35 moves very quickly, recording Israel’s entire journey of more than 250 miles. These scenes display the surety of God’s promises—even worth remembering generations later (see Psalm 135). After Israel enjoyed safe passage around Edom and Moab, ultimately settling near the Pisgah highlands (Num 21:10-20), Moses sent messengers north to Sihon king of the Amorites requesting safe passage through his land. Upon Sihon’s aggression against Moses and Israel, God gave Israel a great victory: “Israel struck him with the sword and took possession of his land from the Arnon to the Jabok…” (Num 21:24). This territory was eventually allotted to Reuben (see Josh 13:15-23). Israel then headed further north, taking the area around Jazer and driving out the inhabiting Amorites (Num 21:32). Joshua gave this land to the tribe of Gad (see Josh 13:24-28). When Og King of Bashan confronted Israel’s northern expedition (Num 21:33-35), God emboldened Israel saying: “Do not fear him, for I have handed him over to you along with his whole army and his land” (Num 21:34). This territory came to be known as East Manasseh (see Jos 13:29-33).
While these chapters of Numbers again set forth God’s faithfulness to the Abrahamic covenant (see Genesis 12, 15) and record that Israel had finally taken possession of at least a portion of their inheritance, they are also significant for the storyline of Scripture. When Jesus was instructing Nicodemus—who although he was the teacher of Israel did not yet believe in the Messiah (John 3:10)—Jesus said that Moses’ snake in the wilderness prefigured His forthcoming salvific crucifixion. “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in Him will have eternal life” (John 3:14). After Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, the Jews increased their opposition of Jesus (John 11:45-57; 12:19). As the crowds gathered, Jesus cried out that His hour had come and a voice came from heaven to confirm that God was going to glorify Himself in His Son (John 12:23-29). Jesus said He was going to cast out the ruler of the world and be lifted up, drawing all peoples to Himself (John 12:32).