As we continue in the examination of problem texts, we find that Numbers 21:8-9 certainly falls into this category.
Let’s begin with verse four:
“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. 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” (vv. 4-5).
This was a nation of people utterly without faith (Heb. 3:16-18). They simply could not believe what God promised, and did not appreciate what He had done for them. They were flagrant ingrates. So how did God respond? “And the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died” (Num. 21:6). It took this strong measure to make them aware of what they had done, and they now repented. “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” (v.7). But how could those who had been bitten by these poisonous serpents be delivered from death?
“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. 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” (vv. 8-9).
This solution seems to be incredulous. Why would God make them behold the figure of a serpent — a symbol today of the medical profession? The answer: As the brass serpent represented the instrument of their chastisement, looking at it was an acknowledgement of their sin, and obedience to God’s instruction. By viewing the brass serpent, the invisible power of God healed the people. This gazing was the acknowledgement that they had sinned and by now admitting so, they were forgiven. The figurative representation of the poisonous serpent rendered the poison harmless. This act of faith and obedience acknowledged the power of God in forgiving and healing. This event was designed to strengthen their faith and to give them confidence in God’s promises and what He was willing to do for them. Those who would not trust God and refused to look perished from the deadly poison of the serpents.
Next, let us examine Numbers 22 and the events surrounding Balaam. Keep in mind that these events occurred sometime before Israel was established in the Holy Land. God did have prophets prior to this time (e.g., Enoch, Abraham). Balaam was one of these with a great reputation, but he went astray. He had been hired by the elders of Moab and Midian (Num. 22:7) to pronounce a curse upon the advancing Israelites. Try as Balaam did God would not permit it. God said to Balaam, ” . . . Thou shalt not go with them; thou shalt not curse the people: for they are blessed” (v. 12). The Moabites persisted in their efforts, offering him large sums of money. Balaam kept hoping God would change His mind (v. 19). “And God came unto Balaam at night, and said unto him, If the men come to call thee, rise up, and go with them; but yet the word which I shall say unto thee, that shalt thou do. And Balaam rose up in the morning, and saddled his ass, and went with the princes of Moab. And God’s anger was kindled because he went. . .” (vv. 20-22).
The question is: Why was God angry with Balaam when He told him to go with the princes of Moab? Look carefully above. There is a caveat in God’s instruction — the biggest little word in the English language. God said: “. . . If the men come to call thee, rise up, and go with them . . . (v. 20).” Note the men did not come to Balaam; rather he rose early and went to them! This act was in direct violation to what he had been told, so God withstood him (vv. 22-33). Later He said to Balaam: “. . . Behold, I went out to withstand thee, because thy way is perverse before me “(v. 32).
What was Balaam’s problem? The Apostle Peter referring to the wicked includes Balaam and tells us: “Which have forsaken the right way, and are gone astray, following the way of Balaam the son of Bosor, who loved the wages of unrighteousness; But was rebuked for his iniquity: the dumb ass speaking with man’s voice forbad the madness of the prophet” (2 Pet. 2:15-16). And Jude wrote: “Woe unto them! for they have gone in the way of Cain, and ran greedily after the error of Balaam for reward. . . ” (Jude 11). Balaam, not willing to give up, resorted to a ploy. Even though he went his way (Num. 24:25), Josephus tells us that he convinced the Moabites to send enticing women of loose morals into the camp of Israel to seduce the men (Num. 25:1-3). He believed by this means God would remove His blessing and Moab would prevail. It nearly worked, and God severely punished Israel by smiting more than 24,000 with a plague (Num. 25:9). In time Balaam received his just reward. “Balaam also the son of Beor, the soothsayer, did the children of Israel slay with the sword among them that were slain by them”(Josh. 13:22). And of the Midianites we read: “And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, Vex the Midianites, and smite them: For they vex you with their wiles, wherewith they have beguiled you in the matter of Peor, and in the matter of Cozbi, the daughter of a prince of Midian, their sister, which was slain in the day of the plague for Peor’s sake” (Num. 25:16-18).
Deuteronomy 4:15-19 has been quoted to prove that God provided the sun, moon, stars, and the host of heaven for the heathen to worship. If this is so, then the heathen are not held responsible for idolatry, and God is the author of sin. But is this what the text says?
It reads as follows:
Take ye therefore good heed unto yourselves; for ye saw no manner of similitude on the day that the LORD spake unto you in Horeb out of the midst of the fire: Lest ye corrupt yourselves, and make you a graven image, the similitude of any figure, the likeness of male or female, The likeness of any beast that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged fowl that flieth in the air, The likeness of any thing that creepeth on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the waters beneath the earth: And lest thou lift up thine eyes unto heaven, and when thou seest the sun, and the moon, and the stars, even all the host of heaven, shouldest be driven to worship them, and serve them, which the LORD thy God hath divided unto all nations under the whole heaven.
Deuteronomy 7:2-3 states: “If there be found among you, within any of thy gates which the LORD thy God giveth thee, man or woman, that hath wrought wickedness in the sight of the LORD thy God, in transgressing his covenant, And hath gone and served other gods, and worshipped them, either the sun, or moon, or any of the host of heaven, which I have not commanded.”
Other translations of the Bible make the above verses more understandable. For example consider Deuteronomy 4:19 in the New King James Version.
And take heed, lest you lift your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun, the moon, and the stars, all the host of heaven, you feel driven to worship them and serve them, which the LORD your God has given to all the peoples under the whole heaven as a heritage (NKJV)
Lest perhaps lifting up thy eyes to heaven, thou see the sun and the moon, and all the stars of heaven, and being deceived by error thou adore and serve them, which the Lord thy God created for the service of all the nations, that are under heaven. (Douay-Rheims)
Lange’ Commentary on the Holy Scriptures explains the meaning of Deuteronomy 4:19. It says that neither Deuteronomy 29:26 nor Romans 1:21-23 state that God gave the host of heaven for the heathen to worship. Rather the first warnings regarding idolatry relate to serving other gods — gods which the Lord had not given. Israel was the Lord’s portion and the heathen were left to their own devices, including worshipping the host of heaven. In the translations given above we see that the host of heaven was placed there for the benefit of man, not for worship by the heathen.
Deuteronomy 12:17-18 has confused some because of the failure to recognize the context. The chapter addresses the establishment of the central place of worship, that is, at the Tabernacle. When they were established in the Holy Land, they were to bring their various offerings, sacrifices, tithes, etc., and eat them before the Lord at the Tabernacle. No longer would they be permitted to offer burnt offerings anywhere they chose. However, they would be permitted to eat flesh at home, but not what was dedicated for Tabernacle worship. An important key is found in verses 11 and 17. The word “tithes” has led some to believe that the first tithe was to be shared with others at the Tabernacle and not given to the Levites as commanded in Numbers 18:21. Some do not realize the value of the Septuagint (LXX) in understanding what was the current meaning of various Hebrew verses during the 200 BC period. The Septuagint was a Greek translation from the Hebrew. Both the words “tithes,” and “tithe” are translated in the Greek by the word epidekaton. The preposition epi means “upon,” “over.” Dekaton means tenth, and epidekaton refers to something over or above. It is a reference to an additional tithe, that is, the second tithe. Since the chapter is referring to the Tabernacle site, the words “tithes,” and “tithe” refer to the tithes that were be used during the fall festival. This was the Feast of Tabernacles. In brief, the second tithe was not to be used at home, but at the place where God placed His name! And it was to be used for feast expenses.
A faulty interpretation of Joshua 5:10-11 has led to confusion regarding the Pentecost count. The text reads as follows: “And the children of Israel encamped in Gilgal, and kept the passover on the fourteenth day of the month at even in the plains of Jericho. And they did eat of the old corn of the land on the morrow after the passover, unleavened cakes, and parched corn in the selfsame day.” This text is taken to mean that the Passover fell on the weekly Sabbath (Friday night) and Wavesheaf Sunday was the day following the Sabbath. Therefore the count for Pentecost began on this Sunday. This day supposedly had to be the day when the Wavesheaf was offered because the Israelites ate of the “old corn” on that Sunday,
that is, the day following the Sabbath. Thus on those years when the Passover falls on the Sabbath, the Pentecost count begins on the first day of Unleavened Bread. Keep in mind the Bible instructs us that the Passover falls on the 14th day of the first month and the first high day of Unleavened Bread falls on the 15th.
What is wrong with this scenario? The Pentecost count, according to the Bible, begins on the Sunday following the weekly Sabbath, not on either of the two high days during the days of Unleavened Bread. According to the above notion the count began this year in Joshua 5 after the first high day of Unleavened Bread. The result is that it forces the Pentecost count to begin a week early, and therefore the Day of Pentecost occurs a week early. Consider this: Joshua 5:11 occurred during the first month (Josh. 4:19). Old corn, according to reference works, refers to stored grain, that which was carried over. This grain did not come from the harvest of the Canaanites. It was corn that the Israelites brought over from east of the river Jordan, corn they had gathered three days before the crossing (Josh. 1:10-11).
The Israelites did not eat old corn produced by the Canaanites for the following reasons: The produce of the Canaanites was regarded as corrupt, and the Israelites were forbidden to eat it (Lev. 22:25). Furthermore, the Pentecost offering had to be produce from their own labor which they had sown (Ex. 23:16, Lev. 23:10). These texts and the fact that the words “wave,” “sheaf,” or “Wavesheaf” cannot be found anywhere in the book of Joshua should make plain that Joshua 5:10-11 does not refer to a Wavesheaf Sunday, and gives no justification for keeping Pentecost a week early on those years when the Passover falls on the weekly Sabbath.
To go back to one text that has been very puzzling consider Exodus 4:21-26. Commentators regard the account here as obscure and difficult to understand. So the best we can do is to describe what it seems to be saying. Keep in mind that many incidents of the Old Testament are much abbreviated, and the inspired writers were not led to elaborate on them.
The text reads as follows:
And the LORD said unto Moses, When thou goest to return into Egypt, see that thou do all those wonders before Pharaoh, which I have put in thine hand: but I will harden his heart, that he shall not let the people go. And thou shalt say unto Pharaoh, Thus saith the LORD, Israel is my son, even my firstborn: And I say unto thee, Let my son go, that he may serve me: and if thou refuse to let him go, behold, I will slay thy son, even thy firstborn. And it came to pass by the way in the inn, that the LORD met him, and sought to kill him. Then Zipporah took a sharp stone, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet, and said, Surely a bloody husband art thou to me. So he let him go: then she said, A bloody husband thou art, because of the circumcision.
In verses 21-23 we find God speaking to Moses, telling him what to say to Pharaoh. Verses 24-25 relate the incident that is difficult to understand. Most commentators believe the word “kill” means that God threatened to kill the son. Why? In the law we read: “And the uncircumcised man child whose flesh of his foreskin is not circumcised, that soul shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken my covenant” (Gen. 17:14). The result would have been no inheritance for that branch of the family. In the land of Midian, Moses had neglected the rite of circumcision. God’s threat was a result of the awesome responsibility Moses was being given. There was a paramount need to be a good example to the people. To neglect circumcision — the sign of the Covenant people — was an affront to God. For some reason Moses did not perform the rite at the Inn. Commentators believe he was deathly sick, and Zipporah, sensing the seriousness of the situation, performed the rite. Her statement that Moses was a husband of blood may give the reason Moses did not take care of the matter in Midian. She may have strongly objected to the rite and now, realizing the seriousness of the situation, accepted it. The account here emphasized to Moses the seriousness of all of God’s instructions and commands. Moses needed to have impressed upon him that God’s Word and instruction must not be neglected in any way.