After the bleak character of Chapter 20, as Moses too rebels, a chapter sandwiched at the beginning and end by accounts of death, this chapter has a very different mood: the people are singing and the chapter begins and ends with accounts of victories won. And whereas in the previous chapter there’s further delay as Edom blocks their way, here there is a real sense of progress, indeed by 22:1 they are camped just across the River Jordan from the Promised Land. But it’s not just physical progress in their journey, there are signs too of spiritual progress: new trust and new joy.
The chapter begins with a new crisis – an unprovoked attack and captives taken. We might guess that their response would be what it has been to every other trial: further complaining. Strikingly though this time they pray (something there’s been no record of them doing since they left Sinai, and which God must surely have been longing for them to do). Graciously God hears and answers their prayer and a victory is won. It’s a notable victory because of who it is against – a Canaanite, albeit not one living in the Promised Land – and where the battle takes place – Hormah, the site of their defeat back in 14:45.
Despite the signs of spiritual progress at Hormah, here they seem to slip back into their old ways – the battle against sin is not so easily won, something Paul urges us to remember when applying these stories (see 1Cor.10:11-12). Impatience at this long detour, forced on them by the Edomites (20:14-21), stirs up more grumbling as they doubt God’s goodness and despise his gifts. It is much less of a trial than Arad’s attack had been back in v.1, but often it is the “lesser” trials that provoke a faithless response in us. God’s discipline is severe – “many Israelites died”, a further reminder of how seriously God views such grumbling – but wonderfully this time it leads to repentance. They admit their sin and ask for the snakes to be taken away, something God could easily have done, but instead his means of rescue is a further lesson in trust.
It is a strange answer to their prayer, not taking the snakes away but telling Moses to make another one! It is significant of course because Jesus tells us that the snake on the pole foreshadows the rescue he provides through his death on the cross (John 3:14-15). The snakes had been God’s instruments of judgment, but this bronze snake, instead of inflicting death, is stuck on a pole as if itself dead, indeed perhaps even as if cursed by God (compare Deut.21:23). In the same way the Son of Man, who is to be God’s Judge, came not “to condemn the world but to save the world” (John 3:17), by bearing God’s curse in our place. To look to the bronze snake was an act of faith, akin to believing in Jesus that we might live.
There is a sense of quickening tempo, of real progress such that by v.20 they are near Mt Pisgah, the mountain range from which Moses glimpses the Promised Land before his death. And whereas a lack of water has up to now been an occasion for grumbling, the mood in verses 16-18 is strikingly different: they sing out of joy at the Lord’s provision. Back in chapter 16 the leaders were rebelling, now the princes and nobles are leading as they should, as they trust and obey.
There is more singing in this final section too (verses 27-30), with joy at the Lord’s victories. These are among the most remembered battles in all the Old Testament, looming large in the nation’s memory. Just as we might remember our first car or first house, so these were significant because they weren’t simply battles won, but the first territory won (so vv. 31,35), the first land they possessed (where two and a half tribes would later live), and a foretaste of all that God would give them on the other side of the Jordan.
This new trust and new joy is surely something God means for us to learn too.