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Father Maas’ Commentary on Numbers 24:2-17

Posted by Dim Bulb on December 15, 2013

Please note that the spelling of people and place names follows the spelling from the Greek text. The spelling in most modern bibles may differ slightly.



1. Time and Occasion of the Prophecy.—In the first month of the fortieth year after their leaving Egypt, the Israelites encamped for the second time in Cades (Num. 20). Here Mary, the sister of Moses, died; here too the people again murmured against the Lord by reason of a want of water, and here Moses and Aaron committed the sin of diffidence in the help of God. Since Moses knew that they could hardly expect to enter Palestine from the south side on account of the strongly fortified towns, he led the people around towards the east, sending messengers from Cades to the kings of Edom and Moab, in order to obtain a free passage through their territories. Permission being refused, the territories of these princes had to be avoided, and thus it was that Israel came to Mount Hor. Here Aaron died; then King Arad (Num. 21), who had at first gained some advantages over Israel, was vanquished; but on their way south, which had to be taken in order to pass around Edom, the Israelites again murmured and were punished by the fiery serpents. Finally, the people advanced along the eastern boarder of Edom northward, till they reached the Arnon. When Sehon, king of the Amorrhitcs, refused them a free passage through his territory to the Jordan, they conquered his whole kingdom from the Anion to the Jeboc; then Og, the king of Basan, was put to death, and his kingdom with its sixty fortified cities taken. Next the Israelites turned again southward, and encamped in the fields of Moab, across Jordan, opposite
Jericho (Num. 22:1 ff.).

Balac, the king of Moab, was frightened, made an alliance with the Madianites, and being not yet confident enough in their combined forces, Balac sent to Balaam, the son of Beor, who lived in the land of the Ammonites, requesting him to come and curse Israel. After the wellknown remonstrances on the part of God, the appearance of the angel, and the talking of Balaam’s ass, the soothsayer finally reaches the camp of Balac, where he is received with all possible splendor. First the prophet is led to the Baal heights (Num. 22:41; 23.), on the eastern part of Mount Abarim, where he repeats the blessing of Abraham in spite of the seven altars and the seven burnt offerings prepared by Balac. Balaam is now made to ascend the summit of Phasga (Num. 23:13 ff.), where he repeats, in spite of the same bountiful sacrifices, the blessing of Juda and the covenant blessing of Horeb. The third time Balac and Balaam ascend Phogor (Num. 23:27 ff.), where the prophet repeats the combined
blessings of Abraham and Jacob. Finally, before leaving Balac, Balaam informs him of the future of Israel (Num 24:14 ff.). They shall triumph over Edom and Moab; then the fate of the Amalecites (1. c. 20), the Cinites (1. c. 21, 22), and the Assyrians (1. c. 23, 24) is announced.

2. Character of the Prophet.—No doubt Balaam was a Gentile soothsayer, who had, however, become acquainted with the history of Israel and with their true God, Jehovah, to whom he had consecrated himself. The motives of his service may have been like the motives of Simon Magus, since he seems to have been under the sway of avarice in the latter course of his history. He must have known the truth concerning the immortality of the soul and the future retribution; why else should behave prayed: ” Let my soul die the death of the just, and my last end be like to them “? (Num. 23:10.) After being dismissed by Balac, Balaam may have gone over to Moses in order to reveal to him the prophecies enounced with the view of obtaining from the Hebrews the rich rewards which he had lost at the court of the Moabite king. Not obtaining what he desired he gave the wicked advice to the Madianites of enticing the Hebrews into sin, and thus rendering them odious to Jehovah (cf. Num. 31:8, 16; 26:1-3; Rev 2:14). He was slain among the Madianites by the avenging hands of Hebrews.

3. Authorship of the Prophecy.—It is not certain, as Driver says (Introduction to the Literature of the Old, Testament, 1892, p. 62), whether Num. 23 and 24 belong to J or E, or whether they are the work of the compiler, who has made use of both sources. Critics differ, the author continues, and it is wise to leave the question undetermined. Delitzsch (Messianic Prophecies in Historical Succession, translated by S. I. Curtiss, New York, 1891, p. 65) is a little more determined: “We admit that the narrative, as it lies before us, is combined out of several sources that may be clearly distinguished, and that the historical element, as it survived in the ‘sage’, has been reproduced, not without literary co-operation, but without doubting the fact that the heathen sorcerer, contrary to his natural disposition, became a prophet of Yahweh, and that he received an insight into the future of Israel, whose significance only has its counterpart in the second part of the Book of Zechariah and the Book of Daniel.” Provided the Mosaic and inspired authorship of the prophecy in its present form is saved, we may grant any manner of composition.

4. Unchristian Applications of the Prophecy.—a. Verslmir (Bibliotheca Brem. nova class, iii. 1, pp.1-80) denies the relation of Balaam’s prophecy to the Messias in any sense, and regards it as applying alike to David, John Hyrcanus, and Alexander Jannaeus. The seventeenth verse he refers to the first two, the nineteenth verse to the last. b. Michaelis and Dathe too have denied the Messianic character of the prophecy, applying it to David alone, c. De Wette endeavors to prove from this prophecy the fictitious nature of the whole story and the spuriousness of the Pentateuch.

5. Messianic Character of Balaam’s Prophecy.—1. Jewish tradition looks upon the passage as Messianic. The Targum Onkelos reads: ” When a mighty king of Jacob’s
house will reign, and the Messias will be magnified.” The Targum Jonathan has a similar paraphrase: ” When there shall reign a strong king of the house of Jacob, and the Messias shall be anointed, and a strong sceptre shall come from Israel. . . .” Rabbi Simeon, the son of Yochai, taught: “Rabbi Akiba, my teacher, explained: There shall come a star of Jacob, Cosiba comes of Jacob; for when he saw Bar Cosiba, he exclaimed: This is the Messias ” (cf. Jerusalem Taanith, fol. G8, col. 4). A similar testimony is found in Debarim Rabba (sec. 1): “The Israelites said to God: How long shall we be in bondage? He replied: Till the day comes of which it is said: There shall come a star out of Jacob.” In the Pesikta Sotarta (fol. 58, col. 1) we read: “Our Rabbis have a tradition that in the week in which the Messias will be born there will be a bright star in the east, which is the star of the Messias.” In Shemoth Rabba (sect. 30, fol. 129, 1) we read the following passage: “Parable of a man who went into a strange
country and heard that a public trial was to be held. He asked a great talker when the trial would be held. His answer was: It is still far off. The man asked another the same question, and the answer was: It will take place very soon. The man said: I have asked the great talker, and he said it would not take place for some time. The other answered: You know that he is a talker, and do you think that he would like the trial to take place soon, not knowing whether his own case will be tried, and he will be condemned? Thus the Israelites asked Balaam: When will the redemption come? He answered (Num. 24:17): I shall see him, but not now; I shall behold him, but not near. The Holy Blessed God said: Do you not know that Balaam will go down into hell, and that he would prefer my salvation should not come?” Bechai (fol. 180, 4) reads: “I shall see him, but not now, must be understood of David; I shall behold him, but not near, of the king Messias; a star shall rise out of Jacob, of David; a sceptre shall spring up from Israel, of king Messias; and shall strike the chiefs of Moab, of David (I Kings 8:2); and shall waste all the children of Seth, of the Messias
(Ps. 73:18); he shall possess Idumea, of David (I Kings 8:14); but Israel shall do manfully, of the Messias (Obadiah 21).” Another testimony we find in Pesikta Sotarta
(fol. 58, 2): “At that time they shall blow a great trumpet, and then shall be fulfilled what is written, Num. 24:17: A star shall rise out of Jacob.” Sohar chadasch (fol. 44, 2) reads thus: “I shall see him, refers to the redemption which will be the fourth; but not now, but in the latter days. The world has six days. On the fourth, the heavenly lights shall be taken away and cease, i.e., the sun, the moon, and the stars shall be hidden on that day, as they were in the creation.” It may be noticed in passing that the Messianic times are here placed into the fourth millennium, or after the first three thousand years. The Sohar (Num. fol. 85, col. 340) has the following remarks
about Num. 24:17: ” God has decreed to build up Jerusalem, and to show a star which shines besides seventy other stars, and out of which proceed seventy satellites, and seventy other stars will be taken with the same. This star is the Messias; his satellites are the apostles and the dignitaries of the Church.” A little later the same book continues: ” At the time of the star’s appearance, the earth will tremble for forty-five miles around the place where the Temple is standing. And there shall be opened a cavern under the ground out of which shall come forth a fire that will set the earth on fire. The heavenly bird too will come forth out of the cavern, to whom empire is given, and the nations of the earth will be gathered under his sway. And the king Messias will appear in the whole world, and will take vengeance on the Edomites, and set the land of Seir on fire.” See also Sohar, fol. 58, 1; fol. 44, 4; Tikkune Sohar, c. 37; Pesikta Sotarta, fol. 58, 1; Pesikta Rabbathi, fol. 20, 4.

2. The Messianic character of the prophecy uttered by Balaam may be also recognized from the very context of the passage. For according to the verse immediately preceding the prophecy, Balaam expressly says that it regards the “latter days.” Now this phrase “latter days” is generally used of the Messianic times; (cf. Gen. 49:1; Deut. 4:30; Jer. 48:47; Is. 2:2, etc.).

3. Then again the contents of the prophecy point to the Messianic fulfilment:

a. The victories of David, no doubt, were a partial fulfilment of Balaam’s prediction, and the language in which they are reported seems to point out their reference to the present prophecy (cf. II Sam 8:2,13,14; I Kings xi. 15,1; Ps 50:8.) On the other hand, David’s victories do not exhaust Balaam’s predictions, since they do not amount to a permanent conquest of Moab and Edom.

b. The Moabite stone informs us that the Moabites were again subdued by Omri, and kept in subjection for forty years. Then followed the successful revolt of Mesha (II Kings 1:1; 3:4, 5), the new victory over the Moabites by Joram (II Kings 3:21), their offensive war against Juda in the reign of Joas (II Kings 13:20), and their final subjection by John Hyrcanus, B.C. 129.

c. As to the Edomites, they revolted under Solomon (I Kings 11:14), and more successfully under Joram (II Kings 8:20), were defeated under Amasias (II Kings 14:7), and again under Ozias (II Kings 14:22), but not completely subjugated, so that in the reign of Achaz they invaded Juda (II Chron 28:17).

d. Accordingly, we find that the prophets who lived centuries after David took up his prophecies concerning the Moabites and the Edomites, thus showing evidently that they had not been accomplished in the time of David. As to Moab, see Isa 15; 16:1-5; 25:20 ff.; Amos 2:1; Zeph 2:8 ff.; as to Edom, see Isa 34:5 ff; 63:1-6; Jer 49:7 ff; Lam. 4:21, 22; Ezek 25:12; Amos 9:11, 12; Obad 17 ff; both nations are referred to in Isa 11:14.

e. If it is evident that the prophecy has not been fully accomplished by any of the Jewish kings, it is also certain that the Moabites and the Edomites are common types in the prophetic writings signifying in general all the enemies of the kingdom of God, as they were the bitterest foes of the theocracy. Thus it is plain that the final overthrow of all those who oppose the kingdom of God is predicted by the prophet, and this final defeat is to be inflicted by the star that shall rise out of Jacob, and by the ruler who shall come out of Israel.

4. The fact that the last Jewish rebel who rose in the reign of Hadrian took the name Bar-cochab, i.e., Son of a star, proves the two propositions laid down in the preceding number: that the Jews of that period regarded the present prophecy as still unfulfilled, though Moab had long before vanished from history, and that the actual accomplishment of the prediction was expected in Messianic times. Hence when Bar-cochab proved to be a failure, the disappointed Jews called him Bar-coziba, i.e., Son of a falsehood. Why should the false Messias have been called thus in reference to his former name Bar-cochab if this had not been regarded as the name of the true Messias?

5. If it be urged against us that Balaam could not have understood his prophecy, we may freely grant this premise, but we deny the inference drawn from it. Prophets do not necessarily understand the full import of their prophetic predictions (cf. I. Pet 1:11); and if this be true of the good and faithful prophets of the Lord, why could it not happen in the case of a Gentile whose heart was perverted, and whose dominant passion seems to have been that of the traitor apostle Judas?

6. Finally, the Fathers of the Church and Christian tradition have never given any other than a Messianic interpretation to Balaam’s prophecy (cf. Tubing. Quartalsch., 1844, p. 474; 1860, p. 054; 1872, p. 025 if.; Heinke, Beitrage, vol. 4).

Num 24:15  Therefore taking up his parable, again he said: Balaam the son of Beor hath said: The man whose eye is stopped up, hath said:

Stopped up. The Hebrew word thus rendered occurs only here and in the parallel passage (Num. 24:3), and hence it has been variously interpreted. 1. Gesenius, De Wette, Hupfeld, Keil, Hengstenberg, etc., translate the word as the Vulgate does by “closed ” or “stopped up.” If this rendering be accepted, there is again a twofold way of explaining the word: a. Balaam’s eyes were closed, as far as the correction of his error was concerned (Kliaban. Maur.); b. Balaam’s bodily eyes were closed, because, being in the ecstatic state, he was bereft of the use of his senses (a Lapide, Trochon, etc.). 2. The LXX., Saad, Maurer, Fl’irst, Wogue, Knobel, etc., translate the phrase “the man whose eyes are open.” They appeal especially to the Mishna (Abod. Sar. c. v.), where the verb used in the present passage signifies the unstopping of a wine-jar. They thus put an antithesis between Balaam’s being in a trance and having his eyes open. The former rendering is much better suited to the context, and is also supported by better authority.

Num 24:16  The hearer of the words of God hath said, who knoweth the doctrine of the Highest, and seeth the visions of the Almighty, who falling hath his eyes opened:

Who falling. The falling mentioned in this passage seems to have been the condition under which the inward opening of Balaam’s eyes took place. It indicates rather the force of the divine revelation overpowering the seer than his vision of the divine glory (cf. Dan 8:17; Rev 1:17). We find hardly any instance of such a falling in the case of God’s faithful prophets; in the case of St. Paul and of Balaam it shows that God’s word had to overcome a stubborn human will.

Num 24:17  I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not near. A STAR SHALL RISE out of Jacob and a sceptre shall spring up from Israel: and shall strike the chiefs of Moab, and shall waste all the children of Seth

A star. Explanations: 1. The star which appeared at the birth of Christ is foretold (Orig. c. Celsum, i. 12, 2). This is hardly probable, since that star did not “rise out of Jacob;” nor does St. Matthew, who carefully collects the Messianic fulfilments in his gospel, apply the prophecy to that event. 2. The star is the figure of a mighty king. Reasons: a. The star has served among all nations as the symbol of regal power and dignity (Virg., Eclog. ix. 47; Herat., Od. I. xii. 47; Justin, Histor. xxxvii. 2; Curtius, IX. vi. 8; Sueton. Ixxxviii. ; iEschyl., Again. 6; Isa 14:12; Dan 8:10; Rev 1:10, 20; 2:1; 9:1). b. The idea was current among the Jews, since the false Messias appearing after Jesus was called Bar-cochab, i.e., son of a star.

Children of Seth. Explanations: 1. Seth is a proper name (Vulg., LXX., and ancient versions generally), a. It refers to Seth, the son of Adam, so that children of Seth is equivalent to “all mankind.” The passage thus understood is often explained: “he shall rule all mankind” (Onkelos, Rashi, etc.). But “all mankind” is never called “the children of Seth,” though it may be called “the children of Adam or the children of Noe.” Again, the king foretold will not destroy mankind, but save it; or if the other explanation of ruling be preferred, it must be kept in mind that the verb does not bear the sense “to rule.” The passage in Jer 48:45 too demands another explanation, since that prophet evidently borrows from the present passage. b. Seth is the proper name of a Moabite prince (Winzer). This explanation is more satisfactory, but is based on a mere conjecture, c. Seth is connected with the Hebrew word ” shaon ” used in Jer 48:45, so that the children of “Seth” signifies “the children of noise,” or “tumultuous ones” (Uesen., Keil, Fiirst, Maurer, Reinke, etc.). The term “tumultuous ones” is rightly considered to designate the Moabites (cf. Ex 15:15; Is a 15:4; 16:6). 3. The word Seth is connected with the Hebrew ” shathah,” so that the children of Seth are the children of the drunkard (Hiller, Hofmann, Kurtz). The drunkard to whom allusion is made is by these authors identified with Lot (Gen 19:32), the progenitor of the Moabites. 4, The word Seth is connected with the Hebrew ” sheeth,” elevation, pride, so that we must translate “the children of boasting” (Zunz). The reference of Jeremias 48:45 to this passage seems to render the second opinion most probable, though Zunz too identifies the Moabites with the “sons of boasting.” Another explanation will be mentioned later on.

Num 24:18  And he shall possess Idumea: the inheritance of Seir shall come to their enemies, but Israel shall do manfully.

Idumea. Idumea is the country of Edom, or Esau; the Edomites had refused free passage through their territory to the Israelites when the latter asked them for it through messengers sent from Cades. It is therefore just that Edom and Moab should incur the same punishment, as they had contracted the same guilt. Seir was the older name of the mountain land south of Moab’and east of the Arabah, which the Edomites inhabited (Gen 36:8; Deut 2:1, etc.).

Num 24:19  Out of Jacob shall he come that shall rule, and shall destroy the remains of the city.

He that shall rule. This is the parallel term to the “sceptre” and the ” star ” which are foretold to spring forth from Jacob. By destroying the remains of the city, or him that remaineth of the city, the conqueror is described as hunting out the fugitives till he has cut off all of every place, after defeating his enemies in battle.

Remains of the city. Prof. A. H. Sayce (Hebraica, Oct., 1887, pp. 3 fT.) is of opinion that the passage from ” 1 shall see him” to “shall do manfully,” etc., is an old Ammorrhite song of triumph adapted by Balaam to the successes of Israel. According to this theory, the same poem occurs at least four times in Scripture in slightly varied form. Its oldest form is preserved in Num 21:28, while Jer 48:45, 46 and Am 2:2 follow Balaam’s adaptation more closely. For the right understanding of the latter, a comparison with the oldest form is of the greatest importance. It reads: “A lire is gone out of Hesebon, a flame from the city of Sehon, and hath consumed Ar of the Moabites, and the inhabitants of the high places of the Arnon.” From this we see that Balaam has substituted Jacob and Israel for Hesebon and the city of Sehon; star and sceptre for lire and flame. The verb which Balaam uses after these lines, “strike,” fits in with the sceptre only, not with the star, if it be taken literally. Hence we must interpret the star symbolically, as king or prince. The Hebrew word rendered ” chiefs” is translated “temples” by Ewald and Sayce. The latter scholar suggests the reading qadqad instead of qarqar, so that we must translate ” it has shattered the temples of Moab.”

This emendation suggests then another meaning for “the children of Seth;” for this expression is now parallel to “the temples of Moab,” as it replaces the original “inhabitants of the high places of the Arnon.” Now the latter are the Moabites who worship in the high places of the Arnon; the children of Seth must then be the same Moabite worshippers. From the analogy of Ben-Ammi or Ammonite in Gen 19:38 we infer then that Seth was a god as Arnion was, and this inference is verified by archaeological evidence, a. At the foot of the south-eastern angle of the Harem at Jerusalem, Sir C. Warren found, among other fragments of early pottery, two handles ornamented with a representation of the winged solar disk and inscriptions in Phoenician letters of the pre-exilic period. One of these reads: “belonging to Melech-Tsiph,” the other, “belonging to Melech-Sheth.” The latter name means “Moloch is Sheth” according to the analogy of Malchiel, Malchiyah, Melchizedek. Hence Seth was not only a deity, but his worshippers have left their remains in the valley of the sons of Hinnom. b. Dr. Neubauer has pointed out that this well agrees with the fact that the antediluvian patriarch Seth was the father of Enosh, or man, as well as with the proper names Mephi-bosheth and lsh-bosheth (2 Sam 2:8; I Chron 8:33), in which Bosheth is a contraction for Ben-Sheth, as Bedad has been formed out of Bendad. c. The same inference is confirmed by the meaning of Bosheth, “shame;” from II Sam 10:4 and Isa 20:4 it would seem that “Sheth” means “the phallus,” a meaning confirmed by the Assyrian sinatu, ” urine.” The phallus-worship among the ancients is too well known to need further description. As to the Moabites in particular, their Beelphegor-worship is told in Num 25:1-3. d. Sayce finds another confirmation for his rendering of the passage in Gen 4:7: ” If thou doest well, it is Sheth; but if ill, Chatath lieth at the door.” The latter he identifies with the Assyrian plague-god Nerra, of whom the inscriptions say: “Nerra lieth at the gate.” Sheth, therefore, must mean the god of generation, so that the passage means: “If thou do well, thy offspring will be abundant; but if ill, the angel of pestilence will afflict thee.” It should, however, be kept in mind that this interpretation as well as that given of Num 24:17-19 is new and is not found in Christian tradition. For though we do not deny that new light may be thrown on Scripture by new investigations, these results must be well weighed before they can be accepted.


We may point out the following Messianic notes and characteristics contained in Balaam’s prophecy: a. The predicted ruler will belong to the family of Jacob. b. He will be powerful enough to destroy all Israel’s enemies, present and future, c. As the protevangelium describes a conqueror of the serpent, who himself will have to suffer in the struggle, as the second prediction given to Sem points out that man’s salvation will be brought about by God’s mysterious dwelling in the tents of Sem, and as, finally, the series of the patriarchal blessings implies the priestly office of the future Saviour of mankind, so does the present prophecy show forth the Redeemer’s regal and princely character, d. It is also worthy of note that Balaam is the first prophet who touches the time of the future Redeemer. Its indication, however, is couched in the negative terms, “not now,” “not near.”

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Father Maas’ Commentary on Numbers 21:4-9

Posted by Dim Bulb on September 7, 2013

Text in red are my additions.


1. The Passage and its Context.—We see from Num 20:14-21 that the Edomites refused the Israelites a free passage through their territory. The Israelites were, therefore, compelled to seek a circuitous route by marching round the mountain fastnesses into the territory of the Moabites. Their course lay down the Arabah, between the limestone cliffs of the Tih on the west, and the granite range of Mount Seir on the east, until a few hours north of Ajaba (Ezion-Geber) the Wady Ithm opened to them a gap in the hostile mountains, and allowed them to turn to their left and march northwards towards Moab (Deut. 2:3; cf. Bitter, S. and P., i. p. 75, of Clark’s transl.). The Israelites were thus for several days in the Arabah, a mountain-plain of loose sand, gravel and detritus of granite, which though sprinkled with low shrubs, especially near the mouths of the Wadys and the courses of the winter-torrents, furnishes extremely little food and water, and is moreover often troubled with sandstorms from the shore of the gulf (Ritter, 1. c, i. 53 ff.). We understand, therefore, why the “people began to be weary of their journey and labor.”

2. Messianic Character of the Brazen Serpent.—

a. The typical character of the brazen serpent becomes evident by comparing its story with its application to Jesus Christ as given in the gospel of St. John. Num. 21:8-9: “And the Lord said to him: Make a brazen serpent, and set it up for a sign; whosoever being struck shall look upon it, shall live. Moses therefore made a brazen serpent, and set it up for a sign, which when they that were bitten, looked upon, they were healed.” John 3:14-17: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whosoever believeth in him may not perish, but may have life everlasting. For God so loved the world, as to give his only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him may not perish, but may have life everlasting. For God sent not his Son into the word to judge the world, but that the world may be saved by him.”

b. The Fathers and commentators have very copiously treated the typical import of the brazen serpent. The serpent of brass is harmless in itself, but is made in the image of the creature that is accursed above all others (Gen. 3:14); in the same manner Jesus Christ himself is holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners (Heb. 7:26), but he has been made sin (2 Cor. 5:21) and a curse for us (Gal. 3:13). And as those who looked upon the brazen serpent at once beheld the instrument of their affliction and the symbol of their safety, so those who look upon the Crucified at once behold what they have deserved for their sins, and the remedy that God has offered them.


4 And they marched from mount Hor, by the way that leadeth to the Red Sea, to compass the land of Edom. And the people began to be weary of their journey and labour:

Mount Hor. See Num 20:22-29. God informs Moses that Aaron is about to die, unable to enter the promised land because of his (and Moses’) rebellion against God at Meribah (Num 20:1-13). God tells Moses to bring Aaron, and Eleazer, Aaron’s son, to the top of Mount Hor and remove the priestly garments from the former and put them on the latter, thus indicating that Eleazer is to succeed Aaron, who dies and is buried atop the mountain.

Red Sea. The Hebrew Yam Suph should be translated Reed Sea, or Sea of Reeds.

5 And speaking against God and Moses, they said: Why didst thou bring us out of Egypt, to die in the wilderness? There is no bread, nor have we any waters: our soul now loatheth this very light food.

And speaking against God and Moses, they said: Why didst thou bring us out of Egypt, to die in the wilderness? There is no bread, nor have we any waters. The opening word of this verse, (and), draws a direct connection with the end of the previous verse which told us the people began to be weary of their journey and labour. It is not without significance that our Lord, after the discourse with Nicodemus in which he referenced Numbers 21:4-9 (see Jn 3:14) shortly proceeds into Samaritan territory where he becomes wearied (literally, labored out), asks for water, and speaks of the food he has to eat (see Jn 4:4-38).

This very light food. The expression conveys the idea of “this vile, contemptible bread.” For the word is derived from a root signifying “to be light,” and so “to be mean.” It is interesting to note that the Douay-Rheims version of the Lord’s prayer translated Matt 6:11 to read: Give us this day our supersubstantial bread. The Greek word used their is επιουσιον, it refers to something substantive and needed. This is in marked contrast to the description of the food mentioned here.

6 Wherefore the Lord sent among the people fiery serpents, which bit them and killed many of them.

Fiery serpents. The epithet here, as in Deut. 8:15; Isa. 14:29; 30:6, appears to denote the inflammatory effect of the serpents’ bite. The Greek language uses similarly the words denoting the effect of the bite as the name of the reptiles.  The Sinai peninsula, and especially the Arabah, abounds in venomous reptiles of various kinds, which may be well described in the foregoing terms. V. Schubert, travelling in this district, remarks: “In the afternoon they brought us a very mottled snake of large size, marked with fiery-red spots and wavy stripes, which belonged to the most poisonous species, as the formation of its teeth clearly showed. According to the Bedouins, these snakes, which they greatly dreaded, were very common in that neighborhood” (ii. 406; cf. Burckhardt, p. 499). Alexander (the Great) on his journey through Gedrosia lost many men through the serpents which sprang upon those passing by from the sand and the brushwood (Strabo, xv. 728). Strabo (xvi. 759) remarks that the travellers in the Sinai peninsula were exposed to similar dangers.

7 Upon which they came to Moses, and said; We have sinned, because we have spoken against the Lord and thee: pray that he may take away these serpents from us. And Moses prayed for the people.

The punishment brings the people’s haughty contempt to and end and forever serves as a warning not to treat God’s gifts with contempt or put Him to the test (see Deut 8:11-20, 32:24; Jer 8:17; 1 Cor 10:9).

8 And the Lord said to him: Make a brazen serpent, and set it up for a sign: whosoever being struck shall look on it, shall live.
9 Moses therefore made a brazen serpent, and set it up for a sign: which when they that were bitten looked upon, they were healed.

And the Lord said to him: Make a brazen serpent…which when they that were bitten looked upon, they were healed. The resemblance of the brazen serpent to the fiery serpents that had bitten the children of Israel constituted the essence of the symbolism (cf. 1 Sam 6:55). As the brazen serpent represented the instrument of their punishment, so their looking upon it at the express word of God implied an acknowledgment of their guilt, and a longing for delivery from the penalty, together with an expression of faith in the divinely appointed means of salvation. The explanation of certain commentators that Moses raised up the brazen serpent as an emblem of healing by medical power, or as the god of healing, since the serpent among other peoples was a symbol of the god of medicine, is obviously unworthy of notice or serious refutation. The same must be said about the view that Moses erected the serpent as a kind of amulet to be copied and worn as a reminiscence of Egyptian serpent-worship. The context as well as the text opposes this explanation, since God himself would thus be come the direct propagator of idolatrous worship among his chosen people. Besides, such texts as Wisdom 16:7 and 2 Kings 18:4 are against the explanation.


This type of Christ indicates that our salvation must come through the very effects of our sins, in so far as their burden is borne by us willingly and with the acknowledgment of our guilt, with a desire for freedom from sin and with faith in the divinely appointed means of redemption. Death, concupiscence, and pain are the effects of our fall; and it is by the patient bearing of these afflictions, by their union with the sufferings of our Lord Jesus Christ, that we must merit our heavenly crown. For what they by themselves could have never effected, they can now bring about since God has made them the signs of his grace and the channels of the redeeming merits of Christ.

Posted in Bible, Catholic, Catholic lectionary, Christ, Devotional Resources, Notes on Numbers | 1 Comment »

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