Numbers 21:18
The princes dig the well, the nobles of the people dig it, by the direction of the lawgiver, with their staves. And from the wilderness they went to Mattanah:
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(18) By the direction of the lawgiver.—Better, with the ruler’s staff. The same word occurs in Genesis 49:10, where it stands in parallelism to “the sceptre.” (See Note in loc.)

And from the wilderness they went to Mat-tanah.—The Targums interpret this and Numbers 21:19-20 of the well, And from the wilderness it was given to them for a gift, and from thence it was given to them in Mattanah, &c. The Targum of Onkelos is as follows: “And from the time that it was given to them, it descended with them to the rivers, &c.” The Targum of Palestine is—“And from the wilderness, &c.” (as above).

21:10-20 We have here the removes of the children of Israel, till they came to the plains of Moab, from whence they passed over Jordan into Canaan. The end of their pilgrimage was near. They set forward. It were well if we did thus; and the nearer we come to heaven, were so much the more active and abundant in the work of the Lord. The wonderful success God granted to his people, is here spoken of, and, among the rest, their actions on the river Arnon, at Vaheb in Suphah, and other places on that river. In every stage of our lives, nay, in every step, we should notice what God has wrought for us; what he did at such a time, and what in such a place, ought to be distinctly remembered. God blessed his people with a supply of water. When we come to heaven, we shall remove to the well of life, the fountain of living waters. They received it with joy and thankfulness, which made the mercy doubly sweet. With joy must we draw water out of the wells of salvation, Isa 12:3. As the brazen serpent was a figure of Christ, who is lifted up for our cure, so is this well a figure of the Spirit, who is poured forth for our comfort, and from whom flow to us rivers of living waters, Joh 7:38,39. Does this well spring up in our souls? If so, we should take the comfort to ourselves, and give the glory to God. God promised to give water, but they must open the ground. God's favours must be expected in the use of such means as are within our power, but still the power is only of God.By the direction of the lawgiver - Some render, with the lawgiver's scepter; i. e. under the direction and with the authority of Moses; compare Genesis 49:10, and note. 17, 18. Then Israel sang—This beautiful little song was in accordance with the wants and feelings of travelling caravans in the East, where water is an occasion both of prayer and thanksgiving. From the princes using their official rods only, and not spades, it seems probable that this well was concealed by the brushwood or the sand, as is the case with many wells in Idumea still. The discovery of it was seasonable, and owing to the special interposition of God. The princes digged; either by themselves, or by others whom they commanded to do it. By the direction of the lawgiver, or, with the lawgiver, i.e. Moses; they together with Moses, or they by Moses’s direction and appointment, which is signified Numbers 21:16.

Their staves are here mentioned, either,

1. As the ensigns of their authority, Judges 5:14, by which they gave this command of digging.

2. As the instruments of their work; not that they, did formally and effectually dig the well or receptacle for the water, for which spades were more proper than staves, but that as Moses smote the rock with his rod, so they struck the earth with their staves, making only some small impression for form sake, or as a sign that God would cause the water to flow forth out of the earth where they smote it, as he did before out of the rock. The princes digged the well,.... The princes and heads of the several tribes:

the nobles of the people digged it; the seventy elders, according to the Targum of Jonathan:

by the direction of the lawgiver; either the Lord himself, the lawgiver of his people, who pointed out the spot, and directed the princes where to dig, that is, be did this by Moses; and who, as Jarchi thinks, is the lawgiver, and not amiss: the Targums of Jonathan and Jerusalem render the word by Scribes, in the plural number, and interpret them of Moses and Aaron: and this the princes and nobles "dug with their staves"; either their walking sticks, or their rods, the ensigns of their authority; with these they smote the ground, or stuck them in a soft and sandy place, upon which the waters bubbled up and flowed out. Dr. Shaw (n) chooses to render the words, "with their united applause", or "clapping of hands", as the word in Chaldee signifies; or it may be expressed, as by Dr. Hunt, quoted by him, "by describing" or "marking out" the figure or fashion of the well "with staves". Mr. Ainsworth thinks that this well signified Christ, the fountain of gardens, and well of living waters; and the waters of it the Spirit and his graces, which are a well of living water springing up unto everlasting life; the means of which are the labours of the governors of the church, the ministers of Christ,by preaching the word, and opening the Scriptures; and such grace is worthy of a song, and to be had with joy out of the wells of salvation, Isaiah 12:3,

and from the wilderness they went to Mattanah; from the wilderness near Arnon, which came out of the coasts of the Amorites, Numbers 21:13 to a place which signifies a gift. The Targums of Jonathan and Jerusalem render it,"and from the wilderness it was given to them for a gift''that is, the well; and so the people of God, that are called out of the wilderness of this world, and come up from it, are called to partake of the gifts and blessings of grace, which are freely given unto them of God.

(n) Travels, p. 67. Ed. 2.

The princes digged the well, the nobles of the people digged it, by the direction of the {g} lawgiver, with their staves. And from the wilderness they went to Mattanah:

(g) Only Moses and Aaron, the heads of the people, struck the rock with the rod or staff, which gave water as a well that was deep digged.

18. with the ruler’s wand, with their staves] These do not seem to be implements suitable for digging a well. But it is suggested by Budde that there is ‘an allusion to a custom by which when a well had been discovered it was lightly covered over, and then, on a subsequent occasion, solemnly opened with a symbolic action of the sceptre-like staves of the Sheikhs’; see Gray, Numb. p. 289, where parallels are cited for the practice of singing to a well. R.V. marg. ‘by order of the lawgiver’ retains the improbable interpretation of the A.V. [Note: .V. The Authorised Version.]

The historical setting in which the song has been placed obscures its real nature. Popular snatches of song were sung during the intervals of labour in the field, or in honour of the vine at the vintage, or in honour of a well or spring at the time of drawing water. The present stanza appears to be of the latter class. Wells were highly prized; and the songs would, as it were, persuade them to yield up their precious contents.

And from the wilderness [they journeyed to] Mattanah] The clause is doubtful, for (1) they had already left the wilderness (of Numbers 21:13) when they moved to Beer, and (2) the Lucianic recension of the LXX. omits ‘and from Mattanah’ in Numbers 21:19. Mattanah, if it was the name of a place, is unknown; but the word means ‘a gift,’ and Budde ingeniously suggests that the clause forms the last line of the song—‘from the wilderness a gift,’ omitting the initial ‘and’ (ו). The LXX. translators appear to have felt the difficulty of ‘from the wilderness’ and to have removed it by reading ‘And from Beer to Mattanah.’

The Targ. of Onkelos on this verse contains a legend according to which the well followed the Israelites on their journeys over hill and dale. In 1 Corinthians 10:4 S. Paul refers to the legend but combines with it a reference to the rock which produced water (Numbers 20:11).Verse 18. - By the direction of the lawgiver, בִּמְחֹקֵק. Literally, "by the lawgiver," or, as some prefer, "with the scepter." The meaning of michokek is disputed (see on Genesis 49:10), but in either ease the meaning must be practically as in the A.V. It speaks of the alacrity with which the leaders of Israel, Moses himself amongst them, began the work even with the insignia of their office. And from the wilderness... to Mattanah. Beer was still in the desert country eastward of the cultivated belt: from thence they crossed, still on the north of Arnon, and probably leaving it somewhat to the south, into a more settled country. The next encampment was "Ije-Abarim in the desert, which lies before Moab towards the sun-rising," i.e., on the eastern border of Moabitis (Numbers 33:44). As the Wady el Ahsy, which runs into the Dead Sea, in a deep and narrow rocky bed, from the south-east, and is called el Kerahy in its lower part (Burckhardt, Syr. pp. 673-4), separates Idumaea from Moabitis; Ije-Abarim (i.e., ruins of the crossings over) must be sought for on the border of Moab to the north of this wady, but is hardly to be found, as Knobel supposes, on the range of hills called el Tarfuye, which is known by the name of Orokaraye, still farther to the south, and terminates on the south-west of Kerek, whilst towards the north it is continued in the range of hills called el Ghoweithe and the mountain range of el Zoble; even supposing that the term Abarim, "the passages or sides," is to be understood as referring to these ranges of hills and mountains which skirt the land of the Amorites and Moabites, and form the enclosing sides. For the boundary line between the hills of el-Tarfuye and those of el-Ghoweithe is so near to the Arnon, that there is not the necessary space between it and the Arnon for the encampment at the brook Zared (Numbers 21:12). Ije-Abarim or Jim cannot have been far from the northern shore of the el Ahsy, and was probably in the neighbourhood of Kalaat el Hassa (Ahsa), the source of the Ahsy, and a station for the pilgrim caravans (Burckhardt, p. 1035). As the Moabites were also not to be attacked by the Israelites (Deuteronomy 2:9.), they passed along the eastern border of Moabitis as far as the brook Zared (Numbers 21:12). This can hardly have been the Wady el-Ahsy (Robinson, ii. p. 555; Ewald, Gesch. ii. p. 259; Ritter, Erdk. xv. p. 689); for that must already have been crossed when they came to the border of Moab (Numbers 21:11). Nor can it well have been "the brook Zaide, which runs from the south-east, passes between the mountain ranges of Ghoweithe and Tarfuye, and enters the Arnon, of which it forms the leading source," - the view adopted by Knobel, on the very questionable ground that the name is a corruption of Zared. In all probability it was the Wady Kerek, in the upper part of its course, not far from Katrane, on the pilgrim road (v. Raumer, Zug, p. 47: Kurtz, and others).
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