Crossing the Land

By Dane Neufeld

A Reading from Numbers 21:4-9, 21-35

4 From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom, but the people became discouraged on the way. 5 The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” 6 Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. 7 The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. 8 And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” 9 So Moses made a serpent of bronze and put it upon a pole, and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.

21 Then Israel sent messengers to King Sihon of the Amorites, saying, 22 “Let me pass through your land; we will not turn aside into field or vineyard; we will not drink the water of any well; we will go by the King’s Highway until we have passed through your territory.” 23 But Sihon would not allow Israel to pass through his territory. Sihon gathered all his people together and went out against Israel to the wilderness; he came to Jahaz and fought against Israel. 24 Israel put him to the sword and took possession of his land from the Arnon to the Jabbok, as far as to the Ammonites, for the boundary of the Ammonites was strong. 25 Israel took all these towns, and Israel settled in all the towns of the Amorites, in Heshbon, and in all its villages. 26 For Heshbon was the city of King Sihon of the Amorites, who had fought against the former king of Moab and captured all his land as far as the Arnon. 27 Therefore the singers say,

“Come to Heshbon; let it be built;
let the city of Sihon be established.
28 For fire came out from Heshbon,
flame from the city of Sihon.
It devoured Ar of Moab
and swallowed up the heights of the Arnon.
29 Woe to you, O Moab!
You are undone, O people of Chemosh!
He has made his sons fugitives
and his daughters captives
to an Amorite king, Sihon.
30 So their posterity perished
from Heshbon to Dibon,
and we laid waste until fire spread to Medeba.”

31 Thus Israel settled in the land of the Amorites. 32 Moses sent to spy out Jazer, and they captured its villages and dispossessed the Amorites who were there.

33 Then they turned and went up the road to Bashan, and King Og of Bashan came out against them, he and all his people, to battle at Edrei. 34 But the Lord said to Moses, “Do not be afraid of him, for I have given him into your hand, with all his people and his land. You shall do to him as you did to King Sihon of the Amorites, who lived in Heshbon.” 35 So they killed him, his sons, and all his people, until there was no survivor left, and they took possession of his land.


For many reasons, the book of Numbers does not always make for the easiest devotional literature. Perhaps the greatest is that we have no concept of what it would mean to be a nomadic people enroute to a permanent home, amidst dangerous and violent enemies. Pretty much nothing in our experience in North America corresponds to this.

Though in recent memory these experiences were quite common. I heard a Blackfoot elder speak  about the Book of Numbers, and for him, the cultural memory of travelling across the land as a people, through shifting territorial regions, was not so distant. Where many of us tend to comb over the geographical and cultural peculiarities of the Old Testament in search of spiritual nuggets, for many Indigenous Christians these “peculiarities” are what hold real interest. It was not long ago that Chief Crowfoot led his suffering and depleted people north from Montana, to the reserve they had resigned themselves to after years of bitter suffering.

The Israelites seek nothing more than safe passage through Amorite territory, but King Sihon not only denies it but resolves to attack them. Israel’s offer of peaceful passage quickly turns into armed conflict, for the which the Lord provides victory for his people. There is no easy way to spiritualize this passage other than to say that if we were in Israel’s position we would probably hope and pray for the same result.

The Church finds itself in strange country these days. At times even our well-intentioned and deferential attempts to coexist in our society are rejected. But we can trust that the Lord is guiding and protecting his people through dangerous and complex circumstances, unlike any of us have ever seen.

The Rev. Dane Neufeld currently serves as the incumbent of St. James, Calgary, after serving 7 years in Fort McMurray in Northern Alberta.

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