In Numbers 14:39-45 and Numbers 21:1-3, the Bible records two very different battles at the same place with the same name (Hormah, a word that means “utter destruction” in Hebrew). By studying the two parallel accounts of the battles in tandem, we can find out quite a bit about the way God works and how his will can be determined through the outcomes of wars. In this way the two battles of Hormah can serve as an important lesson in the biblical art of war, though the battles themselves are highly obscure.
Let us therefore examine these two battles in some depth. It is especially important to note who is the aggressor, the course of the campaign, the faithfulness of the people of Israel (at the time) to God, and the result that these differences played in terms of the very different outcomes of the respective campaigns that serve as bookends to the beginning and the end of Israel’s time in the wilderness.
The First Battle of Hormah
Let us begin at the beginning with the First Battle of Hormah. The context of this battle occurs in Numbers 13 and 14, which we will summarize here. Israel had been commanded to send spies into the Promised Land (spying, after all, being a very honorable profession within Israel ). Ten of the twelve spies were faithless (and were killed in judgment by God for their lack of faith), and the two faithful spies (Joshua and Caleb) were the only two people over the age of 20 leaving Egypt that entered into the Promised land.
After hearing the death sentence from God for their lack of faith in God, the Israelites were unsatisfied and sought to reverse the curse with their own efforts. Having lacked the faith that God could conquer the strong cities of Canaan, and strengthen them to do so, they decided that their own strength was sufficient for the effort after hearing that God would scatter their bones in the wilderness because of their unbelief .
The course of this invasion is detailed in Numbers 14:39-45: “Then Moses told these words to all the children of Israel, and the people mourned greatly. And they rose up early in the morning and went up to the top of the mountain, saying, “Here we are, and we will go up to the place which the Lord has promised, for we have sinned!” And Moses said, “Now why do you transgress the command of the Lord? For this will not succeed. Do not go up, lest you be defeated by your enemies, for the Lord is not among you. For the Amalekites and the Canaanites are there before you, and you shall fall by the sword; because you have turned away from the Lord, the Lord will not be with you.” But they presumed to go up to the mountaintop. Nevertheless, neither the ark of the covenant of the Lord nor Moses departed from the camp. Then the Amalekites and the Canaanites who dwelt in that mountain came down and attacked them, and drove them back as far as Hormah.”
This is a pretty clear, but also a very instructive example. Israel proves themselves lacking in belief yet again, and God pronounces upon them a judgment upon that generation, condemning them to forty years in the wilderness because they faith in God despite all of the miracles He provided them. Not satisfied with the judgment, nor realizing that it was a “final” judgment on that faithless generation, part of Israel thought that a token repentance and a desire to belatedly complete God’s will would be enough for God to reverse the judgment. They thought mistakenly, as Moses gave them explicit warning and his refusal to go with them or send the Ark with them was also a sign of divine discontent with their actions and their refusal to accept the repercussions of their unbelief.
It is noteworthy that Israel was the aggressor in this conflict, despite the explicit denial of God’s blessing on their war. I suppose they chose the way they wanted to die, and they preferred the risk of battle (since they did not belief God anyway they did not believe that His support was decisive) to the certainty of dying in the wilderness and wasting 40 years. And so they were slaughtered by their enemies at a place called Hormah.
The Second Battle of Hormah
The Second Battle of Hormah was quite a different situation altogether. The contrasts between the First and Second Battle of Hormah are quite striking. In Numbers 21:1-3 we read: “The king of Arad, the Canaanite, who dwelt in the South, head that Israel was coming on the road to Atharim. Then he f ought against Israel and took some of them prisoners. So Israel made a vow to the Lord, and said, “If You indeed will deliver this people into my hand then I will utterly destroy their cities.” And the Lord listened to the voice of Israel, and delivered up the Canaanites, and they utterly destroyed them and their cities. So the name of that place was called Hormah.”
In this particular battle, it was the Canaanites who attacked, thinking the Israelites were vulnerable, and the Israelites responded by calling out to God instead of rebelling against God’s command. As their time of conquest had come, and they asked in faith, God granted them the victory and they destroyed cities that God had placed under the ban for utter destruction . God granted them their victory and they proceeded to destroy the city of Arad and its confederacy and turn Hormah from a place of Israelite destruction to a place of the destruction of the Canaanite forces instead.
Though this battle has often paled in significance with the later victories over Sihon and Og, whose territories made up the lands of the two and a half tribes that remained east of the Jordan River, this battle was in fact the first of the victories of Israel in their conquest of the Promised land. This battle also would have been the sign to the Canaanites as a whole that the people of Israel meant business, and might have been a reminder as well that they were back from the wilderness and keen on destruction, putting fear into the Canaanites (as Rehab reported to the spies in Jericho) instead of being afraid of them. God rewards a faithful people with victory, a lesson we ought to learn today.
A Comparison Between The Two Battles
It would appear that the accounts of the two battles of Hormah in Numbers are deliberately set up as a chiasma showing the underlying structure both of Numbers and of Israel’s wilderness experience as a whole. The parallels between the two accounts appear too deliberate and numerous to be accidental. Let us therefore examine these parallels and their implication:
- In the First Battle of Hormah, the Israelites attacked the Canaanites; in the Second Battle of Hormah, the Canaanites attacked the Israelites.
- In the First Battle of Hormah, the Isrelites had just been denied entry into the Promised Land; in the Second Battle of Hormah, the Isrelites were beginning their conquest of the Holy Land.
- In the First Battle of Hormah, the Israelites were rebelling against God and faithless to him; in the Second Battle of Hormah, the Israelites prayed to God and were obedient to His desire to destroy the Canaanites utterly.
- In the First Battle of Hormah, the Canaanites destroyed the Isrealites; in the Second Battle of Hormah the Israelites destroyed the Canaanites.
There are a few implications of this. For one, wars fought without the blessing of God will not prosper. The flip side of God being one’s might and strength is that it is the will of God and not of His people that determines the outcomes of warfare. God may even turn temporary defeats into glorious victories by prompting His people to call on Him for aid rather than try to rely on their own (limited) strength.
Another important implication of these accounts is that God frequently uses bait as part of His judgment. God used the apparently weak confederacy of Arad (and neighboring Amalekites) to lure the rebellious Israelites into attacking without His will and thus destroying themselves, and then almost forty years later He used the Israelites as bait to lure the Canaanites of Arad and its neighboring cities into destruction. In both cases God used a “baited gambit” to lure those whom He had judged to destruction to attack and then be the agents of their own destruction. This appears to be as common an element of God’s way of war as spycraft. God uses apparent weakness to hide real strength, trusting on the ungodly to look merely at surface appearances rather than inquire into deeper realities.
Implications of the Battles of Hormah to the Church of God
I would like to close this note with a musing on a relevant point of these accounts to the Church of God community. I have long wondered if the Church of God has spent much of the last 40 years in the wilderness, having rejected necessary cultural changes from slavery to authoritarian leadership and the acceptance of personal responsibility and the recognition that God-given gifts among the general membership require development, and that rigid hierarchies are a direct insult and attack on true godly servant leadership .
The rejection of God’s ways and the growth required of believers among the early generation of the Church of God community mirrored the rejection of the same personal responsibility and accountability within Israel during the wilderness. God’s judgment on Israel was that the generation of adults who had rejected God and shown a lack of faith would be buried in the wilderness and their children would inherit the Promised land. Perhaps the same is true of the Church of God. Perhaps the faithlessness of the older generation (of leaders and members) has led to 40 years of spinning our wheels in the wilderness, so that only those brave and godly among the earlier generation like Joshua and Caleb, and children who grew up without the “slave mentality” of many of those before them, would be allowed by God to enter the rest promised in Psalm 95 and Hebrews 3 and 4. Perhaps many within the older generation of the Church of God will be denied entry into the Millennium because of their unbelief.
In that sense, the Battles of Hormah may have a symbolic meaning for the mistaken attempts by those whom God rejected for their unbelief to enter into the “place of safety”, but rather demonstrate that just like the ancient Israelites, it will be necessary to travel over the same ground that once led to a horrible defeat as the Church enters its glorious march into the promised land. It is possible that the experience of the Church of God, just like that congregation in the wilderness some 3500 years ago, will also share a certain chiastic organization. It is possible that God has a similar movement in mind for us as he did for Israel. If so, let us be open to a reversal of fortunes when God’s favor has finally smiled upon our efforts. Let us be ready when that moment comes, just as the armies of ancient Israel were ready to call upon God for victory and conquest when their time came.