There's a lot of stuff in these five chapters so I'm going to try to say as much as I can in as few words as I can. First, very quick summary.
- Chapter 21: we see the Hebrews conquer their first city, Arad. The people get sick of walking around Edom (big country I guess) so they complain. God sends fiery snakes that bite the people, and then as a cure Moses has to make a statue of the snake that the people look at and then they don't die. Then we have two more military victories against the Amorites and Bashan.
- Chapter 22: the king of Moab gets scared of Israel, so he sends for a prophet named Balaam to come put a curse on Israel so that he can beat them. On his way there, God puts an angel in Balaam's path that his donkey sees, but he doesn't see it. The donkey freaks out and Balaam doesn't know so he beats the donkey until suddenly it starts talking to him. After a heartfelt conversation with said donkey, Balaam decides that he'll tell the king whatever God says rather than whatever the king wants to hear.
- Chapters 23-24: much to the Moabite king's dismay, all Balaam can do is bless Israel - three times. The king gets mad and fires him, and he goes home.
- Once the Israelites start moving in on the Canaanite territory, they begin to adopt Canaanite religion. God gets really ticked off and there's a big meeting where Moses tells the people to kill the people who are not worshiping God. Then some guy crashes the meeting by walking through the tent with a Canaanite girl, on their way to, um, talk . . . and a guy named Phinehas (son of Eleazar, grandson of Aaron) kills them. Then God says nobody else has to die, and also there was a plague on the people, but it stops now because of Phinehas.
Secondly, I love the story of Balaam. I just think it would be so funny to have your donkey all of a sudden start talking to you - well, maybe not funny at the time, but it's funny to read because Balaam talks back to his donkey! Now, I don't know if the text leaves out some details, like Balaam freaking out at his donkey talking to him, or if maybe this was something that he had experienced before, but it just makes me laugh to read that the donkey says to Balaamm, "What did I do to make you hit me?" and Balaam says right back "You're making me look stupid, that's what!" and she (the donkey is specifically a girl) says "Come on man, don't you trust me? Have I ever freaked out like this before?" and he says "no," and then God lets him see the angel standing in the way. And to top it off, God says to him, "why were you hitting the donkey? Dude, if she hadn't tried to turn the other way when she saw me, I would have killed you and not her."
Anyway, I do find it interesting that Balaam, who is not an Israelite, seems to know the true God. He even refers to Him as "the LORD [YHWH] my God." God speaks to Balaam and Balaam prophesies accurately - that is, he says exactly what God tells him to say. Now the third time he speaks, it almost seems like he's about to speak presumptuously, because it says that Balaam sees that it pleases the LORD to bless Israel, so the third time he doesn't go consult the LORD before speaking, as he did the first two times. So I am not sure if that was the right thing to do. But then it says that the Spirit of God came on him when he spoke, so I think his prophesy there was still real. Go figure.
Next, the Phinehas thing. So God has made it clear to the Israelites (see Exodus 20) that they are not supposed to worship any other gods, and that is exactly what they're doing for the first time since the golden calf. This is very serious - again, Israel was not supposed to be a model government, but an example to the world (and to future generations like us) of how to obtain a relationship with the one true God. Israel can't offer any kind of hope, any kind of message, to other nations if it is just like them. So anyway, while Moses is discussing this with the people, this couple walks by, and the next thing we see is Phinehas ramming a spear through them. Now, I always thought this was really harsh until my youth pastor asked this question: how do you kill two people with one spear at the same time? Answer: this couple is having sex right at this moment. They've just walked right past all these guys talking about the severity of Israel's sin against God - everybody sees them - and they apparently have the audacity to go do this in apparently the middle of the day, not even attempting to hide it. That is outright rebellion, the kind of sin described earlier in chapter 15 where we learned about unintentional sins versus sins of defiance. And even though I wish these two guys didn't die, it actually kept a bunch more people from dying.
I want to talk about snakes last, so let's back up. Now, these "snakes" may have been any of the various poisonous reptiles that inhabited these parts (or something supernatural); if so, we haven't heard a word about them until now, which means God was probably protecting the camp from them, and now He has obviously removed that protection. Once again, this was a punishment for whining. Now, you may wonder what is so bad about the gripe fest. I mean, it wasn't Israel's fault that they had to go around Edom; and I'm sure it wasn't pleasant to be always on the move. That's totally understandable to me. But what's not so cool is when the people say this: "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this miserable food." That tells me that one, they have totally forgotten their distress in Egypt and how desperate they were to get out; two, they are totally ungrateful for all the miraculous ways God has provided for them; three, they are not acknowledging their own responsibility for being in the wilderness right now in the first place - they were the ones who decided they couldn't get into the Promised Land and would rather die in the wilderness than try - if they had just had faith in the first place, they would've been there by now instead of traveling around in a circle; and four, they would rather be slaves, with their sons all being murdered and being forced to work all day, in a land that they can never own, than trust that God was taking them somewhere. Ouch.
So about the bronze snake that Moses makes. That seems really weird, almost like he's making an idol - and in fact later on, we see that some of the Israelites start worshiping the snake statue. But the symbolism and meaning behind this odd method of healing is really profound, and I don't have time to do it justice - I'll direct you to the third paragraph of this commentary for a really good and thorough explanation. But basically, this serpent was a metaphor for Christ. Jesus Himself tells us in John 3 that "Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him will not perish, but have eternal life" (vs. 14-15). The image Moses made was of a serpent, in the likeness of the thing that was destroying the people, because Jesus came to earth in the likeness of sinful man. Anybody who looked at the snake would live and not die from the bites, just as anybody who turns to Jesus receives forgiveness of sins and, rather than death, everlasting life. I think this is really awesome.