Inventing the Mythic Amorite Kingdom of Sihon
Parashat Mattot confronts the separate territorial dream of two and a half tribes who request to live east of the Jordan River. Moses receives the request as a scandalous assault on God’s promise of return to an ancestral homeland and comes close to accusing the tribes of apostasy. Why is their request so problematic? From the point of view of source criticism, the “map” proposed by the two and a half tribes conflicts with the Priestly notion of a land bounded by the Jordan River. Are the tribes asking to live in a diaspora, however proximate? Or do they ask to be exempt from the law? Would not either request destabilize the collective of Israel?
Biblical scholars have long noticed the disputed status of Transjordan, both part of Israel and excluded from it. Its status is disputed, I suggest, because the tribes were a longstanding presence in the Transjordan who eventually joined a national Israelite alliance. As they joined the alliance, they accepted traditions such as the exodus from Egypt and brought along their own long-standing territorial traditions. The editors of various biblical books remain unsure about them – how Israelite are they really?
Inventing the Story of the Transjordanian Amorite Conquest
The balance between the Israelite and the alien characteristics of the land east of the Jordan is under constant negotiation in biblical texts. On one hand, Ammon and Moab are described as relatives (Gen 19:36-38). On the other, they are lampooned as children of incest. Suspicion that Reuben and Gad’s territory is integrated into that of Moab and Ammon directly challenges the claim that Israel is distinct from its neighboring nations and separated from them by the Jordan River. If these tribes are possible foreigners, then what does this mean for the ethnic premise of the nation itself?
For this reason, the proximity is managed through the story that Israel conquered its Transjordanian holdings from Amorite foes (Num, 21:21-35), not from their immediate neighbors, Moab, Ammon, and Edom.
The proscription of Moabite, Ammonite, and Edomite land on the principle that God granted circumscribed territory to these relatives of Israel just as He did for His beloved nation reinforces the claim. These alleged Transjordanian Amorite opponents, I suggest, are a fiction intended to break the contiguity of Reuben and Gad with Ammon and Moab and perhaps to obscure the indigenous origins of the east bank tribes.
Sihon and Og, the two larger-than-life Amorite kings, create a legendary space between Israel and Moab, on one hand, and Israel and Aram, on the other hand. The Transjordanian Amorite tradition largely attempts to distance Israel from Moab and to draw clear lines in a region or at a time when such imagined lines did not operate.
Arnon: Border of Amorites or Ammon?
The book of Numbers also inserts Amorites into the contentious space shared by Reuben, Gad, Ammon, and Moab. Under the leadership of Moses, Israel enters Moab, and here the text begins to dissemble with the insistence that Israel reaches only the edge, not the heart, of Moab. Israel first camps “just east of Moab in the wilderness” (Num 21:11) and then crosses the Arnon River to camp “in the wilderness alongside the Amorite border” (21:13). The insertion of Amorites into Moabite space becomes conspicuous as the text elaborates on the “Amorite border”: “the Arnon, you see, is the border of Moab, the border between Moab and the Amorites” (21:13).
The story continues with Israel requesting passage from Sihon king of the Amorites. When Sihon in turn attacks Israel, he forfeits the chance that Israel might turn from him and continue their journey. Israel emerges victorious from the battle and wins the territory between the Arnon and the Jabbok rivers, the Jabbok here cited as the border with Ammon (21:24).
Yes, the Moabites owned the Land —but it was a Long time ago!
Israel comes to possess land between Ammon and Moab without raising arms against either one. By protesting too much, the explanation of how this came to be the case betrays signs of a cover-up.
Now Hesbon was the city of Sihon king of the Amorites, who had fought against the first king of Moab and taken all of his land up to the Arnon(Num 21:26).
The narrator seems to address incredulity on the part of the audience that the lands in question were seized from Sihon by admitting to a Moabite presence, albeit in a remote era. Even a cautionary tone that it is in the audience’s best interest to accept this explanation is audible: “Yes, the Moabites once were there,” the narrator seems to say, “but it is best to celebrate how Israel took the land from Sihon king of the Amorites.”
The Mythic Sihon in Deuteronomy
Sihon king of the Amorites and his counterpart Og king of Bashan assume mythic proportions in Deuteronomy’s narration of settling the Transjordan. Deuteronomy describes a “fraternal process of distribution” in which “the God of Israel is described as distributor of land to Edom in 2:5, Moab 2:9 and Ammon 2:19.” And although there is a slip of admission that Israel crossed over the border right into Moab (Deut 2:18), the only land seized allegedly belongs to Sihon and Og (Deut 2:31).
A prehistory in which giants roamed Transjordan (Deut 2:10-11, 20-21) further heightens the stakes of Israel’s defeat of Og, last of the giants. As part of its passage into national adulthood, Israel slays a giant—a task memorialized through the monument of Og’s enormous bed frame in Rabbat Ammon (Deut 3:11). The narrator in Deuteronomy substitutes an oedipal struggle for the theme of contest between brothers. This substitution grants Israel hereditary rights to land already promised to Moab and Ammon. Although adding another historical claimant to contested land seems only to complicate matters, it is a move common in ethno-territorial struggles as a way to discredit and distance the immediate opponents.
Transjordanian Tribes and their Complex Relationships
Gad, Reuben, Edom, Moab, Ammon, Gilead and Manasseh are best thought of as regional players in a borderland who alternately battle and blend with one another. The overlap among these peoples is readable in terms of coexistent claims and the synonymous substitution of the terms as ethnic markers. The Amorites are part of a frontier legend about Israel bringing down giants in the wild east and the size of Og’s bed and its carnivalesque display in Rabbat Ammon are key indicators, quite literally, of a tall tale.
Since claims to the frontier often rest on defeating “bad guys,” the Amorite tales provide the ideal enemy and play a central role in supporting Israelite claims to Transjordan. Although the descriptions of territory belonging to Reuben, Gad, and half Manasseh never blatantly admit to the overlap with Moab and Ammon, the book of Joshua does mention that “the people of Israel did not drive away the Geshurites and the Maacahites, so Geshur and Maacah dwell among Israel until today” (13:13). This tradition explicitly describes Transjordan as a place of proximity and coexistence between Israelite tribes and other groups. Rather than faulting the Transjordanian tribes, the entire people of Israel bear responsibility for this oversight.
Because the tribes east of the Jordan have identities sometimes at odds with the nation, they often stand accused of transgression. Moses accuses them of emulating the rebellious behavior of the spies and a suspicious tone underlies Joshua’s exhortation to remember the agreement with Moses.
Centralized (National) History versus Localized (Tribal) Histories
The biblical scholar Norman Gottwald, who did much to introduce sociological perspectives (including Marxist ones) into biblical studies perceives,
[S]erious friction between centralizing processes in Israel which tended to override and obscure diverse sub-histories, on the one hand, and local decentralized processes which struggled to keep distinctive sub-histories alive, on the other hand.
From his point of view, preserved traditions of tribal conquest mark a reaction against “the centralization of politics in a government apparatus, and the resulting stimulus to unify the national traditions.” The tribes then protect their interests by asserting their history, which is managed by scribes working toward centralization or for a centralizing state. The friction emerges from a melding of local tradition and state discipline. In this way, traditions about the two and a half tribes present a challenging variation on the theme of homeland.
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July 16, 2015
October 6, 2020
Dr. Rachel Havrelock is Associate Professor of Jewish Studies and English at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Rachel’s book, River Jordan: The Mythology of a Dividing Line combines biblical studies, literary and political theory, and the politics of interpretation. Rachel’s current book project, The Joshua Generation: Politics and the Promised Land, focuses on the structure and meaning of the book of Joshua and its interpretation. Her co-authored book, Women on the Biblical Road, was the beginning of her work on gender and the Bible.
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