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SBL e-journal

David Ben-Gad HaCohen





Ironing Out Israel's Itinerary Through the Transjordan



APA e-journal

David Ben-Gad HaCohen





Ironing Out Israel's Itinerary Through the Transjordan






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Ironing Out Israel's Itinerary Through the Transjordan

The itinerary notes in Numbers 21 is a hodgepodge of styles and directions. Nevertheless, once we isolate each style, we find three separate itinerary lists, each from one of the standard Pentateuchal sources. 


Ironing Out Israel's Itinerary Through the Transjordan

The March of the Israelites through the wilderness. Foster Bible, Wikimedia

The Itinerary List (Numbers 33) and Itinerary Notes (Exodus and Numbers)

Israel’s itinerary during their trip through wilderness appears in two places in the Torah:

  • The Itinerary Notes[1]– brief itinerary notations appear intermittently in the books of Exodus and Numbers.[2]
  • The Itinerary List – a continuous list—almost uniformly formulated—appears in Numbers (33:3–37, 41–49).

These lists differ sharply.

Little Overlap with Itinerary List

Although in many places, the two itineraries overlap significantly, in their description of the route in the Transjordan from Kadesh to the steppes of Moab, they are quite different and have little overlap. Of the twenty two sites mentioned in the two parallel itineraries of the Israelite journey from Kadesh to the steppes of Moab, only five sites are common to both the itinerary list[3] and the itinerary notes, while seventeen sites appear only in one description, and not in the other.[4]

Three Style Variations

The itinerary notes in Num. 21 are not unified stylistically, and show three main styles (with some variation):

  1. Using journeying and encamping verbs, mentioning a starting point and encampment. This is the same formula as used uniformly in the itinerary list (Num 33).

וַיִּסְעוּ מִ_____ וַֽיַּחֲנוּ בְּ_______

They set out from X and encamped at Y
  1. A formula with journeying and encamping verbs that does not mention the starting point of the journey, but does specify the encampment site.
מִשָּׁם נָסָעוּ וַֽיַּחֲנוּ בְּ_______
From there they set out and encamped at Y
  1. A concise style, without verbs.

וּמִ______ ________
(או: וּמִשָּׁ֖ם ________)

From X, Y
(or: From there Y)

The Contrast with Assyrian Parallels

Each of the three main styles in the Pentateuch has parallels in Assyrian texts,[5] but unlike the text of the itinerary notes in Numbers 21, the Assyrian inscriptions never mix styles. Instead, each scribe chose the style he found suitable, and adhered to it throughout the inscription. Thus, Numbers 21 demands some sort of source-critical treatment.

Supplementary vs. Documentary Approach

Angela Roskop Erisman sees the itinerary notes in Num 20-21 as the earlier text,[6]explaining the mixture of styles in these notes with a supplementary approach, suggesting a core text that underwent three redactions, with each redactor using a different style.[7] She further sees the itinerary list in Num 33 as a secondary compilation based on the itinerary notes (before it was supplemented), with the addition of sites that appear in Joshua and in Deuteronomy, and finally reconstituted in one dominant style (as opposed to the hodgepodge of styles in the notes).[8]

Three Israelite Journey Routes in Transjordan

The documentary approach, however, to which I subscribe, explains the discontinuity by positing not multiple redactions of a core text but multiple sources spliced together and compiled into one text. In fact, I believe we can isolate three complete, separate itineraries here (something that speaks against the correctness of the supplementary approach to this text),[9] each of which corresponds with one of the styles of the sources as known from other texts.[10]

1. The Sihon Account Journey

The war of Sihon is described in detail and extensively in three places:

  • The narrative in Numbers (21:21–30).
  • Moses’ retelling of it in Deuteronomy (2:24b–36).
  • Jephthah the Gileadite’s use of it in the “history lesson” he gives the king of the Ammonites (Judg 11:19–22).

These descriptions differ,[11] but their basic message is the same: the Israelite camp sent a delegation to the Amorite king Sihon to ask permission to pass though his country. Sihon refuses, and gathers his army to war against Israel. The battle is waged at Yahatz; Israel prevails, and takes possession of Sihon’s land.[12]

The war with Sihon is situated within the context of a journey through the Transjordan, which is mentioned three times:

List in Deuteronomy Jephthah’s Speech (Judges) List in Numbers 20-21
• Kadesh (1:46), • Kadesh, • Kadesh (20:14, 16),
• The wilderness journey by way of the Sea of Reeds (2:1a), • The journey by way of the Sea of Reeds  
• The journey around the hill country of Seir (2:1b), • The journey in the wilderness around the land of Edom • Around the land of Edom (21:4),
• The journey from the road of the Arabah, away from Elath and Ezion-gaber (2:8a),    
• Through the wilderness of Moab (2:8b), • To the east of Moab, • The journey in the wilderness to the east of Moab (21:11),
• Wadi Zered (2:13),   • Wadi Zered (v. 12),
• Wadi Arnon (2:24), • The Arnon, • Wadi Arnon (v. 13a),
• The wilderness of Kedemoth (2:26a),    
• Yahatz (2:32). • Yahatz (Judg 11:17–20). • Yahatz (v. 23).

These three lists are likely based on a lost core list, which was expanded, contracted, and/or adjusted over time such that we now have three versions of it. One way of isolating a possible “core” list is by including journey items that are listed in at least two of the three descriptions; this yields the following:

  1. Kadesh (all 3),
  2. By way of the Sea of Reeds (Deut and Judg),
  3. Around the land of Edom/the hill country of Seir (all 3),
  4. East of Moab/the wilderness of Moab (all 3),
  5. Wadi Zered (Deut and Num 21),
  6. (Wadi) Arnon (all 3),
  7. Yahatz (all 3).

This list, most of which appears in Num 20-21 makes use of the second style (ומשם נסעו ויחנו ב____):

מִשָּׁם נָסָעוּ וַיַּחֲנוּ בְּנַחַל זָרֶד
From there they set out and encamped at the Zered stream.
מִשָּׁם נָסָעוּ וַיַּחֲנוּ מֵעֵבֶר אַרְנוֹן אֲשֶׁר בַּמִּדְבָּר הַיֹּצֵא מִגְּבֻל הָאֱמֹרִי
From there they set out and encamped beyond the Arnon, that is, in the wilderness that extends from the territory of the Amorites.

2. The Itinerary List Journey

The itinerary list in Num 33 offers the following itinerary for the journey in the Transjordan:

  1. Kadesh,
  2. Mount Hor,
  3. Zalmonah,
  4. Punon,
  5. Oboth,
  6. Iye-abarim,
  7. Dibon-gad,
  8. Almon-diblathaim,
  9. The hills of Abarim,
  10. The steppes of Moab (Num 33:37–49).

Only Kadesh is common to this route and to the “Sihon Account Journey.”

Overlap in Itinerary Notes

Four of the stations in the “Itinerary List Journey” appear in the same order also in the Itinerary Notes of Num 20–22:

  1. Kadesh (20:22),
  2. Mount Hor (20:22–27; 21:4),
  3. Oboth (21:10–11),
  4. Iye-abarim (21:11).

Thus, these four stations reflect a conception of a journey similar to that of the Itinerary List in Num 33, and make use of the long, transit verb style (ויסעו מ___ ויחנו ב___), the style used by the Assyrian annals for military campaigns:[13]

וַיִּסְעוּ מִקָּדֵשׁ וַיָּבֹאוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל כָּל הָעֵדָה הֹר הָהָר…
וַיִּסְעוּ מֵהֹר הָהָר… וַיַּחֲנוּ בְּאֹבֹת
וַיִּסְעוּ מֵאֹבֹת וַיַּחֲנוּ בְּעִיֵּי הָעֲבָרִים
Setting out from Kadesh, the Israelites arrived in a body at Mount Hor.
Setting out from Mount Hor… they encamped at Obot.
Setting out from Obot, they encamped at Iyei HaAbarim.

3. The Pisgah Journey (Num 21:16–19)

An additional route appears in Numbers 21 as a consecutive list of stations, in the concise style, that are not mentioned in Num 33:

  1. Beer,[14]
  2. Midbar,[15]
  3. Mattanah,
  4. Nahaliel,
  5. Bamoth,
  6. The valley that is in the country of Moab,
  7. The peak of Pisgah.

The final stop on this journey, “the peak of Pisgah,” appears in the next story of the Torah, where Balak suggests that Balaam can stand and see the Israelite camp in order to curse them.[16]

The mountain is also mentioned in four other places within the geographical surveys of the Transjordan.[17] The toponym used in these descriptions, אשדת הפסגה “the slopes of Pisgah”teaches that (ha)-Pisgah is a specific name, and not a generic one.

We learn from these verses that the lofty mountain named “[the] Pisgah”[18] provided a view of the northern Dead Sea and of the Israelite camp in the steppes of Moab (Num 23:14).[19]This geographical data places Pisgah northwest of Yahatz, the site of the battle against Sihon,[20] and effectively bypasses this area without being conscious that there was supposed to be a battle in the area. Accordingly, this third route belongs to a different source and tradition than that of the Sihon Account Journey.[21]

The Pisgah Journey itinerary is written in the third style (ומ ____).

(וּמִמִּדְבָּר) [וּמִבְּאֵר][22] מַתָּנָה
וּמִמַּתָּנָה נַחֲלִיאֵל
וּמִנַּחֲלִיאֵל בָּמוֹת
וּמִבָּמוֹת הַגַּיְא אֲשֶׁר בִּשְׂדֵה מוֹאָב רֹאשׁ
הַפִּסְגָּה וְנִשְׁקָפָה עַל פְּנֵי הַיְשִׁימֹן
And from the (wilderness) [well] to Mattanah,
and from Mattanah to Nahaliel,
and from Nahaliel to Bamoth,
and from Bamoth to the valley that is in the country of
Moab, at the peak of Pisgah, overlooking the wasteland.

Explaining the Variation in Style

Thus, the inconsistent style and itinerary in Numbers 21 is a consequence of the combination of different sources—each with its own internal logic and uniform style—by one redactor/compiler.[23] He joined the three routes into a single route, which is presented as one itinerary in Numbers 21, but which, as a journey description, lacks geographical logic.

The Journey Routes and their Respective Pentateuchal Documents

Once we separate out the sources, we have three logical journey routes, each of which comes from one of the three standard Pentateuchal documents found in Numbers (E, J, P), and each of which fits with the narrative framing of that document.

The Sihon Account Journey (E)

In the E text, the Israelites leave Kadesh (Petra), avoiding Edom and Moab. After crossing Wadi Arnon, they end up by Yahatz, in the land of Sihon, king of the Amorites. After refusing them passage, Sihon musters his troops, the Israelites defeat him in battle, and his land becomes the possession of the tribes of Reuben and Gad.[24]

The Itinerary List Journey (P)

All the verses that use “they set out – and they encamped”[25] in the Torah are Priestly, including the entirety of Num 33[26] and the section of Num 21 that parallels it.[27] In P, the Israelites travel from Kadesh to Mount Hor, which is where Aaron dies and is buried. As the Israelites continue on into Moabite territory, past Iye-abarim to Mount Abarim, also called Mount Nebo, which is where Moses dies according to P.[28] In P too, the itinerary in Numbers 21 is shorter than the one in Numbers 33. Stations were omitted from the original list of P.

The Pisgah Journey (J)

The Pisgah Journey itinerary, which in its current context appears unconnected to any previous event or journey,[29] actually connects to two different J accounts. Bamoth and the summit of Pisgah are locations where Balak built altars for Balaam (Num 22:41, 23:14). These verses are part of the J version of the Balaam story.[30] Additionally, according to the J account, this same summit of Pisgah, upon which Balaam stood and blessed the Israelites, is the very place Moses dies and is buried.[31]

Conclusion – Omission rather than Addition

The compiler of the Torah had a difficult task; he needed to combine three separate itineraries containing contradictory elements into one list that would look cohesive.[32] In doing so, he had to omit sections of at least two of the itineraries. Even so, the combined account remains bewildering, especially for anyone who tries to recreate a single itinerary with map in hand.

Map of the Itineraries

The Itineraries:

J – 3; probably via 7 to 12; 13; 14.

E – 3; west to 4; south towards 1 to 2; north to 5 (Num 21:5-9); east (probably via 6) to 7; 10; 11; 13; 14.

P – 3; west to 4; Moses an Aaron to Hor HaHar (3); 5; via 7? to 12; 13; 15.


July 12, 2016


Last Updated

May 12, 2020


View Footnotes

Dr. David Ben-Gad HaCohen (Dudu Cohen) has a Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible from the Hebrew University. His dissertation is titled, Kadesh in the Pentateuchal Narratives, and deals with issues of biblical criticism and historical geography. Dudu has been a licensed Israeli guide since 1972. He conducts tours in Israel as well as Jordan.