Ironing Out Israel’s Itinerary Through the Transjordan
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– brief itinerary notations appear intermittently in the books of Exodus and Numbers.
- 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 and the itinerary notes, while seventeen sites appear only in one description, and not in the other.
Three Style Variations
The itinerary notes in Numbers 21 are not unified stylistically, and show three main styles (with some variation):
- Two-Toponym Long Form
וַיִּסְעוּ מִ_____ וַֽיַּחֲנוּ בְּ_______
They set out from X and encamped at Y
This style uses mentions both a starting point and an encampment point, and utilizes both journeying and encamping verbs. This is the same formula as used uniformly in the itinerary list of Numbers 33.
- One-Toponym Long Form
From there they set out and encamped at Y
This style mentions only one toponym by name, that of the encampment site, using the locution “from there” in place of naming the starting point. Like the previous formula, this style uses both journeying and encamping verbs.
- Short Form
(או: וּמִשָּׁ֖ם ________)
From X, Y
(or: From there Y)
This style uses a concise formulation with no verbs. Notably, this style sometimes references the starting point by name and sometimes just with the locution “from there.”
How are we to understand the appearance of three distinct styles in this passage? As noted by Amitai Baruchi-Unna of Hebrew University, each of these styles has parallels in Assyrian texts. Nevertheless, Assyrian inscriptions never mix styles. Instead, each scribe chose the style he found suitable, and adhered to it throughout the inscription. The appearance of three different styles in Numbers 21, therefore, implies the involvement of more than one hand in its composition.
Supplementary vs. Documentary Approach
One approach, favored by the Bible scholar, Angela Roskop Erisman, is to argue that a core text has been supplemented, and that the mixture of styles in these notes is a result of two later redactions by different scribes, each of which utilized a different style. The itinerary list of Numbers 33, in her view, is a secondary compilation, based on the notes in Numbers 20-21 before they were supplemented, with the addition of sites that appear in Joshua and in Deuteronomy, and purposely reconstituted in one dominant style (as opposed to the hodgepodge of styles in the notes).
Another approach, which I find more persuasive, is to explain the discontinuity as a result not of multiple redactions of a core text but of multiple sources spliced together and compiled into one text. In fact, I believe we can isolate three complete, separate itineraries here, each of which can be connected to one of the core sources in the Documentary Hypothesis: E, J, and P.
1. The Sihon Account Journey
The war of Sihon is described in extensive detail 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, 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.
The war with Sihon is situated within the context of a journey through the Transjordan, which is mentioned three times:
List in Deuteronomy
List in Judges (Jephthah’s Speech)
List in Numbers 21
1. Kadesh (Deut 1:46),
2. The wilderness journey by way of the Sea of Reeds (Deut 2:1a),
3. The journey around the hill country of Seir (Deut 2:1b),
4. The journey from the road of the Arabah, away from Elath and Ezion-gaber (Deut 2:8a),
5. Through the wilderness of Moab (Deut 2:8b),
6. Wadi Zered (v. 13),
7. Wadi Arnon (v. 24aα),
8. The wilderness of Kedemoth (v. 26a),
9. Yahatz (v. 32).
2. The journey in the wilderness around the land of Edom
3. To the east of Moab,
4. The Arnon,
5. Yahatz (Judg 11:17–20).
1. Kadesh (Num 20:14, 16),
2. The journey by way of the Sea of Reeds around the land of Edom (21:4aβ),
3. The journey in the wilderness to the east of Moab (21:11bβ),
4. Wadi Zered (v. 12),
5. Wadi Arnon (v. 13a),
6. Yahatz (v. 23).
These three lists are likely based on a core list, which was expanded, contracted, and/or adjusted over time such that we now have three versions of it. As it appears in Numbers 20-21, this list makes use of the One-Toponym Long-Form style:
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.
E and Israel's Conquest of Sihon's Territory
This itinerary is that of the E text, according to which the Israelites leave Kadesh, avoiding Edom and Moab. After crossing Wadi Arnon, they head west, avoiding Ammon, and ending up in the territory of Sihon, king of the Amorites. After refusing them passage, Sihon musters his troops, the Israelites defeat him in battle near Yahatz, and his land becomes the possession of the tribes of Reuben and Gad.
2. The Itinerary List Journey
The itinerary list in Num 33 offers the following itinerary for the journey in the Transjordan:
- Mount Hor,
- The hills of Abarim,
- 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:
- Kadesh (20:22),
- Mount Hor (20:22–27; 21:4),
- Oboth (21:10–11),
- Iye-abarim (21:11).
Thus, these four stations reflect a conception of a journey similar to that of the Itinerary List in Numbers 33, and make use of the Two-Toponym Long Form, the style used by the Assyrian annals for military campaigns:
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.
P's Itinerary List
All the verses in the Torah that use the Two-Toponym Long Form are Priestly, including the entirety of Num 33 and the section of Num 21 that parallels it. In P, the Israelites travel from Kadesh to Mount Hor, which is where Aaron dies and is buried. As the Israelites continue, they travel through Moabite territory, past Iye-abarim and north all the way to Mount Abarim, glossed as Mount Nebo, which is where Moses dies. The version in Numbers 21 is shorter than the one in Numbers 33, omitting many of the stations from the full list.
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:
- The valley that is in the country of Moab,
- 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.
The mountain is also mentioned in four other places within the geographical surveys of the Transjordan. 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” provided a view of the northern Dead Sea and of the Israelite camp in the steppes of Moab (Num 23:14). This geographical data places Pisgah northwest of Yahatz, the site of the battle against Sihon, and effectively bypasses this area without being conscious that there was supposed to be a battle there. Accordingly, this third route belongs to a different source and tradition than that of the Sihon Account Journey.
The Pisgah Journey itinerary is written in the Short-Form style:
(וּמִמִּדְבָּר) [וּמִבְּאֵר] מַתָּנָה
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.
J's Pisgah Journey
The Pisgah Journey itinerary, which in its current context appears unconnected to any previous event or journey, 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. 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.
Explaining the Variation in Style
In short, 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. 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.
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. Nevertheless, Numbers 21 does not present the full itinerary of any of the sources, only select pieces of each.
While P's full itinerary can be found in Numbers 33, reconstructing the full itinerary of J and E is more difficult. Much of this can be done from snippets of J and E that have been preserved in other parts of the Bible (specifically Deuteronomy and Judges), but another helpful clue comes from our knowledge of the ancient road system.
Three Itineraries: Three Roads
For the modern reader, unfamiliar with the geography of the Transjordan or its political and demographic reality in the Iron Age, looking at lists of names on an itinerary and attempting to imagine a route may feel random, like an exercise in drawing lines between dots. Nevertheless, the routes in each of these sources are more than just a list of stops for a meandering group of wanderers, but clarify for the reader what road the Israelites are taking.
In modern times, more than one highway traverses Jordan on a south-north axis, and the same was true in ancient times. In fact, the main highways in these periods bear some relationship to each other.
King’s Highway (P)— A little east of Jordan’s Highway 35 on Jordan’s western side ran the ancient King’s Highway mentioned in the Bible. This road, from Wadi al-Hasa northward, is the road the Israelites take according to P. This same road was also used in Roman times, and long tracks of it are still visible. I have walked the Roman road from Lajun north.
As Roman roads were generally wider than biblical roads, wherever the Romans travelled along the same highway as their predecessors, we have little access to the original. Even so, here and there Roman highways diverge, and we can see the more ancient route.
For the King’s Highway, a 15 km section from the Arnon near the Aroer crossing stretching south to Khirbet el-Balua, is still visible and walkable. As Khirbet el-Balua was an important Moabite city in biblical times, the road took a detour to that city. During the Roman period, however, the site was uninhabited, and so the Roman road skips this detour and heads straight north towards Dibon.
Wilderness Highway (E)—Further east lies Jordan’s Route 15, known as the Desert Highway. No biblical route is that far east; in ancient times it would have been difficult to obtain water and food along this route, as it is literally in a desert—hence the name—and people didn’t live there. Not too far west of this route lies the biblical Wilderness Highway, which is the route the Israelites take according to E. This route crosses the Wadi as-Saida (the Arnon River’s eastern tributary) slightly east of Khirbet al-Mudayna as-Saliyah.
Here too, most of the biblical highway is covered by a Roman highway, which was eventually secured in the Byzantine period with a row of fortresses still visible today. In 1998, I discovered remains of this road, which can be walked for 15 km, south and north of the eastern part of the Arnon. In 2000, Chaim Ben David led a group of scholars (myself among them) to explore this road, and we found a small area, under the Serpentines north of the Arnon, where the Roman road diverges slightly, and the biblical road can be identified.
Moabite Central Road (J)—Although not an international highway, the region of Moab itself, north of Wadi el-Hasa and south of the Arnon River, had a third road traversing its territory on the north-south axis. The road runs east of Wadi an-Nukhayla, the border between Moab proper and the less settled area of eastern Moab known as Ar in E or Hatzerot in J.
The road traverses the Arnon River at Aroer and continues north to Di-Zahab, where it merges with the King's Highway. From Di-zahab north, J follows the same road as P, even if each source chose to mark the road with different toponyms.
Omission rather than Addition
From the preserved text in Numbers 21, it would almost impossible to reconstruct these routes, and even with the remaining snippets in other biblical books, the task is daunting. Nevertheless, knowledge of the biblical period roads gives us the necessary background with which to construct a meaningful itinerary from the jumbled text we have now.
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. In doing so, he had to omit sections of each. Despite his efforts, the combined account remains bewildering, especially for anyone who tries to recreate a single itinerary with map in hand.
Map of the Itineraries
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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.
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