Reimagining the Israelite-Edomite Encounter
Introduction: The Two Edomite Encounters
Two passages in the Torah, one in Parashat Devarim (Deut 2:2–8) and the other in Parashat Chukkat (Num 20:14–21) relate the details of the Israelites’ experiences upon approaching Edomite territory on their way to the Promised Land. Yet they portray vastly different pictures. Common themes between the two accounts are indicated by underlining, while the most significant differences are highlighted through bolding:
וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֵלַי לֵאמֹר. ג רַב לָכֶם סֹב אֶת הָהָר הַזֶּה פְּנוּ לָכֶם צָפֹנָה. ד וְאֶת הָעָם צַו לֵאמֹר אַתֶּם עֹבְרִים בִּגְבוּל אֲחֵיכֶם בְּנֵי עֵשָׂו הַיֹּשְׁבִים בְּשֵׂעִיר וְיִירְאוּ מִכֶּם וְנִשְׁמַרְתֶּם מְאֹד. ה אַל תִּתְגָּרוּ בָם כִּי לֹא אֶתֵּן לָכֶם מֵאַרְצָם עַד מִדְרַךְ כַּף רָגֶל כִּי יְרֻשָּׁה לְעֵשָׂו נָתַתִּי אֶת הַר שֵׂעִיר. ואֹכֶל תִּשְׁבְּרוּ מֵאִתָּם בַּכֶּסֶף וַאֲכַלְתֶּם וְגַם מַיִם תִּכְרוּ מֵאִתָּם בַּכֶּסֶף וּשְׁתִיתֶם. ז כִּי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בֵּרַכְךָ בְּכֹל מַעֲשֵׂה יָדֶךָ יָדַע לֶכְתְּךָ אֶת הַמִּדְבָּר הַגָּדֹל הַזֶּה זֶה אַרְבָּעִים שָׁנָה יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ עִמָּךְ לֹא חָסַרְתָּ דָּבָר.
Then the Lord said to me: You have been skirting this hill country long enough, now turn north. And charge the people as follows: You will be passing through the territory of your kinsmen, the descendants of Esau who live in Seir. Though they will be afraid of you, be very careful not to provoke them. For I will not give you of their land so much as a foot can tread on; I have given the hill country of Seir as a possession to Esau. What food you eat you shall obtain from them for money, even the water you drink you shall procure from them for money. Indeed, the Lord your God has blessed you in all your undertakings. He has watched over your wanderings through this great wilderness; the Lord your God has been with you these past forty years, you have lacked nothing.
יד וַיִּשְׁלַח מֹשֶׁה מַלְאָכִים מִקָּדֵשׁ אֶל מֶלֶךְ אֱדוֹם כֹּה אָמַר אָחִיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל אַתָּה יָדַעְתָּ אֵת כָּל הַתְּלָאָה אֲשֶׁר מְצָאָתְנוּ. טו וַיֵּרְדוּ אֲבֹתֵינוּ מִצְרַיְמָה וַנֵּשֶׁב בְּמִצְרַיִם יָמִים רַבִּים וַיָּרֵעוּ לָנוּ מִצְרַיִם וְלַאֲבֹתֵינוּ. טז וַנִּצְעַק אֶל יְהוָה וַיִּשְׁמַע קֹלֵנוּ וַיִּשְׁלַח מַלְאָךְ וַיֹּצִאֵנוּ מִמִּצְרָיִם וְהִנֵּה אֲנַחְנוּ בְקָדֵשׁ עִיר קְצֵה גְבוּלֶךָ. יז נַעְבְּרָה נָּא בְאַרְצֶךָ לֹא נַעֲבֹר בְּשָׂדֶה וּבְכֶרֶם וְלֹא נִשְׁתֶּה מֵי בְאֵרדֶּרֶךְ הַמֶּלֶךְ נֵלֵךְ לֹא נִטֶּה יָמִין וּשְׂמֹאול עַד אֲשֶׁר נַעֲבֹר גְּבוּלֶךָ. יח וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו אֱדוֹם לֹא תַעֲבֹר בִּי פֶּן בַּחֶרֶב אֵצֵא לִקְרָאתֶךָ. יט וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלָיו בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בַּמְסִלָּה נַעֲלֶה וְאִם מֵימֶיךָ נִשְׁתֶּה אֲנִי וּמִקְנַי וְנָתַתִּי מִכְרָם רַק אֵין דָּבָר בְּרַגְלַי אֶעֱבֹרָה. כ וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא תַעֲבֹר וַיֵּצֵא אֱדוֹם לִקְרָאתוֹ בְּעַם כָּבֵד וּבְיָד חֲזָקָה. כא וַיְמָאֵן אֱדוֹם נְתֹן אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל עֲבֹר בִּגְבֻלוֹ וַיֵּט יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵעָלָיו.
From Kadesh, Moses sent messengers to the king of Edom: “Thus says your brother Israel, you know all the hardships that have befallen us; that our ancestors went down to Egypt, that we dwelt in Egypt a long time, and that the Egyptians dealt harshly with us and our ancestors. We cried to the Lord and he heard our plea, and he sent a messenger who freed us from Egypt. Now we are in Kadesh, the town on the border of your territory. Allow us then to cross your country. We will not pass through fields or vineyards, and we will not drink water from wells. We will follow the king’s highway, turning off neither to the right nor to the left until we have crossed your territory.” But Edom answered him, “You shall not pass through us, else we will go out against you with the sword.” The Israelites said to him, “We will keep to the beaten track, and if we or our cattle drink your water, we will pay for it. We ask only for passage on foot, it is but a small matter.” But they replied, “You shall not pass through!” and Edom went out against them in heavy force, strongly armed. So Edom would not let Israel cross their territory, and Israel turned away from them.
Contrasts between the Two Passages
In Deuteronomy, the Israelites’ ability to cross safely through Edomite territory, without a formal request and approval, along with their being provided for with supplies, albeit in return for payment, is simply taken for granted. The willingness of the Edomites to accede to the Israelites’ request for safe passage and food is presented as yet another example of God’s continuous and full providing for his people (v. 7). In fact, the Edomites are so frightened that God must command the Israelites not to take advantage of them.
This stands in stark contrast to the scene in Numbers 20, which presents a dialogue between the two entities concerning safe-passage, in which Moses’ brotherly overtures are staunchly rebuffed. They are even unwilling to allow Israel to traverse in exchange for payment or a promise not to use any resources at all. The Edomites are not only unafraid of Israel, they send out the army to implement their refusal. This refusal forces the Israelites to turn back south towards Mount Hor (vv. 22–23) and the Gulf of Aqaba (in Hebrew ים סוף), skirting the land of Edom (Numbers 21:4) as they head north along their western border.
וַיִּסְעוּ מֵהֹר הָהָר דֶּרֶךְ יַם סוּף לִסְבֹב אֶת אֶרֶץ אֱדוֹם
They set out from Mount Hor by way of the Sea of Reeds to skirt the land of Edom.
In other words, instead of continuing triumphantly northward as in Deuteronomy 2, Numbers envisions the people retreating southward in order to begin a long, counterclockwise movement around Edomite territory.
The March through Moab
The successful march through Edom in Deuteronomy is followed by the similarly simple march into Moabite territory, where they also encountered no resistance.
וַנַּעֲבֹר מֵאֵת אַחֵינוּ בְנֵי עֵשָׂו הַיֹּשְׁבִים בְּשֵׂעִיר מִדֶּרֶךְ הָעֲרָבָה מֵאֵילַת וּמֵעֶצְיֹן גָּבֶר וַנֵּפֶן וַנַּעֲבֹר דֶּרֶךְ מִדְבַּר מוֹאָב
We then moved on, away from our kinsmen, the descendants of Esau who live in Seir, away from the road of the Arabah, away from Elath and Etzion-geber, and we marched on in the direction of the wilderness of Moab.
In Numbers 21, however, the Israelites’ continue their route after their encirclement of Edomite territory and the wilderness to the east of Moab leads them soon enough to the wadi Zered and right up to the gate of Amorite controlled territory (vv. 4, 10–13). Thus, they do not cross Moab, and it is clear from the story of the Moabite King Balak—he tries to have them destroyed by a curse lest they come and eat up his land (Num 22:2-6)—that the king would not have allowed them to if they had asked.
The Temporal Framework of the Two Passages
Each of these passages is set in the final year of the Israelites’ wanderings. In Deut 2, this is made explicit by the references to the forty-year period during which God had provided for all of the people’s needs (v. 7). It is implicit in Num 20, in which the episode appears in direct proximity to Aaron’s death at Mount Hor (Num 20:22–29), which is said in Num 33:37–38 to have occurred in the fortieth year.
How can two texts, ostensibly relating to the same event at the same time offer such contradictory accounts?
Early Harmonistic Exegesis: The Samaritan Pentateuch
The Samaritan Pentateuch is well-known for its harmonistic tendencies, which may be seen here as well: It splices a modified and abridged version of Num 20:14–21 between Deut 2, verses 7 and 8, suggesting that the Edomites did not accede to the suggestion for safe-passage in Numbers 20. The text of the Samaritan Pentateuch contains the following elements:
1. God tells Israel to cross Edom (Deut 2:1–7)
2. Moses requests permission and is refused (adaptation of Num 21:17-18)
ואשלחה מלאכים אל מלך אדום לאמר אעברה בארצך לא אטה בשדה ובכרם ולא נשתה מי בור דרך המלך נלך לא נסור ימין ושמאל עד אשר נעבר גבלך. ויאמר לא תעבר בי פן בחרב אצא לקראתך.
I sent messengers to the king of Edom: “Allow us to cross your country. We will not pass through fields or vineyards, and we will not drink water from wells. We will follow the king’s highway, turning off neither to the right nor to the left until we have crossed your territory.” But [Edom] answered, “You shall not pass through us, else we will go out against you with the sword.”
3. Crossing of Moab (Deut 2:8)
The harmonistic nature of this reconstruction is evident from several factors:
- Numerical Inconsistency: The Samaritan contains an awkward combination of first person singular (ואשלחה, אעברה, אטה) and first person plural (נשתה, נלך, נסור, נעבר). Thse are best explained by the harmonizer’s ambivalence, based on his sources, about whether the speaker is Moses (as in Deuteronomy) or the people as a whole (as in Numbers).
- Omitting Kadesh: In the MT (Num 20:14), Moses sends the messengers to Edom from their base in Kadesh. The Samaritan Pentateuch must omit Kadesh, however, since the harmonizer realized that according to the sequence of Deut 1:46 and 2:1–3, the Israelites had long since departed from Kadesh at the time that they were preparing to march through Edomite territory.
- “Passing Through” to “Circumventing”: The Samaritan Pentateuch’s harmonization fundamentally alters the meaning of the verb ונעבר at the beginning of Deut 2:8 from “we finished passing through Edom” to “we moved away from Edom” (due to the Edomite king’s threat of violence). However, this latter understanding is completely at odds with the overall meaning of the Deuteronomy passage.
Medieval Harmonistic Approaches
The tension between these two accounts of the Edomite-Israelite encounter in Deuteronomy 2 and Numbers 20 was the subject of discussion among the classical Jewish commentators, with Rashi, Rashbam and ibn Ezra offering different harmonistic solutions (see appendix for a fuller discussion):
- Rashi (1040-1105) suggests that the Edomites offered food and water but not access to their roads;
- Rashbam (1085-1158) suggests that a subset of Edomites, “the children of Esau,” wanted to let them through, but the rest of the Edomites refused;
- Ibn Ezra (1089-1167) suggests that the king refused Israel passage on the main road, but that people let them travel through the hinterland.
All of these suggestions have the same basic problems: Numbers offers no hint of any accommodation (like food and water) or even a friendly message from the disgruntled children of Esau saying they wished they could have helped. Similarly, Deuteronomy says nothing about any refusal at all, but simply says that the Israelites stopped skirting Edom and started crossing it, with no opposition on the part of any of the Edomites.
A Historical-Critical Solution: The Original Setting of Num 20:14–21
My earlier observation that the literary placement of the Edomite-Israelite encounter in Numbers 20 suggests a setting in the fortieth year of the wilderness wanderings is only true of the Torah in its current, final form, resulting from the Priestly redaction of the Torah, which connects the Edomite encounter with Aaron’s death at Mount Hor, dated to the fortieth year (Num 20:22–29 with Num 33:36–39). This is the only reason to assume that Numbers 20 refers to events belonging to the fortieth year.
An Early Visit at Kadesh
Quite to the contrary, Kadesh is also associated with a much earlier stage of the wanderings, specifically as the place from which the spies were sent out (Num 13:26; 32:8), and after which the Israelites were ordered to take a south-easterly route toward the Gulf of Aqaba, far away from Kadesh (Num 14:25). These events took place in the first, not the fortieth year, after the exodus.
Deuteronomy’s Awareness of Numbers
Deuteronomy 1–2 is generally aware of earlier traditions now embedded in the non-Priestly sections of the Torah—what documentary scholars call J and E (or JE). The author of Deuteronomy 1–2 was thus aware of the tradition of the Edomites having refused the Israelites’ appeal for safe transit as recorded in Numbers.
This is substantiated by the significant similarities between the two stories highlighted in the underlined material at the beginning of this essay, which notes that both books refer to the Edomites as Israel’s “brother” (Deut 2:4, 8 Num 20:14), both discuss monetary terms governing the expected supply of water ( Deut 2:6 Num 20:19), and both use the term עבר בגבול (“crossing border”; Deut 2:4 Num 20:19). Thus, here as well, Deuteronomy knows and revises the non-Priestly tradition in Numbers.
But what lies behind this radical transformation?
The Three Stages of the Israelites’ Wilderness Travels According to Deuteronomy 1–2
Deuteronomy 2 envisions three distinct post-Horeb wilderness periods:
Period 1 – the stay at Kadesh in year 2, marked by rebelliousness against God
Period 2 – the extended skirting of Seir from years 2–40, marked by the punishment of the sinners and the refinement of the next generation (for which see Deut 8:2–4, 14–16; 29:4–5)
Period 3 – the unhindered march north through Transjordan in year 40, marked by God’s complete reconciliation with the people.
Deuteronomy comes up with this periodization scheme based on its reading of earlier sources through the lens of its own theology.
1. The Israelite sojourn at Kadesh: As in Num 13:26, Kadesh is explicitly named in Deuteronomy as the place from where the spies were dispatched following the people’s arrival there from Horeb, i.e. Mount Sinai (Deut 1:19–23; see also 9:23). Following the debacle of the spies’ report and the abortive attempt to enter southern Canaan by force, the people remained in Kadesh for an unspecified amount of time, as noted in Deut 1:46:
וַתֵּשְׁבוּ בְקָדֵשׁ יָמִים רַבִּים כַּיָּמִים אֲשֶׁר יְשַׁבְתֶּם.
You remained in Kadesh for many days, like the days that you remained.
2. The extended circumvention of Edom from the west: As in Num 14:25, Deut 1:40 has God ordering the sinful people to retreat back into the wilderness in the direction of the Gulf of Aqaba
וְאַתֶּם פְּנוּ לָכֶם וּסְעוּ הַמִּדְבָּרָה דֶּרֶךְ יַם סוּף.
As for you, turn about and march into the wilderness by the way of the Sea of Reeds.
Deut 2:1 reports the carrying out of this order, but also adds on a notice that in so doing, the people engaged in an extended circumvention of Edomite territory:
וַנֵּפֶן וַנִּסַּע הַמִּדְבָּרָה דֶּרֶךְ יַם סוּף כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר יְהוָה אֵלָי וַנָּסָב אֶת הַר שֵׂעִיר יָמִים רַבִּים.
We marched back into the wilderness by the way of the Sea of Reeds, as the Lord had spoken to me, and skirted the hill country of Seir a long time.
3. The unhindered march north through Edomite (and Moabite) territory: Deut 2:2–3 introduces the story of the Edomite-Israelite encounter by having God declaring that the period of forty-year wandering has come to an end:
וַיֹּאמֶר יְ-הוָה אֵלַי לֵאמֹר. רַב לָכֶם סֹב אֶת הָהָר הַזֶּה פְּנוּ לָכֶם צָפֹנָה. וְאֶת הָעָם צַו לֵאמֹר אַתֶּם עֹבְרִים בִּגְבוּל אֲחֵיכֶם בְּנֵי עֵשָׂו הַיֹּשְׁבִים בְּשֵׂעִיר…
Then the Lord said to me: You have been skirting this hill country long enough, now turn north. And charge the people as follows: You will be passing through the territory of your kinsmen, the descendants of Esau who live in Seir …
The above scheme makes clear that for Deuteronomy, the stay at Kadesh (period 1) takes place before the bulk of the Israelites’ wanderings (i.e., period 2).
This understanding is confirmed by Deut 2:14:
וְהַיָּמִים אֲשֶׁר הָלַכְנוּ מִקָּדֵשׁ בַּרְנֵעַ עַד אֲשֶׁר עָבַרְנוּ אֶת נַחַל זֶרֶד שְׁלֹשִׁים וּשְׁמֹנֶה שָׁנָה עַד תֹּם כָּל הַדּוֹר אַנְשֵׁי הַמִּלְחָמָה מִקֶּרֶב הַמַּחֲנֶה כַּאֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע יְהוָה לָהֶם.
The time we spent in travel from Kadesh-barnea until we crossed the wadi Zered was thirty-eight years, until that whole generation of warriors had perished from the camp, as the Lord had sworn concerning them.
This latter verse aids us in clearly defining not only the length of the various stages of the Israelites’ forty-year sojourn, but also their significance.
Indeed, period 3 commences by echoing the very words that God used at the beginning of period 1, as a comparison of Deut 1:6–7 and 2:2 brings out:
Period 3 (Deut 2:3)
רַב לָכֶם סֹב אֶת הָהָר הַזֶּה, פְּנוּ לָכֶם צָפֹנָה
You have been skirting this hill country long enough; now turn north.
Period 1 (Deut 1:6-7)
רַב לָכֶם שֶׁבֶת בָּהָר הַזֶּה, פְּנוּ וּסְעוּ לָכֶם וּבֹאוּ הַר הָאֱמֹרִי...
You have stayed long enough at this mountain. Start out and make your way to the hill country of the Amorites…
In other words, by the fortieth year, we have come full circle. The punishment of the sinful generation has been completed and the new generation is ready to pick up from where their fathers left off.
Refashioning the Edomite-Israelite Encounter: From a Mission Doomed to Failure to One Guaranteed of Success
The author of Deuteronomy 1–2 inherited the earlier tradition relating to the Edomite-Israelite encounter before it was incorporated by the Priestly writers into the context of the fortieth year of wanderings. The mention of Kadesh as the place from which Moses sent the delegation to the king of Edom (Num 20:14) would have led the author of Deuteronomy 1–2 to conclude that the episode belonged at the transition point between what is related in Deut 1:46 (the stay in Kadesh, period 1) and what is related in Deut 2:1 (the wandering around the border of Edom, period 2). In that sense, so the author of Deuteronomy 1–2 reasoned, Moses’s appeal to the Edomite king was doomed to failure, since God himself had decreed that the Israelites were to spend the next thirty-eight years wandering off their original course.
Thus, Deuteronomy 2’s own upbeat presentation of the Edomite-Israelite encounter in an unmistakably fortieth year context serves as a kind of tikkun (corrective) of the negative experience of Num 20:14–21. The author of Deuteronomy assumes that Moses did make the failed request in the second year, but he chooses to skip over this event—to bury it as it were—and continue with the second request with its positive outcome.
Only once the 40th year had arrived could Moses redo what had gone awry long before, albeit from a different location, and this time receive permission from the Edomites to cross their territory. Thus, after thirty-eight years of punishment, skirting the border of Edom, the people were finally able and deserving to resume the direct march toward the Promised Land unimpeded.
Harmonistic Exegesis among the Medieval Commentators
As noted above, a number of medieval commentators offered harmonistic readings of the two versions of the Edomite-Israelite encounter.
Bad Edomites vs. Good Sons of Esau: Rashbam
Rashbam, in his commentary to Deut 2:4, takes his lead from a particular stylistic difference between Numbers 20 and Deuteronomy 2, which in his opinion is key. Numbers 20 refers to the adversary as “Edom,” whereas in Deut 2 the people whose cooperation the Israelites are expected to attain are called “the children of Esau who dwell in Seir.” Rashbam infers that there were two groups of Edomites: the dominant group who refused to cooperate with the Israelites (as per Numbers 20), and the marginal group known as “the children of Esau who dwell in Seir” who did in fact accommodate the Israelites (as per Deuteronomy 2).
However, this approach is unacceptable since the distinction between “Edom” and “the sons of Esau” is at most stylistic. Genesis 36:8 makes quite clear that the two terms are synonymous:
ח וַיֵּשֶׁב עֵשָׂו בְּהַר שֵׂעִיר עֵשָׂו הוּא אֱדוֹם.
So Esau settled in the hill country of Seir, Esau being Edom.
Ibn Ezra: The Edomite King vs. the People
A variation of this approach is found in Ibn-Ezra’s commentary to Deut 2:29. In explaining Moses’ message to Sihon, in which Moses recalls precedents for other nations aiding the Israelites, Ibn-Ezra clarifies that Moses is specifically referring to the safe-passage off the beaten track that the “sons of Esau” granted the Israelites. Ibn Ezra understands the passage in Numbers 20 to mean that the Edomite king, in opposition to the will of a group of his subjects, who lived at the eastern edges of the kingdom, refused to allow the Israelites to traverse the heart of his territory.
This interpretation is problematic for two reasons. First, how can Moses claim without qualification that the Edomites/Sons of Esau allowed them through when the king refused them entry? Second, Deuteronomy 2 does not envision the Israelites taking a circuitous route. To the contrary, the rhetorical power of Deuteronomy 2 lies precisely in the impression given that the Israelites were able to take a straight path through potentially hostile territory.
Extra-Territorial Sale of Food and Water But No Safe Passage: Rashi
Rashi also takes his lead from Deut 2:29, in which Moses reminds Sihon of earlier precedents for other nations cooperating with the Israelites. Instead of interpreting the nature of the precedent as referring to safe passage, albeit in outlying areas, however, Rashi on Deut 2:29 understands the precedent as referring specifically to the supply of food and water for payment. He further assumes that the said transaction took place outside of Edomite territory altogether.
If Deut 2:29 is thus interpreted, one can reconstruct the same picture for both Numbers 20 and Deuteronomy 2, namely that the Edomites refused to allow the Israelites passage through their territory at all, even along the edges, though they didn’t mind selling food and water to the Israelites stationed outside of Edomite territory.
This, however, is a forced reading of both passages. Nothing in Numbers 20 suggests that the Edomites were willing to accommodate the Israelites in any way. And the whole point of Moses’s appeal to Sihon in Deuteronomy 2 was precisely to gain safe passage through Amorite territory (along with supply of provisions). And, as noted above, Deuteronomy 2 gives no indication of the Israelites having to take a circuitous route in order to avoid Edomite territory.
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Dr. David Glatt-Gilad is a senior lecturer in the Department of Bible, Archaeology, and the Ancient Near East at Ben-Gurion University. He holds a Ph.D. in Bible from the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Chronological Displacement in Biblical and Related Literatures.
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