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David Ben-Gad HaCohen





Solving the Problem of “Kadesh in the Wilderness of Paran”





APA e-journal

David Ben-Gad HaCohen





Solving the Problem of “Kadesh in the Wilderness of Paran”








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Solving the Problem of “Kadesh in the Wilderness of Paran”

Kadesh-barnea is in the Wilderness of Paran, and Kadesh is in the Wilderness of Zin; how are we to explain the Scouts’ return to “Kadesh in the Wilderness of Paran?”


Solving the Problem of “Kadesh in the Wilderness of Paran”

Parashat Shlach Lecha opens with the story of the scouts that Moses sends to the land of Canaan.[1] The story is referred to later in Moses’ speech to the Transjordanian tribes (Num 32) and is retold in both Moses’ (Deut 1) and Caleb’s (Josh 14) speeches recollecting the event.[2]

Two Names for the Israelite Camp in the Scout Story

Two different names for the place from which the scouts set out appear: Wilderness of Paran and Kadesh-barnea:

Num 13:3

וַיִּשְׁלַ֨ח אֹתָ֥ם מֹשֶׁ֛ה מִמִּדְבַּ֥ר פָּארָ֖ן
So Moses sent them out from the wilderness of Paran

Num 32:8

כֹּ֥ה עָשׂ֖וּ אֲבֹתֵיכֶ֑ם בְּשָׁלְחִ֥י אֹתָ֛ם מִקָּדֵ֥שׁ בַּרְנֵ֖עַ לִרְא֥וֹת אֶת־הָאָֽרֶץ:
That is what your fathers did when I sent them from Kadesh-barnea to survey the land.

Deut 1:19

וַנָּבֹ֕א עַ֖ד קָדֵ֥שׁ בַּרְנֵֽעַ:
And we reached Kadesh-barnea.

Josh 14:7

בֶּן אַרְבָּעִ֨ים שָׁנָ֜ה אָנֹכִ֗י בִּ֠שְׁלֹחַ מֹשֶׁ֨ה עֶֽבֶד יְ־הֹוָ֥ה אֹתִ֛י מִקָּדֵ֥שׁ בַּרְנֵ֖עַ לְרַגֵּ֣ל אֶת־הָאָ֑רֶץ
I was forty years old when Moses the servant of YHWH sent me from Kadesh-barnea to spy out the land

Given that the scout story is comprised of at least two sources,[3] it is tempting to explain the difference in toponyms (place names) as deriving from different sources. Such an explanation, however, does not work in this case. Numbers 13:3 32:8 are both P texts; the verses in Deuteronomy and Joshua likely retell the J text.[4]

The two names are not necessarily contradictory; both the Paran Wilderness and Kadesh-barnea should be located in the north-east area of the Sinai Peninsula, just west of the Negev. The Paran Wilderness is a wide area; some think it covers the entire Sinai Peninsula or at least its entire eastern part.

Kadesh in Paran: A Problematic Toponym

Numbers 13:26, in which the Torah names the place to which the scouts return, presents us with a real problem.[5]

וַיֵּלְכ֡וּ וַיָּבֹאוּ֩ אֶל מֹשֶׁ֨ה וְאֶֽל אַהֲרֹ֜ן וְאֶל כָּל עֲדַ֧ת בְּנֵֽי יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל אֶל מִדְבַּ֥ר פָּארָ֖ן קָדֵ֑שָׁה
They went straight to Moses and Aaron and the whole Israelite community at Kadesh in the wilderness of Paran

The verse does not call the place Kadesh-barnea, but just Kadesh.[6] Kadesh and Kadesh-barnea are two different places;[7] moreover, Kadesh is not in the Wilderness of Paran, but in the Wilderness of Zin. These are two totally different places: the Wilderness of Paran is located in the Sinai Peninsula,[8] while the Wilderness of Zin is located in the Transjordan on the border with Edom (Num 34:3; Josh 15:1).

Kadesh and the Wilderness of Zin in the Transjordan‍

That Kadesh must be located in the Transjordan is clear from the other references to Kadesh in the Pentateuch.

First, Kadesh in the Torah always refers to the site in the Wilderness of Zin:

Num 20:1

וַיָּבֹ֣אוּ בְנֵֽי יִ֠שְׂרָאֵל כָּל הָ֨עֵדָ֤ה מִדְבַּר צִן֙ בַּחֹ֣דֶשׁ הָֽרִאשׁ֔וֹן וַיֵּ֥שֶׁב הָעָ֖ם בְּקָדֵ֑שׁ
The Israelites arrived in a body at the Wilderness of Zin on the first new moon, and the people stayed at Kadesh.

Num 27:14

הֵ֛ם מֵֽי מְרִיבַ֥ת קָדֵ֖שׁ מִדְבַּר צִֽן:
Those are the Waters of Meribath-kadesh in the wilderness of Zin.

Num 33:36

וַיַּחֲנ֥וּ בְמִדְבַּר צִ֖ן הִ֥וא קָדֵֽשׁ:
They encamped in the wilderness of Zin, that is, Kadesh.

Deut 32:51

בְּמֵֽי מְרִיבַ֥ת קָדֵ֖שׁ מִדְבַּר צִ֑ן
[A]t the waters of Meribath-kadesh in the wilderness of Zin

Second, the Wilderness of Zin is on the Edomite border in the Transjordan, somewhere between Ezion-geber (near modern day Eilat) and Mount Hor.

Num 20:22-23

וַיִּסְע֖וּ מִקָּדֵ֑שׁ וַיָּבֹ֧אוּ בְנֵֽי יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל כָּל הָעֵדָ֖ה הֹ֥ר הָהָֽר… בְּהֹ֣ר הָהָ֑ר עַל גְּב֥וּל אֶֽרֶץ אֱד֖וֹם
Setting out from Kadesh, the Israelites arrived in a body at Mount Hor. At Mount Hor, on the boundary of the land of Edom

Num 33:36

וַיִּסְע֖וּ מֵעֶצְיֹ֣ן גָּ֑בֶר וַיַּחֲנ֥וּ בְמִדְבַּר צִ֖ן הִ֥וא קָדֵֽשׁ:
They set out from Ezion-geber and encamped in the wilderness of Zin, that is, Kadesh.

Num 34:3

וְהָיָ֨ה לָכֶ֧ם פְּאַת־נֶ֛גֶב מִמִּדְבַּר צִ֖ן עַל יְדֵ֣י אֱד֑וֹם.
Your southern sector shall extend from the wilderness of Zin alongside Edom.

When the scout story transpires, the Israelites are still in the Sinai Peninsula and the scouts are sent north into the Negev. The Israelites will only arrive in the Wilderness of Zin in chapter 20, which tells the story of the waters of Meribah. Thus, the placement of Kadesh in the Wilderness of Paran in Numbers 13:26 is highly problematic.

Ramban – Kadesh Here is Kadesh-barnea‍

Ramban noticed this problem in his gloss on Num 20:1, and thus insisted that the Kadesh in the scout account must not refer to the usual Kadesh (Petra) but to Kadesh-barnea (Ein el-Qudeirat). He takes R. Abraham ibn Ezra to task for identifying the Kadesh of the Zin Wilderness with the Kadesh-barnea of the Paran Wilderness, since they are not the same place. He writes that,

…הוא קדש ברנע והוא במדבר פארן, ומשם נשתלחו המרגלים בשנה השניה ושם חזרו, אבל קדש זה הוא במדבר צין ובאו שם בשנת הארבעים ושם מתה מרים, ומקראות מפורשים הם.
…this is Kadesh-barnea[9] and it is in the Paran Wildnerness. From there the scouts where sent during the second year and to there they returned (Num 13:26). But this Kadesh (Num 20:1) is in the Wilderness of Zin, and they only arrived there in the fortieth year, and it was there that Miriam died. The verses are clear about this.

Ramban is certainly correct that Kadesh, located in the Zin Wilderness, and Kadesh-barnea, located in the Paran Wilderness, are not the same place, but the problem remains: the toponym “Kadesh” (as opposed to Kadesh-barnea) elsewhere always refers to Petra in the Transjordan.[10] Why does the Torah break its own conventions here?

Underscoring the Problem‍

This single verse has caused scholars for over a hundred years to assume, incorrectly, that all the references in the Torah to Kadesh are simply shorthand for Kadesh-barnea,[11] and to ignore the ancient identification of Kadesh in the Zin Wilderness with Petra as well as the simple meaning of many biblical narratives. This has resulted in hundreds of incorrect maps of the biblical world, and much confusion as scholars have attempted to reconstruct itineraries and understand narratives![12]

Redaction Critical Solution – Kadesh as a Supplement

Since Numbers 13:3 refers only to Paran and not Kadesh, some scholars have argued that this must have been the only toponym used in the P story. Combining this observation with the problem of Kadesh appearing in the wrong place (in Paran and not Zin), some scholars have suggested that the word Kadesha in 13:26 was either taken from J[13] or added by the redactor under the influence of D.[14]

This suggestion is problematic for a number of reasons. First, in Num 32:8, P refers to Kadesh-barnea as the starting point of the scouts.[15] Second, the term קדשה is well rooted within its context in the verse. In theory, it may be excised without affecting the Priestly Text but it is impossible to place it in the J text. Third, even if the word קדשה is from J it would not help, since J too places the scouts at Kadesh-barnea (in the Sinai) and not Kadesh (in Transjordan). Finally, and most significantly, it is also difficult to attribute it to a redactor or later writer because of the directional ה”אI(קדשה = “to Kadesh”).

The directional ה”א is one of the typical markers of the Classical Biblical Hebrew.[16] It is well attested in the early books of the Bible and appears on ostraca and inscriptions from both sides of the Jordan River. Its use faded over time, however, to the point in Qumran it lost its directional meaning, and the translators of the Septuagint did not understand its meaning.[17] Thus, based on the directional ה”א, it is likely that Kadesha was written in First Temple Period, and could not have been added by a redactor or later writer; it is a genuine part of the original Priestly text.

A Traditional Solution: Two Different Places Called Kadesh

Another solution to the problem was offered by some traditional commentators. Rashi and Abraham ibn Ezra both suggest the existence of two sites both named Kadesh. They did not give the reason for this statement, but they were likely motivated by the problems noted earlier.[18] Ramban, as discussed above, also makes this argument. In his gloss on Num 12:16, he specifically suggests that the Kadesh in this story is Kadesh-barnea.[19]

הזכיר מדבר פארן, להודיע כי קדש זה הוא קדש ברנע אשר במדבר פארן, לא קדש אשר במדבר צין שהיה שם ענין מי מריבה בשנת הארבעים:
The Paran Wilderness is referenced to inform [the reader] that this Kadesh (=Kadesha of 13:26) is Kadesh-barnea in the Paran Wilderness, not Kadesh in the Zin Wilderness where the incident of the water of Meribah took place in year forty.

Ramban , Rashi and ibn Ezra are undoubtedly correct here.[20] The best solution to the problem of the reference to Kadesh in the Wilderness of Paran is that the toponym “Kadesh” can refer to either: the Kadesh of the Zin Wilderness (=Petra) or Kadesh-barnea in the Paran Wilderness (=Ein el-Qudeirat).[21]

But why did the Priestly Text choose this one time to use the toponym Kadesh to refer to Kadesh-barnea? The medievals supply no answer to this question. In short, the intuition of the great commentators led them to the correct answer (which is more than can be said here for some of the academic solutions), but, in this case, to paraphrase a famous rabbinic saying,[22] “they prophesied, but did not know what they prophesied (נבאו ולא ידעו מה נבאו).”

Grammatical Solution – Two Word Directional Idioms

The answer to this problem lies in the use of the directional ה”א. When adding the directional ה”א , the Bible systematically shortens toponyms comprised of two words into one word, For example,

  • חֹר הַגִּדְגָּד (Hor Haggidgad Num 33:32-32) turns into הגדגדה (HaGudgoda – Deut 10:7).
  • יָבֵישׁ גִּלְעָד (Jabesh-gilead – 1 Samuel 31:11; 1 Chronicles 10:11) into יָבֵשָׁה (Jabesha – 1 Samuel 31:12; 1 Chronicles 10:12).

Thus, when the directional ה”א is added to either Kadesh or Kadesh-barnea, they both turn into Kadesha.

Thus, P knew of two sites:

  • Kadesh-barnea in the Paran Wilderness, where the episode of the spies to Canaan took place; this should be identified with Ein El-Qudeirat, in the Qseime region of Sinai.
  • Kadesh in the Zin wilderness next to the Edomite border (Num 20:14, 16), where the episode of the water of Meribah took place. This Kadesh, called Reqem in the Aramaic translation, should be identified as Petra.

Two Closing Observations

Different terms do not always point to different sources. In fact, the geographic tradition that the scouts came from Kadesh-barnea in the Paran Wilderness is one that spans the Pentateuchal sources.

The correct solution to the problem of “Kadesh in Paran” was intuited by Ramban and other traditional commentators centuries before the advent of the academic study of Torah. In fact, many academics seem to have “outsmarted themselves” with creative geography in their attempt to make sense of this verse. Although Ramban never mentions that the key to the verse is the directional ה”א, his main point was that if we allow the verses to speak for themselves, the solution is apparent. As he wrote, “the verses are clear.”


June 10, 2015


Last Updated

November 6, 2023


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.