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Angela Roskop Erisman





Viewing the Promised Land, Moses Looks Even at the Transjordan





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Angela Roskop Erisman





Viewing the Promised Land, Moses Looks Even at the Transjordan








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Viewing the Promised Land, Moses Looks Even at the Transjordan

Several biblical passages assume that the promised land is limited to Canaan, i.e., the Cisjordan. But this view was not universally shared. Scribes who saw the Transjordan as part and parcel of it adjusted multiple passages in Deuteronomy, including the third and final take of Moses’s death, to make this episode fit their idea about the extent of the land.


Viewing the Promised Land, Moses Looks Even at the Transjordan

The Death of Moses, Deuteronomy 34:1-12 (adapted), Bible card published 1907 by the Providence Lithograph Company. Wikimedia

The Israelites are on the verge of entering the land, and Moses desperately wants to experience this new set of YHWH’s great and mighty works, as he did the first, but it is not to be. He does, however, get to see the land of promise before he dies.

Near the beginning of Deuteronomy, God tells Moses to ascend the summit of Pisgah and look in all four cardinal directions

דברים ג:כז עֲלֵה רֹאשׁ הַפִּסְגָּה וְשָׂא עֵינֶיךָ יָמָּה וְצָפֹנָה וְתֵימָנָה וּמִזְרָחָה וּרְאֵה בְעֵינֶיךָ כִּי לֹא תַעֲבֹר אֶת הַיַּרְדֵּן הַזֶּה.
Deut 3:27 Go up to the summit of Pisgah and gaze about, to the west, the north, the south, and the east. Look at it well, for you shall not go across yonder Jordan.

At the end of Deuteronomy, in Parashat VeZot HaBerachah, the final section of the entire Torah, the text details more precisely what he sees (34:1–4).

Abraham Views the Promised Land

We’ve watched this scene before. Abraham stands at Bethel, freshly separated from Lot, who left him behind in Canaan to settle in Transjordan according to their agreement. Reiterating and expanding upon his earlier promise (Gen 12:7), God tells Abraham to look in all four cardinal directions to see the land God promised to him and his offspring:

בראשית יג:יד שָׂא נָא עֵינֶיךָ וּרְאֵה מִן הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה שָׁם צָפֹנָה וָנֶגְבָּה וָקֵדְמָה וָיָמָּה. יג:טו כִּי אֶת כָּל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה רֹאֶה לְךָ אֶתְּנֶנָּה וּלְזַרְעֲךָ עַד עוֹלָם.... יג:יז קוּם הִתְהַלֵּךְ בָּאָרֶץ לְאָרְכָּהּ וּלְרָחְבָּהּ כִּי לְךָ אֶתְּנֶנָּה.
Gen 13:14 Raise your eyes and look out from where you are, to the north and south, to the east and west, 13:15 for I give all the land that you see to you and your offspring forever…. 13:17 Up, walk about the land, through its length and its breadth, for I give it to you.

Moses’s visual tour of the land is a deliberate allusion to Abraham’s. In addition to the parallel language of “lifting up the eyes to look” and the reference to the four directions, God’s final statement to Moses about the land explicitly identifies it as the land promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

דברים לד:ד וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה אֵלָיו זֹאת הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּעְתִּי לְאַבְרָהָם לְיִצְחָק וּלְיַעֲקֹב לֵאמֹר לְזַרְעֲךָ אֶתְּנֶנָּה הֶרְאִיתִיךָ בְעֵינֶיךָ וְשָׁמָּה לֹא תַעֲבֹר.
Deut 34:4 And YHWH said to him, "This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, 'I will assign it to your offspring.' I have let you see it with your own eyes, but you shall not cross there."

Similarly, what Moses sees when he looks in all four directions in Deuteronomy 3 is described in Deuteronomy 34:1 as אֶת כָּל הָאָרֶץ, the whole land, an expression used in Genesis 13:15.[1]

Moses Views a Bigger Promised Land

But there is something curious about Moses looking in all four cardinal directions in order to view the land. When Abraham does this, he is at Bethel, in the middle of Canaan, and he would indeed see Canaan in all four directions from there. But Moses is east of the Jordan, at the summit of Pisgah. If the promised land is Canaan, limited to territory west of the Jordan, Moses is outside of it and would see it only by looking west—possibly north(west) and south(west) as well, but certainly not east.

Our author seems to have had a reason to link Moses to Abraham—a reason so compelling that this allusion was worth making even if the expression from the old context (Abraham at Bethel) didn’t quite fit the new one (Moses at Pisgah).

Some scholars argue that the reason is purely compositional: the links between Moses and Abraham, Deuteronomy, and Genesis, help to form the Pentateuch by connecting different texts into a single narrative. This common phraseology would then bear no greater meaning.[2] And yet, something more is going on.

Moses’s visual tour in Deuteronomy 34:1–4 takes in a greater sweep of territory than Abraham’s.

דברים לד:א …אֶת הַגִּלְעָד עַד דָּן. לד:ב וְאֵת כָּל נַפְתָּלִי וְאֶת אֶרֶץ אֶפְרַיִם וּמְנַשֶּׁה וְאֵת כָּל אֶרֶץ יְהוּדָה עַד הַיָּם הָאַחֲרוֹן. לד:ג וְאֶת הַנֶּגֶב וְאֶת הַכִּכָּר בִּקְעַת יְרֵחוֹ עִיר הַתְּמָרִים עַד צֹעַר.
Deut 34:1 … the whole land: Gilead as far as Dan; 34:2 all Naphtali; the land of Ephraim and Manasseh; the whole land of Judah as far as the Western Sea; 34:3 the Negeb; and the Plain—the Valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees—as far as Zoar.

It begins with Gilead, which is in the Transjordan, and elsewhere is associated with territory conquered from Sihon and Og.[3] It continues west of the Jordan with Dan in the north and moves to the Negeb in the south. Finally, Moses’s gaze crosses back into the Transjordan to see the plain, extending from the valley of Jericho to Zoar, the extent of territory settled by Lot in Genesis (13:10–11).

Territory in the Transjordan that is outside the land God shows Abraham in Genesis 13 is now included in the promised land God shows Moses. The promised land here in Deuteronomy 34 is not limited to Canaan, and Moses does see the land in all four cardinal directions—even when he looks east from Pisgah. The expression is not an ill fit here after all, but reflects a change in the concept of the promised land.

A Polemical Emphasis

This change is no accident,[4] and the reason for it can be highlighted by looking at how Deuteronomy 34 rearranges one phrase from Genesis 12:

Genesis 12:7

לְזַרְעֲךָ אֶתֵּן אֶת הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת
To your offspring I will assign this land.

Deuteronomy 34:4

זֹאת הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּעְתִּי לְאַבְרָהָם לְיִצְחָק וּלְיַעֲקֹב לֵאמֹר לְזַרְעֲךָ אֶתְּנֶנָּה
This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, “I will assign it to your offspring.”

The earlier text has been slightly rearranged for an important rhetorical purpose: it creates a polemic against the land ideology espoused in key texts in Genesis.[5] Although God speaks to Moses here, the author is also speaking to the reader: Forget what these other texts said about the extent of the land. This is the land that God promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Moses’s Death, Take Three

Deuteronomy 34 is a continuation of two earlier pieces of Moses’s death narrative. It begins back in Numbers 27:12–14, when God tells him for the first time to ascend a mountain in order to view the land before he dies.

במדבר כז:יב וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה עֲלֵה אֶל הַר הָעֲבָרִים הַזֶּה וּרְאֵה אֶת הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נָתַתִּי לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל. כז:יג וְרָאִיתָה אֹתָהּ וְנֶאֱסַפְתָּ אֶל עַמֶּיךָ...
Num 27:12 YHWH said to Moses, "Ascend these heights of Abarim and view the land that I have given to the Israelite people. 27:13 When you have seen it, you too shall be gathered to your kin…

Deuteronomy 32:48–52 repeats that command in a second take on the scene:

דברים לב:מט עֲלֵה אֶל הַר הָעֲבָרִים הַזֶּה הַר נְבוֹ אֲשֶׁר בְּאֶרֶץ מוֹאָב אֲשֶׁר עַל פְּנֵי יְרֵחוֹ וּרְאֵה אֶת אֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי נֹתֵן לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לַאֲחֻזָּה. לב:נ וּמֻת בָּהָר אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה עֹלֶה שָׁמָּה וְהֵאָסֵף אֶל עַמֶּיךָ...
Deut 32:49 Ascend these heights of Abarim to Mount Nebo, which is in the land of Moab facing Jericho, and view the land of Canaan, which I am giving the Israelites as their holding. 32:50 You shall die on the mountain that you are about to ascend, and shall be gathered to your kin…

The scene is completed only in Deuteronomy 34, in a third take. This last chapter of the Torah, with its expanded idea of the promised land, trumps not only key promise scenes in Genesis and an earlier version of the introduction to Deuteronomy, but also the previous take on Moses’s death scene in Deuteronomy 32, where God tells Moses to view the land of Canaan (32:49), which does not include the land he views in the Transjordan.

Which Was First?

Deuteronomy 32 is usually understood to be the latest of the three passages. Scholars who take this position argue that it was written in order to build a bridge between two different versions of Moses’s death narrative, now in Numbers 27 and Deuteronomy 34, so they could work together in a single narrative.[6] Once we see that Deuteronomy 34 has changed the land ideology in Deuteronomy 32, however, that claim doesn’t look plausible. How else might we account for the relationships among these texts?

Where is Mount Abarim?

Moses, like Aaron, dies on a mountain. That mountain is not named Numbers in 27:12, where the setting is simply “these heights of the Abarim.”[7] Where is the Abarim range? One possible clue is Deuteronomy 32:49, where the mountain is named—Mount Nebo. Because of this text, the Abarim range is usually understood to be in the Transjordan. But Deuteronomy 34:1 puts Mount Nebo in the Pisgah range, not the Abarim range, which should make us at least wonder why what seems to be the same mountain range goes by two different names.

Our wondering might deepen into a hunch that some geographical shenanigans are responsible for this double naming when we look at Jeremiah 22:18–30, which describes a lament of Jehoiakim’s exile coming from every side of Israel.

ירמיה כב:כ עֲלִי הַלְּבָנוֹן וּצְעָקִי וּבַבָּשָׁן תְּנִי קוֹלֵךְ וְצַעֲקִי מֵעֲבָרִים כִּי נִשְׁבְּרוּ כָּל מְאַהֲבָיִךְ.
Jer 22:20 Climb Lebanon and cry out, raise your voice in Bashan, cry out from Abarim, for all your lovers are crushed.

Lebanon is to the north and Bashan to the east (with the Mediterranean Sea, of course, to the west). Could it be that Abarim is best understood as south of the land? Jeremiah 22 makes more sense if it is.

This possibility gains some traction when we consider that hiding in plain sight in Numbers 21 (verses 1–3) is a conquest of the promised land from the south.[8] If the Abarim range is south of the land, the first take on Moses’s death scene (Numbers 27:12–14) is also set south of the land. Martin Noth famously proposed that the wilderness narrative once ended in the book of Numbers before Deuteronomy became part of the story. Here we are in Numbers, already seeing bits of the end of the story whose geographical setting is glaringly at odds with Deuteronomy and Joshua. Perhaps Noth was right.[9]

But if the Abarim range is really south of the land, Mount Nebo—which is in the Transjordan—is not actually in it, as Deuteronomy 32:49 says it is. How and why did this association between Abarim and Nebo come about? Fortunately, we can see some of the editorial work involved in making Deuteronomy the new ending to the wilderness narrative.

Adjusting the Itinerary to Include the Transjordan

Once the Israelites survive their snakebites in Numbers 21,[10] they set out on an itinerary that takes them into the Transjordan. We know a lot about how the itinerary genre works, including that itineraries are highly formulaic and consistent. Yet in this chapter we meet three different forms of the genre in the course of a dozen verses, suggesting that the chapter is composite.

The formal variation doesn’t get in the way of reading this as an itinerary, so it might be unremarkable—except for the fact that it never happens otherwise. That is a good indication that this itinerary has been expanded twice, each time with a different form of the genre that leaves a trace of the expansion.[11] The toponyms that appear in these itinerary notices hint at what the scribes responsible for this editorial work were up to.

Earliest Layer

במדבר כא:י וַיִּסְעוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיַּחֲנוּ בְּאֹבֹת. כא:יא וַיִּסְעוּ מֵאֹבֹת וַיַּחֲנוּ בְּעִיֵּי הָעֲבָרִים…
Num 21:10 The Israelites marched on and encamped at Oboth. 21:11 They set out from Oboth and encamped at Iye-abarim…

The form of the itinerary genre used here is the same as previous notices that brought the Israelites out of Egypt (Exod 12:37 and 13:20), to the wilderness of Sin (Exod 16:1) and the wilderness of Sinai (Exod 19:1), then away from Sinai (Num 10:12) to Kadesh (Num 20:1).

Second Layer

כא:יב מִשָּׁם נָסָעוּ וַיַּחֲנוּ בְּנַחַל זָרֶד. כא:יג מִשָּׁם נָסָעוּ וַיַּחֲנוּ מֵעֵבֶר אַרְנוֹן…
21:12 From there they set out and encamped at the wadi Zered. 21:13 From there they set out and encamped beyond the Arnon…

But then we find the Israelites in the Transjordan, traveling through Wadis Zered and Arnon in Deuteronomy 2:13–24a as well as this second set of notices in Numbers 21, which comes to say: the journey does not end here in Numbers but continues into the book of Deuteronomy.[12] Distinctive here is a change in the form of the itinerary genre, which sets “from there” (מִשָּׁם) at the front of the verse in order to attach this new information.

Third Layer

וּמִמִּדְבָּר מַתָּנָה. כא:יט וּמִמַּתָּנָה נַחֲלִיאֵל וּמִנַּחֲלִיאֵל בָּמוֹת. כא:כ‏ וּמִבָּמוֹת הַגַּיְא אֲשֶׁר בִּשְׂדֵה מוֹאָב רֹאשׁ הַפִּסְגָּה וְנִשְׁקָפָה עַל פְּנֵי הַיְשִׁימֹן.
And from Midbar to Mattanah, 21:19 and from Mattanah to Nahaliel, and from Nahaliel to Bamoth, 21:20 and from Bamoth to the valley that is in the country of Moab, at the peak of Pisgah, overlooking the wasteland.

Bamoth, Pisgah, and the wasteland in the third set factor into the setting of Numbers 22–24. This set extends the Israelites’ journey deeper into Moab and comes to say: the wilderness narrative also includes the story of Balaam. The wilderness narrative has been extended by creating and fleshing out a journey into the Transjordan, which connects Deuteronomy, a book set in the Transjordan, to the rest of the wilderness narrative.

Making Deuteronomy the End of the Torah

Making Deuteronomy a new ending to the wilderness narrative involved a change of setting, then, and we see this on the back end as well. Take two of Moses’s death scene was created in order to move his demise to the new end of the Pentateuchal narrative. With Deuteronomy now in the picture, a lot has happened since God first told Moses to go up the mountain to look at the land in Numbers 27, so the author prompts us to remember that first take and think of this second one as its natural continuation by quoting bits of it.

  • עֲלֵה אֶל־הַר הָעֲבָרִים הַזֶּה “Ascend this height of Abarim” in Deuteronomy 32:49 is straight from Numbers 27:12, but the otherwise unnamed mountain in the Abarim range is identified as Mount Nebo, which relocates the whole scene in Moab.[13]
  • וּרְאֵה אֶת־הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נָתַתִּי לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל “View the land that I am giving to the Israelites” is also quoted nearly verbatim from Numbers 27:12, where the extent of the land is not defined at all, except here in Deuteronomy 32:49 the scribe inserts כְּנַעַן “Canaan” in order to define it.
  • The scribe also created a connection to the land promises in Genesis by adding לַאֲחֻזָּֽה “as a holding,” which specifies the nature of the land gift in order to echo its character לַאֲחֻזַּת עוֹלָם “as an eternal holding” in Genesis 17:8. Links to the patriarchal narratives are not new in Deuteronomy 34 but are already present here in the second take on Moses’s death.

Mount Nebo came to be associated with the Abarim range, therefore, when a scribe created a second take on Moses’s death scene that was designed to read as a natural continuation of the first, but also locate it in Transjordan instead of south of the land. This move was necessary in order to accommodate the book of Deuteronomy in the Torah. The goals may have been laudable, but the execution was not so smooth—or at least the author of Deuteronomy 34 thought so, because he fixed the problem by putting Nebo where it belongs, in the Pisgah range (verse 1).[14]

Extending the Promised Land to the Transjordan

Fixing the little problem of Nebo’s location was not this author’s main goal, of course; arguing for a more extensive promised land was. This third and final take on Moses’s death scene attempts to get the last word on what constitutes the promised land, to make the case that it is not limited to Canaan but includes territory in the Transjordan. Thus, the links between Moses and Abraham are not just compositional (if they are that at all) but ideological—our author also wants to reconfigure the way we view all the promises that come before.

Not everyone in ancient Israel agreed with this maneuver. Other versions of the narrative are clear that this territory is off limits for Israel because it was given by God to the descendants of Lot. And still other texts categorically reject efforts to extend the promised land.[15] The discourse about land is as unstable in our foundational texts as it is in our contemporary conversations.


October 17, 2019


Last Updated

November 6, 2023


View Footnotes

Dr. Angela Roskop Erisman is associate faculty and regional director at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research and owner of Angela Roskop Erisman Editorial, and she was the founding editorial director of the Marginalia Review of Books. She earned her M.A. in Hebrew and Northwest Semitics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and her Ph.D. in Bible and Ancient Near East at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. She is the author of The Wilderness Itineraries: Genre, Geography, and the Growth of Torah (Eisenbrauns, 2011), for which she won a Manfred Lautenschläger Award for Theological Promise in 2014, as well as Numbers(New Cambridge Bible Commentary) and The Wilderness Narratives in the Hebrew Bible: Religion, Politics, and Biblical Interpretation, both forthcoming from Cambridge University Press. When not studying Torah or polishing prose, she takes photographs, plays the violin, and teaches her son how to live the good life.