Waheb in Suphah, the Forgotten “Town in the Stream”
Crossing the Arnon: From Moabite to Amorite Territory
As the Israelites head north in the Transjordan, they leave the Moabite wilderness and cross over to the north side of the Arnon River, into the territory of the Amorites:
במדבר כא:יג מִשָּׁם נָסָעוּ וַיַּחֲנוּ מֵעֵבֶר אַרְנוֹן אֲשֶׁר בַּמִּדְבָּר הַיֹּצֵא מִגְּבוּל הָאֱמֹרִי כִּי אַרְנוֹן גְּבוּל מוֹאָב בֵּין מוֹאָב וּבֵין הָאֱמֹרִי.
Num 21:13 From there they set out and encamped beyond the Arnon, that is, in the wilderness that extends from the territory of the Amorites. For the Arnon is the boundary of Moab, between Moab and the Amorites.
This crossing is a momentous. Until now, the Israelites travelled in the wilderness east of Moab, whom, like the Edomites, they did not engage in battle. This E-source account in Numbers forms the basis for Deuteronomy’s retelling of this leg of the journey:
דברים ב:ח ...וַנַּעֲבֹר דֶּרֶךְ מִדְבַּר מוֹאָב. ב:ט וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה אֵלַי אַל תָּצַר אֶת מוֹאָב וְאַל תִּתְגָּר בָּם מִלְחָמָה כִּי לֹא אֶתֵּן לְךָ מֵאַרְצוֹ יְרֻשָּׁה כִּי לִבְנֵי לוֹט נָתַתִּי אֶת עָר יְרֻשָּׁה.
Deut 2:8 … and we marched on in the direction of the wilderness of Moab. 2:9 And YHWH said to me: “Do not harass the Moabites or provoke them to war. For I will not give you any of their land as a possession; I have assigned Ar as a possession to the descendants of Lot.”
The area north of the Arnon, which they now enter, is Amorite—the very people who live in the Cisjordan, and whom Israel is supposed to conquer. As the text later recounts, the Amorite king Sihon gathers his army to attack the Israelites as they travel through his territory, and the Israelites defeat him and settle his land. Thus, this crossing divides between the story of peaceful travel through the wilderness and southern Transjordan, and the conquest—first of the northern Transjordan, and then, in Joshua, of the Cisjordan.
The Book of YHWH’s Battles
As noted, the itinerary notes here emphasize that the Arnon is the border between the Moabites and the Amorites. At this point a quote from סֵפֶר מִלְחֲמֹת יְ־הוָה the Book of YHWH’s Battles is introduced:
כא:יד עַל כֵּן יֵאָמַר בְּסֵפֶר מִלְחֲמֹת יְ־הוָה:
21:14 Therefore the Book of the YHWH’s Battles tells of:
אֶת וָהֵב בְּסוּפָה וְאֶת הַנְּחָלִים אַרְנוֹן. כא:טו וְאֶשֶׁד הַנְּחָלִים אֲשֶׁר נָטָה לְשֶׁבֶת עָר וְנִשְׁעַן לִגְבוּל מוֹאָב.
Waheb in Suphah and the Arnon streams. 21:15 And the slope of the streams stretching along the settled country of Ar hugging the territory of Moab.
The quote, which begins mid-sentence, is enigmatic. It seems to be a list of toponyms following the Hebrew word את, the sign for the accusative case (i.e., a direct object). Given that the subject and verb that preceded the direct object are absent, we don’t know what the book of YHWH’s Battles was telling us about these places. We can, however, identify the places to which most of the toponyms refer.
The Arnon Streams and the Settled Country of Ar
Arnon is the biblical name for Wadi el-Mujib, which flows into Dead Sea. Numbers 21:14, however, refers to it with the unusual locution וְאֶת הַנְּחָלִים אַרְנוֹן, “and the Arnon streams,” in the plural. This makes some sense, since the Arnon River has multiple tributaries:
- Wadi al-Haydan (northeast),
- Wadi an-Nukhayla/el-Meheires (southeast),
- Wadi as-Saide (east).
The “Arnon streams” would thus refer to the Arnon River plus one or more of these tributaries. Others understand the mem at the end of the word not as the plural marker, but as an enclitic mem (i.e., an “extra” mem that strengthens the previous word) and thus only one stream is meant.
In either case, context clarifies further, as the text continues with וְאֶשֶׁד הַנְּחָלִים אֲשֶׁר נָטָה לְשֶׁבֶת עָר וְנִשְׁעַן לִגְבוּל מוֹאָב, “and the slope of the streams stretching along the settled country of Ar hugging the territory of Moab.” Ar refers to the sparsely settled grazing land east of Wadi an-Nukhayla, under the nominal control of Moab, whose cities lay to the west of this wadi.
Therefore, the quote describes the northern border of Moab, and the Arnon Stream or Streams refers to the Wadi Mujib and its eastern tributary, Wadi as-Saide, which marks this border. The phrase “Waheb in Suphah,” however, is enigmatic.
Waheb in Suphah: Alternative Translations
Neither Waheb nor Suphah appears anywhere else in the Bible. Some translations ignore Waheb altogether—which is not really a solution—and interpret the word Suphah as a reference to Yam Suph, the sea which YHWH split to save the Israelites from the pursuing Egyptians. But this interpretation is problematic.
First, Suphah is not Suph. Second, why would this body of water be referenced here, in a story about crossing the Arnon? To make sense of referencing Yam Suph here, exegetes who have used this translation also fill in extra words to create a meaningful sentence.
For instance, the mid-first millennium Aramaic Targum Onkelos, who understands the words מלחמות י־הוה as part of the quote and not the name of the (unnamed) book, translates:
קְרָבִין עֲבַד יְיָ עַל יַמָּא דְּסוּף וּגְבוּרָן עַל נַחֲלֵי אַרְנוֹן
YHWH fought battles at the Sea of Rushes and did wonders at the Arnon streams.
Jerome, in his 4th century Latin translation, the Vulgate, understands this half verse as a prayer, asking God to make the Israelite crossing successful:
As he did at the Red Sea so may He do at the Arnon Streams.
Other pre-modern attempts at creative solutions include the Peshitta’s rendering, שלהביתא בעלעלא (ܫܠܗܒܝܬܐ ܒܥܠܥܠܐ), “a fire in the storm,” likely reflecting the Hebrew את להב בסופה , and R. Yehudah HeChasid’s את יהב בסופה, “[we took] the loot speedily.”
Modern scholars have been equally creative. One particularly popular suggestion was put forward by Duane L. Christensen (1938–2013) of William Carey International University. He sees והב as a corrupt form of the Tetragramatton and the word את as reflecting the Aramaic verb אתא, “to come,” and reconstructs the opening phrase as אתא י־הוה בסופה, “YHWH came in a whirlwind.” This would fit storm theophany language used of YHWH elsewhere (e.g. Isa 66:15), but is too radical an emendation to be accepted.
Naphtali Tur-Sinai (1886–1973), an Israeli Bible scholar whose commentary on the Bible, פשוטו של מקרא, focuses on emendations, suggests that והב is a corruption for רהב “Rahab,” the Ugaritic god of the sea, and claims that the verse is taken from an epic poem describing YHWH fighting Rahab at Yam Suph and at the Arnon Streams.
The Story of Et and Heb: Crushing the Ambush at the Mountains
The Babylonian Talmud reads this poem midrashically as describing a miracle that occurred when Israel crossed the Arnon River (b. Berachot 54b, MS Munich 95):
תנא: את והב—שני מצורעין היו והיו מהלכין בסוף מחנה ישראל
It was taught: “Et Waheb”—There were two people [Et and Heb] afflicted with skin disease, and they were walking behind (soph) the Israelite camp.
The text understands את (Et) and הב (Heb) as personal names, and the vav (וָ; wa) as the conjunction “and.” It is further parsing the term suphah (“rushes” or “storm”) as sopha (“end”), yielding “Et and Heb were behind [the camp].” The rabbis creatively connect this passage to the law mandating that people afflicted with skin disease are not allowed to be in the camp (Lev 13:46).
The text continues with their story:
וכי הוו ישראל מחלפי אתו אמוראי [ט]שו להון בנחלי ארנון ועבדי להו [נקירותא] ויתיבו בהון אמרי כי חלפי ישראל הכא נקטלינון ולא הוו ידעי דארון מסגי קמי ישראל דהוה ממך להו טורי.
And when the Israelites were passing through, Amorites [from Sihon’s northern polity] hid in the [dry] streams. They made hollowed out areas and sat in them. They said [to themselves]: “When the Israelites pass by here, we will kill them. But they didn’t know that the ark, which was travelling before the Israelites, would crush mountains.
כיון דאתא ארונא אידבקו טורי בהדי הדדי וקטלינון חזו דמא דקא נפיק מביני טורי אתו את והב ואמרו להו אתו ישראל ואמרו שירה והיינו דכתי' ואשד הנחלים וגו'
When the ark arrived, the mountains were jointed together (collapsing the hollowed-out areas) and killed them. When they saw the blood coming out of the mountains, Et and Heb came and told them. The Israelites went and sang a song, and this is what is written (Num 21:15): “and the slope of the streams…”
This crushing of the mountains is building upon how, according to the verse, the slope of the streams (=one mountain) turned to the settled area of Ar (=another mountain), understanding this as a description of how the two mountains were joined miraculously, thereby crushing those hiding inside the dry streambed.
This creative midrash, with its fanciful names and creative gap-filling, cannot be what the text meant originally. This exposition does highlight, however, how difficult exegetes have found interpreting this phrase.
Putting aside the creative emendations or re-readings, Waheb in Suphah appears to simply be a toponym. While neither term appears anywhere else in the Bible, the narrative context and the other toponyms can help us identify this place.
Another Crossing Point
As noted above, as the Israelites headed northward in this itinerary, they are travelling in the eastern wilderness of Moab. The Arnon typically would have been crossed toward the west, on the King’s Highway, which runs through Moab proper, but this could not be the spot envisioned in the E itinerary, since the Israelites are travelling on a more eastern route.
In the summer of 1998, I explored Wadi el-Mujib and its eastern tributary, looking for any evidence of a crossing point that would have been part of an eastern road. At one point, as I was I heading towards the spot along Wadi as-Saide where the section of Wadi es-Sawaqa, with its soft slopes, turns into Wadi as-Sefai, I realized that I was walking on an unknown Roman road. Often, Roman roads were built upon more ancient routes, and it seemed worthwhile to check further, to see if any evidence of an older road remained.
So, in June 2000, I returned to the Roman road with a group of Israeli scholars, led by Professor Chaim Ben-David of Kinnerot Academic College. There we discovered that the Roman serpentines going down to the riverbed cut an older, probably biblical-period road.
The Roman road goes mostly over the more ancient one, covering it up, but, as the two roads take a slightly different path, a few spots remain where the biblical road pops out on the side of the Roman road. This more ancient road is likely the Moabite Wilderness Highway of the E itinerary, and the spot where this road crosses the Arnon is likely the spot envisioned for the crossing in Numbers 21:13.
Not far to the west of this spot, where Wadi as-Saide is fed by Wadi as-Saliya, stands a high hill with steep slopes. On its summit sits the ruins of an ancient town, known nowadays as Khirbet el-Mudayna as-Saliya (or just Mudaynet as-Saliya), the closest town to this crossing area.
Mudaynet as-Saliya: The Town in the Stream
The site has a unique look. Wadi as-Saliya hugs the site on its northern and western sides, and Wadi as-Saide runs on its southern side. On its eastern side, the site is separated from the southern rim of Wadi es-Saide by a narrow, deep, and steep saddle. Looking at Mudaynet as-Saliya from the north or east, it looks like an isolated hill in the midst of the wadi.
This unique appearance suggested to the Czech explorer Alois Musil (1868–1944) and the French geographer Félix-Marie Abel (1878–1953) that Mudaynet as-Saliya should be identified with the biblical “Town in the Stream,” mentioned in Deuteronomy and Joshua. In describing the conquest of Sihon, Deuteronomy notes:
דברים ב:לו מֵעֲרֹעֵר אֲשֶׁר עַל שְׂפַת נַחַל אַרְנֹן וְהָעִיר אֲשֶׁר בַּנַּחַל וְעַד הַגִּלְעָד לֹא הָיְתָה קִרְיָה אֲשֶׁר שָׂגְבָה מִמֶּנּוּ...
Deut 2:36 From Aroer on the edge of the Arnon Stream, including the town in the stream itself, to Gilead, not a city was too mighty for us…
Similarly, in the description of Israel’s southern border in the Transjordan in Joshua, “the town in the stream” follows “Aroer on the edge of Arnon valley”:
יהושע יג:ט מֵעֲרוֹעֵר אֲשֶׁר עַל שְׂפַת נַחַל אַרְנוֹן וְהָעִיר אֲשֶׁר בְּתוֹךְ הַנַּחַל וְכָל הַמִּישֹׁר מֵידְבָא עַד דִּיבוֹן.
Josh 13:9 From Aroer on the edge of the Arnon Stream and the town in the middle of the stream, the entire mishor from Medeba to Dibon.
And it appears again in this chapter, as a description of the southern border of the tribe of Reuben:
יהושע יג:טז וַיְהִי לָהֶם הַגְּבוּל מֵעֲרוֹעֵר אֲשֶׁר עַל שְׂפַת נַחַל אַרְנוֹן וְהָעִיר אֲשֶׁר בְּתוֹךְ הַנַּחַל...
Josh 13:16 And their border was from Aroer on the edge of the Arnon Stream, and the town in the middle of the stream…
Aroer (modern Khirbet Arair) lies on the northern rim of the Arnon Stream, adjacent to the ancient “King’s Highway” (דרך המלך) crossing in the west. The Town in the Stream is situated similarly, at the crossing point of the Moabite Wilderness Highway.
This may even be the town where Balak meets Balaam, who was travelling to Moab from the north:
במדבר כב:לו וַיִּשְׁמַע בָּלָק כִּי בָא בִלְעָם וַיֵּצֵא לִקְרָאתוֹ אֶל עִיר מוֹאָב אֲשֶׁר עַל גְּבוּל אַרְנֹן אֲשֶׁר בִּקְצֵה הַגְּבוּל.
Num 22:36 When Balak heard that Balaam was coming, he went out to meet him at the town of Moab which is on the Arnon border, at its farthest point.
Here again, we are told of a city that is still considered to be in Moab, which is literally on the border, thus in the Arnon streambed.
Waheb: The Town in the Stream
I suggest that this ancient town was Waheb, and the nearby stream was Suphah. Notably, the western part of Wadi as-Saide, from Wadi as-Saliya to Wadi an-Nukhayla is also known as Wadi Sefai (سفي); Arabic names often preserve ancient toponyms. Waheb in Suphah (Sefai) is mentioned because it is just west of the spot where, in the E text, the Israelites cross into Sihon’s territory in the north.
What Happened to the Name?
Why is the name Waheb preserved only in Numbers 21? Mudaynet as-Saliya was inhabited in Iron 2, the period of the United Monarchy. This, I believe, was the period in which the book of YHWH’s Battles was written. Years later, when the book of Deuteronomy was written, the site had already been abandoned and its name lost, so it was called by the vague “the town in the stream.” The original name is preserved only in this snippet from the ancient and now lost work, YHWH’s Battles, quoted in the book of Numbers.
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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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