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David Ben-Gad HaCohen





Wandering in the Wilderness: Deuteronomy’s Ideological Harmonization of J and E



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David Ben-Gad HaCohen





Wandering in the Wilderness: Deuteronomy’s Ideological Harmonization of J and E






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Wandering in the Wilderness: Deuteronomy’s Ideological Harmonization of J and E

Deuteronomy cannot accept that Israel, under YHWH’s command, had to bypass Seir because the Edomite king would not allow them to pass through (Numbers 20). Thus, Deuteronomy has Israel wandering aimlessly, skirting Seir in a southward march away from Canaan (E) while waiting for the exodus generation to die for the sin of the spies (J).  


Wandering in the Wilderness: Deuteronomy’s Ideological Harmonization of J and E

Map of the Israelites' Journey, Dirk Janszoon van Santen, 1700.

Deuteronomy opens with Moses describing how, after the Israelites leave Mount Horeb (v. 6) and arrive at Kadesh-barnea (v. 19), he told them to conquer the land. They ask him to send spies first (vv. 20­–22) and Moses complies. Upon their return, the spies’ report spooks the people, who panic and ask to go back to Egypt (vv. 23–28).

After Moses rebukes them (vv. 29–33), a furious YHWH swears that, except for Caleb, not one person from the exodus generation will enter the land; only their children will enter (vv. 34–36, 39).[1]

YHWH then commands Israel to turn and march:

דברים א:מ וְאַתֶּם פְּנוּ לָכֶם וּסְעוּ הַמִּדְבָּרָה דֶּרֶךְ יַם סוּף.
Deut 1:40 As for you, turn and march into the wilderness by the Way of (i.e., the road to)[2] Yam Suph.[3]

The directions are harsh: Instead of heading north towards the land, they are to head south towards Yam Suph,[4] away from Canaan.[5] Ostensibly, travelling south is to kill time, since the Israelites are forbidden to enter the land until the exodus generation have all died. After a failed attempt to buck YHWH’s command and enter the land anyway (vv. 41–45), the Israelites end their long sojourn in Kadesh (v. 46)—in Deuteronomy, Ein Musa, the same as Kadesh-barnea[6]—and begin their march south, avoiding the mountains of Seir:

דברים ב:א וַנֵּפֶן וַנִּסַּע הַמִּדְבָּרָה דֶּרֶךְ יַם סוּף כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר יְ־הוָה אֵלָי וַנָּסָב אֶת הַר שֵׂעִיר יָמִים רַבִּים.
Deut 2:1 We turned and marched into the wilderness by the way of Yam Suph, as YHWH had spoken to me, and skirted the hill country of Seir a long time.

After they travel for a while, YHWH tells them that it is enough, and sends them north towards the land:

דברים ב:ב וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה אֵלַי לֵאמֹר. ב:ג רַב לָכֶם סֹב אֶת הָהָר הַזֶּה פְּנוּ לָכֶם צָפֹנָה.
Deut 2:2 Then YHWH said to me: 2:3 “You have been skirting this hill country long enough; now turn north.”

Again, the text describes Israel as having skirted Seir, but never explains why. Would there have been some problem if they had travelled through Seir instead of skirting it? Deuteronomy never says, though earlier in the Pentateuch, the answer is clearly affirmative.

The Edomite Refusal in Numbers

The book of Numbers records how the King of Edom/Seir refused to allow the Israelites passing through his territory:

במדבר כ:יד וַיִּשְׁלַח מֹשֶׁה מַלְאָכִים מִקָּדֵשׁ אֶל מֶלֶךְ אֱדוֹם כֹּה אָמַר אָחִיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל... כ:טז ...וְהִנֵּה אֲנַחְנוּ בְקָדֵשׁ עִיר קְצֵה גְבוּלֶךָ. כ:יז נַעְבְּרָה נָּא בְאַרְצֶךָ לֹא נַעֲבֹר בְּשָׂדֶה וּבְכֶרֶם וְלֹא נִשְׁתֶּה מֵי בְאֵר דֶּרֶךְ הַמֶּלֶךְ נֵלֵךְ לֹא נִטֶּה יָמִין וּשְׂמֹאול עַד אֲשֶׁר נַעֲבֹר גְּבוּלֶךָ.
Num 20:14 From Kadesh, Moses sent messengers to the king of Edom… 20:16 “…Now we are at Kadesh, the town on the border of your territory. 20:17 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.”

The Edomites refuse the request:

במדבר כ:יח וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו אֱדוֹם לֹא תַעֲבֹר בִּי פֶּן בַּחֶרֶב אֵצֵא לִקְרָאתֶךָ.
Num 20:18 But Edom answered him, “You shall not pass through us, else we will go out against you with the sword.”[7]

Israel tries once more to negotiate, but the Edomites muster troops on their border, so the Israelites are forced to go around Seir.

במדבר כ:יט וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלָיו בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בַּמְסִלָּה נַעֲלֶה וְאִם מֵימֶיךָ נִשְׁתֶּה אֲנִי וּמִקְנַי וְנָתַתִּי מִכְרָם רַק אֵין דָּבָר בְּרַגְלַי אֶעֱבֹרָה. כ:כ וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא תַעֲבֹר וַיֵּצֵא אֱדוֹם לִקְרָאתוֹ בְּעַם כָּבֵד וּבְיָד חֲזָקָה. כ:כא וַיְמָאֵן אֱדוֹם נְתֹן אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל עֲבֹר בִּגְבֻלוֹ וַיֵּט יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵעָלָיו.
Num 20:19 “We will keep to the beaten track,” the Israelites said to them, “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.” 20:20 But they replied, “You shall not pass through!” And Edom went out against them in heavy force, strongly armed. 20:21 So Edom would not let Israel cross their territory, and Israel turned away from them.[8]

To get around Seir, the Israelites head south דֶּרֶךְ יַם סוּף לִסְבֹב אֶת אֶרֶץ אֱדוֹם “the way of Yam Soph (=Gulf of Aqaba) to skirt the land of Edom” (Num 21:4).[9] This makes sense in Numbers, but Deuteronomy says nothing about a refusal. Quite the opposite: Deuteronomy has the Israelites cross through Seir on the way back with no problem at all.

The March North Through Seir in Deuteronomy

As Moses narrates how the Israelites’ “turn north” (v. 2:3), he emphasizes time and again that the locals—Esauites (=Edomites),[10] Moabites, and Ammonites—were afraid of Israel, but that YHWH had commanded Israel to deal fairly with the locals as they crossed their territory:

דברים ב:ד ...אַתֶּם עֹבְרִים בִּגְבוּל אֲחֵיכֶם בְּנֵי עֵשָׂו הַיֹּשְׁבִים בְּשֵׂעִיר וְיִירְאוּ מִכֶּם וְנִשְׁמַרְתֶּם מְאֹד. ב:ה אַל תִּתְגָּרוּ בָם כִּי לֹא אֶתֵּן לָכֶם מֵאַרְצָם עַד מִדְרַךְ כַּף רָגֶל כִּי יְרֻשָּׁה לְעֵשָׂו נָתַתִּי אֶת הַר שֵׂעִיר. ב:ו אֹכֶל תִּשְׁבְּרוּ מֵאִתָּם בַּכֶּסֶף וַאֲכַלְתֶּם וְגַם מַיִם תִּכְרוּ מֵאִתָּם בַּכֶּסֶף וּשְׁתִיתֶם... ב:ח וַנַּעֲבֹר מֵאֵת אַחֵינוּ בְנֵי עֵשָׂו הַיֹּשְׁבִים בְּשֵׂעִיר...
Deut 2:4 … You will be passing through the territory of your kinsmen, the descendants of Esau, who live in Seir.[11] Though they will be afraid of you, be very careful 2:5 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. 2:6 What food you eat you shall obtain from them for money; even the water you drink you shall procure from them for money… 2:8 We then moved on, away from our kinsmen, the descendants of Esau, who live in Seir…

Later, Moses even tells the Amorite King Sihon about the accommodating behavior of the Esauites, when asking permission to cross his territory too:

דברים ב:כח אֶעְבְּרָה בְאַרְצֶךָ בַּדֶּרֶךְ בַּדֶּרֶךְ אֵלֵךְ לֹא אָסוּר יָמִין וּשְׂמֹאול. ב:כח אֹכֶל בַּכֶּסֶף תַּשְׁבִּרֵנִי וְאָכַלְתִּי וּמַיִם בַּכֶּסֶף תִּתֶּן לִי וְשָׁתִיתִי רַק אֶעְבְּרָה בְרַגְלָי. ב:כט כַּאֲשֶׁר עָשׂוּ לִי בְּנֵי עֵשָׂו הַיֹּשְׁבִים בְּשֵׂעִיר וְהַמּוֹאָבִים הַיֹּשְׁבִים בְּעָר...
Deut 2:27 Let me pass through your country. I will keep strictly to the highway, turning off neither to the right nor to the left. 2:28 What food I eat you will supply for money, and what water I drink you will furnish for money; just let me pass through—2:29 as the descendants of Esau who dwell in Seir did for me, and the Moabites who dwell in Ar…

In sum, in Deuteronomy, the Israelites skirt Seir when travelling south, but walk right through it when travelling north.[12] Thus it is clear that the Israelites are not skirting Seir because of an Esauite refusal. In fact, Deuteronomy could not have made such an assertion, since it contradicts one of its important ideological tenets.

All Powerful Israel

In the Deuteronomic worldview, no power could resist Israel, since YHWH was with them:

דברים ב:כה הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה אָחֵל תֵּת פַּחְדְּךָ וְיִרְאָתְךָ עַל פְּנֵי הָעַמִּים תַּחַת כָּל הַשָּׁמָיִם אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁמְעוּן שִׁמְעֲךָ וְרָגְזוּ וְחָלוּ מִפָּנֶיךָ.
Deut 2:25 This day I begin to put the dread and fear of you upon the peoples everywhere under heaven, so that they shall tremble and quake because of you whenever they hear you mentioned.[13]

Indeed, unlike in Numbers, in which Israel acts on their own, asking a favor of the Edomite king and being refused, every move Israel makes in Deuteronomy’s retelling is prefaced by a divine command:

South towards Yam Suph

דברים א:לד וַיִּשְׁמַע יְ־הוָה אֶת קוֹל דִּבְרֵיכֶם וַיִּקְצֹף וַיִּשָּׁבַע לֵאמֹר...א:מ וְאַתֶּם פְּנוּ לָכֶם וּסְעוּ הַמִּדְבָּרָה דֶּרֶךְ יַם סוּף.
Deut 1:34 When YHWH heard your loud complaint, He was angry. He vowed: “… 1:40 As for you, turn and march into the wilderness by the Way of Yam Suph…”

North into Esauite Territory

דברים ב:ב וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה אֵלַי לֵאמֹר. ב:ג רַב לָכֶם סֹב אֶת הָהָר הַזֶּה פְּנוּ לָכֶם צָפֹנָה.
Deut 2:2 Then YHWH said to me: 2:3 “You have been skirting this hill country long enough; now turn north.”

Crossing into Moabite Territory

דברים ב:ט וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה אֵלַי... ב:יג עַתָּה קֻמוּ וְעִבְרוּ לָכֶם אֶת נַחַל זָרֶד וַנַּעֲבֹר אֶת נַחַל זָרֶד.
Deut 2:9 YHWH said to me: “…2:13 “Up now! Cross the wadi Zered!” So, we crossed the wadi Zered.”

Crossing into Ammonite and Amorite Territory

דברים ב:יז וַיְדַבֵּר יְ־הוָה אֵלַי לֵאמֹר... ב:כד קוּמוּ סְּעוּ וְעִבְרוּ אֶת נַחַל אַרְנֹן...
Deut 2:17 YHWH spoke to me and said: “… 2:24 Up! Set out across the wadi Arnon!...”

These divine commands punctuate the narrative to show that the march is entirely led by YHWH. In such a story, there is no room for Esauites or Moabites refusing or Israel being afraid of them.[14] Thus, the Deuteronomic author, who inherited the story of the Edomite refusal and the consequent need to go around Seir, has no choice but to explain the move south differently.

Deuteronomy and Its Sources

The author of Deuteronomy (D) was working with two earlier sources: the northern Elohistic source (E) and the southern Yahwistic source (J). Both offer different accounts of what happened in the wilderness:

The E source: Israel leaves Mount Horeb and arrive at Kadesh in the Wilderness of Zin in the southern Transjordan, right at the border of Edom. The Edomite king refuses to allow them passage through his land, so thus must circumvent the mountains of Seir.

The J source: After the revelation at Sinai, Israel arrives at Kadesh-barnea, in the Wilderness of Paran, and Moses sends a delegation out to spy the Land of Canaan. Following the sin of the spies and Israel’s complicity, YHWH swears that the entire generation that came out of Egypt (except Caleb) will die in the wilderness and only their children will enter the land.[15]

We are familiar with E and J only in their current form, cut and spliced together (with P) in the Pentateuch, but the Deuteronomist had them as separate and complete documents.[16] The Deuteronomist had to decide what parts of each story to include in his retelling, what to cut, and what to adjust. Unlike the compiler of the Pentateuch, D did not quote his sources verbatim. Instead, he rewrote them as Moses talking, in the first-person narrative style, and adjusted them to suit his own thinking.

Deuteronomy’s main source is E: It opens with Israel leaving Mount Horeb (1:6), E’s name for the mountain of revelation, followed by Moses establishing Israel’s court system (vv. 9–18), also a story found only in E (Exodus 18:13–26).[17] At this point, however, D veers away from E and tackles J’s key wilderness story, the sin of the spies (vv. 19–39, 41–45).[18]

The spies story gave the Deuteronomist a cover story to explain the march south without referencing E’s unacceptable story of an Edomite refusal: Since the generation of the spies are forbidden to enter the land, the Israelites needed to remain outside the land for a long time, first by staying a long time in Kadesh and then with the long trek south, away from the land:

דברים א:מו וַתֵּשְׁבוּ בְקָדֵשׁ יָמִים רַבִּים...
Deut 1:46 And you dwelt in Kadesh a long time
דברים ב:א ...וַנָּסָב אֶת הַר שֵׂעִיר יָמִים רַבִּים.
Deut 2:1 …And you skirted the hill country of Seir a long time.[19]

Towards the end of this period, YHWH commands them to turn north (2:3) and set out for the land of Canaan through Esauite territory and then the through the Moabite desert, the latter being the last place through which Israel will march before the beginning of the conquest. Deuteronomy then gives a summary statement for the period between the sin of the spies and the beginning of the conquest:

דברים ב:יד וְהַיָּמִים אֲשֶׁר הָלַכְנוּ מִקָּדֵשׁ בַּרְנֵעַ עַד אֲשֶׁר עָבַרְנוּ אֶת נַחַל זֶרֶד שְׁלֹשִׁים וּשְׁמֹנֶה שָׁנָה עַד תֹּם כָּל הַדּוֹר אַנְשֵׁי הַמִּלְחָמָה מִקֶּרֶב הַמַּחֲנֶה כַּאֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע יְ־הוָה לָהֶם.
Deut 2:14 The time that 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 YHWH had sworn concerning them.

In other words, by the time they get to Wadi Zered, the penultimate crossing before entering the land that will be occupied by Israel, the last of the old warriors has perished.

Inventing the Wilderness Wandering

The story the Deuteronomist creates here is a unique blend. In E, the Israelites are forced to march around Seir because of the Edomite refusal. They are not wandering, merely taking the long way. E does not have the sin of the spies, and the wilderness generation is not barred from entering the land. J, in contrast, has the spies story, and its consequent requirement to remain outside the land until the wilderness generation dies. Even so, no extant J passage says that the Israelites wandered as a result of this punishment.[20]

In theory, D could simply have cut E’s account of Israel’s travel south through the Transjordan altogether and just retold the whole episode according to J. But D refuses to do this since, as many scholars have noted, D’s main source both for its narratives and its laws is E.

Indeed, Deuteronomy’s extensive use of J’s spy story in the opening chapters is unusual.[21] Jettisoning E as the frame and only using J would have been too much. E has itinerary and geographical markers that had to be included, and D worked hard to include them, sometimes even at the expense of geographic or narrative logic.[22] By incorporating the now pointless trek south, D introduces the motif of wilderness wandering, which has come to dominate the way we read the Pentateuchal narrative.


July 20, 2023


Last Updated

April 10, 2024


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.