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SBL e-journal

David Ben-Gad HaCohen





War at Yahatz: The Torah Versus the Mesha Stele



APA e-journal

David Ben-Gad HaCohen





War at Yahatz: The Torah Versus the Mesha Stele






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War at Yahatz: The Torah Versus the Mesha Stele

A closer look at the Torah’s focus on Wadi Arnon as the northern border of Moab: Who really cared about the boundaries of Sihon’s Amorite kingdom?


War at Yahatz: The Torah Versus the Mesha Stele

כי ארנון גבול מואב – Wadi Mujib, View to southwest. (Wikimedia)

Introduction: A Sihon-Heavy Season

Parashat Devarim is the third time within five Shabbatot that we meet Sihon, king of the Amorites, and repeat in detail the Israelites’ encounter with him. Sihon is mentioned:

  1. In Parashat Chukkat, which narrates his encounter with Israel when it is purported to have transpired (Num 21:21–30).[1]
  2. In the haftarah for Parashat Chukkat, as Jephthah the Gileadite uses it in his “history lesson” to the king of the Ammonites (Judg 11:19–22).
  3. In Parashat Devarim Moses tells the story retrospectively, in the first person (Deut 2:24b–36).

Although these stories differ, their basic message is the same: the Israelite camp sends a delegation to the Amorite king Sihon to ask permission to pass though his country. Sihon refuses, and gathers his army to war against Israel. The battle is waged at Yahatz (יהץ); Israel prevails, and takes possession of Sihon’s land.

What is the significance of this story? As a historical geographer, I will focus on a geographical point, and see what this angle can teach us about the story and its meaning.[2]

The Border between Sihon’s Amorite Kingdom and Moab

Before Israel sends messengers to Sihon to request that he allow them to pass through his territory, the Torah clarifies the exact border between the (southern) territory of the Moabites and the (northern) territory of the Amorites (Num 21:13).[3]

מִשָּׁם֘ נָסָעוּ֒ וַֽיַּחֲנ֗וּ מֵעֵ֤בֶר אַרְנוֹן֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר בַּמִּדְבָּ֔ר הַיֹּצֵ֖א מִגְּבֻ֣ל הָֽאֱמֹרִ֑יכִּ֤י אַרְנוֹן֙ גְּב֣וּל מוֹאָ֔ב בֵּ֥ין מוֹאָ֖ב וּבֵ֥ין הָאֱמֹרִֽי:
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.

Having clarified the border between Moab and the Amorites, the Torah takes the unusual step of buttressing its claim with a proof text from The Book of the Wars of Yhwh (Num 21:14-15):

עַל־כֵּן֙ יֵֽאָמַ֔ר בְּסֵ֖פֶר מִלְחֲמֹ֣ת יְ-הֹוָ֑ה אֶת־וָהֵ֣ב בְּסוּפָ֔ה וְאֶת־הַנְּחָלִ֖ים אַרְנֽוֹן וְאֶ֙שֶׁד֙ הַנְּחָלִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר נָטָ֖ה לְשֶׁ֣בֶת עָ֑ר וְנִשְׁעַ֖ן לִגְב֥וּל מוֹאָֽב:
Therefore, the Book of the Wars of Yhwh speaks of “…Waheb in Suphah, and the wadis: the Arnon with its tributary wadis, stretched along the settled country of Ar, hugging the territory of Moab.”

The main point of this quotation is to support the assertion that Wadi Arnon is the northern border of Moab.[4]

The Arnon border is mentioned yet again when the Torah describes the earlier war of conquest that Sihon waged against Moab in the first place (Num 21:26).

וְה֣וּא נִלְחַ֗ם בְּמֶ֤לֶךְ מוֹאָב֙ הָֽרִאשׁ֔וֹן וַיִּקַּ֧ח אֶת כָּל אַרְצ֛וֹ מִיָּד֖וֹ עַד אַרְנֹֽן:
He had fought against a former king of Moab and taken all his land from him as far as the Arnon.

Certainly these accounts want to emphasize where the northern border of Moab and the southern border of Sihon’s Amorite kingdom lies, and that this area belonged to the Amorites (and not the Moabites!). After the Israelites vanquish the Amorites in battle, the Israelites appropriate this land as their own.

The Border between Sihon’s Amorite Kingdom and Ammon

Borders come up again during the account of the war between Israel and Sihon, this time clarifying the northern border of Sihon’s territory and, more importantly, its eastern border which is the western border of Ammonite territory (Num 21:24):

וַיַּכֵּ֥הוּ יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל לְפִי־חָ֑רֶב וַיִּירַ֨שׁ אֶת אַרְצ֜וֹ מֵֽאַרְנֹ֗ן עַד יַבֹּק֙ עַד בְּנֵ֣י עַמּ֔וֹן כִּ֣י עַ֔ז גְּב֖וּל בְּנֵ֥י עַמּֽוֹן:
But Israel put them to the sword, and took possession of their land, from the Arnon to the Jabbok, as far as the Ammonites,for the boundary of the Ammonites was strong.

Numbers is emphasizing the precise borders of Sihon’s territory just as it did with that of Moab.

The War in Yahatz: The Bible Versus the Mesha Stela

According to the biblical text, Sihon places his army in the vicinity of Yahatz, and from there wages his war against the Israelites (Num 21:20):

וַיֶּאֱסֹ֨ף סִיחֹ֜ן אֶת־כָּל־עַמּ֗וֹ וַיֵּצֵ֞א לִקְרַ֤את יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ הַמִּדְבָּ֔רָה וַיָּבֹ֖א יָ֑הְצָה וַיִּלָּ֖חֶם בְּיִשְׂרָאֵֽל:
Sihon gathered all his people and went out against Israel in the wilderness. He came to Yahatz and engaged Israel in battle.

The Israelites win this battle and the tribe of Reuben settled the area. This very city is mentioned in the famous Mesha Stela, which dates to the 9th century B.C.E. and records the success of the Moabite king, Mesha, against a descendent of the Israelite king, Omri (presumably Ahab). As part of the description of his success, Mesha explains the background for the war between Moab and the Northern Kingdom of Israel:

וּמֶלֶךְ יִשְרָאֵל בָּנָה אֶת יַהַץ וַיֵשֶב בָּה בְּהִלְתָחֲמֹה בִּי וַיְגַרְשֵהֻ כְּמֹש מִפָּנַי. וָאֶקַח מִמֹאָב מָאתֵן אִש כָּל רָשֵהֻ וָאֶשָאֵהֻ בְּיַהַץ וַאֹחֲזֶהָ לָסֶפֶת עַל דִיבֹן.[5]
Now the king of Israel had built Yahatz, and he occupied it while he was fighting against me. But Kemosh drove him out from before me. I took from Moab two hundred men, its entire unit. I took it up against Yahatz and captured it to annex (it) to Daibon.[6]

According to Mesha, Yahatz is a Moabite town that was captured by the king of Israel (Ahab or Omri), who then built it up, and the city is subsequently retaken by Mesha. How might we reconcile this document with the tradition that Israel already took this town much earlier, in the wilderness period?

Although it possible that possession of Yahatz seesawed back and forth between Israel and its neighbors,[7] I would suggest that the Sihon account is not historical, but is a story designed to solidify Israel’s claim on its Transjordanian holdings. In her,“Inventing the Mythic Amorite Kingdom of Sihon,” ( 2015) Rachel Havrelock, suggests that Sihon and his Amorite kingdom were invented to protect the Israelites from the accusation that they attacked the Moabites directly (or perhaps worse that they are Moabites who changed allegiance and became Israelites). I am not sure I would go that far, but irrespective of whether there ever was an Amorite kingdom of Sihon, the Torah was never primarily concerned with the real borders of the Amorites. Instead, it was concerned with clarifying the border between the “former kingdom of Sihon,” i.e. Israel’s Transjordanian holdings, and Moab.

Since Yahatz appears to be the focus of the border dispute between Moab and the Northern Kingdom of Israel, I suggest that the question was whether the boundary between the kingdoms was at Wadi Mujib (=Wadi Arnon), which would maximize Israel’s holdings, or in its northern tributary, Wadi eth-Themed (a dry river bed then and now), which reaches as far north as Yahatz and would maximize Moab’s holdings. The focus on a small detail such as which wadi forms the proper border between Moab and Israel may feel irrelevant to modern readers, but for those who lived in the area between the two tributaries and for the kingdoms that claimed to rule the territory (Moab and Israel), it was very relevant.[8]

A Dispute of Northern-Israelite Interest Only

This border dispute between Mesha and the Northern Kingdom of Israel is recorded independently in the Torah and the Mesha Stela, and perhaps in a lost third source, The Book of the Wars of Yhwh, quoted in Numbers.

I believe that although this border dispute has been projected back to the wilderness period, the authors of this original text are in the heat of this dispute and are responding to a current political conflict. I would argue that the story from Numbers comes from the Northern E (Elohist) source,[9] compiled in the Northern Kingdom of Israel. This source often features Transjordanian characters, like Reuben (in the Joseph story)[10] and the Reubenite rebels Datan and Abiram (parts of Num 16), as well as a detailed discussion about how the Israelites settled in the Transjordan (parts of Num 32).[11]

It is perfectly natural that both the Israelites and the Moabites would wish to record the details of the borders and battles between their Transjordanian polities. The Mesha inscription, written on behalf of the Moabite king, deals with this issue from a Moabite perspective. The Book of the Wars of Yhwh and the biblical texts about Sihon deal with it from an Israelite perspective.

Thus did a border squabble between Moab and the Northern Kingdom of Israel make it into the Torah, even bringing about the preservation of a quote from the lost Book of the Wars of Yhwh. While the Torah put in great effort to use Sihon and his Amorite kingdom to hide the border dispute with Moab by burying it in the past, comparison with the Mesha Stele allows us to uncover the underlying contemporary issues that the authors of the Sihon account were addressing.


July 23, 2015


Last Updated

September 4, 2020


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.