Chronologically speaking it looks like the Priestly and Deuteronomic traditions are in agreement about when the 1st generation Israelites die off in the wilderness. Yahweh, tradition has it, wiped out 625,548 Israelites during the 38 years spanning the spying of the land till the 40th year. However, since the itineraries of these traditions vary greatly (see #268, #275, #278) where these Israelites are cut down geographically also varies.
Again, Deuteronomy 2:14 states that the 1st generation Israelites die during the 38 year sojourn from Kadesh to the Wadi Zered—that is during the trek southward to the gulf of the Red Sea and then northward around Edom to the border of Moab (but see the contradictory tradition on the time span of this trek in #279). I reproduce Levine’s map below for a visual on this.
Where these Israelites die off in the Priestly tradition of Numbers 33 as well as in the now combined JP tradition spanning Numbers 14-26 is more difficult to ascertain. Neither tradition explicitly informs us on this matter. Nonetheless, here are the textual data we do seem to know:
- Since P does not have a skirting of Edom tradition in both its itinerary in Num 33 and in Num 21 (see #268, #275) these 1st generation Israelites couldn’t have died on the itinerary northward from the Red Sea around Edom on its east-side and across the Wadi Zered as the tradition in D claims.
- Following the textual claims at Num 14:29-32—“your carcasses will fall in this wilderness [i.e., Paran]” (cf. Num 32:13)—many scholars have seen the Wilderness of Paran as the geography wherein these 625,548 men die off. Thus the arrival at Kadesh in the Wilderness of Zin on the 40th year (Num 20:1) is seen as the end of the 1st generation Israelites—equivalent to D’s arrival at the Wadi Zered also on the 40th year. In this assessment, the out-of-place Hormah victory at Num 21:1-3 is seen as a victory granted by Yahweh due to this new generation’s loyalty, in symmetry with the disloyalty of the 1st generation’s Hormah defeat (see #269). I myself have followed this line of reasoning in earlier posts, but am not so sure now. There is a third alternative.
- Since the actual census of this new 2nd generation of Israelites happens geographically on the plains of Moab (Num 26—“and not a man was left of them except Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun”), it is also possible to see the geography of Paran plus Edom (remember they do not skirt Edom in P but go directly through it), and plus Moab as the whereabouts of the 1st generation’s slaughter. So in this case the territory extends further through Transjordan than what is mentioned in the Deuteronomic tradition. In both cases, #2 and #3, the chronological time frame of their deaths is still from the 2nd year to the 40th—although in the combined JP tradition the journey from Kadesh to the plains of Moab miraculously happens in a manner of months (see #274, #279)!
There is 1 more contradiction drafted for Numbers 21, after which we will move into a discussion of the contradictions inherent in the Elohist Balaam pericope of Numbers 22-24—when all of a sudden the supposed vanquished Moabites appear out of nowhere!
When we get to looking at the contradictions in the book of Deuteronomy, I’m going to argue that this wiping-out-of-the-1st-generation-Israelite tradition was forced upon the Wilderness tradition at a later date. Except for Deut 2:14-15, other verses throughout Deuteronomy suggest that the Israelites that crossed the Jordan in the 40th year were the same Israelites that left Egypt!
As a further side note: this tradition also forces us to reckon that in a period of 1 generation—exactly 38 years—601, 730 male Israelites were born, not including the newborns of the tribe of Levi, nor newborn females!
Again, and as noted elsewhere, it is the Bible itself that informs us that these are stories—told with multiple variations and purposes—which were meant to serve theological and/or ideological purposes of the later time periods in which they were written (8th-5th c. BCE). They are not records of historical facts or events. Ancient Near Eastern historiographers, including our biblical scribes, were simply not recording history. That’s not what these scribes were doing—another misconception held by modern readers that the biblical texts themselves refute!
For further textual data on this point see my How do we know that the biblical writers were not writing history?