There are presently two traditions in the book of Numbers that recount how the town of Hormah, which means “destruction” in Hebrew, got its name. It is difficult to determine which one is from the Yahwist and which from the Elohist, or indeed from other archival traditions.
At any event, Numbers 14:44-45 is the conclusion of the spying of the land story and is presented as yet another story about Israel’s rebellious nature during the wilderness period. Since all were found lacking faith, other than Caleb (but see #238-240), Yahweh decreed that they are not to go up and engage in battle but rather are to turn back toward the wilderness and head southeast toward the Gulf of Elath/Aqaba (14:25). Yet the Israelites decide to go up and fight the inhabitants of the land anyway. As a result of not obeying Yahweh’s decree not to go up and do battle, the story elaborates how the rebellious bunch were struck down and destroyed to pieces by the Canaanites and Amalekites of the Negeb at Hormah. It is for this reason that the place was named “Hormah”—because Israel was utterly destroyed. Since Hormah lies on the southern border of Judah and the Negeb, this defeat functions as the reason why the Israelites must now enter Canaan indirectly through the conquest of Transjordan, which will be the focus of the rest of the wilderness narrative. In other words they failed to take it directly from the south at Hormah.
Yet the alternative tradition now placed at Numbers 21:1-3 records a victory over the Canaanites and Amalekites here, and contrary to the previous account states that the place was named Hormah on account of the Canaanites’ destruction at the hands of the Israelites. What complicates matters further is that the insertion of this story into Numbers 21:1-3, which must have been done by a later redactor, totally negates its narrative context. That is, the Israelites have just been refused access to Edom (20:14-21) and must therefore skirt along the southern and eastern border of Edom in order to travel northward around Edom and into Moab over the Wadi Zered (21:12-20). But the insertion of the Hormah victory at Num 21:1-3 is out of place.
First, geographically it is in the other direction and on the opposite side of the Dead Sea! Second, and more problematic, the Israelites very victory at Hormah means that they have successfully entered into the hill country of Judah, and therefore do not have to skirt around Edom to enter the promise land through Transjordan! In other words this story was poorly inserted into the wilderness narrative by a later redactor.
Recall that the alternative version recounting the Israelites defeat in Num 14:44-45 meant that they were forced to enter Canaan through Trandjordan. But a successful victory of this town that lied on the border of Judah and the northeast Negeb meant that they did indeed breech the Judahite frontier. It makes no sense, narratively and historically, to have the Israelites enter the land of Canaan via a successful victory at Hormah on the border of Judah in Num 21:1-3, and then portray them as traveling back toward the Red Sea (the Gulf of Elath/Aqaba) and around Edom only to reenter Judah from the east. There are other interesting and incoherent things going on in chapters 20-21 which we will explore momentarily.
As we have encountered elsewhere, there is no historical reliability to these accounts. They most likely were separate exaggerated accounts of military skirmishes that actually occurred during the early monarchy (10th-9th c. BCE) and which were then retrojected into the past and assembled together, rather awkwardly, as part of the Priestly writer’s wilderness narrative.
Historically speaking, the kingdom of Judah often did find itself in military skirmishes with the southern border towns of the Negeb. But as we have seen in previous textual examples, later Israelite scribes often projected their own geopolitical world onto the landscape of the archaic past (see #44, #62, #81).
But this is not the only clue in ascertaining when and why these traditions were written. Extensive archaeological digs at the ancient sites of Arad and Hormah reveal…. well, nothing. There are no signs of developed towns, no signs of battles, no signs of anything in the alleged time period proposed by these biblical narratives (the 13th-12th centuries BCE). In other words, there is no indication on the ground that these towns were even inhabited during the time frame suggested by the biblical sources, let alone partook in military armed battles.
Archaeologist William Dever writes: “there are no Late Bronze Canaanite cities to be found anywhere in the northern Negev. . . so the Israelites could hardly have battled the native inhabitants of the land there.”1 The conquest of the Negeb, in other words, is a complete fabrication! It is we who approach these texts with misguided and false presuppositions, thinking that the scribes were recording historical events. Indeed, a battle at Hormah might have actually occurred, many perhaps, but it would have been one that happened centuries after the purported time frame of these biblical stories. Biblical scribes merely retrojected these conflicts into the archaic past as a way of explaining their current geopolitical world. By current I mean the geopolitical realities of the time period in which these scribes, the Yahwist and Elohist, were active, the 9th-8th centuries BCE.
- William Dever, Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From? (Eerdmans 2003), 27-30.↵