#305. From which mountain does Moses view the promised land: Abarim OR Pisgah OR Nebo? (Num 27:12; Deut 32:49 vs Deut 3:27, 34:1 vs Deut 32:49, 34:1)


And Yahweh said to Moses:

  1. “Go up this mountain, Abarim” (Num 27:12 [P])
  2. “Go up to the top of Pisgah” (Deut 3:27 [D])
  3. “Go up this mountain Abarim, Mount Nebo” (Deut 32:49 [P or R])
  4. “to the mountain of Nebo, to the top of Pisgah” (Deut 34:1 [D])

It looks as if there were differing traditions concerning the mountain Moses ascended and from where he was allowed to view the promised land. It also looks as if later writers and/or redactors were aware of these differing traditions and tried to link them together. I have identified these traditions from the scholarly literature: P = the 6th c. Priestly source; D = the 7th c. Deuteronomic source; and R = the 5th c. Redactor, who was himself of the Priestly tradition.

Scholars are content to classify Abarim as a range of mountains. This has largely been supported by the plural “mountains of Abarim” noted in Numbers 33:47-48, which, these verses also tell us, are located in front of Mount Nebo. And the encampment Iyye-Abarim (Num 33:43) also implies a mountain range. If this assessment is correct, then it is possible to eliminate one of these contradictions and to understand Deut 32:49 as stating “Go up to Mount Nebo, in the mountains of Abarim.” We should further note that Deut 32:49 and Num 27:12 are part of the same textual tradition, P. So the fact that there are no compelling inconsistencies with these two verses is not surprising.

The real problems start when we get to Nebo and Pisgah. Mount Nebo has been archaeologically identified. Pisgah, however, still remains uncertain. Given that Abarim is now a mountain range and that apparently Nebo is part of that range, then it is quite possible to see Pisgah as part of that mountain range as well. So the remaining contradiction is between Pisgah and Nebo. Not surprisingly theologically-minded archaeologist and Christian apologist have sought to make the identification of these two mountains identical. But I would stress that the biblical traditions themselves seem to bear witness to the fact that they were competing traditions and that the biblical scribes/redactors themselves tried to combine them. This seems evident enough in Deuteronomy 34:1.

If we look at the traditions above. Pisgah is only mentioned in the Deuteronomic tradition. And it is only in Deut 34:1 that there was an explicit attempt to link Pisgah with Nebo. The text might have originally read, “to the top of Pisgah” as Deut 3:27 does. So originally the Deuteronomic tradition told the story with Mount Pisgah as the mountain that Moses ascended. Later, it would seem, that a Redactor aware of the Abarim-Nebo tradition of P added Nebo into the mix and made it identifiable with Pisgah.

There are other differences between Deut 3:23-28 where Moses allegedly renarrates the events of Num 27:12-21.

7 thoughts on “#305. From which mountain does Moses view the promised land: Abarim OR Pisgah OR Nebo? (Num 27:12; Deut 32:49 vs Deut 3:27, 34:1 vs Deut 32:49, 34:1)

  1. mountains of the Abarim — the word “abarim” is a transliteration (an ancient Hebrew word that was not translated) “abarim” goes back to Abraham’s time, “abarim” simply means “beyond” or the mountains “beyond” the Jordan valley. Looking from Israel to the mountains on the other side of the Jordan, they were called the “abarim” the mountains “beyond”.

    Pisgah — is also a transliteration of a Hebrew word that means “peaks” or in Nebo’s case, the “highest peak”.

    So, to fill in the whole concept, Mt. Nebo was the highest “pisgah/peak” in the mountains of the “abarim” (the mountains “beyond” the Jordan).

    This is not a contradiction at all.

  2. The Numbers 27 chronology struck me as strange because even after isolating the Priestly version it doesn’t make any sense. I suppose someone decided that since the priestly version of assigning land to Reuben and Gad mentions Joshua and Eleazar, then the story where Joshua is named as the successor of Moses needed to be inserted before then.

  3. Sorry. ;-) Itamar Kislev from the University of Haifa, Israel, has an interesting analysis of these verses: http://tinyurl.com/o4c2n2u
    He argues that verse 21 has been reworked, and that the original version did not mention Eleazar of the Urim. Among the pieces of evidence leading to this conclusion is that the syntax is confused. Eliminating the offending portion, in normal type for emphasis, eliminates ambiguity:

    Numbers 27:20-21:
    20 You shall give him some of your authority, so that all the congregation of the Israelites may obey.
    21But he shall stand before Eleazar the priest, who shall inquire for him by the decision of the Urim before Yahweh; at his word they shall go out, and at his word they shall come in, both he and all the Israelites with him, the whole congregation.’

  4. Numbers 27:16 ff. is P’s opportunity to insert his version of Joshua’s appointment, complete with the priest Eleazar sharing the stage, of course. This contrasts with D, in which Joshua was Moses’ assistant and chosen as Moses’ successor after the spy incident (Deut. 1:38), and reiterated in Deut. 3:28 and 31:7-8. E even claims that Joshua joined Moses in the Tent of Meeting (Ex. 33:8-11), but P explains Joshua’s being allowed in the Promised Land by claiming that he, along with Caleb, was a faithful spy (contradictions 238-239). That Joshua would succeed Moses is a foregone conclusion in D and E (who also has Joshua blameless in the golden-calf episode), but this contrasts with P’s Moses, who seems like he doesn’t know whom Yahweh will choose in year 40 of the wanderings.

    1. Damn John, that was going to be my next contradiction — just sorting out the pieces. But you’ve done that all here for me :)

  5. Does that passage in Numbers 27 seem out of place? Narratively speaking, after this we still have a war with Midian and dealing with the Transjordanian tribes in the priestly source before Moses finally ascends that mountain at the end of Deuteronomy. Joshua is appointed leader but he doesn’t do anything.

    1. Hi Robert,

      Yes, I would say that there are severe problems with the Priestly chronology all together, or at least how it has been imposed onto what appears to be once independent traditions/stories.

      Recall that Aaron died in Num 20:28 and we are informed that he died on the 1st day of the 5th month of the 40th year (Num 33:38-39; contradicts Deut 10:6 which I missed), and that the Israelites mourned his death 1 whole month (Num 20:29). Deuteronomy 1:3 claims that they are assembled at the plains of Moab to hear Moses’ speech on the 1st day of the 11th month of the 40th year. So in the redacted text as it now stands, all the events from Num 21 to 36 happen in the span of 5 months! Allow me to reiterate for our readers. That’s:

      ▪ A war with the Canaanites at Hormah (#271-273)
      ▪ A whole trek back to the Red Sea !! (#274)
      ▪ The trek through and around Edom (#275)
      ▪ The trek through and around southern Moab (#281)
      ▪ The invasion of northern Moab and the defeat of the Ammonites there (#282-285)
      ▪ An invasion more northward and conquest of the Bashan. So thus far it has been around 450 kilometers that this 2 million plus group with livestock has traversed, not too mention the spoils of Egypt they’re carrying, and the 7.5 tons of gold and bronze for the portable Tabernacle (#158), etc.)
      ▪ The apostasy at Baal Peor
      ▪ A second census of this 624,730 able-bodied males over 20
      ▪ Moses’ ascent and descent up the mountains of Abarim, or Nebo which is the highest peak!
      ▪ A brutal war with the Midianites that geographically makes little sense; the Midianites belong to the southern Negeb, not northern Moab where the Israelites are currently encamped.
      ▪ The portioning of the land east of the Jordan to Gad, Reuben and Machir, and the building of their cities there!

      Phew! That’s a lot to do in 5 months!

      I will discuss the double ascent stories in Deuteronomy (3:23-29 and 32:48-52 & 34:1-10) later, but basically the first one in Deut 3 is Moses renarrating the event of Num 27, presumably, and with variation (#306). But the second one, the end of Deuteronomy is what we call a resumptive repetition. It repeats the same text as found in Deut 3:27 (see the more clear one in Ex 24:1 & 24:9). In other words the scribe has signaled (to other scribes) that he has inserted material in between this repetition. My take is that in order for the 7th century author of Deuteronomy to present his law code, the Josianic law code of Deut 12-26, as that of Moses in a tradition that already narrated Moses’ death, he had to postpone that death and insert his laws into the tradition. And that’s exactly what happens in this text’s composition. So originally Moses ascended and died in Deut 3 (well what was to become Deut 3), but instead of narrating his death here, the scribe only renarrates the ascent and postpones the death and creates a resumptive repetition for the ascent in 34:1 (and 32:48-52 might have been another or an insert to harmonize D’s tradition with P’s) in order to have Moses recite Josiah’s 7th century law code! This is masterful stuff when you think about it, and it displays the power of literature!

      As far the Midianite battle, I suggested elsewhere (this comment), following Friedman, that the “mourning” referred to at the beginning of this episode back at Num 25:6 is properly the same “mourning” mentioned in P’s record of Aaron’s death (Num 20:29). So the P narrative ending at Num 20:29 doesn’t resume until Num 25:6 with the affair of Phinehas and continues into the Midianite campaign (Num 31). These all must have been originally together. This also solves the geographical problem of Num 31 since in the redacted text the Israelites are way north on the plains of Moab. But if Num 20:23-27 & Num 25:6-19 & Num 31 were once together then the Midianite war makes better sense since the geographical context of Num 20:23-27 is the southern Negeb where the Midianites lived!

      So we have a very composite text of different traditions that creates for some interesting disharmonies between these sources. I’d say that Num 27—the daughters of Zelophehad incident & Moses’ ascent—might also have been separate traditions. And certainly the Priestly text of Num 28-29, enumerating the public sacrifices, was a separate text—probably inserted on the tail of Num 27 seeing that Moses was atop Abarim, the redactor probably thought let’s just append some more laws here.

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