#282. What were the borders of Moab: from the Wadi Zered to the Arnon OR from the Wadi Zered to the plains of Moab/Beth-jeshimoth? (Num 21:13; Deut 2:24 vs Num 33:44-49; Ezek 25:9; Is 15-16; Jer 48)
#283. From the Arnon the Israelites travel to Beer, east of Amorite territory (i.e., northern Moab) OR to Almon-diblathaim, directly in northern Moab? (Num 21:16 vs Num 33:46)
#284. Do the Israelites invade and conquer Amorite territory from the east OR do they peaceably trek through northern Moab? (Num 21:21-30; Deut 2:24-37 vs Num 33:46-49)
#285. Did the Israelites settle and live in Amorite territory (i.e., northern Moab) OR merely travel through it? (Num 21:25-32 vs Num 33:46-49)

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The itinerary and geography presented in Numbers 33 (a Priestly text) contradicts the itinerary and geography given in Numbers 21, primarily the Yahwist material (cf. also Deut 2:2-3:17), on a number of points most of which we’ve already looked at:

  1. Num 33:36-38 (P) has the Israelites arrive at Kadesh in the 40th year, contrary to the 2nd year arrival in the earlier Yahwist and Deuteronomic traditions (#274, #279).
  2. Num 33:40 (P) does not present the Israelites marching up to Hormah, contrary to Num 21:1-3 (#268, #270).
  3. Num 33:41 (P) has the Israelites march from Hor directly into Edom, contrary to Num 21:4, where according to this text (J) they move south to the Red Sea and eastward around Edom! See #275, #278.
  4. Num 33:45 (P) presents the Israelites taking a direct route through Moab, not around it as contradictorily implied in Num 21:13-20 (J) and made explicit in Judg 11:18. See #281.
  5. Num 33:47-49 (P) presents the Israelites moving peaceably through northern Moab to the plains of Moab with no mention of the Transjordanian conquest of the Amorites and Amorite territory (Heshbon and its environs, and Bashan) as contradictorily presented in Num 21:21-35.

The textual discrepancies noted in #5 encapsulates all of the contradictions listed for this entry.

We should first solidify our understanding of these 2 contradictory itineraries and geographies of Moab before we get to the more speculative query of why we have 2 contradictory traditions in the first place.

Here are the traditions side-by-side:

P’s itinerary

Iyye-abarim (on the Wadi Zered) ➜ [through southern Moab] ➜ Dibon-gad (on the Arnon)           

➜ Almon-diblathaim ➜ Nebo [through northern Moab]                                                                                  ≠



➜ plains of Moab

J’s itinerary

Wadi Zered ➜ [around southern Moab] ➜ across the Arnon

➜ Beer ➜ Mattanah ➜ Nahaliel ➜ Bamoth ➜ Pisgah [east of northern Moab/Amorite territory]

➜ Jahaz [battle with Amorites and the conquering of all of northern Moab]

➜ Jazer ➜ Bashan (Edrei) [conquering of the Bashan]

➜ plains of Moab (Num 22:1)

Mapping these 2 contradictory itineraries and ideologies yields:

P’s Itinerary                                                                                          J’s Itinerary

P presents the march as a direct peaceable route through Edom, through southern Moab (from the Wadi Zered to the Arnon), through northern Moab (north of the Arnon)—NOT Amorite territory—and onto the plains of Moab!

J, on the other hand, presents the Israelites marching around Edom on the east side, marching around southern Moab on the east side (from the Wadi Zered to the Arnon), and then westward in martial array into northern Moab (Jahaz), but presented here as Amorite territory not Moabite!

An initial confrontation and victory at Jahaz wins the Israelites the entire land from the Arnon north to the Ammonite border at Jazer, and we are told they settle there! And noting yet a further contradiction, this march, battle, conquest, settlement, and living all happens against P’s chronology where we are in the last months of the 40th year of the wilderness period (#268#279)! Obviously in the original J narrative, this material must have been presented earlier in the wilderness period.

From there, in J (Num 21:31), the Israelites venture northward and conquer the Bashan, and then apparently turn around and settle on the plains of Moab. We will see that not only does this itinerary and complete annihilation of the Amorites contradict P’s narrative of Numbers 33, but it will also contradict the Elohist material of Num 22-24, and the J (?) material of Num 25:1-5, where all of a sudden the Israelites are on Moabite territory and being threatened by a Moabite presence!

In other words, the silence of Moabites and Moabite territory in the Yahwist material of Num 21:12-35 and the classifying of northern Moab as Amorite territory served a specific political agenda for the Yahwist writer. For we know from P, E, passages from Isaiah 15-16 and Jeremiah 48 (in both look at the towns listed within the Moabite border), and the Mesha Stela that this territory spanning the Arnon northward to Heshbon and Beth-jeshimon was Moabite territory!

Why then did J claim that it was Amorite, and explicitly go out of his way to make it clear that the Amorites took it from the Moabites, and in turn the Israelites from the Amorites?

Even recognizing that national borders did change throughout antiquity, and that is especially true of Moab’s northern border, the fact still remains that both the Yahwist and Priestly traditions variously drew its northern border. What has happened here is that both the Yahwist and the Priestly writer retrojected into the past, that is into their stories, the borders of Moab as they knew them in their own time periods.

The Yahwist text was written as political and polemical propaganda. We know from the Mesha stela (see also #269) and Kings that Omri conquered this territory and the Moabites remained a tributary vassal to Israel until the death of Omri’s son Ahab (2 Kings 3:4), at which point they revolted and campaigned to reclaim the territory taken under Omri. An extra-biblical source from the mid 9th century BCE confirms this: the Mesha stela. Like so many of the biblical texts, the Mesha stela is also a piece of political propaganda, supporting the king of Moab’s retaking of this territory.

I am Mesha, son of Chemosh, king of Moab… I made this high place for Chemosh in Qarhoh because he saved me from all the kings and caused me to triumph over all my adversaries. As for Omri, king of Israel, he humbled Moab many years, for Chemosh was angry at his land. And his son followed him and he also said, “I will humble Moab.” In my time he spoke thus, but I have triumphed over him and over his house, while Israel has perished forever!

Whereas the Mesha stela was written to legitimate Mesha’s conquest and retaking of his land, passages such as Numbers 21:27-30 (“the Heshbon ballad”), which was written around the same time, likewise attempt to legitimate northern Israel’s possession of the land by claiming that their forefathers conquered it from the Amorites as Amorite territory, and thus any Moabite claim is a moot point. This is how ancient literature functioned and the purposes it served.

The Yahwist text was written to legitimate Omrid control and possession of northern Moab by slyly claiming that the Israelites never took the land from Moab—but from the Amorites! I will discuss more of this in the next entry when we take a closer look at the conquest itinerary in the Heshbon ballad and what it tells us about this source.

Prior to the invasion of Babylon in the early 6th c. BCE, Moab’s northern border extended to Beth-jeshimon and the plains of Moab (Ezek 25:9; Is 15-16; Jer 48). Thus, just as the Yahwist retrojected into his story of the archaic past the very conflicts and political strife with Moab that plagued his time period and so eliminated a northern Moab from his story altogether, so too the Priestly writer drew the borders of his ancient Moab from the geography of his own time period! More examples of scribes retrojecting into the past borders and geographical knowledge of their own time period will be encountered when we get to Deuteronomy. One particular example is his version of the borders of the Bashan, which differ quite a bit from the Yahwist’s version here in Num 21!

3 thoughts on “#282. What were the borders of Moab: from the Wadi Zered to the Arnon OR from the Wadi Zered to the plains of Moab/Beth-jeshimoth? (Num 21:13; Deut 2:24 vs Num 33:44-49; Ezek 25:9; Is 15-16; Jer 48)
#283. From the Arnon the Israelites travel to Beer, east of Amorite territory (i.e., northern Moab) OR to Almon-diblathaim, directly in northern Moab? (Num 21:16 vs Num 33:46)
#284. Do the Israelites invade and conquer Amorite territory from the east OR do they peaceably trek through northern Moab? (Num 21:21-30; Deut 2:24-37 vs Num 33:46-49)
#285. Did the Israelites settle and live in Amorite territory (i.e., northern Moab) OR merely travel through it? (Num 21:25-32 vs Num 33:46-49)

  1. I guess my next question would be why the writer would need to legitimize the two tribes, especially if he wrote after the destruction of Jerusalem. Tribal distinctions largely disappear by this point, at least as recorded in the text, although the actual situation might have been far different. Also, the tribes of Reuben and Gad are assumed to have been deported to Assyria over a hundred years previously, if not overrun by Aram before then.

    In any case, to me the writer seems to be arguing not that the tribes are Israelite, but that they are not Israelite. I can’t make sense of verse 30 otherwise.

    What is clear is that this territory was highly contested and changed hands several times. The stories of Ehud and Jephthah, as well as the story where Saul is named king after repelling an Ammonite invasion, attests to this. It seems likely to me the tribe of Reuben actually had a presence in the Transjordan dating back to the time of the Judges. Reuben certainly seems to have lost significance as a tribe afterwards.

  2. On the other hand, Numbers 32 deals with the Reubenites and the Gadites settling in the Transjordan, and it has enough priestly elements in it that I have to think at least parts of that chapter were part of P. I’m thinking specifically of things like Joshua being identified as a faithful spy, and the mention of Eleazar. I also find it interesting that the half-tribe of Manasseh that settled in Gilead does not get mentioned until verse 33, which might signal a switch to a different source.

    Incidentally, how far does northern Moab extend? It looks like it goes about as far north as the northern coast of the Dead Sea, but does not extend all the way into Gilead. Is that correct?

    1. Robert,

      Yes, a large portion of Numbers 32 comes from the hand of P, interlaced with J material. To your point, it is interesting that the itinerary of P in Num 33 or that of a Priestly redactor as Friedman labels it, makes no mention of a conquest in Transjordan, nor of Sihon and Og. If the P material in Numbers 32 is part of the P tradition of Num 33 (and they might be 2 different Priestly traditions since the itineraries of the P material throughout Numbers various on occasion from that of Num 33), then the settlement of Gilead by the tribes of Reuben and Gad are an alternative settlement story from that of J’s in Num 21.

      In either case it is interesting that the focus in Num 32 becomes the legitimacy of these two tribes as Israelites! And this seems to be P’s thrust here. The concern is that by not crossing the Jordan and taking the Canaanites these tribes risk not being Israelite! Obviously this represents the Priestly writer’s attempt to answer questions pertaining to the legitimacy of Transjordanian Israelites during his own time period!

      Scholars see the reference to the half-tribe of Manasseh as an added earlier source to the chapter that legitimated Manassite settlements in Gilead and Bashan.

      As for the real northern border of Moab, look at Isaiah 15-16 and Jeremiah 48. They both mention cities north of the Arnon as Moabite cities. Its northern border would have been approximately equal to the top of the Dead Sea, there about.

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