#372. Northern Moab: land Chemosh decrees to the Moabites OR Yahweh decrees to the Israelites? (Num 21:29; Judg 11:24 & the Mesha stele vs Deut 2:24)

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Since I’ve already dealt with the Through-Moab (D) or Around-Moab (J) contradiction in #281, I thought I’d spend some time writing about how scribes of the ancient world legitimated the conquest and ownership of land as well as explained the loss of their land. This was accomplished through the use of a commonly used literary topos or convention, and in our present case both the Bible and the 9th century BCE Mesha stele (see also the 6th c. Babylonian cylinder seal) bear witness to this literary convention. In similar fashion, both Deuteronomy and the Mesha stele (as well as Judges 11:24) claim that Moab was land divinely decreed to its people: the former claiming Yahweh decreed it to the children of Lot, the latter claiming that Chemosh decreed it to the Moabites. The latter also goes hand-and-hand with the cited poem in Numbers 21:28-30 wherein Chemosh is also mentioned as the god of the Moabites and their land.

Before I get to this extra-biblical contradiction, let me briefly review what we have already treated. We saw in previous entries (Contradictions #364-369) that the author of Deuteronomy took liberties in having his Moses renarrate the Edom event, now presenting the Edomites as amicable toward their Israelite brethren and allowing them to pass through their territory and to procure food and drink. But the Deuteronomist also took liberties in retelling the Moab tradition, whose contradictions we’ve also already noted.

  • Contradiction #281. Did the Israelites pass around Moab OR through Moab?
  • Contradiction #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?
  • Contradiction #283. From the Arnon the Israelites travel to Beer, east of Amorite territory (i.e., east of northern Moab) OR to Almon-diblathaim, directly in northern Moab?
  • Contradiction #284. Do the Israelites invade and conquer Amorite territory from the east OR do they peaceably trek through northern Moab?
  • Contradiction #285. Did the Israelites settle and live in Amorite territory (i.e., northern Moab) OR merely travel through it?
  • Contradiction #286. Were the Moabites present in Moab OR not?

As a review of the discrepancies between the Moab traditions in our sources, I briefly note the following in chronological order:

1. The 8th– 9th century Yahwist Tradition (Num 21:15-31)

  • The early Yahwist tradition identifies the borders of Moab as the land between the Wadi Zered and the Arnon river, wherein the city of Ar lied. (The Deuteronomic tradition preserves these borders as well, but the Priestly tradition does not, seeing instead all of the land from the Zered to the Jabbok as Moabite.)
  • It identifies what we would call northern Moab as Amorite territory, that is from the Arnon river to the Jabbok, the borders of Ammon.
  • Finally this tradition claims that the Israelites passed around Moab (i.e., to the east of the land between Zered and Arnon) and through, by invasion, the land of the Amorites or king Sihon’s land (i.e., northern Moab). See the map to the left.
  • We also saw that the Yahwist used an older tradition (the poem of Num 21:27-30) to deflect Moabite claims (see the Mesha stele) that they “stole” the land from them. Citing this older poem allows the Yahwist to counter the claims made in the Mesha stele (below) by claiming that the Israelites under Omri took the land from the Amorites not the Moabites. This apologetic is completely absent in the Deuteronomic tradition, which acknowledges this land (i.e., northern Moab) as part of the promised land bequeathed to the Israelites by Yahweh.
  • The Yahiwst sees this Transjordanian settlement (i.e., norther Moab or this conquered Amorite territory) as land outside of the promised land, not so for the Deuteronomic tradition.

2. The 7th century Deuteronomic Tradition (Deut 2:18 & 29)

  • Here, as with the rewriting of the Edom tradition, Deuteronomy presents the Israelites passing through Moab (i.e., the land between the Zered to the Arnon).
  • The Amorite territory (i.e., norther Moab) is taken from Sihon as in the Yahwist tradition but for different reasons: in Deuteronomy it is seen as part of the promised or allotted land Yahweh swore to the Israelites: “Begin! Disspossess so to inherit his land!” (Deut 2:24, 31). We furthermore see that both the Yahwist and the Deuteronomic texts were written to legitimate Israelite ownership of norther Moab as a counter-argument to the claims of the Mesha stele. Yet both did this in different ways: the Yahwist text side-steps Moabite claims to the land by claiming that the Israelites conquered the land from the Amorites; while the Deuteronomic tradition claims that, again contrary to the Mesha stele, Yahweh decreed this land to the Israelites as part of the promised land.

3. The 6th century Priestly Tradition (Num 33:41-49)

  • In the itinerary of Numbers 33, “written by Yahweh’s word,” the Israelites pass through both Edom and Moab! See map for P’s route versus J’s.
  • The borders of Moab are from the Zered to the Jabbok, that is both the Moabite and Amorite territories of the J and D traditions.
  • Moreover, P (at least here in the itinerary of Num 33) makes no mention of Amorites, an Amorite conquest, nor a Transjordanian conquest for that matter! See Contradiction #341. This disinterest in the territories of Transjordan has often been used to buttress a post-exilic date for P seeing that the Israelite returning community would have been delimited to the land of Judah.

Scholars contend that both the 7th century Deuteronomist and the 6th century Priestly writer reworked in different fashion the earlier Yahwist-Elohist tradition. This is just one among dozens of other textual examples.

Promised Lands Decreed by Ancient Near Eastern Gods to their Peoples

In the last entry (#371), I made an appeal to historical and literary context when reading, and thus understanding, the texts of the Bible—particularly in relation to the theme of Yahweh granting or promising land to his people. Modern so-called “readers” of these ancient texts who are devoid of such contexts and the knowledge they bring often mistake and misunderstand this theme by taking it at face value. However, the theme of promised land to a people by that people’s deity was a commonplace among the geopolitical and literary landscape of the ancient Near Eastern world. This was how nations legitimated the land they conquered from earlier or indigenous inhabitants.

We already saw how the Deuteronomist prepared its readers for this “rightful” taking of the promised land by creating and presenting precedents:

  • The children of Lot dispossessed the Emim, thereby “rightfully” possessing the land of Moab as decreed to them by Yahweh
  • The children of Esau dispossessed the Horites, thereby “rightfully” possessing the land of Edom as decreed to them by Yahweh
  • The children of Ammon dispossessed the Zamzummim, thereby “rightfully” possessing the land of Ammon as decreed to them by Yahweh

This was all to set up the conquering and dispossession of the indigenous peoples of the land of Canaan and some of Transjordan as promised to the children of Jacob by Yahweh, and this dispossession begins with the taking of northern Moab from Sihon.

Begin! Dispossess so to inherit his land! (Deut 2:24, 31)

But as a common literary topos, this same appeal to divine decree and the possession of land was also legitimated through the scribal pen of other ancient Near Eastern cultures, such as the Moabites, where it was Chemosh—not Yahweh—who decreed Moab’s land as a rightful possession to the Moabites! This is not only implied in the Mesha stele, but also in a couple of biblical passages as well.

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!

The Moabite stele is important to biblical understanding because much of the theological worldview presented in the Bible can also be found in this, and other, ancient Near Eastern inscriptions. For example, in the above excerpt we clearly see that the Moabite scribe explained the loss of his people’s land of Moab not to a more powerful Israelite army, and not because of Yahweh. Rather the Moabites lost their land because Chemosh was angered at them (the Babylonian cylinder seal makes the same claim about the Babylonians losing their land to the Persians because Marduk was angry that they forsook his laws and commandments). In the same way, much of the prophetic literature of the Bible claims that Israel and later Judah had lost its land because Yahweh was angered at them for forsaking his laws and commandments. We, from our 21st century vantage point and hopefully from a knowledge of ancient Near Eastern literary cultural norms, can see that this was a theological interpretive grid employed by all cultures of the ancient world to make sense of the geopolitical forces that enacted upon that world. Each nation’s deity—be it Yahweh, Marduk, Chemsoh, Osiris, etc.—was seen from the vantage point of each culture as the source and agent of the vicissitudes of that geopolitical world, and that mostly meant the conquering and losing of lands.

In short, the stele makes it clear that from the perspective of this Moabite scribe Chemosh controlled what befell the Moabites (blessings or curses) and who possessed the land. Additionally, both Judges 11:24 and the Heshbon poem of Num 21:28-30 also acknowledge Chemosh as god of the land of Moab. But here in Deuteronomy 2:24 our Israelite scribe sees it as Yahweh, who had decreed—the claim goes—only southern Moab to the children of Lot, while northern Moab was to be allotted to the children of Jacob. Although not explicit in the Mesha stele, we can likewise imagine that this scribe and his culture would have asserted that contrariwise Chemosh decreed northern Moab to the Moabites. Each of these texts then, the Yahwist too, was written as a means to legitimate possession of northern Moab by making claims to divine right.

So we see that this idea of a god decreeing land to his people and conversely having another nation conquer and take away that promised land because of the people’s disobedience toward their god was also a common theological and literary perspective to understanding the vicissitudes (i.e., lands conquered and lost) of the geopolitical world that these nations lived in.

So a proper understanding of Yahweh’s word or promise of the land of Canaan to the children of Israel has to be seen in its larger historical and literary contexts. Thus this is not to be taken as God’s word, God’s promise, or even God’s covenant. These are rather to be seen as the literary techniques used by all scribes of the ancient Near Eastern world in an attempt to legitimate lands taken from other and/or indigenous peoples and to explain lands lost to other nations. That is each nation—Israelite, Babylonian, Egyptian, Moabite, etc.—viewed and understood the flux of the geopolitical landscape as something controlled by their national deity—be it Yahweh, Marduk, Osiris, or Chemosh!

Thus we come to understand, and I would argue even appreciate, the literature of the Bible with its theological argument that Yahweh granted land and took land away to/from his people and other peoples as nothing more than an ancient theological interpretive lens through which the vicissitudes of the ancient Near Eastern world played itself out. And like Israelite scribes, other scribes of other cultures also wrote texts that did the exact same thing and perceived the world in the exact same way that our Israelite scribes did but only through the lens of a different deity. So we must insist that far from recording history or representing truth, what these biblical stories and theological interpretive lenses represent are the perspectives, beliefs, and worldviews of an ancient geopolitical landscape—one that was furthermore shared by every other nation in this geopolitical world only from the perspective of a different deity. Understanding our biblical texts as such—as they truly are!—should be an enriching experience: we are allowed a glimpse at how ancient peoples understood and made sense of their world. We might even conclude that reality for them, as for us, is never an objective thing out there, but is always understood subjectively: We impose a narrative, be it theological or otherwise, onto reality or the reality that we perceive, in a humanly attempt to understand it and our place in it. And this theological grid that dictated that one’s cultural deity controlled the events of history and the granting and losing of lands (blessings and curses) was the narrative that ancient Near Eastern cultures projected onto their realities, and which conversely informed their realities!


I often get asked why if I’m not a believer, do I study these texts? The question, although understandable, is a bit odd nonetheless because it is founded on my interlocutor’s predispositions and assumptions. For my part, my unique educational trajectory through various disciplines of the Humanities—Ph.D. in Early Christianity; D.E.A. in Hellenistic Judaism; M.A. in Classical Studies; C.Phil. in Medieval Literature; M.A. in Comparative Literature; B.A. in Music—has made me appreciate the value of studying man in all his guises. Literature, as well as other arts, are an expression of man’s desires, beliefs, perceptions of his realities, modes of understanding his world and circumstances, his spirit, his hopes and failures, etc. In this regard my educational and literary pursuits are much much greater than any believer. They encompass a much larger panorama: man in all his splendor and tragedy. It is an attempt to understand man, including our forefathers, in all his aspects. Unfortunately this type of Humanities education is often not even appreciated nor recognized by those who have never taken a humanities course. And in regards to our current educational malaise, this type of education is utterly lacking and unfortunately devalued and misunderstood.

Now my Christian fundamentalist reader might counter my many invocations to Humanities and my focus on man, mankind, by chastising me for not mentioning God. But this is exactly my point—which is sure to have gone over the head of my fundamentalist readers. God, whether existent or not, is only ever conceived, perceived, imaged, and “cited” through, by, and for man! Our reading of the biblical literature brings this fact to the fore. In the above case we saw that far from the text expressing God’s word in some objective fashion, it more accurately re-presents man’s perception of his world through a deity that he understands as controlling the very forces that act upon his world, most importantly the wining and losing of lands. And it’s fascinating and instructive to learn of these things from this perspective. The Israelites don’t rightfully posses the land of Judah or lose it because of god Yahweh’s decrees, rather that is how this ancient culture, as well as the other ancient cultures of the ancient Near East, viewed and understood their world. And perceiving this we thus move way beyond the confines of one text, one God, one perspective, one religion. Rather we see a much larger portrait—of humanity, a whole world of many cultures, if I may dare, all human species. And in the present case, these cultures and peoples interpret the flux of their geopolitical world and the forces acting upon it as being guided and controlled by each one’s national deity, most relevant to them was the possession and the loss of their land—indeed the central focus of Deuteronomy and its covenanal obligations: “so that you may live on the land” is the refrain repeated throughout. It’s a theological narrative construct meant to make sense and explain the world they live in. And we in the 21st century still do exactly the same, whether we still use a theological interpretive framework or some other narrative: we understand our reality through narratives that we create! And that in itself is fascinating. . . as well as disturbing! But that is mankind! The ultimate journey is to understand ourselves.

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