And the children of Israel, the entire congregation, came to the wilderness of Zin in the first month, and the people stayed in Kadesh. (Num 20:1)
Numbers 20 picks up the narrative of the wilderness wanderings, our last episode having been the scouting of the land story in Num 13-14 (#233, #234, #235-236, #237, #238-240). Again, it is important to keep in mind that many of these wilderness stories were preserved as separate traditions that were only later brought together to form the somewhat less than continuous narrative of what is now Numbers.
Many of these stories were also told with variation in the different and independent textual or oral traditions that existed before the scroll of what was to become Numbers was created. So for example, Numbers 20:2-13 is the Priestly version of the story of the Waters of Meribah, which a later editor placed here in the narrative, while placing E’s version of the same story at Exodus 17:2-7 (see forthcoming #262; cf. #125, #127, #128, etc.).
Moreover, a number of places in the book of Numbers reveal that the wilderness itinerary of the older JE traditions contradicts the itinerary recorded by the later Priestly tradition. The traditions about Kadesh is one such example. Our 2 Kadesh contradictions are a direct result of bringing these divergent traditions together. In other words, each of the traditions now preserved in Numbers, primarily J and P, depict variant views on when the Israelites arrived at Kadesh.
In sum, there are 3 main points of contention, or contradictions, between the older Yahwist material and the later Priestly narrative with respect to Kadesh:
- The specific location of Kadesh
- When did the Israelites arrive at Kadesh
- How long did the Israelites stay in Kadesh
The composite text of Numbers as it now stands, that is the way in which these textual traditions were ultimately assembled together (primarily the J and P traditions), does not provide clear answers for all of our queries. Nonetheless, there are a number of observations we can glean from the text(s). The issue is further complicated because in reality each of the points above cannot be addressed separately. A query into one naturally leads us into the other two.
1. We first here of Kadesh in Numbers 13:26—the place to where the Israelites return after the spy episode, and there we are told it is in the wilderness of Paran—traditionally associated with the northern Sinai peninsula. We would furthermore assume that Kadesh was also the Israelites’ point of departure for the spies narrative, even though our text makes no mention of this. Luckily, this assessment is confirmed in both Numbers 32:8—“I sent them from Kadesh”—and the Deuteronomic tradition (Deut 1:19). It will not be surprising to learn that both the storyline in Num 13:17-24, 27-31, etc. (see #234, #235-236, #237, #238-240) and in Num 32:7-12 come from the same textual tradition, the Yahwist.
Yet, Num 20:1, 27:14, 33:36, and Deut 32:51 (also a P text) all state that Kadesh was in the wilderness of Zin—that is the southern Negeb. And geographically speaking, we might acknowledge that this tradition is correct. Kadesh is in the southern Negeb, lying on the southern most border of Judah. Initially it would seem that one odd passage, Num 13:26, should not present that much of a difficulty. Obviously a mistake was made… or was it? What is the significance of placing Kadesh in Paran—if indeed this was a conscious editorial decision made by a later redactor?
One hypothesis is that the later Priestly redactor did some geographical fudging in order to get the older J version of the Kadesh-spies story, which happens earlier in the wilderness period, into the Wilderness of Paran—and not the Negeb. Levine (Numbers 1-20, Anchor Bible, 54) reconstructs the original sources that now make up Numbers 13:26 as follows—the original J version in Red, the later P added redaction in Blue.
They proceeded, coming to Moses and to Aaron and to the entire community of the Israelites in the Wilderness of Paran, at Kadesh, and brought him <them> a report and to the entire community and showed him <them> the fruits of the land.
Why would the Priestly writer/redactor insist here, and only here, that Kadesh was in the Wilderness of Paran—fudging the geography by placing the location of Kadesh more southward, while in other places (Num 20:1, etc.) keeping its proper location in the Negeb, in the wilderness of Zin?
In short, so that the Israelites do not arrive in the Negeb proper until all the previous wilderness generation had died in Sinai before entering the Negeb—in line with P’s statement in Num 14:32 that “You, your carcasses, will fall in this wilderness”—i.e., Paran. “And your children will be roving in the wilderness 40 years…” In other words, according to P’s thinking, the Israelites cannot arrive in the Negeb, Kadesh, early on in the wilderness period—as they do in J’s spy story—because P wants all the previous wilderness generation to die off before the Israelites reach the Negeb, i.e., Kadesh. Uncomfortable as it may be, this geographical fudging by the Priestly redactor allows Kadesh to be both in the wilderness of Paran (i.e., not in the Negeb in the early wilderness period) and in the wilderness of Zin (i.e., the Negeb proper in the 40th year)! In short, the Priestly redactor is confined to recasting his own version of the wilderness story by the parameters already established in the traditional version that he has received—the older Yahwist’s version!
This textual inconsistency about the location of Kadesh leads us into our second query: When did the Israelites arrive at Kadesh?
2. When did the Israelites arrive at Kadesh? According to the traditions preserved in Numbers 13-14—specifically the J version of the spy story (see #234, #235-236, #237, #238-240)—the incident of the spies and thus too of their arrival at Kadesh occurred at the beginning of the wilderness campaign, that is soon after they had left southern Sinai! The Deuteronomic tradition follows J in its retelling of the story (Deut 1:19, 46), and Judges 11:16-17 further corroborates this. Thus according to these traditions, the Israelites arrived at Kadesh at the beginning of the wilderness campaign.
But the textual tradition of the later Priestly writer does not acknowledge this; in fact, it contradictorily doesn’t place the Isaelites’ arrival at Kadesh until their 40th year! Although Numbers 20:1 only states that they arrived at Kadesh in the 1st month, that this is in fact the 1st month of the 40th year is confirmed by other passages and textual indicators from this same tradition.
First, Numbers 20:23-29 recounts Aaron’s death atop mount Hor. We know from another P passage (Num 33:38) that Aaron died on the 5th month of the 40th year. So according to P’s chronology Num 20 recounts the first 5 months of the 40th year. (This P narrative is then interrupted by a lengthy E insert in the composite narrative of Numbers as it now stands, and doesn’t pick up again until Num 25:6, when we learn of an event that happens while the people are still mourning Aaron’s death!) Second, P’s detailed chronology of the wilderness itinerary in Numbers 33 also acknowledges that the Israelites did not arrive at Kadesh until the 40th year (Num 33:36)! It is these competing traditions—J and P—which were later edited together, that create our current contradictions.
Why did the later Priestly writer feel the need to alter the older traditions (primarily J) that were handed down to him when he wrote his version of the story? This and similar queries should be our guiding questions—not attempts to harmonize away the messages of these ancient scribes in a vain and self-centered attempt to impose later readers’ beliefs onto these texts as more significant than the beliefs and ideologies of these authors. If the earliest traditions about Kadesh recount that the Israelites arrived there early in the wilderness campaign, and later scribes rewrote this to suit their own agenda, then our task is to ask why did a later scribe rewrite this tradition? What was his agenda, ideology, beliefs in doing so? These are the questions and discussion that this website hopes to elicit. It is about the texts, their authors, their beliefs, and their reasons for changing the stories that they themselves inherited—all of which (earlier and later rewritten traditions) were later redacted together to form the biblical text as we now have it. The meticulous study of the Hebrew text and of ancient Near Eastern literature in general over the last 300 years has revealed, and continues to reveal, this to us.
That said, certainly once we get into entertaining questions about why a later scribe rewrote the stories handed down to him in an earlier tradition (see forthcoming contradictions for Deuteronomy, which will all be of this sort), we’re in more speculative territory. But it seems, given Kadesh is on the border of southern Judah and part of the Negeb proper, that the later Priestly school wished to have the Israelites wandering for 39 of the 40 years in northern Sinai, the wilderness of Paran, whereupon the older generation were all killed, so that in their arrival at Kadesh, it is the new wilderness generation that enters the Negeb (see Num 26—P’s new census).
3. The only tradition that clearly informs us of how long the Israelites were wandering compared to how long they remained in Kadesh comes from the Deuteronomic source.
The time that we spent in travel from Kadesh-Barnea until we crossed the Wadi Zered was 38 years, until that whole generation of warriors had perished from the camp. Indeed, the hand of Yahweh struck them, to root them out from the camp, to the last man. (Deut 2:14-15)
So according to this tradition, the older generation perish during the 38-year wandering from Kadesh till they enter Transjordan (but cf. Deut 1:46). This tradition, as already noted, also accords the Kadesh arrival at the beginning of the wilderness campaign. Since D seems to follow J on other points, it has been suggested that the older Yahwist source also proposed a brief stay at Kadesh, near the beginning of the wilderness campaign. But we don’t know for sure. J’s whole Edom story—now at Num 20:14-20—was squeezed into P’s chronology so it now occurs illogically in the 40th year (see forthcoming #266). Undeniably, the Edom affair originally occurred near the beginning of the 40 year period, not at the end (see Deut 2:1-8), so J could have originally had the Israelites staying at Kadesh an extended period of time, maybe even 38 years!