#268. From Mount Hor the Israelites travel northeast into the Negeb OR south toward the Red Sea OR east into Edom? (Num 21:1-3 vs Num 21:4; Deut 2:1; Judg 11:16 vs Num 21:10-12, 33:40-44)


Following the previous post’s brief introduction to Numbers 21 where the textual, geographical, and chronological problems that this chapter poses were set forth, today’s contradiction addresses the geographical inconsistencies evident in the opening of this chapter by the insertion of J’s (?) version of the Hormah battle at Numbers 21:1-3 and P’s (or R’s, the Priestly redactor’s) intermittently inserted itinerary at verses 4 and 10-11.

In sum, Numbers 21 preserves 3 conflicting traditions that have the Israelites going different places from Hor.

  1. vv. 1-3 present them moving from Hor northeastward into the Negeb, destroying many Canaanite cities, one of which is called “destruction,” that is Hormah.
  2. v. 4 presents them moving directly from Hor (NOT the Negeb!) southward to the Red Sea (see also Deut 2:1; Judg 11:16).
  3. v. 10 presents them moving eastward into Edomite cities (Oboth), and drawing from the parallel tradition in Num 33, directly from Hor (via other Edomite cities).

Here is a visual representation (discussed more fully below).

Making Sense of These Conflicting Traditions and How They Ended Up Here

#1, the variant Hormah tradition, will be treated in the next couple of entries. It is not only awkwardly inserted here at Numbers 21:1-3, but geographically speaking it leaves the Israelites hanging in the Canaan of the Negeb since verse 4 starts the itinerary anew from Hor, not the Negeb! Furthermore the placing of this victory here and the fact that the Israelites successfully enter and conquer southern Canaan completely annuls the necessity to enter Canaan from Transjordan. We will explore more of these conundrums in the forthcoming entries.

In many regards, #2 and #3 are utter opposites. #2 is the older JE tradition where, because of the Israelites lack of faith in the spies episode (#338-240) and because they were destroyed at Hormah according to a variant tradition (#242), Yahweh declared that they would wander the wilderness back down toward the Red Sea (until he could kill them all!) and then northward around Edom through Transjordan.

“Turn and travel tomorrow to the wilderness by way of the Red Sea.” (Num 14:25; cf. Num 21:4)

This same tradition or story is renarrated in Deuteronomy 2:1.

“And we turned and traveled to the wilderness by way of the Red Sea as Yahweh spoke to me [Moses], and we stayed around Mount Seir [i.e., Edom region] many days.”

So in D’s retelling, the Israelites move from Kadesh after the spies incident to the Red Sea, and then turn northward toward Edom and Transjordan (Deu 2:1-2). Furthermore, this tradition informs us that it took 38 of the 40 years of the wilderness period to go from Kadesh in the Negeb, south to the Red Sea, then north toward and around (or through) Edom, and then across the Wadi Zereb into Moab (Deut 2:14). We are also informed that it was during this 38 years of wandering that the 1st generation Israelites were wiped out. Visually this is what the Deuteronomic tradition looks like.

This is the clearest representation of this older tradition. Moreover, it is assumed by scholars that the Deuteronomic tradition presented here faithfully reproduced the older and original Yahwist version of the story (with however its variations; forthcoming).

Yet surprisingly, this 38 year chronology with its 38 year trek from Kadesh, south to the Red Sea, and north around (or through—D’s variation) Edom and into Transjordan is absent in the compiled JP text of the book of Numbers as it has come down to us. That is to say, the imposition of the Priestly writer’s story, chronology, and geography onto this older Yahwist material—thus giving us the combined JP narrative of Numbers 13-21 (see diagram below)—erases this whole 38 year trek. But before we look at the JP narrative of Numbers 13-21, let us first reproduce P’s version of the wilderness itinerary, which is most clearly seen in Numbers 33.

Numbers 33:1-49 is a whole, possibly once independent, textual unit. Whoever wrote this, and it evidences trademarks and stylistics of the Priestly school, was attempting to provide a coherent itinerary of the 40 year wilderness journey. However there are numerous problems when we compare this itinerary with the earlier traditions now preserved in Exodus and Numbers. We will look at these later. At present here is a visual of the wilderness itinerary as P told it.

There are a number of differences from the Deuteronomic (and potentially older Yahwist) version of the itinerary displayed in Numbers 33.

  1. There is no early (2nd year) arrival in Kadesh. The Israelites don’t arrive at Kadesh in this version until the 40th year!
  2. All the 1st generation Israelites die before arriving at Kadesh, i.e., the wilderness of Zin (see #260-261).
  3. In place of the Kadesh–Red Sea tradition, we have an extended Wilderness of Paran itinerary, lasting 38 years. Indeed, since Kadesh is both in the Wilderness of Paran and Zin (#260) and Elath (Red Sea) is in P’s Wilderness of Paran, one could argue that there is a correlation between the Kadesh–Red Sea trek in D (and J) and P’s 38 years in Paran.
  4. The arrival at Edom, however, is in the 40th year in P, while in D (and J) sometime before the 40th year.
  5. There is also no Transjordanian conquest in P! Instead, in P we move from Hor through Edom [Zalmonah➞Punon➞Oboth], through Moab [Iyye-Abarim➞Dibon-gad➞Almon-diblathaim➞Nebo], and settle on the plains of Moab.

So in P (Num 33) there is no early Kadesh sojourn, no trek southward to the Red Sea, no skirting of Edom, and no Transjodanian conquest! As is evident, and for whatever reason, this tradition does not acknowledge the skirting of Edom tradition nor more surprisingly the whole conquest of Transjordan! It does not happen in this tradition! In the end, the Israelites arrive on the plains of Moab without any mention of a Transjordanian conquest. We may initially surmise that P was just not interested in Transjordan and this most likely reflects the historical and geopolitical realities of the 6th-5th centuries BCE when P was written and redacted.

Now let us look at the combined JP narrative as presented in Numbers 13-21. Here is a diagram reproducing how these traditions were combined and the discrepancies and contradictions created as a result of this.

This is how our redactor put together the J & P versions. The problem with Kadesh’s geographical location was already addressed in #260-261. Assuming that P’s itinerary in Numbers 33 was created prior to the combining of P with J, then it would seem that the Priestly redactor did a couple of things in squeezing J into P.

  1. Since Num 33 dictated 38 years of wandering in the Wilderness of Paran, it was only natural that the Priestly redactor (R) placed these years after J’s and P’s version of the spy story, which he also stitched together (#234, #235-236, #237, #238-240). So before arriving in the Wilderness of Zin on the 40th year, P places Israel in the Wilderness of Paran for 38 years, at which point all the Israelites are destroyed.
  2. R also placed a set of laws—now Numbers 15-19—into the narrative at this point.
  3. R preserves J’s mention of a trek toward the Red Sea (Num 14:25), and may have indeed preserved this whole tradition as the 38 years of wandering in the wilderness in Paran. Elath is in P’s Paran. However, D’s 38 years extends to their arrival at Moab.
  4. R inserts the death of Aaron tradition immediately after J’s Edom tradition, both of which conveniently happen in Kadesh / Hor.
  5. R then keeps P’s itinerary—a direct advance into Edom (Num 21:10), matching Numbers 33—into the text, but then stitches onto the end, not P’s end, but J’s Transjordanian conquest stories.
  6. I might speculate that later the Hormah tradition (21:1-3) and the Elohist tradition (21:5-9) were inserted.And what is now verse 4 was pushed down to this location by inserting the Hormah tradition before it.
  7. Num 21:4 is totally out of place here. Contextually it belongs to the JP narratives of Num 13-14.

At any event, no matter how one wishes to speculate how Numbers 21 was redacted together and why, the fact clearly remains that this chapter evidences variant traditions that were stitched together.

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