#313. Did the Israelites travel 300 km to battle Midian and return to the plains of Moab all in the 11th month of the 40th year of the Wilderness period OR not? (Num 31:1-12 vs Deut 2-3)


In my Introduction to Numbers 21, I laid out the chronological and geographical problems created when the variant traditions represented in this chapter were stitched together and a later chronology and wilderness itinerary were superimposed upon it by its editors (see #268 for a visual diagram of this). To some extent Numbers 31 recalls many of these same chronological and geographical discrepancies.

Numbers 31 recounts how the Israelites, commanded by Yahweh, are to avenge themselves “of the Midianites (midyanim)” and “to put Yahweh’s revenge in Midian (bemidyan).” Thus 12,000 men “are sent out against Midian (’al̵ midyan) . . . and they made war against Midian (’al̵ midyan).” “They killed the kings of Midian (malkey midyan),” and “took the women of Midian (midyan) and their infants prisoner.” And they brought all their spoils back to the plains of Moab.

It is clear from the Hebrew text, which makes a distinction between the geographical locale or nation “Midian” and its people “the Midianites,” that the Israelites send an army out to Midian and engage in war against the nation. And in a ritualized genocide dedicated to Yahweh they exterminate all the males, boys, and woman who have known intercourse, and set fire to their homes and despoil all their livestock.

As the title of this entry indicates, then, the placement of the war against Midian in its current location (Num 31) necessitates that the Israelites travel approximately 300 kilometers south to Midian, utterly exterminate the Midianites, and travel back 300 kilometers with spoils in tow to the plains of Moab all in a period of 1 month—the 11th month of the 40th and last year of the Wilderness period.

Since I’ve recently posted about drawing conclusions from the textual data (Being Honest to the Texts), let me put forward the textual data—the observable facts of the text(s)—from which the above conclusion was drawn.

The Chronological Discrepancies

  1. Num 33:38-39 (most likely a later imposed itinerary, but I’m jumping ahead) narrates Aaron’s death at Hor on the 1st day of the 5th month of the 40th year.
  2. Num 20:27-29 is the actual narration of Aaron’s death at Hor (which stands in contradiction to Deut 10:6 in both time and place!).
  3. Num 20:29 states that the the Israelites mourned Aaron’s death for 30 days.

Thus far we can conclude that according to these texts, the narrative starting at Numbers 21:1 and ending with the end of Deuteronomy encompasses the period from the 1st day of the 6th month (the end of the 30 days of mourning for Aaron’s death) to the last day of the 12th month of the 4oth year—7 months total! Thus in its current composite form:

  • All of the events narrated from Numbers 21 to Deuteronomy 34—a total of 50 chapters—transpire during the last 7 months of the 40 year wilderness campaign!
  • And therefore, according to this same chronology, all of the events detailed from Numbers 10:28 (the departure from Sinai) to Numbers 20:29 (the mourning of Aaron’s death)—a total of 10½ chapters—transpire over a period of 39 years and 5 months!

How can 10 chapters narrate approximately 39½ years, and 50 chapters narrate only ½ year of this allegedly 40 year period? Obviously some chronological fudging has happened during the editing of these various stories and squeezing them into a single centuries-later-created chronological framework. The present entry is just one place where this later imposed chronology creates a chronological discrepancy or impossibility. For other places see: #260-261, #267, #274, #279, and #280.

We are additionally informed:

  1. That the Israelites arrive on the plains of Moab on the 1st day of the 11th month (Deut 1:3), which we might harmonize with, or impose upon, Num 33:49 in the itinerary summary and Num 22:1 in the narrative itself where we are told that the Israelites arrive on the plains of Moab immediately following their Transjordanian conquest.
  2. Deut 34:8 (which exhibits the same themes and language as Num 20:27-29) recounts Moses’ death on no specific date, but it does inform us that here too the Israelites mourned for 30 days.

Accounting for the furthest possible date, Moses’ death must have been mourned during the entire 12th month—that is, the last 30 days of the 40th year of the Wilderness period right before Joshua takes charge and leads the Israelites over the Jordan (Josh 1-3).

So taking this chronology and imposing it upon the narrative(s) of the wilderness period extending from Numbers 21:1 (the departure from Hor after the mourning of Aaron’s death) to the end of Deuteronomy (the end of the 30 day mourning of Moses’ death), the following conclusions are inevitable. That is, to these wilderness stories, most likely of different origins and provinces, a later editor/redactor superimposed the chronology articulated in Numbers 33 (+ Deut 1:3 + Deut 34:8) onto these once separate stories, and in so doing created the following chronological impossibilities as it were:

  1. All the events narrated in Numbers 21 must have occurred during a period of 5 months—from the 1st of the 6th month (after the mourning of Aaron) to the 1st of the 11th month (the arrival on the plains of Moab)! This entails:
    1. Entering the Negeb and battling with the king of Arad. But see #270.
    2. Traveling some 500 km to the Red Sea and then north around Edom! But see #268.
    3. Traveling some 300 km through and around Edom and Moab. See #275 & #281.
    4. Traveling into northern Moab and waging war against the Amorites in the land, king Sihon, and conquering it. But see #282-285.
    5. Traveling an additional 100 km northward into the Bashan as far as Gilead and waging war against king Og (but see #286) and then returning to encamp on the plains of Moab.
  2. All the events from Numbers 22:1 to Moses’ death in Deuteronomy 34:1 must therefore happen during a 1 month interval—the 11th month of the 40th year!
    1. The Balaam incident
    2. The Apostasy at Baal Peor (plus the Midianites, see #297-298)
    3. A new consensus of the 601,730 adult males
    4. The giving of the Sacrificial Public Calendar (a variant of earlier Festival Calendars)
    5. The Midianite war in Midian, so an additional 600 km of travel
    6. The assigning of the Transjordanian territories
    7. And the giving of the entire Law code of Deuteronomy!

This, then, is what the narrative(s) from Numbers 21:1 to the end of Deuteronomy look like chronologically when we impose the dates given by, predominately, the later Priestly tradition (Num 33:38-39 + Deut 1:3 + Num 34:8).

Obviously the events listed in #2 depend on a reading of Deut 34:8 which uses up the last month of the 40 years in the Wilderness for the morning of Moses. Thus the theme of mourning for 30 days, both here and in Num 20:27-29—both from P—was stressed as part of this priestly guild’s tenets over and above any concern for making sure this 30 days fits into the chronology of the wilderness period. So we see once again that the story, or what the story conveyed, was more important than the recording of any factual or strictly historical record.

Additionally, what necessitates that the events listed in #1 all transpire over the course of 5 months is the text of Deut 1:3. Through this chronological lens, the arrival on the plains of Moab in Num 22:1 must happen on the 1st of the 11th month, as does coincidentally the narrative setting of the book of Deuteronomy!

The reigning textual hypothesis that best explains this chronological fudging and chronological discrepancies and impossibilities is one that acknowledges multiple sources and different origins (scribal guilds) of these wilderness stories. And these discrepancies, as with every other contradiction inherent in this collection of ancient texts we call the Bible, were created because of an editorial endeavor that sought to preserve these variant traditions. And we have not even acknowledged the varying styles, thematic and ideological emphases, unique Hebraic expressions and vocabulary of these different textual traditions, nor the fact that the textual tradition of Numbers 33 does not recount a Transjordanian conquest (see #333, #282-285, #286). Nor according to the account in Deuteronomy 2-3 do the Israelites battle the Midianites! These are different traditions, to which a later scribe attempted to superimpose a single chronology. Analogously, imagine the type of chronological discrepancies that would get created if one were to impose a chronological framework over all the Marvel comic movies produced over the last 10 years! Some fudging would be evident.

The Geographical Discrepancies

The placement of the narration of the war on Midian in its current chronological and geographical setting—that is, after the Israelites have already arrived on the plains of Moab in the 11th month—necessitates a round trip trek of approximately 600 kilometers south to Midian and back to the plains of Moab. Even forgetting everything else that happens during this same month (#2 above) and even if we accorded this trek the whole month, that’s still approximately 20 kilometers or 12.5 miles a day. And that assumes too that they are marching and butchering the Midianites at the same time!

We should furthermore note that there is no mention of the Midianite war in the itinerary of Numbers 33, which may not be surprising, but more alarming there is no mention of the Midianites nor the war against Midian in Deuteronomy when Moses recounts the Transjordanian conquest and the allotment of its land to the tribes of Gad, Reuben, and Machir—the events that bookend Numbers 31. Nor is anything mentioned of it when Moses briefly mentions the Baal Peor episode (Deut 4:3). In other words the Midianite war is unique to the Priestly source. Numbers 31 is the only passage in the Torah that references this event.

Could it be, then, that when this story was recounted in the original Priestly source, the Israelites were not on the plains of Moab but closer to the geography of Midian? Or, another tentative hypothesis: did P attempt to replace the earlier Yahwist narrative of an all-out conquest of the Amorites in Transjordan (Num 21:12-35), which the Priestly source never mentions, with an all-out conquest of Midian and the extermination of Midianites in Midian and Transjordan?

If we return to Numbers 25, we see a block of text discussing the Baal Peor apostasy (verses 1-5), and then a block of text introducing a new element—the Midianite woman (verses 6-19). This abrupt change from concerns about Moabites (who shouldn’t even be there in the first place! see #287) to those of Midianites and the mention of the end of a plague (v. 8), which is never described as starting, as well as other lexical and thematic features only found in P, has led scholars to assign this passage with its concern on the legitimation of the eternal covenant of the Aaronid priesthood to the Priestly source.

But there is another Priestly feature here that bears on our geographical issue. It is said that the issue with the Midianite woman occurred “while the Israelites were mourning” (v. 6). This same verb (bakah), and indeed the same mourning, is the mourning which started in Num 20:29—where Aaron’s death is mourned for 30 days. So the original P tradition claims that while they were still mourning Aaron’s death, an Israelite brought forth a Midianite woman to the Tent of Meeting. In other words, the original Priestly narrative moved from what is now Num 20:27-29 to Num 25:6-19—the context being the mourning of Aaron’s death.

Thus, from the composite text as it has come down to us, it looks as though a later editor inserted J/E material between the Priestly material of Numbers 20:23-29 and Numbers 25:6-19 (which reads as a continuous narrative when this J/E material is removed). Among this inserted J/E material, which entails the Conquest of Amorite-held Transjordan “from the Arnon to the Jabbok,” the Baalam pericope, and the Baal Peor apostasy, is the mention of the Israelites’ arrival “on the plains of Moab across the Jordan from Jericho” (Num 22:1). So between these two Priestly texts, not only was there inserted J/E material but also and more problematic there was inserted a geographical switch in location! So it seems that in the original Priestly telling of Numbers 25:6-19, which immediately followed Num 20:27-29 (the mourning of Aaron’s death), the Israelites were geographically still in the Sinai peninsula, which would have placed them in closer proximity to Midianite territory!

We could hypothesize, then, that when this J/E material was inserted into the Priestly source (or vice-versa) the result was that the affair with this Midianite woman of Num 25 and the war “on Midian” of Num 31 was geographically reset to where this J/E material now put the Israelites—on the plains of Moab, some 300 km north of Midian! Both of P’s stories, however, make better sense if the Israelites were still in the Sinai peninsula as perhaps was the original setting in this part of the Priestly narrative.

So as with just about every other contradiction posted here, this particular geographical and chronological discrepancy that now appears in our composite Wilderness narrative was the result of an editorial endeavor that attempted to safeguard Israel’s various and variant traditions by stitching them together, as best as possible, to form a larger narrative fabric. But this fabric itself evidences seams, fractures, and different textures that enable us to hypothesize about its creation, and about its compositional makeup and history.

11 thoughts on “#313. Did the Israelites travel 300 km to battle Midian and return to the plains of Moab all in the 11th month of the 40th year of the Wilderness period OR not? (Num 31:1-12 vs Deut 2-3)

  1. You could do another one: Did Balaam want to curse Israel or not? (Deut. 23:5, Joshua 24:9-10 vs. Numbers 24:10-13, Micah 6:5)
    And I would say that Numbers 31:16 is the only verse in the Hebrew Bible that says Balaam was involved in the Baal Peor incident, since Revelation 2:14 implies this also. :-)

  2. Steven wrote:John, nice find. I’m not sure of what source-critical scholarship says about Joshua 13, but verses 21b-22 almost look like an editorial insert, perhaps trying to fold the Priestly tradition of Num 31 into the Deuteronomic tradition which makes no mention of the Midianites (Deut 3).

    It seems clear that whoever wrote Joshua 13:21-22 conflated Numbers 21’s defeat of Sihon, king of the Amorites, with Numbers 31:8:

    Numbers 21:21-24:
    21 Then Israel sent messengers to King Sihon of the Amorites…But Sihon would not allow Israel to pass through his territory. Sihon gathered all his people together, and went out against Israel to the wilderness; he came to Jahaz, and fought against Israel. Israel put him to the sword…

    Numbers 31:8:
    8They killed the kings of Midian: Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur, and Reba, the five kings of Midian, in addition to others who were slain by them; and they also killed Balaam son of Beor with the sword.

    Joshua 13:21:
    …the kingdom of King Sihon of the Amorites, who reigned in Heshbon, whom Moses defeated with the leaders of Midian, Evi and Rekem and Zur and Hur and Reba, as princes of Sihon, who lived in the land.

    It appears that the author/editor inherited these respective J and P texts and put a D twist on it. Not only is there no mention of a battle with the Midianites, consistent with Deuteronomy 2-3, but v:22 recalls the death of Balaam and refers to him as one “who practiced divination” (so NRSV; KJV says “soothsayer”), something derided in Deuteronomy 13 and 18. Numbers 22 mentions the “rewards of divination” offered to Balaam, but Numbers 22-24, like Micah 6:5, says that Balaam did *not* curse Israel.

    1. Thanks John. Although I haven’t yet delved into Joshua, the secondary literature suggests that it was heavily edited by the Priestly school. On that note it is interesting that they would bring Joshua 13 into harmony with Numbers 31, but never bother to do that with Deut 2-3.

      I’m currently writing up another Balaam contradiction, Num 31:16—the only verse in the Bible that identifies Balaam as the instigator behind the Baal Peor apostasy!

  3. There appears to be a chronological discrepancy about when the “kings of Midian” (Nu. 31:8) were killed, since Joshua 13 says that they were vassals of Sihon (and are referred to as “leaders” rather than “kings”) who were killed in Canaan when Sihon perished:

    Numbers 31:7-8a:
    7They did battle against Midian, as Yahweh had commanded Moses, and killed every male. 8They killed the kings of Midian: Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur, and Reba, the five kings of Midian, in addition to others who were slain by them…

    Joshua 13:15-21:
    15 Moses gave an inheritance to the tribe of the Reubenites according to their clans. 16Their territory was from Aroer, which is on the edge of the Wadi Arnon, and the town that is in the middle of the valley, and all the tableland by Medeba; 17with Heshbon, and all its towns that are in the tableland; Dibon, and Bamoth-baal, and Beth-baal-meon, 18and Jahaz, and Kedemoth, and Mephaath, 19and Kiriathaim, and Sibmah, and Zereth-shahar on the hill of the valley, 20and Beth-peor, and the slopes of Pisgah, and Beth-jeshimoth, 21that is, all the towns of the tableland, and all the kingdom of King Sihon of the Amorites, who reigned in Heshbon, whom Moses defeated with
    the leaders of Midian, Evi and Rekem and Zur and Hur and Reba, as princes of Sihon, who lived in the land.

  4. What of Gideon’s battles against the Midianites in the Book of Judges? Maybe I just don’t understand the geography of the period, but I don’t understand how Midian would be afflicting Manasseh given how far south it is.

    1. I’m not sure I have an answer for that Robert. It has been argued by some that the Israelite scribes used the term “Midianites” as a generic term to label the “other” against whom the Israelites were warring. On another note, the exact identity of the Midianites is unclear from the biblical accounts themselves. Indeed both the accounts in Judges 6-8 and in the excerpt cited by John, Joshua 13, the Midianites, and here specifically the 5 kings of Midian cited in Num 31, are portrayed as being “in the land”—in Transjordanian land according to Joshua 13 as princes to Sihon, and in northern Israel according to Judges 6-8.

      What does seem to be clear, is that they are not indigenous to Canaan, as the Amorite, Canaanite, Hittite, Perizzite, Hivite, and Jebusite are.

      John, nice find. I’m not sure of what source-critical scholarship says about Joshua 13, but verses 21b-22 almost look like an editorial insert, perhaps trying to fold the Priestly tradition of Num 31 into the Deuteronomic tradition which makes no mention of the Midianites (Deut 3).

  5. I dont get it, who were those people Yahweh commanded, i dont see any names for any of them… a unnamed army or batallion or whatever a massive army is called, how did they deal with getting food, and how the f do they organize moveing so many people back and forth..

    1. Indeed Rain, I hear you. Here are some more fun facts of impossibility that I forgot to mention.

      So Moses sends out 12,000 soldiers (1,000 from each tribe) to travel 300 kilometers south, do battle against Midian (where not 1 Israelite dies), and then return with their war spoils. But here is what these 12,000 men of war return with on their 300 km trek back to the plains of Moab:

      • 675,000 sheep
      • 72,000 cattle
      • 61,000 asses
      • 32,000 virgins (not including the boys under 20 and the married woman which where killed by Moses’ command when they returned)
      • and at least 16,750 shekels (about 420 lbs.) of gold which was donated to Yahweh (not including their spoils of silver, bronze, and iron)

      So each soldier was personally responsible for transporting 300 kilometers: 67 animals, 3 prisoners of war, and maybe ½ lb. of metal each!

      What a feat!

      Other fun facts:

      • The portable Tabernacle that the Israelites have been carrying through the wilderness for 40 years weighs about 7.5 tons! (Contradiction #158. Is the people’s gold used for fabricating the Golden Calf OR for the construction of the Ark, Menorah, Tabernacle, and Altar of incense?)

      • On the day this 7.5 ton sacrificial institution is set up and anointed there are sacrificed a total of: 36 bulls, 72 rams, 60 goats, and 72 lambs. Yahweh himself consumes 1 bull, 1 ram, and 1 goat a day. Hungry deity! (Contradiction #221. What transpires on the day Moses sets up and anoints the Tabernacle: Aaron and his sons are anointed as Yahweh’s priests and shut in the Tent of Meeting for a 7 day ordination OR Israel’s 12 chieftains present sacrificial offerings to Yahweh, 1 a day for the following 12 days?)

      Oh, but wait, Yahweh didn’t even order sacrifices in the wilderness period! Contradiction #155. Does Yahweh command sacrifices during the wilderness period OR not?

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