A Brief Introduction to Numbers 21


Numbers 21 poses a number of problems for the critical reader, all of which will be examined in detail over the forthcoming entries (about a dozen).

  • Textually from a source-critical analysis, the chapter is a melange of different textual traditions, battle records, archaic poetry, and even a named, now lost source, “the scroll of the wars of Yahweh” (yes, after all source-critical analysis is firmly grounded in how ancient texts were composed whereby scribes did occasionally and explicitly mention the sources they used! For more see What is the Bible?). In short, we can break the chapter into:
  1. vv.1-3 is a duplicate account of the Hormah battle with a contradictory outcome (see #242), which in its present context presents serious geographical problems (below).
  2. v. 4 seems to be a later Priestly/Redactor insert that, although reaffirming the older JE trajectory (see geography below), contradicts the Hormah episode and vv. 10-11.
  3. vv. 5-9 seem to be a misplaced Elohist “why did you bring us up from Egypt to die in the wilderness” tradition (see also Ex 14:11, 17:3; Num 11:1-6). Misplaced because it makes no sense in its immediate context—the preceding victory at Hormah, and the water from the rock episode and the Beer well—and no sense as a depiction of the Israelites during the last half of the 40th year of their wilderness period!—at least according to P’s chronology (see below). Furthermore the “us” of this episode is not the 2nd generation Israelites which is our present context! This contextually misplaced episode still speaks of the 1st generation Israelites!
  4. vv. 10-11 is a later Priestly/Redactor insert of the wilderness itinerary that completely ignores and contradicts the older JE tradition of turning south toward the Red Sea and then northward around Edom! It presents the Israelites marching directly east from Hor into Edom (the Edomite city Oboth), as does the other Priestly/Redactor tradition in Num 33:37-43!
  5. vv. 12-35 represent J’s version of the Transjordanian conquest with an excerpt from “the scroll of the wars of Yahweh” and a citation from an older poem deemed the “Heshbon ballad.” How and why our present scribe uses these older traditions will be of utmost importance in understanding his intended meaning and to his historical audience. This tradition is retold with drastic variation (for other purposes and for a different historical audience) in the Deuteronomic tradition (Deut 2-3), which I will discuss later.
  • Geographically the events presented in this chapter move us from mount Hor near Kadesh (the end of Num 20):
  1. Northeastward into the Negeb, that is Canaan proper and thus a successful entry into the promised land! And thus also no need to enter Canaan from Transjordan! (vv. 1-3)
  2. Or Southward toward the Red Sea (Elath), according to the tradition recorded in Num 14:25, 20:21, and 21:4 (although see the other contradictory tradition in Num 21:10-11, 33:37-49 and Deut 2:2-8 (forthcoming)).
  3. Or directly East into Edom! (vv. 10-11)
  4. Then Northward into and through Transjordan up to and including Amorite territory (or Moabite depending on the tradition one reads). The text tells us that they conquered all of the territory from the Arnon river to the Jabbok! (vv. 21-35)
  5. Or up to the Plains of Moab across from Jericho (21:1).

Most surprisingly, this single chapter geographically moves the Israelites in their circuitous route approximately 500 miles! 

  • Chronologically the chapter is a nightmare, also reflecting a mishmash of variant and competing traditions.
  1. According to the Priestly chronology that now embeds this mostly J material, all of this 500 mile trek of roughly 600,000+ Israelite male soldiers plus women and cattle and the 4 (maybe more) heavily armed battles that took place during this trek through Transjordan happened in the last half of the 40th year of this 40 year wilderness period!
  2. However using the earlier JE traditions and the more clear Deuteronomic tradition, this trek takes up approximately 38 years of the wilderness period! (Deut 2:14). Furthermore, all the 1st generation Israelites except Caleb (J) and Joshua (P) die during this 38 year wandering.
  3. Yet according to P, all the first generation die before this trek even begins; they all died before entering the Wilderness of Zin (Num 20:1), that is in the Wilderness of Paran (see Num 14:20, 32, 35: “in this wilderness your carcasses will fall” = Paran). See #260-261.

We will examine these textual problems more closely over the next few entries. So far I count 13 contradictions for this chapter alone, all of which fall into one or more of the above categories.

2 thoughts on “A Brief Introduction to Numbers 21

  1. Dr. DiMattei,

    Why do you think vv. 1-3 give a duplicate account? The text makes sense as it is: initial defeat, call for divine assistance, subsequent victory with that divine assistance.

    Anyway, I’m happy to see you posting regularly again. I look forward to your answer, or to coming posts!

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