#278. Do the Israelites travel from Hor to Oboth OR to Zalmonah? (Num 21:10 vs Num 33:41)


It would seem that the Priestly tradition itself exhibits some variation and discrepancies with respect to the wilderness itinerary.

Notwithstanding the fact that P doesn’t record a skirting around Edom tradition (see #268), the specific movement from Hor directly into Edom is variously represented in Numbers 21 and 33.

Numbers 21:10 presents the itinerary as follows:

  • Hor ➔ Oboth ➔ Iyye-Abarim

While Numbers 33:41 claims:

  • Hor ➔ Zalmonah ➔ Punon ➔ Oboth ➔ Iyye-Abarim

The differences here are not significant, since both traditions have the Israelites marching directly into Edomite cities. The most significant discrepancy is that these Priestly traditions, contrary to the Yahwist and Deuteornimc tradition, have the Israelites move directly from Hor into Edom rather than around Edom.

There a numerable other discrepancies in P’s itinerary for the wilderness period in Numbers 33 and what we find throughout the P narratives in Exodus and Numbers. Most of these contradictions we will look at when we get to chapter 33.

8 thoughts on “#278. Do the Israelites travel from Hor to Oboth OR to Zalmonah? (Num 21:10 vs Num 33:41)

  1. Dr. DiMattei,

    Thanks for your response, I never knew the richness of the traditions and history priestly rivalries formed these particular contradictions! I do have another question though. During the narration of Aaron’s death in Deut. 10, it’s mentioned that immediately following his death the Levites were appointed as the official bearers of the Ark. Doesn’t this event happen at a completely different time and under different circumstances in other texts? If so, which ones?

  2. I made reference to the place-of-Aaron’s-death discrepancy last January, http://contradictionsinthebible.com/wilderness-of-paran-or-hazeroth/#comment-1599, and based on your follow-up comment, I thought that you knew about it or would include it. It’s telling that a Jewish tradition developed to “explain” the discrepancy, as mentioned in this entry from The Jewish Encyclopedia:

    The seeming contradiction between Num. xx. 22 et seq. and Deut. x. 6 is solved by the rabbis in the following manner: Aaron’s death on Mount Hor was marked by the defeat of the people in a war with the king of Arad, in consequence of which the Israelites fled, marching seven stations backward to Mosera, where they performed the rites of mourning for Aaron; wherefore it is said: “There [at Mosera] died Aaron.” See Mek., Beshallaḥ, Wayassa’, i.; Tan., Huḳḳat, 18; Yer. Soṭah, i. 17c, and Targ. Yer. Num. and Deut. on the abovementioned passages.

    1. Sorry about that John. I’m just juggling way too much material here—can’t keep track of it all. Recently printed out the content of this website that I’m looking to publish as a book. It’s 500 pages of 11 point single-spaced font!

      Interesting to see the rabbis’ “solution” is as much extra-textual as many modern attempts to… well shall we call a spade a spade and say ‘not harmonize these discrepancies,’ but more accurately neglect what these ancient traditions say and an understanding of why they say what they do in favor of legitimating an exterior theological framework that “dissolves” these voices away.

  3. “21:10′s nonspecific ‘they set out,’ with no indication from where they left…” Should read, “21:10′s nonspecific ‘the Israelites set out,’ with no indication from where they left…”

  4. As you mention in the previous contradiction, the bronze-serpent story seems to be out of place. The current contradiction may give additional support to this idea, since a comparison between Numbers 21 and 33 reveals that either Zalmonah or Punon must have been the sight of the bronze-serpent pericope, yet the location is never made explicit, and there is no attempt at an etiology to explain the site’s name. This is admittedly an argument from silence, but this seems like a rather striking omission, and 21:10’s nonspecific “they set out,” with no indication from where they left, looks like a transition after an insertion.

    Numbers 33:41-43:
    41 They set out from Mount Hor and camped at Zalmonah. 42They set out from Zalmonah and camped at Punon. 43They set out from Punon and camped at Oboth.

    Numbers 21:4-5, 9-10:
    4 From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. 5The people spoke against God and against Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.’…9So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live. 10 The Israelites set out, and camped in Oboth.

  5. It also is interesting to look at in light of the contradictory traditions regarding Aaron’s death. Some inerrantists will argue that Aaron’s death at “Moserah” in Deuteronomy 10:5 is just another name for Mount Hor, but the conflicting itineraries in Numbers 33 and Deut. 10 make that impossible. They actually end up at Jothbathah two stops after Aaron’s death, a place they already passed on the way to Mount Hor in Num. 33! I wonder what the significance of that might have been, considering it’s also contained along with the contradictory account of Moses making the Ark of the Covenant?

    1. Daniel, Thanks for the Aaron reference; it looks like I missed this one and will have to treat it when we get to Num 33 and Deut 10. Looking over Deut 10, I can’t help but notice a couple of interesting things. First, as you note, contrary to the Priestly writer narrating Aaron’s death in the 40th year at Hor (Num 20:23-29, 33:38-39), the Deuteronomist not only places it at Moserah, a different geographical location all together, but also at a much earlier point in the wilderness itinerary (cf. P’s Num 33:30-33)! In fact, Deuteronomy 10 seems to place Aaron’s death immediately after, and as a result of (?), the Golden Calf incident. I think the significance of this is huge!

      First, there are considerable differences between the 7th c. BCE Deuteronomist’s retelling of the Golden Calf story through the mouth of Moses here in Deut 9-10 and the telling of this story in the older Elohist tradition now at Exodus 32. I will treat these in detail when I get to posting the contradictions for Deuteronomy. What is more surprising here, scholars contend on source-critical grounds and even linguistic parallels between the later Deuteronomic version and the earlier Elohist version that when the Deuteronomist has his hero Moses retell this story he consciously has Moses modify, alter, and even contradict the earlier retelling! How and why later scribes (notably D and P) rewrote, altered, and even contradicted the earlier traditions that they themselves received will be discussed in detail then. What they thought they were doing is a fascinating line of inquiry—and one that often goes against the textual presuppositions and assumptions held by most modern fundamentalists!

      Second, the differences between these accounts related to Aaron are actually quite significant and evidence once again (see #152: Levites vs Aaronids) priestly rivalries among Israel’s priestly clans and the Levitical tribe as a whole. The Deuteronomist, in his retelling, does a few interesting things here that may bring this out:

      1) D mentions that Yahweh was incensed against Aaron to the point that he intended to destroy him (Deut 9:20). This is not only absent in the Elhost account, but in the Priestly traditions that now encase this Elohist rendition, namely Exodus 25-31 and 35-40, while Aaron is at the foot of the mountain performing the “greatest sin” of the wilderness period in E, in P Yahweh is in the midst of selecting Aaron as his sole anointed messiah to function as his sole priest at the top of the mountain! See:

      #160. Does Aaron bring the great sin upon the people OR does he bear the people’s sin and atone for it? (Ex 32:21 vs Ex 28:38-41; Lev 4-5, 16:16, etc.)
      #161. Does Yahweh vow to erase Aaron for his sin OR make him his exclusive anointed high priest? (Ex 32:33 vs Ex 28:38-41, 29:6-29, 40:12-16)

      This and numerous other pro-Aaronid legislation voiced by the Yahweh of Leviticus (P), and only in this priestly scroll, have led scholars to recognize that this text was written by a priestly faction that traced their lineage back to Aaron. Most of this is summarized in #254. The same cannot be said of the Deuteornomic school, the text they wrote, and the pronouncements of the Yahweh of their text!

      2) The reference to Yahweh intending to end Aaron in Deut 9:20 looks to be fulfilled in Deut 10:6 where according to this tradition Aaron dies immediately following the Golden Calf sin (contrary to P, and presumably E).

      3) After Aaron’s death, it is then that Yahweh, according to this tradition, appoints the Levites as a whole to carry Yahweh’s ark, and an ark that is radically different from the one constructed in the Priestly text in Exodus 37:1-9. So D’s Yahweh ending Aaron’s life earlier and prior to the establishment of the cult as symbolized in the ark is a literary technique employed by ancient scribes to denigrate their rivals, or in this case their rival’s forefather!

      I have tried to convince my more fundamentalist readers that such differences—and in the above case most likely a conscious alteration of a previous tradition (E) by a later scribe (D)—ought not be interpreted away willy-nilly in a vain attempt to safeguard the reader’s beliefs! Rather, we, and certainly biblical scholars do this, ought to ask why the later Deuteronomist has Moses renarrate this story differently than from the way it was told in the older tradition that he himself inherited. In fact, all of Deut 1-11 is Moses renarrating differently and contradictorily stories now found in Exodus and Numbers. It would seem that the answer to this question again forces us to take a look at how rivalry priestly clans wrote texts and the functions they served: to 1) legitimate their claimant over a rivalry priesthood and 2) to denigrate the claimants of that rival priesthood at the same time. This is exactly what the Deuteronomist is doing here in narrating an early death for Aaron and assigning the cult to the Levites.

      True, even in P, the Levites are responsible for carrying the ark, but this is not presented as in Deut 10—a reward for loyalty during the Golden Calf incident (cf. Ex 32:26). But P, and only P, also adamantly stresses through the mouthpiece of Yahweh that no Levite can approach Yahweh’s tabernacle and none can minister to Yahweh as priests. Only the Aaronids can (see #220)—another ideology completely absent from D and D’s Yahweh.

      Anyway, I have to sort through these texts better before we get to Deuteronomy 9-10.


      Indeed, Num 21:10 does not specify from where they set out, but in #268 I made the case for seeing 3 contradictory traditions appended here that each have the Israelites traveling in different directions from Hor.

      1) They travel northeastward into the Negeb and successfully conquer Hormah and its vicinities. The tradition just ends however—a dead end. I suppose we could, or a redactor saw, connect the Hormah tradition to Num 21:10, and in that case the Israelites would have back tracked from the Negeb toward and into Edom.

      2) The Red Sea itinerary in Num 21:4 is the most problematic; they go “around Edom” and not eastward directly into it—a complete contradiction. Also, if we read 21:4 as a geographical introduction to the Elohist tradition in Num 4b-9, then where this transpired must, in our JPE text, be east of Edom!

      3) Another option is to, without textual warrant perhaps—that seems to be your point (?)—attach 21:10 to Hor so that they leave from Hor and march into Edom. Look at Levine’s map in #275, that’s exactly how he conceptualizes it too.

      Your “solution” is interesting—if I understand correctly, that R while knowing the itinerary from Num 33 placed the Elohist story here to account for the first 2 missing stops in Edom. Yet as noted above, this conflicts with verse 4 that places the Israelites outside of Edom, and not in it. My particular take is, in this case, that there are no good solutions here—just conflating traditions.


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