From there [Hor, east of Edom, or Iye-abarim (see #268, #275, #278)] they traveled and they encamped in the Wadi Zered. And from there they traveled and they encamped across the Arnon, in the wilderness extending from the territory of the Amorites. For the Arnon represents the boundary of Moab, dividing Moab from the territory of the Amorites. (Num 21:12-13)
The tradition recorded here (J) makes it sound as if the Israelites travel around Moab, as they do around Edom, according to this same tradition (Num 20:20-21). Likewise the tradition recorded in Judges 11:18 makes this explicitly clear.
So Israel, after remaining in Kadesh, traveled on through the wilderness skirting the land of Edom and the land of Moab. They kept to the east of the land of Moab until they encamped on the other side of the Arnon. And since Moab ends at the Arnon, they never entered Moabite territory.
We might pause and briefly notice this author’s concern in making it emphatically clear to his audience that Israel did not pass through nor enter Moab. Three times the author brings this to our attention, and once supported by referencing Moab’s borders.
We will see in forthcoming posts (see also #271-273) that there is a political reason behind these traditions’ emphatic insistence on the point that Israel did not enter Moab—defined as the territory between the Wadi Zered to the south and the Arnon river in the north (although see forthcoming #282). Indeed, the Heshbon ballad of Num 21:18-20 would have us believe that the Moabites are no more—“Woe unto you Moab, you’ve perished, Chemosh’s people”—a point that will clash with the storyline of Num 22-25, where all of a sudden we do hear of Moabites and of the Israelites on Moabite territory north of the Arnon!
At any event, as the Priestly tradition of Numbers 33 failed to mention the skirting of Edom and contradictorily presented the Israelites passing directly through Edom (#275), so too it would seem with its treatment of Moab. The itinerary from Iyye-abarim to Dibon-gad (v. 45) is a direct route through Moab, not around it on the east side! Likewise the Deuteronomic tradition claims that the Israelites pass over the border of Moab and through its capital, Ar (Deut 2:18).
In other words, and properly contextualized, the political reasons (i.e., propaganda) that the earlier Yahwist source had for claiming that the Israelites did not pass through Moab nor conquer any of its territory was not needed when the later Priestly writer retold the tradition—or alas, when he eliminated it entirely!