#281. Did the Israelites pass around Moab OR through Moab? (Num 21:12-13; Judg 11:18 vs Num 33:45-49; Deut 2:18)


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!

5 thoughts on “#281. Did the Israelites pass around Moab OR through Moab? (Num 21:12-13; Judg 11:18 vs Num 33:45-49; Deut 2:18)

  1. I’m not a scholar, but reading Judges I get the feeling that the southern kingdom largely doesn’t exist as far as it is concerned. Judah and Simeon are mentioned in the beginning in a rather perfunctory way and are then ignored. It feels like a collection of folklore from the northern tribes that was later put in a southern context by adding the material about Othniel. This would make sense if, as Finkelstein argues in “The Bible Unearthed”, the northern kingdom was older and there was no united kingdom.

    Getting back to Jephthah, there are two things that struck me rereading the story. The first is that it contains a version of the Exodus that mentions a lot of detours but no spy story and therefore no destruction of the first generation. The second is the odd way that human sacrifice is dealt with. If I found out I was to be sacrificed, I don’t think I’d be particularly concerned about never marrying.

  2. How do we reconcile these two verses?

    Daniel 7:3 And four great beasts came up from the sea, each different from the other.

    Daniel 7:17 Those great beasts, which are four, are four kings which arise out of the earth.

    How can the four beasts come out of both the sea and earth? Yes the sea is on the earth, but they are typically shown as separate places and contrasted against each other through Scripture. And why would the Scripture indicate two places if it wasn’t significant?

  3. Yairah Amit has a nice introduction to Judges in The Jewish Study Bible. Here is what she says on pp. 509-510 about dating the book:

    There is widespread agreement that these frameworks reflect a Deuteronomistic redaction which took the tribal stories, gave them a national‐religious character, and fitted the whole into the great Deuteronomistic work that describes the history from the years in the wilderness (the book of Deuteronomy) to the Babylonian exile (the end of the book of Kings). At a later stage, they suggest, post-Deuteronomistic redactors added certain passages, such as the ones about the Canaanite nations that were or were not driven out, in the exposition ( 1.1–2.5 ) and the concluding chapters (17–21).

    But the assumption that the book of Judges reflects the ideological world of Deuteronomy may not be correct. Deuteronomy’s ideology and style are only partly evident in the book of Judges. Deuteronomistic literature criticizes monarchy (Deut. 17.14–20 ), places prophets above it (Deut. 18.15–19; 1 Kings 12.22–24, etc.), demands centralization of cult (Deut. 12.5–28; 1 Kings 8.16ff, etc.), and depicts the deity as a remote being whose name alone dwells in the Temple (Deut. 12.5; 1 Kings 8.27, etc.). By contrast, the book of Judges has positive expectations from the monarchy, makes scarcely any reference to prophecy and its function of predicting historical events, does not call for the centralization of the cult, and shows God intervening in the events, directly or by means of angels. Moreover, the phrases that are typical of Deuteronomistic literature are concentrated only in the exposition of the book ( 2.6–3.4 ). It would seem, therefore, that the main redaction of the book of Judges was completed in the pre‐Deuteronomistic stage—namely, in the late 8th or in the 7th century BCE—and that it reflected the shocked mood in Judah after the downfall of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 722 (see the allusion to exile in 18.30 ). This would explain the negative portrayal of the northern tribes throughout the book, from the exposition which accuses them of the sin of failing to drive out the local inhabitants, to the final chapters that speak of Mount Ephraim and the shrine at Dan as sinful places. By contrast, the tribe of Judah is depicted in the opening as a tribe which succeeded completely in driving out the local inhabitants and was faithful to the covenant with God. The redaction sought to justify the punishment that befell the Northern Kingdom by showing it as a group of sinful tribes; this theme is evident in each of the sections of the book. The book later was slightly adapted when it became part of the great Deuteronomistic work of Deuteronomy‐Kings. Additions from this period or later may include: Deuteronomistic phrases noticeable in the exposition ( 2.11–19 ), the text criticizing Gideon for making the ephod (8.27b), and the episode of the concubine in Gibeah (chs 19–21 ), which is mainly a veiled polemical attack on the house of Saul.

    Although Judges 11 mentions human sacrifice, I think that the main point is the importance of keeping a vow made to Yahweh (vv. 35-36), no matter the consequences.

  4. When was the Jephthah story in Judges 11 believed to have been written? Given the apparent theme of human sacrifice I would expect it to be relatively old.

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