#288. Where are the Israelites: on the plains of Moab OR on the border of Moab? (Num 22:1 vs Num 22:3-5)


And the children of Israel traveled and they camped in the plains of Moab, across the Jordan from Jericho. (Num 22:1)

The preceding itinerary, and indeed the final destination of the 40 year wilderness trek before the crossing of the Jordan, leads to the Israelites’ encampment on the plains of Moab (cf. Num 33:49-50 & Deut 1:1).

Yet the following story—traditionally identified as the Balaam pericope (Num 22:3-24:25)—implies that the Israelites are at a different location, that they are now near or upon the borders of Moab, and furthermore that they are an imminent threat to the Moabites!

And Moab was in deep dread of the people, for they were so numerous. The Moabites were fearful at the sight of the Israelites. . . Now Balak, the son of Zippor, was king over Moab at that time. He dispatched emissaries to Balaam, the son of Beor, at Pethos, which lies on the river in the land of the Ammonites, to invite him. They brought the following message: “Observe how this people, after leaving Egypt, have covered the face of the land and is now encamped opposite me!

There are a number of alarming and contradictory details in this story and its setting when compared to the previous story of Numbers 21:1-22:1:

  1. Contrary to being encamped on the plains of Moab, way north of Moab and in Amorite territory—now Israelite—according to the Yahwist narrative that preceded (see #282-285), here the Israelites are now much further south, encamped opposite or across from Moab, near its border—the river Arnon!
  2. Contrary to the complete absence of a Moabite presence in the preceding story, here there is all of a sudden a formidable Moabite presence in the land.
  3. Contradictory to the assertion at Num 21:29 that “Moab has perished,” here we now hear of Moabites and a Moabite king.
  4. Although there is the mention that the Israelites have come up from Egypt, the story’s setting itself seems to impose a north to south movement of the Israelites, that after conquering Amorite territory north of Moab (Num 22:2), they are now a threat to Moab. In the storyline of Num 21, the Israelites have already traversed through or around Moab (#281) with no mention of Moabites nor a Moabite threat.

This contradictory narrative setting that opens the story spanning Numbers 22-24 is just one textual detail that has lead scholars to see this story as a later editorial insertion of material originating from a different textual tradition. Some scholars have come to identify it as part of the Elohist repertoire because of its affinities to northern Israel and its mention of El (more on this later). Others, however, have come to see it as part of a Transjordanian repertoire of literature that finds many parallels with the Balaam inscriptions from Deir ‘ Alla. In either case, scholars understand that, like the preceding Yahwist story which reflected the geopolitical concerns of northern Moab during the mid 9th century BCE (#271-273 & #282-285), so too the Balaam pericope addresses historical concerns and perceptions reflective of the 9th century BCE.

We will look at more of this story’s contradictions within itself and with the material that now surrounds it over the next few posts.

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