As previously noted (#268), the whole reason for the necessity of the Transjordanian conquest—at least from the perspective of the story itself—is because the Israelites were unable to take Canaan, the promised land, directly from the south. They were defeated at Hormah according to the tradition now preserved in Numbers 14 (#242), and thus pushed back into the wilderness to wander 38 years until Yahweh could finish off this faithless generation (see #238-240)—although see P’s contradictory say on this (#268).
The conquest of the land of Canaan, as not only depicted in the book of Joshua but as also inferred in the rest of Numbers and the book of Deuteronomy, is the story that we are all familiar with—namely, that the Israelites invaded and conquered Canaan from Transjordan. But the variant Hormah story at Numbers 21:1-3 creates a contradictory scenario and deviation from this, even if only momentarily.
For a successful victory in the Negeb, the southern part of Canaan, annuls the need to take Canaan from Transjordan. And this is precisely what happens in the variant Hormah story now at Numbers 21:1-3 (although see my forthcoming #271). The Israelites successfully enter Canaan, kill all male Canaanites, non-virgin Canaanite women, and cattle in a dedicatory herem to Yahweh, and destroy “their cities.” The language of herem—that is ritually killing everything as a sacrificial dedication to Yahweh (a rite practiced by other Near Eastern peoples; see the Moabite stela below)—is more typical of the Deuteronomic literature (see Deut 7) than it is to either the Yahwist or Priestly sources. At any rate, the language of herem is used by the Deuteronomist in both Deuteronomy and Joshua to express the utter annihilation and conquest of the land of Canaan and its indigenous peoples (although there are contradictory traditions here as well which we will look at later).
Second, it is apparent that Numbers 21:1-3, the Hormah destruction, is inserted into our present narrative. For the Israelites leave from mount Hor and head northeast into the Negeb and . . . disappear! For as already demonstrated (#268) verse 4 has them moving from Hor (not the Negeb) southward to the Red Sea and then around Edom, which is also a misplaced insertion, and verse 10 has them moving from Hor directly into Edom. The point is that placing this tradition here in Numbers 21:1-3 places the Israelites in Canaan proper, and therefore no need to take it through the conquest of Transjordan.
If this tradition is ill-placed then we might ask why did a redactor feel that this was a good place to insert this tradition. One suggestion that has been offered is that it bookends the whole Wilderness experience, at least according to one telling of it! The first Hormah battle depicts the Israelites defeat in year 2 precisely because Yahweh had turned his back on the people, who were deemed unfaithful. In contrast, the second Hormah battle depicts the Israelites as victorious in year 40 precisely because they have vowed themselves to Yahweh, and Yahweh is supportive. Furthermore, the former depicts the unfaithfulness of the 1st generation of Israelites, the latter the faith of the 2nd generation. Seen in this light, there is a symmetry and rationale here. The only problem, however, was by placing the victorious entry and taking of Canaan at Numbers 21:1-3, this tradition contradicted the other standing tradition—the Transjordanian conquest.
We could speculate further. The story of the conquest and taking of the land east of the Jordan served a political agenda in the 9th and 8th centuries BCE when these narratives were written. That is, they legitimate the Israelites control over upper Moab in the 9th century when Omri conquered this area (below) through the creation of an archaisized narrative that presents the wilderness generation of Israelites having already conquered and settled the land in ancient times.
Differentiating between literary/fictional agendas and real political/ideological ones or, Why ancient scribes wrote what they wrote!
Per the older traditions preserved in the Torah, Joshua, Judges, etc. the whole necessity for the Israelites to travel into Transjordan, and thus conquer it, was because they could not take Canaan directly from the south, the sole purpose of the duplicate Hormah tradition (#242). Indeed this itinerary is also presented theologically as Yahweh’s punishment for all 600,000+ Israelites because of their rebelliousness concerning the spying of the land (#238-240). However, I would argue that this story is presented merely as a pretext to provide a rationale for why the Exodus generation needed to enter Canaan from Transjordan. And this literary creation is itself a politically charged narrative whose sole purpose was to legitimate Israelite possession of Transjordanian territories at the time this text was written!
This has been dealt with extensively in the scholarly material, especially the work of Baruch Levine. Here is how to properly understand what an ancient scribe was doing when he composed such texts, why they were composed, and what their intended message was to their intended real historical audience.
The Yahwist account of the Israelites’ trek northward through Transjordan in Numbers 21:12-35 says surprisingly little about Moab and Ammon. The lack of references to Moabites in the Yahwist account is due to the fact that the Yahwist depicted all of the territory north of the Arnon (i.e, northern Moab) as Amorite territory. Why? In short, so his conquest narrative portrays the Israelites conquering the territory from the Amorites and not the Moabites who also laid claim to this land (but see forthcoming Deuteronomic contradictions). In point of fact, that is exactly what these scibal creations are doing: laying claims to the land by creating narratives that legitimated their hegemony over the territory.
So, for example, the Yahwist text of Numbers 21:12-35 claims that the Israelites conquered all the territory north of the Arnon, which was directly taken in battle from the Amorites. But we know from other sources, particularly the Mesha stela (see below) that this territory was Moabite. In fact, the ancient poem cited in Num 21:27-30 also tells us this: Sihon, the king of the Amorites, took this land from the people of Chemosh, the Moabites. So what the Yahwist has done is to claim that this territory was taking directly from the Amorites and not the Moabites. This point is emphasized throughout this episode and is even the purpose of reproducing an apparent ancient poem that also supports this claim (see forthcoming #280). But why is the Yahwist so concerned about making sure his audience understands that Israel took this land from the Amorites and not the Moabites?
To understand what the Yahwist is up to we need to look at the historical context of these narratives—not the literary context or the implied historical setting of the narrative. The only period in Israelite history where the Israelites possessed this territory was during the first half of the 9th century BCE. The northern king of Israel, Omri expanded his foothold in the region by conquering this territory from the Moabites; likewise his son Ahab continued with these hegemonic policies, and the biblical record claims that Moab remained tributary to Israel until the death of Ahab (852 BCE), at which point they revolted and campaigned to reclaim the territory taken under Omri. An extra-biblical source from the mid 9th century BCE confirms this: the Mesha stela. Like so many of the biblical texts, the Mesha stela is also a piece of political propaganda, supporting the king of Moab’s retaking of this territory.
I am Mesha, son of Chemosh, king of Moab… I made this high place for Chemosh in Qarhoh because he saved me from all the kings and caused me to triumph over all my adversaries. As for Omri, king of Israel, he humbled Moab many years, for Chemosh was angry at his land. And his son followed him and he also said, “I will humble Moab.” In my time he spoke thus, but I have triumphed over him and over his house, while Israel has perished forever!
There are many things we learn from this stela: the land of northern Moab which Omri had conquered is spoken of as Chemosh’s land, and that furthermore Chemosh, Moab’s god, gave it over to Omri, because Chemosh was angry with his people. In other words, the theological explanation for losing the land, because our deity was angry with us, is exactly what we find in the Bible, as well as other ancient Near Eastern texts! But more to our present purposes, the stela subtly legitimates Mesha’s military actions by claiming that: 1) this is the land that Chemosh gave to the Moabites; it is Chemosh’s land and his people’s (cf. Num 21:29); 2) it was temporarily handed over to Omri and his son by Chemosh because Chemosh was wroth with his people and land; and 3) but now Chemosh has ordered Mesha to retake it:
And Chemosh said to me: “Go! Take Nebo from Israel!” So I went by night and fought against it from the break of dawn until noon, taking it and slaying all 7,000 men, boys, women, girls, and maid servants, and I devoted them to destruction (herem) for Chemosh. And I took from there the […] (priests/sacred objects?) of Yahweh, dragging them before Chemosh. And the king of Israel had built Jahaz, and he dwelt there while he was fighting against me, but Chemosh drove him out before me.
There is much in common that the Mesha stela shares with other biblical literature, specifically the Deuteronomic—its consecration of all inhabitants of a conquered land to sacrificial annihilation to its deity (herem), the theology that lands and wars are gained and lost because of the national deity’s benevolent or punitive stance toward his people, and the notion that the ownership of a territory can be legitimated by having one’s national deity declare that he has given it to them for a possession!
I hope my readers start to see just how ancient literature functioned, and what scribes were doing when they wrote these texts. The Yahwist text attempted to legitimate Israelite hegemony over this territory in the 9th century BCE by completely skirting the issue of the Moabites and presenting their conquest, in a fictionalized archaic setting, as one over the Amorites.
However, it is not difficult to imagine the real 9th century BCE historical claimants that this text was trying to refute. The Moabites claimed this territory as their rightful inheritance, promised to them by their god Chemosh! The narrative of Num 21:12-30 responds with a jeer: this land we took from the Amorites, so you have no contention with us. Yet all the while, the Moabite text responds that Chemosh delivered his land and people over to Omri because he was wroth with them; but it is ours, Chemosh’s land. Thus the Amorites are a complete invention of the Yahwist to sidestep the real political issue. Furthermore, the Deuteronomic author, contrary to the Yahwist, contends that this territory was indeed given to the Moabites, but not by Chemosh, but by Yahweh (Deut 2:9)!
In the end, the Yahwist text legitimates Israelite possession of the Transjordanian territory of northern Moab during Omri’s invasion in the 9th century BCE by claiming that it was directly conquered from the Amorites so the Moabite claim is moot. This is how political ideologies were supported and legitimated in the ancient world—by creating archaisized narratives that present an earlier generation conquering and settling the land. And this is exactly the purpose of Numbers 21:12-35, and I would add exactly the purpose of having a Transjordanian conquest narrative as part of these archaisized wilderness narratives.