#274. When do the Israelites leave Kadesh-Hor and travel toward the Red Sea: in the 2nd year after the Exodus OR in the 40th year? (Deut 2:14 vs Num 21:4)


In many regards we’ve already discussed this contradiction, but have not yet numbered it. So here it is.

Of the traditions that acknowledge the turning back from the Negeb and heading southward toward the Red Sea (see #268), the clearest comes once again from the Deuteronomic tradition.

“And we turned and traveled to the wilderness by way of the Red Sea as Yahweh spoke to me. . . And the days that we went from Kadesh-barnea until we crossed the Wadi Zered were 38 years, until the end of all the [first] generation. . .” (2:1, 14)

Thus according to this tradition the Israelites left Kadesh in the 2nd year. We may equally surmise that this was the original itinerary of the Yahwist tradition and that the Deuteronomist was following this earlier tradition.

Yet not so for the Priestly writer. Although P acknowledges the arrival of the Israelites at Kadesh for the spies incident in the 2nd year (Num 13:26; but see #238-240), the manner in which P’s wilderness tradition is juxtaposed upon the older Yahwist tradition (again see #268) causes the turning south toward the Red Sea tradition to be awkwardly misplaced in the 40th year!

And they traveled from Mount Hor by way of the Red Sea in order to go around Edom. (Num 21:4)

In other words, because of: 1) the condensed nature of the P material from Numbers 15-20, which apparently enumerates events from the 2nd to 40th year; 2) P’s “need” to fudge the geography of Kadesh so that all the 1st generation Israelites die before arriving at Kadesh proper (#260-261); 3) the placing of J’s Edom story in the same chronological time frame as P’s narrative of Aaron’s death on the 40th year (Num 20:14-29), the command to travel southward toward the Red Sea and around Edom now happens in the 40th year, and not after the spies incident of the 2nd year as expressed clearly in D!

One could argue of course that the Priestly tradition does attempt to safeguard the earlier Yahwist tradition of heading southward to the Red Sea after the spies incident in his 38 years of wandering in the Wilderness of Paran tradition, some of whose locations are cities by the Red Sea (Num 33:10). Understood thus, Numbers 21:4 can only be seen as a gross error on the fault of the redactor. But we can speculate why this verse ended up being misplaced here.

Both Numbers 20:22 and 21:4 are seen by source critics as Redactional inserts.

And they traveled from Kadesh, and the children of Israel, all the congregation, came to Mount Hor. (Num 20:22)

And they traveled from Mount Hor by way of the Red Sea in order to go around Edom. (Num 21:4)

The trigger for this misplaced verse, I would surmise, is the mention of Kadesh! The mention of Kadesh by P, or R (Num 20:1) and by J (Num 20:14) create 2 scenarios separated by 38 years to happen together at the same time:

  1. According to the P tradition in Num 33:36-39, the arrival at Kadesh and thus too Aaron’s death (and apparently all the 1st generation as well) happen on the 40th year.
  2. According to D and perhaps the older Yahwist tradition as well, Kadesh is the place from which the Israelites are turned back, toward the Red Sea in the 2nd year.

Seeing this, the Redactor inserted verse 4 into its current location. Or, it might be possible to speculate that the story of Aaron’s death in Numbers 20:23-29 (and the Hormah battle of Num 21:1-3) was a late addition—because it is only this story that dictates that we are in the 40th year here!

But no matter how we speculate about how the current text came to be, it is quite apparent nonetheless that variant traditions were assembled together creating our contradiction.

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