The Wilderness Itinerary from the Exodus to the Plains of Moab: An Introduction to Numbers 33

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Numbers 33 displays the mark of a later tradition that was composed and inserted here in the narrative as a sort of summary to the Wilderness itinerary. It exhibits a number of stylistic features only found in the Priestly source and scholars assign it to a redactional layer by this Priestly tradition. Yet, as we shall see in the forthcoming contradictions, its itinerary is often at odds with the scattered itinerary references throughout the books of Exodus & Numbers. Before we look at these discrepancies and contradictions, I’d like to put forth a surface reading of the Israelites’ legendary 40 year trek through the Wilderness from the Exodus to the plains of Moab—that is what the texts spanning Exodus 12:29 to Numbers 33 say.

1. The Israelites leave Rameses Egypt on the 15th (the eve of Passover) of the 1st year as marked from the Exodus. (Ex 12:1-36)                                                   1/15/01

  • an exodus of 600,000 adult males w/infants & children (but see #116)
  • leave with very large number of livestock
  • carrying unleavened bread
  • during their haste, Yahweh finds it convenient to lecture Moses about the “law of the Passover”—no foreigner and no uncircumsiced male may partake of Yahweh’s Passover (but see #118)
  • Yahweh also instructs Moses on the law of Firstborns—“All firstborns are Mine”—which must be observed when they arrive in Canaan (see #145)

2. They travel to Succoth, Etham or Shur, Pi-Hahiroth, and cross the Sea of Reeds (yam suph).

  • Although how they cross is told with considerable variation (see #120-122).

3. They arrive in the Wilderness of Sin exactly 1 month after the Exodus. (Ex 16:1)                                                                                                                                    2/15/01

  • There, just 1 month after Passover and the Exodus, they complain about not having meat to eat, and although they have brought with them a large number of livestock, sheep, and goat, Yahweh sends them manna and quails as if they had no meat to eat! (see #126 & #227)

4. They then travel to Rephidim, fight the Amalekite, and establish the judiciary upon Jethro’s advice. (Ex 17-18)

  • The founding of the judiciary will be renarrated by Moses with considerable variation (Deut 1:9-18)—a forthcoming post

5. In the 3rd month they arrive at Sinai, where they will stay for 11 months, during which time the following occur (Ex 19:1–Num 10:27):                        3/1/01

  • Yahweh gives them the Ten Commandments & the Law code (Ex 20-24; contra Deut 5:19-28 (forthcoming))
  • On the summit, Moses receives instructions for the construction of the Tabernacle and the appointment of Aaron as Yahweh’s sole priests (Ex 25-31; contra Deut 18:1-18 (#152))
    • However while Yahweh is selecting Aaron as his priestly messiah, unbeknown to him Aaron is below the mountain fabricating “the great sin,” some golden calves, to which the Israelites are sacrificing (Ex 32-33)! See #157, #160-161
  • Moses descends, breaks the Tablets and is given a new set, which Yahweh claims are the same, but they are not (Ex 34)! See #134-135, #147, #156, #169
  • Moses then orders the Tabernacle to be constructed, from apparently the left over gold that wasn’t used for Aaron’s golden calves (see #158, #159)—roughly 1 ton of it! And we also hear that the Israelites have at their disposal, gold, silver, bronze, gems of all sorts, fine fabric, linen, spices, woods, and jewelry that they had allegedly already divested themselves of (#163). Apparently there is also a smithery at Sinai to fabricate all these components for this portable Tabernacle whose weight was approximately 7.5 tons!
    • This sacrificial institution contradicts laws that Yahweh just gave!
      • what altar(s) is permissible? (#137-138)
      • when are sacrifices permitted and by whom? (#148-149)
      • can a manslayer seek asylum at Yahweh’a altar? (#141)
  • Apparently this takes some time, and on 1/1/02 the Tabernacle is erected—our fist major chronological discrepancy (see #170, #181-182)                                                            1/1/02
    • Where and when this Tabernacle is erected is also contradictorily stated (#164-165)
  • Then Yahweh gives Moses and Aaron the sacrificial law code (Lev 1-7)
  • Moses then anoints Aaron and all the components of the Tabernacle, thus purifying them, and sacrifices are made (Lev 8-10)
    • Again, this contradicts the no-meat-to-eat tradition (#227)
  • Instructions concerning what is clean and unclean are given (Lev 11-22)
    • Some of these contradict laws that were just given!
      • Are Hebrew slaves permissible? (#139-140, #210)
      • Is it permissible to eat a torn animal? (#188)
      • What is the punishment for bestiality? (#189)
  • Yom Kippur, an “eternal law” (but see #186), is celebrated for the first time (Lev 16), and this must be on                                                                                                                    7/10/01
    • again, contradicts no-meat-to-eat or only-manna-to-eat tradition (#227)
    • also contradicts future texts claiming that Yahweh did not order sacrifices during the wilderness (#155)
  • The Festival Calendar is given (Lev 23) which contradicts in part some of the Festivals given by Yahweh just 4 months earlier, and will contradict others that will be given 39 years from now! (#194-197, #198-204, #205-208)
  • One year after the Exodus Yahweh orders the 1st census of men to be taken (Num 1) where we learn of a discrepancy in the number of men who left Egypt (#116)       2/1/02
  • The arrangement of the camp is set, with the Tabernacle in the middle (Num 2-3)
    • Contradicts early mention of Tent outside the camp (#164-165, #217)
  • The Levites are assigned non-priestly functions as ministers to the Aaronid priesthood! (Num 3)
  • The Tabernacle is established (again!) and a variant tradition on its dedication sacrifices is given (Num 7; #221)                                                                                                      1/1/02 ?
    • Yahweh consumes 92 animals, while apparently the Israelites are still eating manna each day because there is no meat to eat! (but see #227)
  • Passover is ordered by Yahweh to be kept on the 2nd year                             1/14/02
    • “An eternal Law” (but see #222-223)
    • Thus Israelites again eat meat! (#227)
  • And finally on 2/20/02 the Israelites prepare to leave Sinai                       2/20/02

So the Israelites encamp at Sinai for 11 months 10 days, during which all of the above has taken place!

6. In 3 days time they arrive at Kibroth Hattaavah (Num 11) where despite the fact that they just had meat to eat 1 month and 9 days earlier for Passover, they complain that they have no meat and Yahweh, duped?, gives them manna (and quail) again, which apparently they had never seen before although it had been given to them each and every day so far for a little over 1 year now!  (see #227, #125)                                                                                                                                   2/23/02

 7. They arrive at Kadesh (Num 13-14), apparently early in the 2nd year (but see #260-261).

  • A select group scout out the land of Canaan and it is here that Yahweh condemns this generation to death (for their lack of faith ?!), and to wander 40 years in the wilderness. But this too is variously narrated (see #233, #234, #235-236, #238-240; & Deut 1:19-46 (forthcoming)).

8. The Israelites turn back into the wilderness toward the Red Sea, and apparently the action from Numbers 15:1–20:22 encompasses 38 years (from the 2nd to 4oth year), or, from Num 20:20 to Num 20:23 is 38 years!?

  • Apparently Yahweh deems that this is a good time to give Moses more sacrificial laws, so the Israelites can keep all of Yahweh’s sacrifices when they arrive in Canaan, some 38 years from now! (Num 15:1-31)
  • Although this generation has already been condemned to death, Yahweh nevertheless feels obliged to command the death of an Israelite collecting wood in the wilderness on the Sabbath (see #245)
  • The Korah rebellion takes place (Num 16-17) See #246-250, #254.
    • A contradictory tradition on the building of the altar is presented (#251-253)
    • A contradictory tradition relating who can burn incense is given (#254)
  • Laws on tithes and donations are given (Num 18), which Yahweh will contradict in the near future (see #256, #257).
  • The Law for death and the dead is given (Num 19).

9. The Israelites come back to Kadesh (Num 20) in the 40th year!?          5/1/40?

  • This return to Kadesh tradition will be contradicted by both Num 33 and Deut 1-2, but in different ways (forthcoming entries). Furthermore it’s unclear whether this return to Kadesh happens in the 2nd year or the 40th year. See #260-261
    • Moses draws water from the rock and for his lack of faith (!?) Yahweh prohibits him from entering Canaan (contrary to the reason Moses gives in the months ahead (#266, #267))

10. Israelites are refused passage through Edom (Num 20:14-20)

  • Moses will contradict this in his renarration of it (Deut 2)

11. The Israelites travel to Hor in the 40th year!? (Num 20:21-29)

  • Aaron dies on Hor, and from Num 33:39 this happens on                             5/1/40
    • So in this conception, in between verses 20 and 21, 38 years pass!
    • Moses will mistakenly give another place and time for Aaron’s death (Deut 10:6-7 (forthcoming))

12. From Hor the Israelites travel into the Negeb, Hormah, or travel back toward the Red Sea! (Num 21:1-4) See #268

  • The Israelites successfully enter Canaan at Hormah, but turn south back toward the Red Sea. There are a number of inconsistencies here (see #269, #271-273, #274)

13. The Israelites travel around Edom (Num 21:4) and travel through Edom (Num 21:10)! See #275

  • The Israelites arrive at the wadi Zered in the 40th year (but see #279)

14. They Israelites conquer northern Moab or travel through it. See #281, #282-285

15. Finally, the Israelites arrive on the Plains of Moab (Num 22:1)           11/1/40

  • There the Israelites worship Baal at Baal Peor (see #297-298)
  • Yahweh establishes an eternal covenant with the Aaronids through Phinehas, which Yahweh will contradict in the following days to come, according to Moses, and in centuries to come (see #299)
  • A second census is issued (Num 26)
  • Another sacrificial law code is given which in part contradicts laws Yahweh gave 40 years ago, but more so will contradict Festival laws Yahweh will give in the following days to come! (see #194-197, #198-204, #205-208, #311, #312)
  • Israel battles Midian (see #313, #314)
  • The Transjordanian possessions are allotted

This, then, is a surface reading of the narrative spanning Exodus 12:29 to the end of Numbers 32. As evident from the above, this “narrative” is composed of different textual traditions, variant stories, different narrations of the same stories, etc.

In the forthcoming entries we will look at how the Wilderness itinerary of Numbers 33 contradicts many of these textual traditions and variant stories.

5 thoughts on “The Wilderness Itinerary from the Exodus to the Plains of Moab: An Introduction to Numbers 33

  1. This itinerary ends up contradicting so many other traditions, I’m gal you got to it! I’m especially looking forward to your forthcoming posts. Deuteronomy 10 just might be the most contradiction-filled passage in the Hebrew texts. The longer I’ve looked at it (admittedly, as an amateur), the more fascinating things I’ve noticed:

    Did Moses make the ark of acacia wood (Deut 10), or Bezalel? (Exodus 37)?

    Was the ark built before (Deut 10) or after (Ex. 34-37) Moses received the second set of tablets? The tradition preserved in the text in Exodus even lays out explicit directions for who will build the ark and how. Not something Yahweh would do if Moses had already made it!

    Then there are other ones you’ve mentioned before, like who wrote the tablets and what commandments they contained. And the place where Aaron died contradicts this itinerary. It even presents the Israelites as between two different stations on their journey upon the death of Aaron (again in contradiction with Moses’ summary in Deut. 10). The Levites are then said to have been set apart to minister to the ark after Aaron’s death, when that already happened while Aaron was alive and well in Numbers 1!

    I’m partially posting this to confirm that I’ve understood those correctly, and in the hopes that those which haven’t been addressed already on this blog might get a closer treatment! Thanks for your posts Dr. DiMattei, this blog is immensely helpful to understanding the historical and political backgrounds that created the Bible.

    1. Daniel thanks for your comment. I was just reading through Deut 10, for another small project I’m working on. It looks like we’re seeing the same contradictions in this chapter. In all of Deut 9-10 there is in fact no mention of any Priestly material: the detailed instructions for the Tabernacle and the election of Aaron and his seed as Yahweh’s anointed priests (Ex25-31, 35-40), and as you mention, the demotion of all non-Aaronid Levites to servants of the Aaronids, who are furthermore prohibited to “stand in front of Yahweh.” I should be posting on Deuteronomy soon.

  2. Actually, Numbers 33 helps strengthen the charge of contradiction, since Numbers 33:44-46’s itinerary mentions “Dibon-gad.” Someone could argue that Numbers 32 says only that Gadites “rebuilt” Dibon, not that it was given to them by Moses. However, how likely is it that they would rebuild Dibon–and name it after themselves–if it had been given to Reuben?

  3. One more from Numbers 32: Were the towns of Aroer and Dibon given to Gad (Numbers 32:33-34) or Reuben (Joshua 13:15-17)?

    33 Moses gave to them—to the Gadites and to the Reubenites and to the half-tribe of Manasseh son of Joseph—the kingdom of King Sihon of the Amorites and the kingdom of King Og of Bashan, the land and its towns, with the territories of the surrounding towns. 34And the Gadites rebuilt Dibon, Ataroth, Aroer,

    15 Moses gave an inheritance to the tribe of the Reubenites according to their clans. 16Their territory was from Aroer, which is on the edge of the Wadi Arnon, and the town that is in the middle of the valley, and all the tableland by Medeba; 17with Heshbon, and all its towns that are in the tableland; Dibon, and Bamoth-baal, and Beth-baal-meon,

    1. John,

      As usual, nice find! Well it looks like I’ll have to address this one in the book version, lol! Preparing Numbers 33 contradictions now. . . I’ll try to get ’em all!

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