Bible study 138 – Numbers 21

The Israelites defeat the Canaanites near Beersheba. Hurray, now they’re in Canaan, which they have been searching for for 40 years! But the Israelites seem to completely ignore this fact, go back to Mount Hor, and continue on an entirely different route.

The area where Jacob and his ancestors lived was on the west side of the Dead Sea, and that is probably where the place name “Canaan” usually refers to. Beersheba is in the southern part of Canaan, and by continuing north they could easily get to Jacob’s birthplace of Hebron. But it seems like Moses’ plan is to travel on the east side of the Dead Sea, through the territories of the hostile Moab and Amorite kingdoms, and then cross the Jordan into Canaan. I have no idea why.

Since they can’t go through Edom, they decide to go around. (Note that Edom is south of Moab, and there is no possible reason for them to go through Edom in the first place anyway, even if you consider their new, nonsensical route on the east side of the Dead Sea.) The Israelites complain about this, so “the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.” But then Moses makes a bronze snake, which heals the people who looks at it.

Once past Edom, they enter Moab, where they apparently meet no resistance. The geography is described through a quote from the now lost Book of the Wars of the Lord. God also shows them a well, and everyone sings a song about it.

When they get into the lands of the Amorites, Moses again asks for passage, and is again refused. This time, however, Israel attacks, wins, and settles in all the Amorite villages. A ballad about how great the former king of the Amorites was, is then quoted.

They continue further north, to Bashan, and attack their king Og. It is unclear what happened to the original inhabitants of the Amorite kingdoms, but the fate of the king of Bashan and his subjects is spelled out quite explicitly.

Numbers 21:35
So they killed him, his sons, and all his people, until there was so survivor left; and they took possession of his land.


Honestly, I think the part where they travel to Canaan and back was just randomly inserted here; it’s not an important part of the chapter. As for why they then travel around Canaan and not straight into it, I can think of three possibilities: 1) God doesn’t want them to enter Canaan yet. 2) Modern scholars are completely mistaken as to the location of the biblical sites, including the location of the Jordan River. 3) There already was a story (historical or not) that had the Israelites take that route, and the Numbers authors just wove that story into the narrative without bothering to make an explanation of why they took that route. Perhaps later chapters will say something more about this.

Full text.

2 Comments on “Bible study 138 – Numbers 21”

  1. […] recounts how they went through the land of Edom (contradicting Numbers 21, which clearly says they went around), through Moab, and then conquered the lands of the Amorites. […]

  2. […] recounts how the Israelites conquered the Bashan kingdom. He adds that King Og of Bashan was a giant with a four meter long bed, and that “In fact his […]

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