Passage Through Edom Refused
The endless years of wandering now drew to a close. Israel was now marching north to the Plains of Moab (Numbers 33:48) where Moses would prepare the new generation to enter the land. The easiest route was through Edom on the king’s highway, the main trade route at that time. The Edomites were the descendants of Esau (Gen. 36) and therefore related to Israel, for Jacob was Esau’s brother.
Moses used sound diplomatic tactics as he requested permission to pass through the land. Israel had conquered many kings and nations during their march, and the Edomites knew this, so Moses had to make it clear that this was a peaceful march.
We get the impression that Numbers 20:14-17 was originally a written document taken to the king of Edom by ambassadors from Israel. While a prince in Egypt, Moses would have learned all about these diplomatic matters.
Let’s read Numbers 20:14-15
Now Moses sent messengers from Kadesh to the king of Edom. “Thus says your brother Israel: ‘You know all the hardship that has befallen us, how our fathers went down to Egypt, and we dwelt in Egypt a long time, and the Egyptians afflicted us and our fathers. When we cried out to the Lord, He heard our voice and sent the Angel and brought us up out of Egypt; now here we are in Kadesh, a city on the edge of your border.
Please let us pass through your country. We will not pass through fields or vineyards, nor will we drink water from wells; we will go along the King’s Highway; we will not turn aside to the right hand or to the left until we have passed through your territory.’” Numbers 20:14-15 TLB
First, Moses emphasized the fact that the Jews and Edomites were brothers, and twice he used the phrase “our fathers.” This common heritage should have caused the Edomites leaders to have some sympathy for their brothers. Then Moses reminded the Edomites of Israel’s suffering and bondage in Egypt and the miraculous deliverance the Lord gave them. Since God delivered them and was directing them, surely the Edomites would want to cooperate with Jehovah and let their Jewish relatives march through the land.
But the king of Edom said, “Stay out! If you attempt to enter my land, I will meet you with an army!” “But, sir,” protested the Israeli ambassadors, “we will stay on the main road and will not even drink your water unless we pay whatever you demand for it. We only want to pass through and nothing else.” Numbers 20:18-19 (TLB)
To have between 2 and 3 million people and their livestock go through your land could be a costly thing because they would need food and water. Directed by the Lord (Deut. 2:1-8), Moses assured the people of Edom that his people would pay for their food and water and not even enter the fields or vineyards of Edom. Moses was making every effort to guarantee a peaceful journey, but the Edomites refused to accept his generous offer. Moses tried a second time to persuade the Edomites, but his words only provoked more opposition.
But the king of Edom was adamant. “Stay out!” he warned, and, mobilizing his army, he marched to the frontier with a great force. Because Edom refused to allow Israel to pass through their country, Israel turned back and journeyed from Kadesh to Mount Hor. Numbers 20:20-22 (TLB)
Jacob and Esau had met and settled their differences years before (Gen. 32-33), but Esau’s descendants were perpetuating the old family feud. Years later, when Jerusalem was attacked, the Edomites assisted the enemy and even stopped the Jewish fugitives from escaping (the Book of Obadiah; Ps. 137:7). It’s tragic when a family feud is kept alive from generation to generation, poisoning hearts and minds and keeping brothers from helping one another.
When the Edomites army arrived and stood in the way, it was evident that the wisest course for Israel was to choose a new route. Certainly, God could have helped Israel destroy the entire Edomite army, but that wasn’t His plan.
“If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men” (Rom. 12:18, NKJV).
Believer’s Bible Commentary
Bible Exposition Commentary – Be Counted (Numbers)
Holman Old Testament Commentary