The 30-day period of mourning Aaron is over, and so the Israelites are once again on the move, but they don’t get far. As there is simply no way to hide the movement of 3 million people; the word is out, and all the indigenous people of Canaan and the surrounding areas are watching Israel like hawks.
Let’s begin by reading Numbers 21:1-5
Every one of these nations would have sent out scouts to see just where the Israelites were going. Israel’s intention to move into Canaan was no secret; it was simply a matter of the route and the strategy of conquest.
An unnamed Canaanite king, the king of an area called Arad, isn’t waiting for Israel to move upon him and neither makes a preemptive strike.
Arad is a region located in the Negev; the capital city of Arad is on the western side of the hills that separate the giant rift valley called the Arabah, from the coastal plains of the Mediterranean.
At first, Arad’s forces gain the upper hand and take some of the Hebrews prisoner. The Israelites are not battle-tested yet and so likely did not fight very well at all.
But this is going to be a turning point; in proper response to their trouble, the whole community turns to God and makes a vow that if He leads them to victory, they will offer to Him all the captured booty they take from the enemy.
Take a look at verses 2 and 3. Most translations will say that if the Lord hands the Canaanite people over to them, they will DESTROY the enemy’s cities. Next, it says that the Lord accepted their vow and delivered up the Canaanites, and so their cities were destroyed, and therefore the place was named Hormah, which means destruction.
The vow was NOT that Israel would not necessarily destroy the cities: rather it was that they would “put them under the ban.” The Hebrew word is herem, and what this is indicating is a significant act of self-denial. The self-denial was that the there would be a ban placed on the towns such that the Israelites could not loot them for themselves.
The Israelite army was a militia; each man armed himself and supplied his food. Therefore whenever an enemy town was taken, typically the victorious soldiers looted the city, and whatever each person could get a hold of for himself was his reward (his pay, actually) for his service and the risk he took.
But what the Israelites did was to offer God all the stolen goods of the towns they took in exchange for His divine assurance of victory. And by the way, the Israelites did destroy the cities in the process, but the vow was NOT to destroy the towns, it was to give everything of value that was captured back to the Lord for His favor.
The destruction of the cities was partly the process of taking the towns, and at times partly the way of offering up the cities as a sort of “burnt offering” to God.
The next verse, 4, tells us something interesting but we have to look at a map to understand the matter. At this time Israel was right on the border of the Land of Canaan.
Recall that their request to the king of Edom to allow them to pass through his land fell on deaf ears. In fact the king sent out some troops to stand in the way (this was probably just saber rattling because there was no battle); in the end, each side just went their way.
Next, we have Aaron escorted up to a mountaintop where he died, and his son assuming the position of High Priest. And then we have this king of Arad come and make a preemptive strike on Israel.
And this all happened over a period of little more than a month and within the tiny area of just a handful of miles in either direction, not more than 20 miles to the south and west of the Dead Sea.
But verse 4 says they now turned to go by way of the Sea of Reeds (the Red Sea) to avoid going through Edom. Why after this victory over Arad did they not just continue to go straight north?
Or why did they not just ignore Edom’s threat, especially now that Israel was flush with confidence after their recent battle victory, and take the route they had originally intended: through Edom and up to the Jordan River?
It is fairly well documented that going straight north would have run Israel headlong into an enemy that seemed undefeatable: a people known as the Sea Peoples, who would eventually be called the Philistines.
Apparently, very early into the journey, it was decided that they would not take that route. Recall the statement of Exodus 13:17 concerning the route that God refused to take the Israelites on to the Promised Land:
Now it came about when Pharaoh had let the people go, that God did not lead them by the way of the land of the Philistines, even though it was near; for God said, “Lest the people change their minds when they see war, and they return to Egypt.” Exodus 13:17 NAS
God did not want Israel to go up against the Philistines, and so going north from Arad into the Philistine country was out of the question.
Why, then, didn’t they just go through Edom?
There is absolutely no doubt that the Edomites would not have been able to stop Israel. I wouldn’t even begin to venture a guess as to how many Edomites there were at this time; but as a nomadic society, it could not have been very many…scores of 1000’s perhaps.
But, how could that have ever matched up to Israel’s 600,000-man army? It couldn’t. No, this had much more to do with Moses’ truthful plea to the king of Edom, calling them a brother. Moses and apparently the Lord did not want the Israelites to annihilate Edom. Yehoveh did not want the descendants of Jacob killing the descendants of his twin brother, Esau.
So, after defeating the king of Arad’s forces, Moses led the Israelites south, towards the Gulf of Aqaba, which achieved the purpose of skirting the territory of Edom and avoiding conflict with them.
And this involved a journey of 90 miles south, about 15 miles east, before they turned northward again. And this must have made fun of the people of Israel.
Let me tell you; this is some serious desert territory and unpleasant to say the least. And, it must have felt like they were backtracking probably at least a month’s worth of travel.
Therefore, as it says at the end of verse 4 and beginning of verse 5, “…. the people became very discouraged on the way, and the people spoke against God and against Moses.”
We’ll leave it here and see what God does about this latest rebellion in my next blog post.