Israelites on the move
Israelites destroy Arad1 The king of Arad got news the Israelites were coming into his territory. Arad was a southland city in the Negev part of Canaan. He heard Israelites were headed up the Atharim road. So, he struck first. He attacked them and took captives. 2 Israelites, in response, made a vow. They promised the LORD, “If you will let us defeat those people, we will annihilate all Canaanites and decimate their cities.” 3 The LORD heard the vow and gave them what they wanted: victory over those Canaanites. The Israelite army killed all the people and destroyed the cities in that area. From then on, Israelites called the region “Dedicated to God.”
Snakes come, loaded with poison4 The Israelites left Mount Hor. They took the road toward the Red Sea so they could go around the nation of Edom. The people didn’t travel well. They lost their patience somewhere along the way. 5 Again, they tore into Moses with their criticisms: “Why did you drag us out of Egypt to die in this wasteland? There’s no decent food. Zero water. And we are sick to our stomachs of this disgusting manna food.” 6 The LORD sent them snakes, loaded with poison. Snakes bit the people and lots of people died.
7 The Israelites rushed to Moses with their confession: “What we did was wrong. We criticized you and the LORD himself. Please talk to the LORD for us. Ask him to get rid of these snakes.” Moses did what they wanted. 8 The LORD told Moses, “Make an image of a venomous snake and attach it to a pole. If someone gets snakebit, all they’ll have to do is look at the snake you made, and they’ll live.” 9 Moses made a bronze snake and put it on a pole. When a snake bit someone, the person looked at the bronze snake and lived to talk about it.
On the move again10 The people of Israel left that region and traveled up to Oboth where they made camp. 11 Then they traveled on to Iye-abarium, in the desert on the sunrise side of the Moab nation. 12 They left there and made camp next at Zered, a usually dry creek bed. 13 Then they left that area and moved on to the other side of the Arnon River, which flows out of Amorite country. The river serves as the natural boundary between the nations of the Amorites and Moab. 14 The LORD talks about that in the Book of the Wars:
“….Waheb in Sephah, and the dry creek beds of the Arnon River,
Cheers, to water17 The formerly thirsty people sang a water song:
“Spring up, sweet water.
We’re singing your song.
You’re the well of nobles.
You’re hand-carved by royalty
Swinging scepters and staffs.” The Israelites left the desert and traveled on to Mattanah. 19 From Mattanah, it was on to Nahaliel, then Bamoth 20 From Bamoth, they descended into the valley of Moab, at the foot of Mount Pisgah, which rises high above the desert.
Israelites take the Amorite nation21 Israelites sent two ambassadors to Sihon, the Amorite king. They delivered this message: 22 “Let us cross through your land. We won’t step off the King’s Highway. We won’t go into your fields or vineyards. We won’t even drink water from your wells. We’ll stay on the king’s road all the way through your land.” 23 Sihon answered by mustering his army and attacking the Israelites in the desert. They fought the battle at Jahaz.
24 Israelites won that battle and took possession of the country. They controlled it from the Arnon River to the Jabbok River, all the way to Jazer, the border of Ammon—a neighboring country strongly defended. 25 Israelites overran all the Amorite cities, including Heshbon and its outlying villages. 26 Heshbon was King Sihon’s capital city. Sihon had earlier defeated the army of neighboring Moab and then annexed their country. He had taken their land as far south as the Arnon River.
The king is dead, a poem27 This is why poets tell the tale:
Come see Heshbon, the fortress town.
Founded by King Sihon as the royal town.
Flames danced on Sihon’s town.
They fed on Ar in Moab,
And on rulers from the Arnon hills.
29 Bad news for folks in Moab.
Your god Chemosh is toast.
Chemosh is gone, his sons on the run,
With his daughters now captives of war.
King Sihon, the Amorite, owned it all.
30 But we came and we conquered and the Amorites fell.
We destroyed their towns from Heshbon to Dibon.
We erased them all, from Nophah to Medeba. 31 The Israelites moved into the former Amorite country. It was theirs now. 32 Moses sent scouts ahead to study the city of Jazer. Israelites later captured it and communities nearby, driving out the locals. 33 Israelites pushed on, up the road to the region of Bashan, ruled by King Og. The king and his army attacked the Israelites at Edrei.
34 The LORD told Moses, “Don’t be afraid of this man. I’ve already arranged to give him to you. I’m also giving you his people and his land. You’re going to do to this king what you did to the Amorite king, Sihon, who lived in Heshbon.” 35 Israelites killed King Og, his sons, and every single one of his people. There were no survivors. Israelites annexed his land as their own.
It’s unclear what or where Atharim was. Some scholars suggest it may have been a trading route from the southern side of the Dead Sea, up and into Arad. Others say it may have been a community. Some suggest the word refers simply to the route Joshua, Caleb, and the other 10 scouts took 40 years earlier, when Moses sent them up to explore the land.
The vow they took was to dedicate themselves to herem, the annihilation of the Canaanites. In today’s culture, that might qualify as genocide. This kind of vow in ancient times was considered irrevocable and irredeemable. You couldn’t take it back. And nothing of the enemy was allowed to live. Everything in the city was devoted to God, much like sacrificial animals that are slaughtered and burned. “It’s a vow of devotion. If something is devoted to the LORD—whether human, animal, or land—you can’t have it back. If you devote something in this unique way, it’s holy and it stays holy because it belongs to the LORD…You can’t reverse that. You can’t buy back that person’s life. That person is doomed to die” (Leviticus 27:28-29).
The Hebrew word is herem. Scholars describe it as a “curse of war” or a “ban.” It means that when soldiers conquer a city, for example, they are banned from keeping anything for themselves—everything in the city is under the curse of war and must die. Joshua later fought by those rules. His orders at the Battle of Jericho: “Keep yourselves from the things devoted to destruction, lest when you have devoted them you take any of the devoted things and make the camp of Israel a thing for destruction and bring trouble upon it” (Joshua 6:18 English Standard Version).
The name in Hebrew is Hormah. It’s a word linked to herem, and to the vow that the Israelites made to “devote” the Canaanites to God in much the same way they “devote” sacrificial animals. Those animals were reserved for God, dedicated to him, and given to him in death. Hormah can mean: to exterminate, to devote to God by killing something, banned from humans and reserved for God. For the Israelites, the name could have served as a rally cry and as a warning to the Canaanites. Perhaps a bit like a Hebrew version of “Remember the Alamo.”
The original Hebrew language here doesn’t identify the terrible food as manna, but scholars say that’s what the people were likely talking about. They ate manna for 40 years (Exodus 16:35). The Hebrew word is man, pronounced “MAWN.” It’s a good journalism word because it can mean: How? Why? Who? What? What is it? (Exodus 16:15). Some scholars say a fair English translation of the word might be “whatchamacallit.” Or maybe “whatever.” As in, the Israelites had that whatever for breakfast every morning. “It looked like white coriander seeds, and tasted like honey wafers” (Exodus 16:31.) Coriander seeds are small, roughly 2-3 millimeters in diameter, about an eighth of an inch. They’re edible and often used as a spice. Some say it has a nutty citrus taste of lemon or orange.
God, by the way, was the chef. He donated the manna and prepared it for them (Exodus 16:14-5). When the Israelites complained about the free food they were getting, the chef/philanthropist heard them.
It’s unclear where Oboth was located. One popular suggestion has been a site known as ‘Ain el-Weibeh (spelled various ways). It’s about 15 miles (24 km) south of the Dead Sea, about 40 miles (64 km) north of Petra, capital of Edom. That would place it inside what is usually considered the northern border of Edom.
Some scholars say Iye-abarim may not have been the name of a place, but was the description of an area: “regions beyond” or “ruins on the other side.”
More literally “Wadi Zered.” A wadi is usually a dry creek bed that will carry water after a rain. Dry, it’s a natural walking path.
The Book of the Wars was apparently an ancient collection of stories and poems describing Israelite battles. Joshua 10:13 mentions another lost book about their battles: the Book of Jashar.
The Hebrew word for a well is “beer.” Cheers.
Pisgah means “summit.” Mount Pisgah may refer to one or more of the high points on Moab’s plateau overlooking the Dead Sea, the Jordan River, and Canaan below, to the west. Mount Nebo is there, where Moses died. It’s the highest summit on the plateau, at 2,300 feet elevation, or 710 meters. That’s an especially good vantage point to view what is now Israel and Palestinian territories since the Dead Sea is about 1,400 feet below sea level, or 430 meters. With the Israelites camped near the Jordan River, Balak (Numbers 23:14) would have been more than a kilometer above them, about three-fourths of a mile.
There seemed reason to fear him. He ruled a kingdom of 60 walled cities, not counting villages. And he reportedly was a giant of a man. The Bible calls him the last of the giants, and says he slept in a bed about 13 feet long and 6 feet wide, which is about 4 by 2 meters. See Deuteronomy 3:1-11.
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