Did Moses Lie to Us? A Textual Journey (Part III)

A Different Edom?

Everyone knows that when the Israelites asked for food and water from the Edomites, the Israelites’ brothers from the line of Esau, and permission to pass through their country that they were denied those things and forced to pass around Edom. So I was startled yet again to learn that apparently Moses had forgotten these things too! Here is what Moses says about the whole affair:

    And we turned and traveled into the wilderness by way of the Red Sea as Yahweh spoke to me, and we skirted Mount Seir for many days.
Then Yahweh said to me: “You have skirted this mountain long enough. Turn north, and command the people saying, ‘You are to pass through the territory of your brothers, the children of Esau, who live in Seir. And they will be afraid of you, so be very watchful. Do not agitate them, for I will not give you any of their land, even as much as a footstep, because I have given Mount Seir to Esau as a possession. Food you shall buy from them with money so that you may eat; and water also, you shall buy with money so that you may drink. For Yahweh your God has blessed you in all the works of your hand. He has known your walking through this great wilderness. These 40 years Yahweh your God has been with you; you have lacked nothing.’
So we passed through among our brethren, the children of Esau, who live in Seir. (Deut 2:1-8)

Besides the obvious differences in terminology that Moses uses here when speaking of Edom—the Mount Seir region and “the children of Esau who live in Seir” (which in itself is a curious thing)—it’s clear that Moses has again significantly altered the historical details of this event in his renarration of it. And at this point, I was not only frustrated by Moses’ lack of precision in these matters, but extremely perturbed by the whole affair. On what grounds were these changes being made? Why did Moses even alter these details in the first place? And how could he? Were these sheer instances of forgetfulness? Why, I thought, didn’t God stop him, say something to him, or even correct him especially since Moses was putting words into his mouth as well!?

As with the last episode, here too Moses claims that Yahweh said certain things to him which he was then to relay to the people. But in the original account (Num 20:14-21) not only did Yahweh not say the things that Moses here accredits him with saying, but the outcome of the whole affair was completely contradictory to what Moses here claims Yahweh says as a sort of prophetic pronouncement: “You will pass through the territory of your brothers”; “they will be afraid of you;” and “you will purchase food and water from them.” None of these things happened! Not one of them. The Israelites did not procure food and water from their brethren, nor did they pass through their land. Instead the children of Esau, who were anything but afraid, marched out “with a heavy mass of people and a strong arm” and it was rather the Israelites who were afraid and forced to flee for fear of their lives!

Did Moses forget about the whole Edom affair and how they were treated by their brethren?

Did he forget that he himself had passed around Edom? Was his memory failing him? Or were these deliberate attempts to renarrate a different history? And if so, why?
Again, one of the most disturbing elements to Moses’ renarration is not that it’s completely contradictory to what actually happened per our original source, but that it once again accredits Yahweh with saying something that he not only did not say, but which also speaks against what actually did and did not happened! I kept asking myself if there was something I was missing. According to Moses’ version, God tells Moses that they will be passing through Edomite territory, that is the region of Seir, that they will be buying food and water from the children of Esau, and that they are not to meddle with their brethren who will be afraid of them. Apparently then, Moses sends messengers to Edom with these requests, but the children of Esau refuse: “You will not pass through me or else I’ll come out against you with the sword” (Num 20:18).

They insist a second time (v. 19), but Edom only gets hostile at this point and threatens military action. In the end the Israelites are refused entry and forced to return to Kadesh.

So if God Yahweh told Moses that this event would occur differently, that the Edomites would allow the Israelites to pass and that they would provide food and water for them, then why didn’t Yahweh intervene at this point and chastise Edom? Or, according to Moses’ version of the story the children of Israel did pass trough the territory of the children of Esau. Well, don’t these people remember?

I can only image Caleb listening to this in the audience and shaking his head back and forth in dumbfounded disbelief: ‘Doesn’t Moses remember that we passed around Edom, that we did not procure food or drink, and that far from being afraid of us, the children of Esau were aggressive and it was we who were fearful!’ Is Moses having a breakdown? Why this deliberate—is it deliberate—falsification of events?

Furthermore, in Moses’ renarration he claims that after having passed through the territory of their brethren they then marched through Moab (Deut 2:8-29). But again this is contrary to the original record where the Israelites then turn back to Kadesh, and then proceed to Hor and Hormah, and then around Moab not through it (Num 20:23-21:20)! Was there some parallel universe of events happening here? Why was Moses rewriting this history? And upon whose authority were these alterations being made? The questions kept piling up.

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