Israel & the Road Home—The Contents of the Words of Peace (Pt. 1)

Posted: November 26, 2014 in Uncategorized

Commentary Continued…

A Request for Safe Passage—Before Israel begins to pass through the land of Sihon, they first request a peaceful trek. This echoes Number 20:14 when Moses sent messengers to the king of Edom requesting safe passage. In that episode we read that the king of Edom had refused and Israel “turned away from him” (Num. 20:21). In Deut. 2:26–29 the request is sent to king Sihon. The reader can feel that a different result will likely accompany any refusal of safe passage by Sihon and the Amorites (cf. Deut. 2:24–25).

This raises an interesting question. Why would Moses send messengers with “words of peace” if Yahweh had already told Moses that Israel was to “contend” with Sihon and take possession of his land (2:24–25)? Would seeking peace and safe passage directly contradict what Yahweh had commanded? These are difficult questions to answer. One suggestion is that Israel is offering terms of peace in order to lay the blame for war on Sihon and the Amorites. In other words, this is an appropriate and diplomatic way to go about entering into war. After all, it is Sihon who comes out and and engages in warfare first (2:32; Num. 21:23). This idea seems drawn from Deuteronomy 20:10–14.[1] In that passage Israel is to offer terms of peace to cities they are seeking to besiege. If the city accepts the terms, then the residents “shall do forced labor for [Israel] and shall serve [Israel]” (20:11). If the city does not accept the terms of peace, then “[Israel] shall put all its males to the sword, but the women and the little ones, the livestock, and everything else in the city, all its spoil, [Israel] shall take as plunder for [themselves]” (20:13–13). Commentators that reference this passage see the same idea present in the “words of peace” found in our present text. If Sihon accepts the request, then at some point the Amorites become slaves to Israel. If Sihon refuses the request, then Israel would destroy the Amorites.

At first glance the above proposal does not seem completely satisfactory. To say that this was simply a diplomatic way to enter into battle sounds a bit hollow given verses 24–25. The battle and the victory were already foregone conclusions. Furthermore, is Deuteronomy 20:10–14 a parallel to what is happening in Deut. 2:26–31? The trouble seems to be that nothing in the “words of peace” would lead us to believe that acceptance of the terms meant becoming Israel’s slaves. The words depict something very different. The message to Sihon emphasizes that Israel would not move off the highway and would simply travel to their final destination.

Moshe Weinfeld notes that vs. 26 “stands in contradiction to v 24” and that “[t]he Rabbis indeed saw in Moses’ offer of peace an act that was not commissioned by God (Mid. Num. Rab. 5, 13).”[2] That is, Moses request was not necessarily a moment of faithful leadership. However, later in his commentary Weinfeld states that “the request for passage was a pretext aimed at provoking war…”[3] This indeed may be the case, but it seems speculative.

Though a dogmatic conclusion seems unwise, the idea that this was merely a diplomatic request may be the best way to understand the perceived tension. This concept seems most plausible.[4] Moses knows that Sihon will reject the offer, but nonetheless makes a “genunine” offer of peace and thus the blame for war is laid squarely on the shoulders of Sihon and the Amorites. In short, Yahweh has called Israel to move against Sihon. However, in good form the first step was to offer peaceful terms to Sihon and his people. Thus, Moses was not being unfaithful in following Yahweh, but a wise leader of God’s children.


[1] Ajith Fernando, Deuteronomy: Loving Obedience to a Loving God (Preaching the Word; Wheaton, Ill: Crossway, 2012), 97. Also see Block, Deuteronomy, 90-91.

[2] Moshe Weinfeld, Deuteronomy 1-11: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008), 171.

[3] Ibid. 176.

[4] See McConville, Deuteronomy, 87.




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