Israel & the Road Home—The Contents of the Words of Peace (Pt. 2)

Posted: December 1, 2014 in Uncategorized

The Promise of an Uneventful Passage—The request for safe passage is accompanied with a number of explanations. The first is that Israel will pass through and will not stray off the “highway” (KJV). They will not “turn aside (סור) neither to the right nor to the left” (2:27; cf. Num. 20:17). The idea of turning aside to the “right or to the left” is found in a number of other places within Deuteronomy. For instance, in Deut. 17:20 and 28:14 the phrase is used to denote turning away from the commandment (17:20) or words (28:14) of Yahweh. The idea is that of departure, or of straying off course. By using the phrase in the request for safe passage, Israel seems to be assuring Sihon that he need not fear letting Israel pass through his land. Block writes, “Moses promised to stay on the highway; his forces would not leave the road to pillage the countryside as invading armies customarily did.”[1]

Furthermore, and in order to impress upon Sihon that the passage will be uneventful, the messengers ask Sihon to “sell [them] food in exchange for money…water in exchange for money” (my translation; 2:28). Israel will pay their own way (cf. Num. 20:19). J. G. McConville believes that Israel is demanding that Sihon sell food and water to the Israelites.[2] However, given that Israel is sending words of peace, it seems more likely that we should read this in a less abrasive manner. The Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) translates the verse, “You can sell us food in exchange for silver so we may eat, and give us water for silver so we may drink…” Nothing in the grammar suggests that this is not a possibility.[3] Indeed, the context suggests reading this as a request is most appropriate.[4]

What the messengers are doing is trying to convince Sihon to let them pass by reassuring him that their trek through his land will be without incident. That is, they were just passing through (cf. Num. 20:19). There is no need to worry. They will stay on the road and buy their own supplies (no need to worry about providing for them or be concerned about them pillaging nearby villages). In other words, Israel will cause no problems in Sihon’s land!

A Comparison with Passage through Seir and Ar—The messengers were to point to the recent travels through the land of the Edomites (Seir) and the Moabites (Ar) as examples of what Israel was requesting of Sihon. Ajith Fernando writes, “The idea is that this land is to be like the lands they went through because their real destination is on the west side of the Jordan.”[5]

Citing travels through the lands of Edom and Moab as examples of safe passage is striking. In Numbers 20:14–21 the story depicts the king of Edom refusing to allow Israel to pass through his land. In fact Numbers 20:21 states that “Edom refused to give Israel passage through his territory, so Israel turned away from him.” Futhermore, we are told that Israel “set out by the way of the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom” (Num. 21:4). And what about Moab? The information in Numbers is sparse. What we do find is that Israel encamps in the Valley of Zered and then on the other side of the Arnon, which is “between Moab and the Amorites” (Num. 21:13). How are these two examples supposed to encourage Sihon to allow safe passage when Israel did not pass through these lands to begin with?

J. G. McConville suggests that claiming that Edom and Moab complied “may be simply the rhetoric of war, aiming to bring pressure to bear.”[6] Eugene Merrill asserts a similar understanding and acknowledges that the presence of such duplicity raises an “ethical dilemma.”[7] Is Moses stretching the truth for rhetorical purposes? It does not seem that this is our only option. Peter C. Craige writes that “the Israelites had already passed through Seir and Moab peacefully; their transit had not been without incident…but there had not been war. The reference to Seir and Moab strengthen Moses’ statement that he simply wanted to pass through the Amorite territory.”[8] It seems the reference to Edom and Moab are meant to assure Sihon that Israel was not seeking open war with the Amorites.

A Clear Destination for Israel—The last component of the recorded speech highlights Israel’s final destination. This seems to be meant to assure Sihon that his land was not what Israel was after. They were moving towards the land that Yahweh was giving to them (2:29). This land was “over the Jordan,” which clearly differentiates the land they were seeking from the land Sihon occupied. Ajith Fernando writes, “The idea is that this land is to be like the lands they went through because their real destination is on the west side of the Jordan.”[9]

A new generation of Israelites has arisen that has the opportunity to enter into the land Yahweh promised to Abraham (Gen. 12:1–3). The road to the land has taken them past the Edomites and the Moabites without incident. Though Moses is aware that God has given Sihon and the Amorites into the hands of Israel (2:24–25), he first engages Sihon with admirable diplomacy. The message of the messengers is meant to sway Sihon to allow Israel safe passage through his land. Israel will stay on the highway, they will pay their own way, they have traveled past the Edomites and Moabites without engaging in warfare, and simply desire to arrive in the land that Yahweh had promised to give them. Sihon and the Amorites stood as potential obstacles in the road home.[10]

[1] Block, Deuteronomy, 91.

[2] McConville, Deuteronomy, 87.

[3] The verb שׁבר is found in an imperfect Hiphil form in 2:28. If this were a command, or demand, the reader would naturally expect an imperatival form. Given the context of peace and the presence of the imperfect, reading this as a command is possible, as McConville suggests, but is not necessary.

[4] See Block, Deuteronomy, 91.

[5] Fernando, Deuteronomy: Loving Obedience to a Loving God, 97.

[6] McConville, Deuteronomy, 87.

[7] Eugene H. Merrill, Deuteronomy (The New American commentary v. 4; Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman & Holman, 1994), 101.

[8] Peter C Craigie, The Book of Deuteronomy (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), 115-16.

[9] Fernando, Deuteronomy: Loving Obedience to a Loving God, 97.

[10] For the idea that Canaan was considered “home,” see Numbers 15:2.

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