Israel & the Road Home—Enemies in the Road

Posted: December 3, 2014 in Uncategorized

Thus far, Israel has sent messengers to king Sihon with “words of peace” (2:26). The content of those “words” are unpacked in 2:27–29. The reader is not left wondering what the response of Sihon will be. The situation that Israel found themselves in had moved them to request safe passage. The response of Sihon was to refuse passage (2:30) and to come out against Israel in battle (2:32). The reality was that Sihon did not represent a potential obstacle, but a present obstacle in the road to the Promised Land.

The content of the “words of peace” (2:26) have been described in the reported speech. Moses now reports the response of Sihon to the messengers. Thus, verse 30 connects most properly to verse 26.

We must keep in mind that Moses is preaching to Israel as they stand on the plains of Moab and are poised to enter the land promised to Abraham (Gen. 12:1–3).Moses means to encourage Israel to remember the past grace of God and thus move into the Promised Land. Recording the speech of the messengers to Sihon has slowed the narrative down and caused the people of Israel to linger over this story. Now, he resumes the flow of thought and reminds the people of Sihon’s negative response. The road to the Promised Land is blocked by yet another powerful people.

The text says that Sihon was not “willing” (אָבָה) to let Israel pass by him. And why was he not willing? The negative response of Sihon is grounded (כִי) in the sovereign work of God. It was Yahweh who “caused his spirit to be hardened and made his heart obstinate…” Though Sihon exercised his will (אָבָה) and refused to allow Israel to trek through his land, the ultimate cause behind his decision was the hardening work of Yahweh.

What should come to mind for both the Israelite who heard the sermon and those who would later read the inscripturated words (including present day readers!) is the hardening of Pharoah’s heart in Exodus. In Exodus 10:27 the same verb found in Deut. 2:30 (אָבָה) is negated (לֹא). This suggests that Sihon and Pharaoh are in some sense parallel accounts. Thus, McConville is right to say “[t]he unwillingness of Sihon…recalls that of Pharaoh to release Israel from Egypt in the first stage of their journey…”[1]

In the case of both Pharaoh and Sihon the sovereignty of God over the hearts of kings is on display (Prov. 21:1; cf. Ps. 105:25). Yet, this in no way meant that Pharaoh and Sihon were no longer morally responsible for their actions.[2] The Bible makes it clear that both were culpable. Tom Schreiner writes, “The biblical writers do not finally and fully resolve the tension between divine sovereignty and human freedom. They affirm the authenticity of human decisions, and yet they see God’s sovereign hand behind all that occurs (Ps. 16:33; 21:1).”[3] In the case of Pharaoh, God would bring judgment as he cast both horse and rider into the sea (Ex. 15:1; 15:21; Ps. 76:6).

As for Sihon, his unwillingness to allow Israel safe passage would result in the destruction of “all his people” (2:32–37). The idea of action-purpose is indicated by the presence of לְמַעַן. This particle can function to indicate a statement of purpose.[4] Given that the למַעַן is followed by the infinitive contstruct form of נתן, it seems that the purpose of God’s hardening work is so that “he might give [Sihon] into [Israel’s] hand” (2:30).

The request from Israel to Sihon for safe passage was met with a negative response from the Amorite king. He would not allow Israel to pass through his land. What Sihon was thinking that caused him to willfully reject the request of Moses is not something on which the text elaborates. What we do know is that his obstinance did not take God by surprise. The obstacle in the road home was placed there by a sovereign God for the express purpose of giving the Amorites over to Israel. And as Moses casts their eyes back on their victory over Sihon and the Amorites, Israel should be encouraged to continue moving towards home.


[1] McConville, Deuteronomy, 87.

[2] Some have argued that Pharaoh hardened his own heart and God’s hardening was in response to Pharaoh’s own hardening. John Piper has pointed out that the prediction in Ex. 4:21 causes this proposal to lose its “plausibility” (John Piper, The Justification of God: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Romans 9:1-23 (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Book House, 1983).) For an in-depth treatment of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, with direct applicability to the situation with Sihon in our present text, see G. K. Beale, “An Exegetical and Theological Consideration of the Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart in Exodus 4–14 and Romans 9.” Trinity Journal 5 (1984): 129–154.

[3] Thomas R. Schreiner, The King in His Beauty: A Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2013), 31.

[4] John C. Beckman, Ronald Williams, Williams Hebrew Syntax, Third Edition (Kindle Location 3331). University of Toronto Press. Kindle Edition. Print ed: Ronald J. Williams, Williams’ Hebrew Syntax (3rd ed.; Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007), n.p.


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