Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for professors, theologians, and those interested in exegetical analysis of biblical texts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

After the Exodus, and prior to the conquest of Sihon and Og, Israel attempted to pass through Edom. (The Edomites were the descendents of Esau.) Numbers 20:18-21 records Edom's response as follows:

Edom, however, said to him, “You shall not pass through us, or I will come out with the sword against you.” Again, the sons of Israel said to him, “We will go up by the highway, and if I and my livestock do drink any of your water, then I will pay its price. Let me only pass through on my feet, nothing else.” But he said, “You shall not pass through.” And Edom came out against him with a heavy force and with a strong hand. Thus Edom refused to allow Israel to pass through his territory; so Israel turned away from him.

In Deuteronomy, Moses recounts Israel's wanderings after the Exodus, and begins to describe the conquest of Sihon and Og in 2:24. Beginning in verse 26 Moses recalls a conversation with Sihon:

“So I sent messengers from the wilderness of Kedemoth to Sihon king of Heshbon with words of peace, saying, ‘Let me pass through your land, I will travel only on the highway; I will not turn aside to the right or to the left. You will sell me food for money so that I may eat, and give me water for money so that I may drink, only let me pass through on foot, just as the sons of Esau who live in Seir and the Moabites who live in Ar did for me, until I cross over the Jordan into the land which the Lord our God is giving to us.’"

It seems like Numbers is saying the Edomites did not allow Israel to pass through, but in Deuteronomy, Moses recalls that he told Sihon that they did allow them to pass through.

How do the experts typically reconcile this apparent contradiction? Did Moses lie to Sihon? Is this describing two different groups of people? Or two different occasions? Or am I missing something in the wording of the Hebrew?

To clarify, I am asking how this is normally reconciled. I have been interpreting Scripture for long enough to know better than to assume that this is an actual contradiction. So, I am only interested in answers from the perspective that the two passages can actually be reconciled.

share|improve this question
up vote 5 down vote accepted

The answer is surprisingly simple. First the Edomites resisted them, then later on the Edomites became afraid of them and allowed them to pass:

‘You have been traveling around this mountain country long enough. Turn northward and command the people, “You are about to pass through the territory of your brothers, the people of Esau, who live in Seir; and they will be afraid of you. So be very careful. Do not contend with them, for I will not give you any of their land, no, not so much as for the sole of the foot to tread on, because I have given Mount Seir to Esau as a possession. You shall purchase food from them with money, that you may eat, and you shall also buy water from them with money, that you may drink. (Deuteronomy 2:3-6, ESV)

Although this is the standard explanation the reason for the change of heart by the Edomites is probably more debated. I like the explanation that at first they were in a region where the land gave the Edomites a military advantage but afterwards they gave up when israel approached along a different side of a mountain range that no longer provided the advantage:

On the western side of their mountains the Edomites had refused permission to the Israelites to pass through their land (Num. 20:18ff.), as the mountains of Seir terminate towards the Ghor (the Arabah) in steep and lofty precipices, and there are only two or three narrow wadys which intersect them from west to east; and of these the Wady Ghuweir is the only one which is practicable for an army, and even this could be held so securely by a moderate army, that no enemy could force its way into the heart of the country (see Leake in Burckhardt, pp. 21, 22; and Robinson, ii. p. 583). It was different on the eastern side, where the mountains slope off into a wide extent of table-land, which is only slightly elevated above the desert of Arabia. Here, on the weaker side of their frontier, the Edomites lost the heart to make any attack upon the Israelites, who would now have been able to requite their hostilities. (Keil and Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament, 1.747)

share|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.