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.


6 Answers 6


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)


A close look at the text reconciles the seeming contradiction.

Let's take a look at how this text is rendered in the NASB Version:

28 '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, 29 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.' (Deut. 2:28-29 NASB)

Here we have a record of Moses asserting that the Edomites and the Moabites sold him and the Israelites food, not necessarily that they (Edom) let him pass through their country. In fact, that the Israelites didn't even pass through the land of Edom or Moab is explicitly declared in Judges 11:14-18.

Now, obviously this engenders the question as to how the Israelites managed to purchase resources from the Edomite and Moabite people, without ever entering their countries. Well the "sons of Esau who live in Seir" (v29), lived on the border of Edom, and allowed the Israelites to purchase food and water and in a sense "pass through", although Israel remained on the border of Edom. This was also the case regarding the transaction between Israel and the Moabites, seeing as Ar lies on the eastern border of Moab.

Thus, we see that the text found in Deut. 2:26-29, is perfectly harmonious with the narrative found in Numbers 20:18-21. When Israel was prohibited from entering Edom, the text states they "turned away from him" (Num. 20:21). But after time elapsed and some significant events took place, Israel set out again, but to go around Edom this time (Num. 21:4). This was precisely when the "Edomites in Seir" (Deut. 2:29), sold the Israelites food and water on the border of Edom. Although the Edomites refused Israel passage through the midst of their land, the implication is that Edom did acquiesce to Israel's request to purchase food.

John Gill concludes similarly (Exposition of the Old & New Testaments).

Deut. 2:4 is also important to consider. Isn't The LORD expressly stating that the Israelites would pass through the land of Edom? A closer look at the text again reveals that there is no discrepancy:

4 and command the people saying, "You will pass through the territory of your brothers the sons of Esau who live in Seir; and they will be afraid of you so be careful; (Deut. 2:4 NASB)

The key is found in looking at the original language. The phrase rendered "pass through", is the Hebrew word עָכַר, abar, which can also be used of "passing by". In Genesis 18:3, Abraham begged the three men not "to pass by" him but to stop and refresh themselves (VINE'S, pg. 172-173).

Furthermore, the word gebul rendered "territory" in this text (Deut. 2:4), literally means "border" (Strong's Hebrew 1366).

Praise The LORD for HIS precious, infallible, inerrant WORD!


The solution is that Israel passed through the outskirts of the Edomite and Moabite territory, and received water/food from a minority of the population.

The main issue now to solve is the apparent discrepancy between how Edom and Moab are treated in Deut. 23:3 - 7:

"An Ammonite or Moabite shall not enter into the congregation of Yehovah; even to their tenth generation shall they not enter into the congregation of Yehovah for ever: 4 Because they met you not with bread and with water in the way, when ye came forth out of Egypt; and because they hired against thee Balaam the son of Beor of Pethor of Mesopotamia, to curse thee. 5 Nevertheless Yehovah thy God would not hearken unto Balaam; but Yehovah thy God turned the curse into a blessing unto thee, because Yehovah thy God loved thee. 6 Thou shalt not seek their peace nor their prosperity all thy days for ever.

7 Thou shalt not abhor an Edomite; for he is thy brother: thou shalt not abhor an Egyptian; because thou wast a stranger in his land. 8 The children that are begotten of them shall enter into the congregation of Yehovah in their third generation."

The question is, why do Edom and Egypt get special treatment: the Egyptians enslaved the Israelites, and Edom, just like Moab, hardly helped the Israelites at all on their journey to the Land. The answer lies in this verse: "Because they met you not with bread and with water in the way, when ye came forth out of Egypt; and because they hired against thee Balaam the son of Beor of Pethor of Mesopotamia, to curse thee." This seems to be applied to Ammon and Moab respectively, not collectively. Ammon didn't help (at all) and Moab tried to curse them. Edom, on the other hand, helped a little (those who dwelt in Mt. Seir) and is a close relative of Israel, while Egypt also had a close relationship with Israel, and many of the Egyptians actually helped them by giving them stuff before they left Egypt.

  • Hi Jacob, welcome to BH.SE, and thanks for your answer! Consider asking about the discrepancy in treatment (and answering it) in a separate question.
    – user22655
    Mar 25, 2018 at 17:32

Another possibility is that there were factions among the Edomites with mixed feelings about the Israelites. Lands are not always united, Israel after Solomon for example. Also note that Edom is used in the first citation and Esau in the second. Esau was blood; his wives were not and people of the land. Both sides had reason to suspect Israelite intentions. Esau is only Edom in reference to the red pottage used by Jacob to buy his birthright and by the rose red rock and hairlike striations (Esau was red and hairy.) of Edom. In one sense it is a condescending name, in the other descriptive. Esau and Jacob made up with each other in Genesis, but his pagan wives and Ishmaelite wives would likely be more inclined to hold grudges by their circumstances. Isaac liked Esau. Jacob wronged him for all that, though the Jews including the author of Hebrews try to make Esau the offending party, rather than the supplanter, Jacob. So one faction could have prevented crossing, and another faction in a different area allowed it, we suppose by reason of both fear and financial gain. And the demise of the Edomites was likely more against the feminine side of the land than Esau. But the captain of the ship takes the blame. The Edomites had their faults; the Israelites certainly had theirs, described as worse than the Canaanites by God at one point. If God loved Jacob and hated Esau, Israel was a thorn and distress to God, returning evil for good. If God is love, is not his hate motivated by love? You would suppose so.

Response to Speculation and Citation Complaint:

Division of Kingdoms:

1 Kg 11:31 And he said to Jeroboam, Take thee ten pieces: for thus saith the Lord, the God of Israel, Behold, I will rend the kingdom out of the hand of Solomon, and will give ten tribes to thee:

Origin of Edom Name:

Wikipedia: Edom The Hebrew word Edom means "red", and is derived from the name of its original founder, whose name was Esau, the elder son of the Hebrew patriarch Isaac, because he was born "red all over". (Gen 25:25 )Later, as a young adult, he ate "red pottage".(Gen 25:30)[10] The Tanakh and the New Testament both describe the Edomites as descendants of Esau.

Esau and Jacob Reconciled:

Gen 33:1,3-4 And Jacob lifted up his eyes, and looked, and, behold, Esau came, and with him four hundred men. And he divided the children unto Leah, and unto Rachel, and unto the two handmaids. .... 3 And he passed over before them, and bowed himself to the ground seven times, until he came near to his brother. 4 And Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him: and they wept.

The Wrong to Esau:

Gen 25:30-32 And Esau said to Jacob, Feed me, I pray thee, with that same red pottage; for I am faint: therefore was his name called Edom. 31 And Jacob said, Sell me this day thy birthright. 32 And Esau said, Behold, I am at the point to die: and what profit shall this birthright do to me?

Esau in Conformance with Prudent Man:

Matt 5:40 And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also.

Matt 6:34 Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.

Esau Lecherous?:

Gen 26:34 And Esau was forty years old when he took to wife Judith the daughter of Beeri the Hittite, and Bashemath the daughter of Elon the Hittite:

NOTE: Waited till forty for women. Married them and not consorting with prostitutes.

Hebrews Citation:

Heb 12:16 Lest there be any fornicator, or profane person, as Esau, who for one morsel of meat sold his birthright.

NOTE: Esau sold his birthright under duress. Jacob, his brother, shook him down out of greed. Hebrews is an epistle. The writer's opinions are his. It is scripture that he said it, that is all. Note the citation is not an oracle from God. It is nonsense to suppose opinions of Paul, Barnabas or any apostle is divine unless specifically stated.

Iniquity of Jews:

2 Chr. 33:9 So Manasseh made Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem to err, and to do worse than the heathen, whom the Lord had destroyed before the children of Israel.

The Hatred:

Malachi 1:2-3 I have loved you, saith the Lord. Yet ye say, Wherein hast thou loved us? Was not Esau Jacob's brother? saith the Lord: yet I loved Jacob, 3 And I hated Esau, and laid his mountains and his heritage waste for the dragons of the wilderness.


Rom 9:11-15 (For the children being not yet born, neither having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works, but of him that calleth;) 12 It was said unto her, The elder shall serve the younger. 13  As it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated. 14 What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? God forbid. 15 For he saith to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.

NOTE: We see mercy not righteousness of Jacob at work here. If God is good, we must suppose some good intent in an otherwise arbitrary decision. Neither Jacob nor the Jews were righteous.


If you read the text carefully it is Sihon an Amorite not an Edomite that does not give safe passage..Deuteronomy 2:24, 2:25–37, but in Deuteronomy 2:6 there is a clue it seems that Esau’s people at mount Seir sold goods and food to them according to the KJV and verse 9 I have given Ar to Essu’s Descendants (the moabites at Ar) for a possession. It seems taking in the account given in Numbers that the king did not change his mind but those Moabites dwelling at Ar joined with Esau’s descendants....It was a wise play on words that Moses used because the “Moabites at Ar did give safe passage. We see an example of diplomacy at governmental levels playing out.

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    – sara
    Aug 27, 2019 at 6:01

There are numerous solutions from well-meaning people concerning this issue but the answer should meet the test of Occam's razor. Is it possible that Moses was not telling the truth to King Sihon? In chapter 1 Moses told the people that the Lord was angry with him on their account, but God said it was a lack of trust on Moses part. See Numbers 20:12. Moses was a great prophet but he was not sinless. He failed to circumcise his two boys in a timely manor and this was the sign of the covenant. Given the scriptures quoted above, Numbers 20:18-21 and Judges 11:14-22 it seems obvious that they conflict with Deut. 2:28-29 unless Moses is not telling the truth to king Sihon.

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