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Judg 11 portrays the Israelites going around Edom and Moab:

17 Israel then sent messengers to the king of Edom, saying, ‘Let us pass, we pray, through your land’; but the king of Edom would not listen. And they sent also to the king of Moab, but he would not consent. So Israel remained at Kadesh. 18 Then they journeyed through the wilderness, and went around the land of Edom and the land of Moab, and arrived on the east side of the land of Moab, and camped on the other side of the Arnon; but they did not enter the territory of Moab, for the Arnon was the boundary of Moab. 19 Israel then sent messengers to Sihon king of the Amorites, king of Heshbon; and Israel said to him, ‘Let us pass, we pray, through your land to our country.’

Judg 11:17-19, NABRE

Deut 2 (NABRE) seems to contradict this, saying the Israelites went through Edom and Moab:

4 Command the people: You are now about to pass through the territory of your relatives, the descendants of Esau, who live in Seir... 8 So we passed by our relatives, the descendants of Esau who live in Seir, leaving behind us the Arabah route, Elath, and Ezion-geber.

The Israelites go through Edom.

Then we turned and passed on toward the wilderness of Moab... 13 Now get ready to cross the Wadi Zered. So we crossed the Wadi Zered.

The Israelites enter Moab from the south.

16 When at length death had put an end to all the soldiers among the people, 17 the Lord said to me, 18 You are now about to leave Ar and the territory of Moab behind... 24 Advance now across the Wadi Arnon.

The Israelites exit Moab from the north.

28 The food I eat you will sell me for money, and the water I drink, you will give me for money. Only let me march through, 29 as the descendants of Esau who dwell in Seir and the Moabites who dwell in Ar have done, until I cross the Jordan into the land the Lord, our God, is about to give us.”

Moses asks Sihon to let them pass through Amorite territory, saying Edom and Moab also let them through.

The Hebrew word translated as "cross" or "pass through" is עבר, which can also mean "pass by." עבר is also used when the Israelites "leave Ar and the territory of Moab behind." However, given that עבר is being used in reference to borders, it would make more sense for it to mean "cross." I don't have even a beginner's understanding of Hebrew, so please correct me if I'm wrong on this.

How are these two narratives reconciled?

I found a related question, but my question asks about both Edom and Moab. Also, the accepted answer to the linked question reconciles Deut 2 with Num 20:18-21, not with Judg 11.

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    – agarza
    Commented Mar 21, 2023 at 3:44

2 Answers 2

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Apart from the linguistic issue, we need to remember the historical context. These would not be modern-type states with clearly defined boundaries. Especially since, in that corner of the region, they are more likely to have been herders than farmers. They would be a collection of settlements and townships, claiming a certain range or territory as a people.

The point is illustrated by the later history of Gilead, when Israel and Syria would fight continually not over jealously defined borders, like modern Israel and Syria, but over the control of towns like Jabesh-Gilead (e.g. 2 Kings ch22 v2).

This means that it would be easy for the Israelites to take a route which could be described either way. They went through areas which Edom and Moab regarded as their territory, while avoiding and thus passing round the settlements themselves. Judges takes one angle, Deuteronomy occasionally takes the other one.

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  • While I can appreciate your attempt to understand how the passages can be seen to harmonize, this explanation seems quite weak to me considering the shear numbers of people in the Israelite camp at this time: we're talking about well over a million people, not to mention their livestock. In order not to encroach on the land where they had not been permitted, they would need to steer a fairly wide path around it.
    – Biblasia
    Commented Mar 21, 2023 at 7:06
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Hebrew is often much less exact with directions than we might be accustomed to in English. For example, when God asks Noah to enter the ark (Genesis 7:1), the Hebrew words could be with equal accuracy translated as "come into" or "go into." There is seemingly no need, in Hebrew, to distinguish between these--God's spatial position relative to Noah is not in question--the emphasis is less on direction, than on movement.

Looking carefully at the usages made of this Hebrew word "עָבַר", one can see that it may mean to pass over, or through, or beyond, or along, or even by. In other words, the word does not specify the exact manner (path) in which the movement is made--its focus is on the movement itself.

Here it is used in its Qal form, but if one looks also at its usage in Hiphil form, one may note that the word can mean both "take" and "bring"--again, these might seem directionally opposite to English speakers, but Hebrew is not directionally oriented with this word.

The word translated as "through" (the bet prepositional prefix to "wilderness") in Judges 11:18 is also not so directional in Hebrew. It more often means "in." So it implies that they continued in the wilderness, without leaving it.

Translators of Hebrew must rely heavily on context. If the countries of Edom and Moab refused the Israelites admittance, and they went "around" them, the word should not be translated as if they had also gone "through" them. The problem here is not so much a contradiction in Hebrew as in the translation made of it.

Good translations will take corollary passages into account during the translation process. It is not uncommon, however, to find that a Bible translation, which usually requires a team effort of multiple translators, will exhibit some level of disconnect between one book and another, as they are likely translated by different persons who were each unaware of the context that the other translator was seeing.

This question highlights the value of learning to read the Scriptures in their original languages.

Conclusion

The translator of Deuteronomy 2 may not have compared Judges 11 with his translation, and also failed to see the implications of Deuteronomy 2:5 for how the verb "pass through/by/beyond/etc." should be translated. The Hebrew meaning of this verb does not require the Israelites to have stepped foot within the boundaries of Edom, and there is no actual contradiction between these passages in Hebrew.


UPDATE: Deeper Secrets of the Hebrew Grammar

Deuteronomy 2:29 is describing the relationship between the Israelites and the Edomites and Moabites, and is not indicating where the Israelites had travelled. Consider: "(As the children of Esau which dwell in Seir, and the Moabites which dwell in Ar, did unto me;)"... That clause tells us what the Edomites and Moabites did (they did not "pass through" anywhere). "Did" is "עָֽשׂוּ", a Qal perfect verb meaning to make or to do. It doesn't address what Israel did, nor where Israel went. It doesn't say that Israel had passed through those countries--even though that is what Israel now requests of Sihon, king of Heshbon, saying they will only pass through on foot and will buy anything they might need along the way.

The verb "אֶעְבְּרָ֥ה" in Judges 11:17 and Deuteronomy 2:28-29 is in the Hebrew Qal imperfect cohortative, first-person common singular form. It should be translated as "let me pass" or some near equivalent. All three are a request, not a history, with respect to that word "עבר" (and all three requests are denied). Being in the imperfect conjugation, it implies a future tense, and the cohortative makes it a request.

Essentially, the "let me pass", asking for permission, comes from this verb form. The word "let" is not directly present in the text, but is similar to a helping verb in English that comes inherently packaged with the modality of the Hebrew verb.

Seeing that each of the verbs translated as "pass through", "cross over", or similar is grammatically indicating a request for permission to do something, they all refer to a future, unfulfilled action. Because the requests were all denied, the requested action did not take place.

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  • Looking at, for example, Deut 2:18 on biblehub.com, עֹבֵ֥ר is translated as "cross over" in almost all translations. Why do you think this is? Also, in your opinion, what would the path around Moab have looked like?
    – DevrimA
    Commented Mar 21, 2023 at 2:56
  • I'm not a cartographer by any means, and do not feel qualified to suggest the route they may have taken, but the map shown HERE seems reasonable in suggesting that when they were not allowed to take the shortest route west to their destination, passing through either Edom or Moab, they had to go clear around those territories on their eastern side, passing beyond Moab to the north, then turning westward again to reach their destination. This might explain why they arrived first near Jericho, instead of Beersheba.
    – Biblasia
    Commented Mar 21, 2023 at 3:13
  • If you look at that map, the "cross over" might be considered as technically a correct translation, provided that the "over" meant beyond these countries on their northern side. It seems, however, that "cross beyond" or "pass beyond" or even "pass over beyond" would be more in line with the intent here. Again, the English translation should not be used to try to find a contradiction in Hebrew.
    – Biblasia
    Commented Mar 21, 2023 at 3:21
  • This still does not explain Deut 2:28-29, where (in the translation) Moses tells Sihon that Edom and Moab let them pass through/along/by. Why would Moses have asked for permission from Edom and Moab to travel northwards east of their borders? The same word, Strong's H5674, is used in the requests to pass Edom and Moab, which are denied.
    – DevrimA
    Commented Mar 21, 2023 at 4:12
  • In his Exposition to the Old Testament, John Gill takes the view that "as Edom and Moab have done" refers to their selling of food and water to the Israelites and not to their admittance. Is there any reason to support this view? Right now, as someone who doesn't know Hebrew, it makes more sense to me if the word should be translated as "cross over" and Judg and Deut do actually contradict.
    – DevrimA
    Commented Mar 21, 2023 at 4:14

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