I have another possible explanation for why there are discrepancies between Moses’ account here and the one we’ve been reading so far. Maybe, at the age of 120 (which is what he’s supposed to be), he’s gone a bit senile and doesn’t remember everything that happened back when he was in his 80s. That way he’s not intentionally deceiving anyone, he’s just getting old.
Because, again, this chapter doesn’t mesh perfectly with what’s gone before. First, there’s their passage through Edom and Seir, which here goes smoothly. Since the Edomites are descendents of Esau and thus their kinsmen, and because their land is not part of the territory God promised them, Moses arranges for them to peacefully pass through, paying for food and water. (v 1-8a)
Well, if you remember back in Numbers 20:14-21, it didn’t work out that way. Moses offered, but the kings said no, and due to the large army they were facing, they had to take the long way around. Moses seems to be remembering it in a more positive light, where his plan worked perfectly rather than failing.
On we go to Moab and Wadi Zered (v 8b-15). Deuteronomy vaguely says that it took them 38 years to go this distance (which, according to 1:2 should only take 11 days), and that “the LORD’s own hand was against them, to root them out from the camp, until all had perished” (v 15). No details about the flaming serpents/seraphim or the bronze snake-on-a-pole that saves everyone. If the common theory that Deuteronomy’s prologue and epilogue date to the time of King Josiah’s reforms, that might be intentional, since the Nehushtan was one of the idols they destroyed. What better way to de-legitimize it than to just gloss over that story completely?
The account of the defeat of King Sihon is very similar to the one found in Numbers, though it is longer and more detailed, and doesn’t have a song at the end. This was a big victory for Moses, so he remembers it well.
What becomes really interesting in this chapter are all the anachronistic interpolations. The NRSV puts these in parentheses and the NCT puts dashes before and after. In both cases, it’s to indicate that these are digressions from the main narrative, but also that they “post-date” Moses by quite a lot. Verses 10-12 and 20-23 seem to assume that the Israelites are already in control of Canaan, which they likely were when this was written. The NOAB pointed to these inconsistencies and noted that Medieval Jewish commentators had concluded from them that, while the Torah (i.e. the Law) was revealed to Moses, he didn’t write these exact books himself. Would someone please tell that to the people who wrote the stupid textbook I had to use teaching Old Testament at a community college here in Kansas?
These digressions aren’t just fun for bashing holes in the notion that Moses wrote the Pentateuch. They also talk a lot about those giants who supposedly died in the flood but didn’t because their descendents are still hanging around in Canaan. The Hebrews call them Rephaim and Anakim, but the Moabites call them Emim and the Ammonites call them Zamzummim. Could the other tribes surrounding the Israelites have had similar stories of giants who roamed the land before them?
These interpolations also say that God has been doing this shuffle of people for a long time before the Israelites. God destroyed the giants so that the Ammonites could “settle in their place” (v 21), which is the same thing he did for the Edomites with the Horites and the Avvim with the Caphtorites (v 22-23).
So here God isn’t just the deity of the Israelites, he is the supreme deity who has been working with other nations as well. I’ve read ahead a little to chapter 4, which outlines why the Israelites are really special, because it’s not that they’ve been given a land of their own; God has done that before. Some of these lands are strictly off-limits to the Israelites as well, presumably because God intends them for other people.
God is also hardening people’s hearts again. While in Numbers, King Sihon of the Ammonites deserves to lose his land because he doesn’t let the Israelites pass through peacefully, in Deuteronomy his decision is all part of God’s plan to make the Israelites look awesome (v 25). Perhaps the author of this prologue was also the editor of the portions of Exodus that place God in control as well?
Again, while maybe King Sihon deserved to be defeated, that doesn’t seem to justify the complete extermination of his people. And while this may not be a historical event, it is troubling how much the author feels that this is the right thing to do – that this is what should have happened. I feel like I’m repeating myself, but I don’t want to let these troubling passages just slip by my attention. This kind of genocide is wrong, and I need to grapple with them head-on, not just sweep them under the rug like many Christians prefer.
The Japanese: idomu “to challenge, to tempt, to venture” (v 5), kyoui “threat, menace” (v 25), yuukou shisetsu “goodwill envoy” (v 26), kyoka suru “to admit, to permit” (v 29), goujou “stubborn, obstinate” (v 30), kahan “riverside,” ochiiru “to fall into” (v 36).