Commentary on Numbers 20:14-21

Notes (NET Translation)

14 Moses sent messengers from Kadesh to the king of Edom: “Thus says your brother Israel: ‘You know all the hardships we have experienced, 15 how our ancestors went down into Egypt, and we lived in Egypt a long time, and the Egyptians treated us and our ancestors badly.

Verse 14 does not say Moses was instructed by God to approach Edom. Is he acting on his own? If so, perhaps this explains his failure. The Edomites were descendants of Esau, the twin brother of Jacob/Israel (Gen 23:26; 25:19-34; 27:1-45; 32:1-33:20; 36:1; Deut 2:4; 23:8; Amos 1:11; Obad 12; Mal 1:2). The words of verse 14, “sent messengers”, recall the words in Gen 32:4 where Jacob sends messengers ahead to meet Esau on his (Jacob’s) return to Canaan. The Hebrew term melek (“king”) could refer to the great rulers of Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, or Persia but it could also refer to lesser rulers of towns (Gen 14:2; Josh 1:1-5; 12:7-24).

The current text does not demand that Edom be a centralized monarchy, or even a place, only that there be some kind of Edomite ruler to which the request was made. The Israelites probably did not know what they would find in Edom; therefore a diplomatic letter addressed to “the king of Edom” could not fail in stroking the ego of a petty ruler in that territory. The text also does not mention where the ambassadors were sent. It is not necessary to think of a national capital city; perhaps it was one of the Edomite outposts nearer to Kadesh.1

16 So when we cried to the LORD, he heard our voice and sent a messenger, and has brought us up out of Egypt. Now we are here in Kadesh, a town on the edge of your country.

The Hebrew word malakh (translated “messenger” in the NET) can also mean “angel” (Ex 14:19; 23:20-23; 32:34; 33:2).

Despite the clarity of the biblical statements, it is difficult to know exactly which route the Israelites took from Kadesh to the land of Moab. This is because the location of the places mentioned is uncertain. In verse 16, Kadesh is said to be on the edge of Edomite territory, which implies that the territory of the Edomites extended west of the Arabah into the northern Negeb, if this Kadesh is the same as Kadesh-barnea. But if Meribah-kadesh were to be located elsewhere such an extension of Edomite territory would not be required. Certainly their territorial heartland was to be found in the mountains east of the Arabah in the mountains running south from the Dead Sea to the Gulf of Aqabah. It was through these eastern mountains that ‘the King’s Highway’, probably to be identified with the trade route from Damascus to Arabia, passed (verse 17; cf. 21:22). Deuteronomy 2:8 and Judges 11:15ff. appear also to picture the Israelites skirting the eastern border of Edom to reach the wilderness of Moab. For these reasons it may be easier to suppose that the Kadesh from which Moses sent messengers to the king of Edom (verse 14) should be distinguished from Kadesh-barnea and lay further to the east, than to maintain that Edomite control extended as far west as Kadeshbarnea.2

Noth raises the question of why Kadesh, which was really only a series of wells, should be called a city here. But this question does not take adequate account of the diplomatic nature of the present text. Its purpose is not preciseness in every detail, but a general impression of where the Israelites are, why they are there, and what they want from Edom. Since Kadesh-barnea is in what became Judah’s territory (Num. 34:4), that Kadesh is called a city on the outskirts of your border has caused some commentators to conclude that Edom must have exercised sovereignty west of the Arabah at this time, that the Kadesh mentioned here is not Kadesh-barnea but some Kadesh further east, or that the story is a late fabrication. At present, no extrabiblical evidence confirms the first conclusion, the second conclusion assumes the existence of a site about which we know really nothing elsewhere, and the third comes from entrapment in philosophical presuppositions that are unnecessary. Once again, the most likely solution seems to be to posit that the diplomatic message is not attempting scientific precision, and when Kadesh is called a city on the outskirts of your border it means no more than that the Israelites are near to Edom as opposed from far away from it. Thus Gray’s assumption that geḇûl here means “territory” (which the term does mean sometimes) rather than border is not necessary.3

17 Please let us pass through your country. We will not pass through the fields or through the vineyards, nor will we drink water from any well. We will go by the King’s Highway; we will not turn to the right or the left until we have passed through your region.'”

While the inhabitants of Canaan will be treated harshly, the Israelites intend to treat Edom gently.

The Kings’ Highway was the famous passage that connected the Damascus trade center with Arabia, Sinai, and Egypt via a route through the Transjordan tablelands (Golan, Bashan, Gilead, Ammon, Moab, and Edom) and the southern mountains, paralleling the Arabah on the eastern side. Egyptian kings such as Thutmosis III passed along this road in their conquests of Transjordan and the eastern Levant. From southern Arabia the caravaneers brought the highly prized commodities of incense, spices, perfumes, and precious jewels, as well as copper from the Sinai and Paran Wilderness sources.4

The request was couched in the form of a diplomatic letter that closely conformed to the conventions of oriental scribal practice, known from the archives of Mari, Babylon, Alalakh and El-Amarna. It consists of several standard parts. First, a mention of the recipient, King of Edom (14). Second, the formula Thus says. Third, a mention of the sender Israel and his rank, Your brother; ‘your servant’ is the more common phrase in diplomatic correspondence, but here a different phrase was preferred. Fourth, there is mention of Israel’s present predicament and their motives in making their request (15). Finally, the request itself (17).5

18 But Edom said to him, “You will not pass through me, or I will come out against you with the sword.”

Amos (1:11) condemns Edom for pursuing its kinsman with the sword.

19 Then the Israelites said to him, “We will go along the highway, and if we or our cattle drink any of your water, we will pay for it. We will only pass through on our feet, without doing anything else.”

The phrase “we will only pass through on our feet” may have been intended to tell Edom that soldiers and chariotry were not going to pass through its territory.

20 But he said, “You may not pass through.” Then Edom came out against them with a large and powerful force.

Edom reacts with a show of military force (reminiscent of Esau in Gen 32:6).

21 So Edom refused to give Israel passage through his border; therefore Israel turned away from him.

Israel does not want to engage in battle.


Ashley, Timothy R. The Book of Numbers. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993.

Brown, Raymond E., Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and Roland E. Murphy, eds. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1990.

Cole, R. Dennis. Numbers. Kindle Edition. The New American Commentary. Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000.

Friedman, Richard Elliott. Commentary on the Torah. First Edition. San Francisco, Calif.: HarperOne, 2001.

Levine, Baruch A. Numbers 1-20. The Anchor Yale Bible. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.

Mays, James L., ed. The HarperCollins Bible Commentary. Revised Edition. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2000.

Milgrom, Jacob. Numbers. The JPS Torah Commentary. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989.

Wenham, Gordon J. Numbers. Kindle Edition. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. IVP Academic, 2015.

  1. Ashley 1993, 389 
  2. Wenham 2015, Kindle Locations 2663-2672 
  3. Ashley 1993, 390–391 
  4. Cole 2000, Kindle Locations 9827-9832 
  5. Wenham 2015, Kindle Locations 2675-2680 

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