Moses asks two foreign kings to let the Israelites cross through their land in this week’s Torah portion, Chukkat (“decree of”). Both refuse, even though Moses promises they will stay on the road, leave fields and vineyards untouched, and pay for any water they and their livestock drink.
The king of Edom says no and sends an army to the border to bar the way.1 Apparently he does not trust the Israelites, but he prefers not to attack them. So the Israelites circle around Edom and continue north through the unpopulated wilderness east of Moab until they reach the Arnon River. Then Moses sends the same message to King Sichon of Cheshbon. Sichon also refuses to let the Israelites pass through, but he attacks them at his border. The Israelites win and conquer Sichon’s land.
And Israel took all these towns, and Israel settled in all the towns of the Amorites, in Cheshbon and in all its daughter-villages. For Cheshbon was the town of Sichon; a king of the Amorites he was, and he had battled against the first king of Moab, and he had taken all his land from his hand as far as the Arnon. (Numbers 21:25-26)
Cheshbon (חֶשְׁבּוֹן) =
- a town about 14 miles (23 km) east of where the Jordan River enters the Dead Sea.
- accounting, reckoning. (From the root verb chashav, חָשַׁב = evaluate, consider, calculate, think out.)
After explaining that Sichon’s land used to be northern Moab, the Torah portion Chukkat quotes part of an Amorite poem celebrating Sichon’s earlier victory, translating it into Hebrew.
Therefore the epic poem says:
“Come to Cheshbon! It was built
and firmly established, the town of Sichon.
Because fire went out from Cheshbon;
Flame from the city of Sichon.
It consumed Ar of Moab,
The local gods of the high places of Arnon … (Numbers 21:27-28)
Ironically, this week’s Torah portion shows that Cheshbon is not firmly established as the town of Sichon, since the Israelites conquer it on their way to the Jordan River.
The image of fire going out of a town is often used in the Hebrew Bible for an army going out to battle, consuming enemy soldiers. Since the Amorites spoke a Semitic language closely related to ancient Hebrew, it is not surprising that the two peoples employed the same metaphor.
Perhaps King Sichon decides to attack the Israelite travelers because his victory against Moab has convinced him that his people are stronger than anyone else. Look at the fortified town they built!
If Sichon cannot hang on to Cheshbon, however firmly built, can the Israelites do any better?
They go on to conquer the Amorite kingdom north of Cheshbon, then camp on the east side of the Jordan River while Moses delivers the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim. After Joshua leads the conquest Canaan west of the Jordan, he assigns the land east of the river, now called Gilead, to the tribes of Reuven, Gad, and Menashe. Gad gets the Cheshbon area.2
Gilead changes hands twice in the book of Judges, and is attacked a third time. In one story, King Eglon of Moab captures the territory and holds it for 18 years until the Israelite hero Ehud brings him tribute, then assassinates him and escapes to lead the charge against the army of Moab.3
In another story, the king of Ammon (or possibly Moab) 4 makes war on Gilead for 18 years.5 The territory’s new hero, Yiftach (Jepthah in English), sends the king a message explaining that the Israelites took Gilead from Amorite kings, not from Ammon (or Moab). He adds that even if the enemy did have a claim to the land,
When Israel dwelled in Cheshbon and her daughter-villages, and in Aroer and her daughter-villages, and in all the towns that are along the Arnon, for 300 years, then why did you not recover them during this time? (Judges 11:26)
The king sends no reply. Yiftach captures twenty towns and villages, and Gilead remains in the hands of Israelites.6
Gilead becomes part of David’s kingdom in the second book of Samuel. His son Solomon assigns a governor to administer “the land of Gilead: the land of Sichon, king of the Amorites, and Og, king of the Bashan.” (1 Kings 4:19)
But after King Solomon’s death, Cheshbon and the rest of Gilead secede from Judah along with the territories of the other northern tribes. They found the northern kingdom of Israel (also called Samaria), with Jereboam as its first king.7
When Tiglath-Pileser III (745–727 BC), king of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, decided to conquer Israel, he started by capturing Gilead and deporting people in the tribes of Reuven, Gad, and Menasheh.8 The conquest of the northern kingdom continued under the next two Assyrian kings, with Sargon II capturing the capital city of Samaria in 722 BCE.
Israelites never ruled over Cheshbon again.
The book of Ecclesiastes/Kohelet opens with the declaration that everything is futile, because nothing a human does can make a permanent change. The same things happen over and over again, so there is nothing new under the sun.
Kohelet, the narrator, explores this idea at length, analyzing the activities of humankind.
Myself, I turned [it] around in my mind to know and to scout out and seek wisdom and cheshbon. … See, this I found, said Kohelet, one by one finding a cheshbon. I sought further in my soul … (Ecclesiastes 7:25, 7:27)
Only see this: I found that God made humankind upright, but they themselves sought many chishbonot. (Ecclesiastes 7:27, 7:29)
chishvonot (חִשְּׁבֺנוֹת) = plans, inventions. (Also from the root verb chashav.)
Here Kohelet states that humans are naturally good but they invent too much. I suspect Kohelet means inventing reasons for doing what we want. A true cheshbon, an inner accounting and reckoning, is the means to gaining self-knowledge and wisdom, which are good for their own sake.
Everything that you find you are able to go and do, do it! Because there is no doing nor cheshbon nor knowledge nor wisdom in Sheol, where you are going. (Ecclesiastes/Kohelet 9:10)
Sheol is where the spirits of the dead go. Ecclesiastes affirms that after death no action or thought is possible; there is no afterlife in heaven or Gehenna. You can only acquire wisdom by conducting a personal accounting while you are alive.
Today the place called Cheshbon is the site of an archaeological dig in Jordan. But many Jews follow the mussar9 practice of Cheshbon Hanefesh (“Accounting of the Soul”), keeping a daily record of good and bad deeds in order to improve one’s behavior.
Cheshbon as a practice of self-examination is lasting longer than Cheshbon as a town fortified for war.
- Numbers 20:14-21.
- Joshua 22:36-37.
- Judges 3:12-30.
- Most modern scholars argue that the negotiations between Yiftach and the attacking king in Judges 11:12-28 came from another source. This explains why the two leaders discuss what happened after King Sichon took the land from Moab, and Yiftach refers to Kemosh, the god of Moab rather than Ammon. The compiler of Judges inserted Ammon to make the story fit the battle between the Israelites of Gilead and the Ammonite army. (Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible, Vol. 2, W. Norton & Co., New York, 2019)
- Judges 10:5.
- Judges 11:29-33. Also see my post Haftarat Chukkat—Judges: A Peculiar Vow.
- 1 Kings 12:1-24.
- 2 Kings 15:29.
- Mussar (מוּסַר), “moral instruction”, is a system of self-improvement developed in the 19th century CE from classic ethical texts dating back to the 11th century CE.