The Israelites are getting ready to enter Canaan again.
The first time, they marched up to Canaan’s southern border and then refused to cross.1 God decreed they must spend forty years in the wilderness, and then their children could try again. This time, in the Torah portion Chukat (“decree of”), the new generation of Israelites plans to travel through Edom and north along the east side of the Dead Sea, then enter Canaan by crossing the Jordan River near Jericho.
And Moses sent messengers from Kadeish to the king of Edom, [who said]: “Thus says your brother Israel: You know all the hardship that found us, that our ancestors went down to Egypt and we lived in Egypt a long time, and the Egyptians were bad to us and to our ancestors.” (Numbers/Bemidbar 20:14-15)
Edom (אֱדוֹם) = a country also called Sei-ir, southeast of the Dead Sea. The name comes from the country’s founder in Genesis/Bereishit: Esau, who is also called Edom, i.e. Red.2 (Edom comes from the same root as adam, אָדָם = humankind, adamah, אֲדָמָה = earth, and adom, אָדֺם = red-brown.)
Moses introduces the Israelites as the “brother” of the Edomites to remind the king of Edom that in the old Genesis story, Esau (a.k.a. Edom) and Jacob (a.k.a. Israel) are brothers. The descendants of brothers should be at peace.
Yet Esau and Jacob, twins and rivals for the rights of the firstborn, struggle from birth to middle age. And the countries of Edom and Israel never do become allies.3
Nevertheless, Moses calls Edom Israel’s brother, and reminds the king that God rescued the Israelites and led them out of Egypt. Then he asks for a favor.
“… and hey, we are in Kadeish, a town on the edge of your territory. Please let us cross your land! We will not cross through field or vineyard, and we will not drink well water. We will go on the king’s road. We will not spread out to the right or left until we have crossed your territory.” (Numbers 20:16-17)
The Israelites are asking only for safe passage from the southern border of Edom to its northern border. They promise that neither they nor their herds and flocks will eat, drink, or damage anything in the land.
But Edom said to him: “You may not cross through me, or else I will go out with the sword to move against you.” (Numbers 20:18)
Here the king of Edom is called by the name of his country, and identifies with the land he rules. Moses responds as if he is synonymous with the Israelites.
And the Children of Israel said to him: “We will go up on the highway, and if we drink your water, I or my livestock, then I will give [you] its price. [My request] is hardly anything! Let me cross on foot.” But he said: “You may not cross!” And Edom went out to meet him with a heavy troop and with a strong hand. Thus Edom refused to allow (Israel) to cross through his territory, and Israel swung away from him. (Numbers 20:19-21)
In this story, the king of Edom does not trust the leader of Israel. So the people of Israel make a long detour around Edom through the wilderness, instead of taking the highway north.4
In the book of Genesis, Jacob (a.k.a. Israel) does not trust his brother Esau (a.k.a. Edom) when he is traveling from Charan to their father’s house. So he makes a long detour through northern Canaan, instead of taking the highway south through Edom.
Twenty years before, Jacob fled to his uncle’s house in Charan because Esau was threatening to kill him as soon as their father, Isaac, had died.5 Now Jacob has a large family, scores of slaves, and a tremendous wealth of livestock. The last he knew, his parents were living at an oasis in the Negev Desert to the south, either in Beir-sheva or Beir-lachai-roi.6 The best route for such a large party would be the highway through Edom.
And Jacob sent messengers ahead of himself to Esau, his brother, to the land of Seir, the region of Edom. (Genesis 32:4)
The wording of this sentence at the beginning of the Torah portion Vayishlach (“and he sent”) implies that Jacob is hoping to follow those messengers to Esau’s home, taking advantage of the highway. Yet he camps on the Yabok River at Machanayim, one day’s journey west of that highway, and sends his messengers to Esau from there. He is already nervous about a reunion with the brother who once threatened to kill him.
His messengers return with the news that Esau is coming north with 400 men to meet him. Alarmed, Jacob sends a series of gifts of livestock down the highway toward Esau. When Esau reaches Jacob’s camp, Jacob bows down to the ground seven times as he walks toward his brother. Esau embraces him, and Jacob persuades his brother to keep the gifts. Then Esau says:
“Break camp, and let’s go! I will go alongside you.” But [Jacob] said to him: “My lord knows that the children are tender and the flocks and herds, suckling, are upon me, and driving them hard [for even] one day will kill all the flocks. Please, let my lord pass in front of me, his servant. And I, I will move along slowly at the pace of the animals and at the pace of the children, until I come to my lord at Seir.” (Genesis 33:12-14)
Esau then offers to leave some of his men behind as an escort, but Jacob refuses. He has realized that he still does not trust Esau enough to risk entering his country. As soon as Esau and his men have left, Jacob heads in the opposite direction, northwest to Sukkot, where he stays so long that he builds a house for his family and sheds for his animals.7 His next stop is Shekhem, farther northwest. Jacob is willing to wait a few more years to see his ancient father, Isaac, again.
Eventually he journeys south through Canaan, where he discovers that his father has moved to Mamrei near the burial site his grandfather Abraham bought in Canaan.8 Jacob never does enter the land of Edom.
Should Jacob/Israel have trusted his brother Esau/Edom in Genesis? Should the Edomites have trusted their brothers the Israelites in Numbers? In both cases, trust would have enabled the people of Israel to take a faster route on a good road.
But if Esau’s change of heart had proven temporary, he could have wiped out Jacob and all his household while they were in Edom. And if the Israelites had rebelled against Moses again, this time by straying from the highway, there would have been war inside Edom. Humans are fickle.
Thanks to the wariness of Jacob in Genesis and of the king of Edom in Numbers, there is no bloodshed in either story. Perhaps a long detour is a small price to pay for peace.
- See my blog post Shelach-Lekha: Courage and Kindness.
- Genesis 25:25, 25:30.
- Israel’s first king, Saul, defeats the Edomites in battle (1 Samuel 14:47). Its second king, David, defeats them again and makes the kingdom of Edom a vassal of Israel (2 Samuel 8:13-14). In the 9th century B.C.E. the Edomites rebel against King Yoram of Judah and set up their own king, who is no longer subject to the king of Israel (2 Kings 8:20). King Amatziyahu of Judah makes war against Edom in 838 B.C.E. and captures one of its cities, Sela, but the rest of Edom remains independent.
- A highway in the Ancient Near East was a wide road of packed earth that could be used by caravans and troops.
- Genesis 27:41-45.
- Beir-lachai-roi in Genesis 25:11, Beir-sheva in Genesis 28:10.
- Genesis 33:17.
- Genesis 34:27.