Numbers 20:14-21

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Had Israel showed some faith and backbone at Kadesh Barnea when the scouts reported on the trip they had taken through Canaan, she would have moved into the Promised Land from the Negev, the southern desert. She would have come into Canaan from the south, west of the Dead Sea, that is between the Dead Sea and the Mediterranean. In a foolish effort to undo her mistake and without the Lord’s blessing, remember, she made an abortive attempt to enter Canaan by that route and was mauled by a Canaanite army. We read of that at the end of chapter 14. Now, for whatever reason, it is not explained to us, and apparently years later, she takes an alternate route, traveling north on the eastern side of the Dead Sea, with the intention of entering Canaan from the east, from across the Jordan River, rather than from the south.

If you consult your maps in the back of your Bibles you will find Edom south of the Dead Sea and east of the Arabah, the geological rift that continues from the Dead Sea down to the tip of the Gulf of Aqaba. It lies below Moab which was located directly east of the Dead Sea.The territory of Edom proper was a rectangle approximately 15 miles wide and 70 miles long. [Ashley, 388] The Kadesh where Israel happened to be, as we read in 20:1, is said in v. 16, to be “on the edge” of Edomite territory. We said last time that it is uncertain whether the Kadesh of Numbers 20 is the same Kadesh as that of Numbers 13, the Kadesh Barnea from which the 12 scouts left to spy out the land of Canaan and to which they returned (13:26). That Kadesh could be on the edge of Edomite territory only if Edom extended further to the west, west of the Arabah, than is usually supposed.

Text Comment

Israel would call Edom “brother” because the original Edom, the ancestor of the tribe, as you remember from Genesis (27:30), was the son of Esau, Jacob or Israel’s twin brother.

By the way, it is not clear from ANE evidence that Edom was an organized kingdom at this time. The “king” of Edom may well have been more of a Bedouin chieftain. So calling him a king would have stroked his ego. [Ashley, 389]

The aim is to elicit sympathy. It is interesting that the letter doesn’t mention why Israel wishes to pass through Edom’s territory. Moses doesn’t mention that they are heading to Canaan in order to take possession of it so as not to arouse Edom’s jealousy or fear. [Milgrom, 167]

It is also interesting and confirming of the historicity of this narrative that the diplomatic demarche or petition is made according to the typical conventions of oriental diplomatic communication in the ancient Near East (ANE). Other such letters have been found in the archives of Mari, Babylon, and El-Amarna. Such diplomatic letters consist of several typical parts: 1) the mention of the recipient, in this case the King of Edom; 2) the formula Thus says… which the NIV has rendered in a typical paraphrase, “This is what Israel says…”; 3) the identification of the sender and his rank, in this case “Israel, your brother” – “Your servant” is more common but the historical connection here justifies “your brother”; 4) the mention of the sender’s predicament and motives for making the request; and, finally, 5) the request itself. The letter is precisely to form.

All that Israel requested was passage along Edom’s portion of the ancient north-south highway, the King’s Highway, the primary route through the length of the Transjordan, and extending from Damascus to the top of the Gulf of Aqaba. Don’t think, however, of a paved highway; it was more of a well-marked track along which people on foot, animals, and wagons could move.

In other words, Israel offered a financial incentive to Edom. We will pay for the water we use. They had already said in v. 17 that they wouldn’t steal Edom’s water. What water they would use with permission now they promise to pay for.

Edom refused with a show of force so Israel turned southeast and then went around Edom northward toward Moab. As we read in 21:4: “They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom.”

Now this is a more interesting narrative than you might first suppose. There is even a debate as to whether Moses and Israel were right or wrong in what they did here. A reliable and solid evangelical Reformed commentator, whose work on Numbers I have found very useful in preparing these sermons, takes the view that what Moses proposed to do was the equivalent of what the entire nation had proposed to do after the Lord had condemned them to remaining in the wilderness for forty years. They had attempted, as we read at the end of chapter 14, to force their way into Canaan, with or without the Lord’s blessing. They refused to accept his judgment and tried to get round it. And that, this commentator suggests, is what Moses was doing here. He tells us to take note that we are not told that the Lord instructed Moses to take this route; the Lord, in fact, is hardly mentioned in the account. When Edom’s first refusal was received, so this scholar argues, Moses attempted to resolve the matter through diplomacy rather than turning to the Lord for instructions. Here is this man’s summary of the narrative: “If the Lord had been with Moses and the people in this endeavor, it would not have mattered that Edom came out with a large army; but without the Lord’s presence they had no power to prevail over those who opposed them…. Like the earlier abortive campaign of the people, Moses’ attempt to find a shortcut into blessing ended up in a blind alley.” [Duguid, 255-256]

Another world renowned scholar upon whose commentary I have been relying in preparing these sermons says, very differently, that “the main thrust [of the passage] is to demonstrate Israel’s irenic [that is, peaceful] approach to its neighbors.” [Wenham, 152]

Which is it? Did Israel do right by turning away from Edom when passage was refused or was this again her faithlessness and cowardice? Was she even supposed to be on this route to the Promised Land? Well, I don’t think it is terribly difficult to answer that question. The first commentator, who is ordinarily surefooted in his conclusions, I think is surprisingly not so in this particular case. Moses was not in the wrong here. He was not presuming to take matters into his own hands. His diplomacy was not an act of unbelief. In Deuteronomy 2 (vv. 1-8) Moses recalls this incident and says that he had explicit instructions from the Lord not to provoke Edom to war. Indeed, the Lord told Moses that he, Yahweh, had given Esau the hill country of Seir as his own and would not give any of it to Israel. In other words, Edom had a God-given right to that land and, presumably, as legitimate owners a right to tell Israel to keep out. God gave Edom her land, he had blessed that people, and that was a fact that Israel had to respect. She was correct to respect it as she did.

What is more, while Israel would be sent to war against some nations and even given orders to destroy some peoples – in every case either the peoples of the Promised Land whose iniquity rendered them deserving of God’s judgment or nations that aggressively threatened Israel’s peace and safety – she was otherwise to be a friendly neighbor, maintaining just and peaceful relations with other states. When she grabbed land that did not belong to her, as for example the Danites did at the end of the Book of Judges, the Bible makes clear that this was an offense to God. The rights of other nations are important to Yahweh because he is their God as he is Israel’s God.

Now, as an aside, there is something important about this for the formation of a truly biblical worldview. We today also live in a world of peoples and nations, many of which do not contain significant numbers of Christians and, as all nations in our world today apart from the Vatican, are in no official way related to the kingdom of God. But as the prophets make clear, our God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the one true and living God, is their God and maker and ruler as well. This is a fundamental point in the Bible. ANE gods were territorial. They literally were, in the thinking of ancient peoples, the gods of Egypt or Assyria or Babylon. If their people were conquered in battle, the gods were regarded as having been conquered as well. But this idea is repudiated as nonsense in the Bible. There is but one God, the Creator of heaven and earth. The world is his. In this sense he is the God of Egypt as surely as he is the God of Israel. Egypt has no other god whatever she may think. The blessings of every nation come from him as surely as do our blessings as his people. The troubles that peoples and nations face, these too come from him either as tests or as judgments. The Tsunami in east Asia, hurricane Katrina, the world-wide economic crisis of the present moment, have affected many more non-Christians than Christians, but they are no less God’s plan and purpose and the people effected by these things are no less of interest to God and under his care. He is working out his will in every nation and among every people, whatever his purposes may be. His common grace to the peoples of this world is just that, kindness and goodness to his creatures, even to those who are in rebellion against him. But, as the OT prophets never tired of reminding us, he judges those nations as well. And they are judged precisely because they have broken the laws of God, the very laws that God has published in the consciences of all human beings and seen to being written in the law books of every nation. If they are greedy, grasping and cruel; if they murder and rape and plunder; if they trample on the God-given rights of human beings; if they take credit for God’s goodness and refuse to acknowledge him; God will punish them in due time. Nothing is so certain in this world, no conclusion more universally demonstrated in world history. Peoples who do not do God’s will in that general sense published in the consciences of human beings will in due course reap the whirlwind. As Christians our theology and our ethics, in other words, are as much truth for the entire world as they are for the church of God. We can often forget this, you and I. I think if you examine your own thoughts and your way of thinking and your feelings, you may find that you often forget this and you begin to think about God as if he were a territorial ANE idol; as if he were only the Christians’ god. As if some how or another all the rest of the world and all that is going on in the world was not as immediately under his control and part of his will and purpose for the world as what is happening in your life as one of his children. By no means! The God we worship and serve is everyone’s Creator, everyone’s ruler, everyone’s judge!

Now, to be sure, the point of this teaching in the Bible is not primarily for the nations of the world. They don’t believe it in any case. The prophets did not in most cases ever preach their oracles of judgment and doom to the Ammonites, Moabites, Tyrians, Assyrians or Babylonians. Their sermons were designed to teach Israel that God ruled over those nations as well, that his laws could not be disobeyed with impunity by anyone, and that his sovereignty was so universal that he could defend his people from all their enemies. So far as the Bible is concerned, the real interest in this particular piece of history – Israel’s encounter with Edom in the wilderness – is, of course, what it meant for Israel; the lesson that it teaches the people of God. But it meant something for Edom too. God had given Edom a land and he protected Edom from a nation that might otherwise have marauded through her territory.

Living in our complex, dangerous, unpredictable and now frequently hostile world, we are to take to heart the fact that the economic miracle underway in China, the drought in sub-Saharan Africa, the political demagoguery of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, the crime problem in South Africa, the violence and civil struggle in Afghanistan and Iraq, the continued tensions between India and Pakistan, the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran, the ongoing violence between Israel and the Palestinians, the population declines in Europe, the burgeoning debt in Western economies, all of this and so much more is under the direct rule of Almighty God and is part of his direct and personal involvement in the life of the peoples of the world. It is his work among the nations, the work of the same God who loves his people with an everlasting love and is taking them one by one and all together to the Promised Land. God is doing so much more in this world than at first meets the eye and what we are inclined to regard as simply the initiative of mankind is, in fact, entirely under God’s control, all the working out of his blessing or his judgment. Christians must never forget this. Our heavenly Father is as much involved in the life of our enemies as our friends, and while we may wonder what does it matter what happens to a people who are not saved and are not part of Christ’s church, those people are still God’s creatures, he cares for them, and is interested in their lives. He blesses them and he judges them. There is no person, much less people or nation who does not live directly under his eye.

That fact has an immensely important implication for us, the very implication that is highlighted in the text. Israel had to treat Edom in a certain way because Edom too belonged to God; Edom too was God’s creature. Israel treated Edom respectfully, offered a fair payment for the service she was seeking from the Edomites, and when refused she accepted Edom’s “No!” and went on her way along a more inconvenient route. This is much the more remarkable because Israel by no means did this with all the other nations that stood in her way. In other words, she had the power to force her way through Edom, as chapter 21 will demonstrate beyond question, but she hadn’t the right and so she made no effort to do so. For Edom was a people whom God had no intention of judging at that moment, using Israel’s army as his instrument as he would in Canaan. Nor was this a tribe or nation occupying land that the Lord had given to his people. Given the subsequent military history of Israel, her destructions of nations that stood in her way, this turning away to go around is a striking development. And in that hangs a tale.

In this case, you see, Edom was not a people that stood in the way of what God had given his people. Edom was, as one commentator puts it, simply a “loveless neighbor.” [Brown, 189] Israel had no right to her territory and so when Edom treated God’s people badly Israel had no choice but to back down and go around. And in that she was an example for us; surely the main reason this narrative was included in the account of Israel’s sojourn in the wilderness and her progress to the Promised Land. Most of the time in the Book of Numbers Israel is a bad example giving us an illustration of what not to be and what not to do as God’s people, but by no means is she universally so. We have already seen her as an example of what is good in believing life. Both here and in the shorter summary in Deuteronomy it is Israel’s respect for and acquiescence to her unloving neighbor that is highlighted. How often this happens to the people of God! They meet someone who treats them poorly. This happens to unbelievers, of course, as often as it happens to us, even more so perhaps, because unbelievers don’t live as much of their lives among a community of loving people as Christians are privileged to do. But again and again and again in Holy Scripture we are told what to do when we run into a loveless neighbor and again and again the instructions are the same:

“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.”

“Do not repay anyone evil for evil.”

“Do not take revenge…but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written, ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord.”

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this you will heap burning coals on his head.”

“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

“Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.”

This is what we have here in Numbers 20; the people of God not taking revenge, not returning a curse for a curse, not resisting an evil person or nation, but rather refusing to repay evil for evil. Israel is loving her enemy as she was supposed to do.

I’m not sure that Christian people generally remember that the full uniqueness of our ethic, our way of life as the followers of Christ, the most distinctive element of a Christian ethic, is found especially here in the kind, respectful, humane treatment of our unloving neighbors. Anyone can love his friends, Jesus reminded us; but it is a Christian’s duty to be loving, kind, patient, forgiving and respectful to his enemies.

We are to treat our unloving neighbors kindly because we were treated kindly by the Lord when we were his enemies and not his friends, when we were disrespectful to him, and when we treated him badly. We are to model the same humility, the same forbearance, and the same love toward the unloving and unlovely that Christ has demonstrated toward us. We are reminded of this in vv. 15-16. Israel could not recite the Lord’s gracious deliverance of his people from mistreatment at the hands of a stronger people and then mistreat another people simply because they could. She could not become Edom’s Egypt if she really understood God’s kindness in the deliverance Yahweh gave her from bondage in Egypt. It would be the denial of her own salvation to do so; an outrage against God’s goodness to his people. The love of enemies is the reflex of salvation by grace and the proof that God’s grace has really been embraced in our hearts; the proof that God is loved for his grace; and the proof that a person genuinely understands what it means to be saved by grace. The Lord’s parable of the unmerciful servant, remember, made just this point. A servant who had been shown great mercy by his master then himself refused to show mercy to another. That refusal on the servant’s part to be merciful to another as his master had been merciful to him was such a moral outrage that the master withdrew his mercy as a consequence and sent the servant to prison.

Let’s be entirely candid with ourselves, brothers and sisters, you and I are always tempted to and are always blurring the sharp edge of our ethics as Christians, bringing Christ’s standards down toward that of the world. When we are mistreated, or imagine that we are, we find our reasons to take revenge, in our thoughts if not in our deeds. No doubt Israel, given her spiritual condition during those wilderness years, grumbled and complained and took revenge in her thoughts as she went the long way around Edom, but she had done the right thing. She should have thought the right thing as well as done it. After being delivered from bondage in Egypt by the Lord’s great love and power, it was a privilege and should have been a pleasure for her to treat kindly an unbelieving neighbor and to demonstrate to the world what kind of people God’s grace had made of her. How better to show her thanksgiving than to act toward another in some small way as the Lord has acted toward her. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then by all means let us imitate our Savior. But you and I know very well how easy it is to fail to do this and to excuse our failures.

I remember reading an account of tensions between democratic Presbyterians and royalist Episcopalians on the South Carolina frontier in the mid-1700s. They are given a dismal account in the diary of an itinerant Anglican evangelist by the name of Charles Woodmason, a godly man as it turns out. At every turn the Scotch-Irish Presbyterians frustrated him and his efforts to establish and strengthen Anglican churches. He mentions, with evident frustration, that the Presbyterians would change the dates on his posted announcements of his coming meetings; would alter the sign-posts and send his gathering congregations off in the wrong direction; that they would provide free whiskey to his assembling hearers two hours before the service was to begin; and that they sometimes stole the keys to the meeting hall he was planning to use. Once they came themselves to his service and brought 50 of their dogs which they set to fighting as soon as the service began. One service he says was “severely interrupted by a Gang of Presbyterians who kept hallooing and whooping [outside] the door like Indians.” [Ernest Trice Thompson, Presbyterians in the South, i, 79]

And no doubt these Presbyterian forefathers of ours did this work in the confidence that their behavior was justified by higher concerns for truth and freedom and so on. But is it not rather a perfect illustration of how easily we forget the obligation to love our neighbor, even neighbors with whom we have significant and difficult disagreements. Like Edom and Israel, the Presbyterians and Anglicans in those days were brothers, two parts of the Reformed Church. No one doubted that Charles Woodmason was a Christian. But the Presbyterians weren’t much for taking “No” for an answer and going around the long way. That was 250 years ago, but Presbyterians, like everyone else, have precisely the same problem today treating kindly and respectfully and lovingly a neighbor with whom they disagree. Do we not?

When we are treated badly, when people do wrong by us, we have the greatest opportunity in life to show what it means to us to be Christians, to demonstrate in our behavior the grace of God in Jesus Christ. Anyone can be nice to those who are nice to them. Anyone can be nice, period, to some extent. But really to be kind, to be generous in spirit, to be gentle and meek, to be patient toward someone who has treated you badly, to bear the inconvenience willingly, this is Christlike and to be Christlike is our highest calling as the followers of Jesus Christ. In other words, we are our truest selves in those few moments in our lives as Christians when we are loving our enemies and returning kindness for curse and we ought to rejoice for every opportunity to be our truest selves.

“Revenge,” the Scottish theologian James Denny wrote, “is the most natural and instinctive of our vices.” But the kindly treatment of the unkind, the unjust, the unattractive and the unloving is the most unnatural and supernatural of our virtues. It requires the greatest motive and the greatest determination. The masters of the Christian life have always spoken extravagantly about the practice of this kindness to enemies precisely because it can never be successfully practiced half-heartedly. You’ve got really to want to do this or you never will! So, when brother Juniper, St. Francis’ assistant, had his hood stolen, Francis told him to run after the man and beg him to take his robe too. You can’t be half-hearted about loving your enemies or you will never love your enemies.

Why is this little episode in the narrative of Numbers? It is a minor detail of the itinerary; if it were left off we would be none the wiser and no significant part of the history of Israel in the wilderness would be lost to us. What is it here for? Like so much of the biblical historical narrative it is here to teach us how we should live. It reminds us that true faith – the faith, the want of which and the presence of which, that has been the great theme of Numbers – that faith will demonstrate itself most purely in the kindness and respect that we show to people who are not kind to us, the blessing we offer people who curse us, and the refusal to take vengeance on those who have mistreated us. It is always the sign of true and living faith, this kindness to the unloving neighbor!

What do you think about this? How well have you succeeded in the practice of the grace of blessing those who curse you? Our present political environment offers us many opportunities to bless and curse not. Are we seizing them? Are we intending to seize them? At work we are often faced with unjust, unkind, disrespectful behavior. Do we respond with blessing as Christians should? Do we turn round and take the longer route, by which I mean do we cheerfully bear the offense and go on our way without taking revenge even in our thoughts, the thoughts that are perfectly known to God? Remember, as we said, this blessing of the enemy is not only for the enemy’s sake, but for our sake and for the Lord’s name’s sake. Surely if we ought to be extravagant anywhere in our Christian life, it ought to be in seeking to imitate Christ’s love for us. Surely if we have to go out of our way in some fashion in the Christian life, it ought to be to demonstrate that we are the followers of Jesus Christ who went way out of his way for us; all the way from heaven to earth. Surely if there is anyone we ought to treat with unusual kindness it is the person who has been thoughtless or cruel or indifferent or uncaring toward us. Because only that kindness rises to the kind of kindness we have been shown by our heavenly Father and his Son our Savior.

Some years ago now a woman called the church wanting help. I was in the midst of my day’s work but, for some reason I can’t now remember the call came to me. She was calling from Spanaway and had no transportation. She wondered if I might drop by some food. I told her we had a food bank and were happy to supply canned and dry food, but she would need to come and collect it. She said that because she had no car we would need to bring it to her and, further, she said, all she really needed was meat. She didn’t need canned or dry goods; she needed meat. In other words, she expected me to drop what I was doing, buy her some meat, and drive twenty miles to bring her a nice dinner, a better dinner than she could afford. What should I have done? Well, I know very well what I should have done – for her sake, for the Lord’s sake, and for my own soul’s sake – and I wish I had done it. Then I could say that I had done what Moses and Israel did when Edom turned them down.