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B'Midbar/Numbers 21:22 Let me pass [through] your land: we shall not turn into field or vineyard; we shall not drink water from a well; in the king's highway we will go until we pass [over] your border.
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These are the words of the message sent by Moshe to Sihon, the king of Heshbon, asking for permission to pass through his territory in peace. It is slightly shorter than the version Moshe sent to the king of Edom a little earlier - "Allow us, then, to cross your country. We will not pass through fields or vineyards, and we will not drink water from wells. We will follow the king's highway, turning off neither to the right nor to the left until we have crossed your territory" (B'Midbar 20:17, JPS). When Moshe later reminds the Israelites gathered on the plains of Moab waiting to enter the Land about the event, he is rather more expansive: "Let me pass through your country. I will keep strictly to the highway, turning off neither to the right nor to the left. What food I eat you will supply for money, and what water I drink you will furnish for money; just let me pass through -- as the descendants of Esau who dwell in Seir did for me, and the Moabites who dwell in Ar -- that I may cross the Jordan into the land that the L-RD our G-d is giving us" (D'varim 2:27-29, JPS). Years later, when Moshe's personal memory has been preserved in the narrated memory of the people, Jephthah recounts a very much abbreviated version of the story to the Ammonites: "Then Israel sent messengers to Sihon king of the Amorites, the king of Heshbon. Israel said to him, 'Allow us to cross through your country to our homeland'" (Judges 11:19, JPS).
Moshe's actions here generate some discussion among the classic commentators. According to Moshe's own account just a little while later,HaShem had told him, "Into your hand have I delivered Sihon king of Heshbon, the Amorite and his land; begin to take possession of it, and provoke war with him" (D'varim 2:24, JPS). This makes no mention of peace but, instead, suggests that Moshe was to deliberately pick a fight - provoking Sihon into attacking the Israelites - so that HaShem could deliver them into the hands of the Israelites. Rashi, laconic as ever, simply comments that "although they were not commanded to be peaceable towards them, he sought peace from them." The Ramban provides a speculative insight into Moshe's strategy: "Moshe was acting on his own here, out of politeness. The Amorite land was an Israelite inheritance and - had they allowed them to enter peaceably - the Amorites would have owed them service. But Moshe knew that the Israelites could not conquer all of the peoples just now - what he wanted was for them to conquer all the land on the west of the Jordan, so that they could settle together in a single place. If the Gadites and Reubenites had not begged him, he would not have left a single man on the east side of the Jordan but would have left that territory remain desolate." The Baal HaTurim points out that "here Moshe did not say , please (translated in the JPS version above as 'then'), as he had said to Edom, for he was not that interested in placating Sihon. He sent the messengers simply as a gesture of peace. Therefore, Sihon did not send Moshe a response, as the king of Edom had, rather, he immediately set out to war against him."
Drazin and Wagner note that "the Israelites promised that they would remain on the so-called 'king's highway', probably the road through which caravans travelled, so that they would not violate the property rights of the traversed country." TheSforno explains that "it is the practice of every king who allows passage [through his kingdom] to peaceful people to send with them guides, so that the military or its support groups do no damage to the inhabitants." Ibn Ezra adds, "it is the main country road that the king uses, or another possibility, the road that the king decrees ... that we travel upon." So perhaps not a particular road, but simply the way that Sihon might tell them to travel to keep them out of his way. On the contrary, however, the particular name "The King's Highway" has been known since antiquity; Rainer and Notley report that the King's Highway was "the route from Damascus to Eilat which also led to Midian and thence to South Arabia."1 This was a major north-south trade route, passing east of the Kinneret, the Jordan and the Dead Sea, used from ancient times for caravans of trade goods passing in both directions.
So what are we make of Moshe's message, at least in the form presented in our text? With the possible omission of that important little word, 'please', it seems quite an innocuous request, quite diplomatically presented and - at least on the surface - placing fairly tough restrictions on the Israelites with which even a small company of a few hundred men would find it hard to comply, let alone a whole nation the size of Israel. The request mentions only the public road, a route that almost certainly pre-dated its (then) current Amorite owners, over which countless caravans continually passed and whose trade and tax revenue would have been a major source of income to Sihon and his kingdom. Perhaps Sihon was worried that such a large group of people travelling the road would intimidate other travellers and so impact his revenue. Perhaps he was concerned that even if they paid for all their provisions, feeding and watering such a large number of people would strip his country of all its resources and then lead to a fight anyway over food or grazing rights? Perhaps the number of the Israelites matched or even exceeded the population of his kingdom so that once he let them in, he couldn't trust them not to simply take over, but sheer force of numbers. We shall never know exactly what was going on in Sihon's mind, but we do know that he responded to Moshe's approach by going out to attack the Israelites and thus allowing the Israelites to defeat him and take his land.
When King David died and Solomon had been made king of Israel in his place, Adonijah - another of David's sons, and Solomon's older brother - who had tried to become king, persuaded Bathsheba (Solomon's mother) to ask Solomon to let Abishag the Shunamite (who was David's nurse in his last days) become the wife of Adonijah. This produced a volcanic response from Solomon so that he "swore by the L-RD, saying, 'So may G-d do to me and even more, if broaching this matter does not cost Adonijah his life! Now, as the L-RD lives, who has established me and set me on the throne of my father David and who has provided him with a house, as he promised, Adonijah shall be put to death this very day!'" (1 Kings 2:23-24, JPS). Although Bathsheba had not understood what Adonijah was doing, this was a power play, a move to try eventually to oust Solomon as king. Solomon understood this only too well and knew that Adonijah had broken his pledge to live quietly and support Solomon as king. This gave Solomon official grounds to have him executed and remove a threat to his kingdom.
How did Yeshua respond to provocative requests? After an already trying day in the heat and crush of the pre-Passover crowds gathering in the Temple for the feast, the dust and overpowering smell of blood and burning sacrifices, during which the Pharisees had deliberately attempted to catch Him out over paying tax to the hated Romans, He was approached by a group of Sadducees with another mocking question. "Seven brothers each married the same woman in turn as the older brothers died," they said. "Whose wife," they asked, themselves believing there is no resurrection, "will she be in the resurrection?" Did Yeshua count slowly to ten, take a deep breath and then answer? Did He sigh deeply and roll His eyes expressively? Did He play along and ask for more details to expose the silliness of the question? Acknowledging that the Bible doesn't give us any details of His body language, it appears that He gave them an immediate answer. Shooting straight from the hip, He rebuked them and explained: "You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of G-d. For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by G-d: 'I am the G-d of Avraham, and the G-d of Yitz'khak, and the G-d of Ya'akov'? He is not G-d of the dead, but of the living" (Matthew 22:29-32, ESV). Game, set and match to Yeshua. The crowd certainly thought so: "when the crowd heard it, they were astonished at His teaching" (v. 33, ESV).
Are we going to be challenged about our faith and asked provocative and facile questions? You may depend on it! If the Master was challenged in this way, then much more so we as followers of Yeshua can expect the same. Whether challenging the Bible - the book of our faith and record of G-d's instructions and covenant - ridiculing the churches for their patchwork and piecemeal implementation of the Bible's teachings, or criticising our personal implementations of what G-d has told us, it will come. Like Moshe's request of Sihon, perfectly reasonable requests will elicit irrational and violent responses, forcing us to defend ourselves. But like Yeshua, we will prevail as the Spirit gives us words and answers that cannot be refuted.
1. - Anson F. Rainer and R. Stephen Notley, The Sacred Bridge: Carta's Atlas of the Biblical World, 2nd edition, (Jerusalem, Carta, 2014), 41
Further Study: Matthew 20:20-28; Luke 12:8-12
Application: Do you find yourself being verbally beaten up or challenged endlessly about your faith in Yeshua, so that even normal conversation becomes impossible? Cry out today for the leading and inspiration of the Spirit, to guide your words and use you to share the truth of the kingdom with boldness!
Comment - 13:26 26Jun17 Barri Seif: Wonderful, I loved the last three paragraphs. Beautiful.
© Jonathan Allen, 2017
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