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B'Midbar/Numbers 20:18 And Edom said to him, "You shall not pass through me, lest I come out with a sword to meet you."
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Now we are back on the journey into the Land. Thirty eight years have passed and the next generation of Israel is approaching the Land from the wilderness. The most direct route went through the land of Edom, travelling along the King's Highway, an ancient caravan trade route that circled around the south of the Dead Sea and then went north up the east side of the Jordan until it passed the Kinneret. Accordingly, rather than just walking in - although the King's Highway was free access for all - Moshe phrased a polite and diplomatic request to the king of Edom and the Israelites halted their journey to await a reply. This is what came; barely polite and certainly not diplomatic, a brusque refusal and a threat of war if trespass is attempted. To be fair, we do need to consider that the people of Israel is not exactly an average caravan of, say, twenty camels and their associated drovers. Seeing somewhere between two and a half to three million people camped on my border and fearing the environmental impact of that many feet, not to mention the possibility of inadequate discipline, I would definitely think twice!
Neither is the accompanying threat idle as verse 20 shows: "Edom went out against them in heavy force, strongly armed" (B'Midbar 20:20, NJPS. TheSforno reports that "the masses of the Edomites are bloodthirsty men, and for any minor reason (such as that) caused by an argument or similar incident between the inhabitants and those passing through, the inhabitants will be roused up take up their swords against those passing through." More rationally, Chizkuni translates "in me" as "in my cities", expressing the Edomite fear that Israel would conquer them; from this point of view, it is not about permitting access to the King's Highway, but about the preservation of their villages, towns and cities, their nation. A robust rhetoric of self-defence is not only understandable but practical. The Ramban suggests that "it was not the king who answered, but 'Edom', for the entire nation agreed in refusing to let them pass." However unlikely modern thinkers would consider it that every man, woman and child in Edom gave their approval to this policy, a critical mass of the king's inner circle, backed by the fighting men of their individual tribes and clans could make this the de facto position for the nation.
We should notice that the 'I' and 'you' in the verse are both singular throughout. This could be simply a matter of protocol as if one nation is talking to another nation, but the Jewish commentators do not think this is the case. While Thomas Dozeman seems to be quite happy that "both nations are represented by individuals, recalling the ancestral stories of Jacob and Esau, in which the nations of Israel and Edom are presented by persons,"1Jacob Milgrom points to the same historical background to suggest that "Edom takes vengeance on Israel for what Jacob did to Esau."Rashi's interpretation is quite tart: "You pride yourselves with the voice your forefather bequeathed you and say, 'We cried out to HaShem and He heard our voice,' and I go forth against you with that which my forefather bequeathed me, 'By your sword you shall live' (B'resheet 27:40)." Dennis Olson proposes that this encounter "between Edom and Israel is a reverse replay of the last time Jacob and Esau encountered each other (B'resheet 32-33). In that encounter ... [although reconciliation appears to occur] ... when Esau offers to join forces with Jacob, Jacob refuses and insists that the brothers should go their separate ways (33:4-17). Now, Edom refuses to negotiate with Jacob for anything and insists that they go their separate ways."2
TheBaal HaTurim says that this dialogue reflects the verse, "I am all peace; but when I speak, they are for war" (Psalm 120:7, NJPS). The Midrash goes further and asks, "And whence can we infer that the Holy One, blessed be He, actually told Moshe so, namely, 'They will not allow you to pass; and the refusal is not all due to them, for it is I who desire it'? From the fact that it says, Contend not with them; for I will not give you of their land (D'varim 2:5), and it is written, Thus Edom refused to give Israel passage (B'Midbar 20:21). This is explicitly mentioned in the Book of Judges: 'Then Israel sent messengers unto the king of Edom, saying: Let me, I pray, pass through your land; but the king of Edom would not consent' (Judges 11:17)" (B'Midbar Rabbah, 19:15). Dennis Cole proposes that "Edom at this point seems to have possessed no fear of Israel. The Esau-Jacob animosity served as the type scene for later Edomite-Israelite acrimony."3 Later biblical history seems to bear that out. David, for example, "made a name for himself when he returned from striking down 18,000 Edomites in the Valley of Salt. Then he put garrisons in Edom; throughout all Edom he put garrisons, and all the Edomites became David's servants" (2 Samuel 8:13-14, ESV). The Psalmist remembers the Edomite behaviour when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians, "Remember, O L-RD, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem, how they said, 'Lay it bare, lay it bare, down to its foundations!'" (Psalm 137:7, ESV).
Targum Onkelos makes a small but critical change to our text: the Hebrew word , "in/through me" becomes the Aramaic , "my border". This has Edom telling Israel that they may not encroach upon or cross his border. We think of crossing borders in terms of customs inspections; barbed wire and machine guns. These still exist in some parts of the world. In other places, there may be checkpoints on the road crossings, but farms and agricultural areas span official border lines and it is easy to walk from one side to the other. But borders exist for more than physical demarcation between different countries or states; they also serve as important boundaries of identity. A border not only keeps people out, it defines who you are and the values for which you stand. Until fairly recently, for example, as a Catholic country, abortion was illegal in the Republic of Ireland; this was a legal expression of their religious identity. Setting boundaries is both necessary and important as disciples of Yeshua, particularly for those involved in any forms of ministry, lest we be trodden down, overrun and burned out.
Yeshua set boundaries in His ministry. The gospels record that He was wildly popular and "great crowds gathered to hear Him and to be healed of their infirmities. But He would withdraw to desolate places and pray" (Luke 5:15-16, ESV); He was not always available and insisted on down-time for quiet and prayer. He refused to be used for the purposes or agendas of others: "Perceiving then that they were about to come and take Him by force to make Him king, Yeshua withdrew again to the mountain by Himself" (John 6:15, ESV). At Nazareth, "He did not do many mighty works there, because of their unbelief" (Matthew 13:58, ESV); they denied who He was, so it was inappropriate to expect miracles. He encouraged others to set their own boundaries - "when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret" (6:6, ESV) - and to refuse to be pushed into saying something foolish: "Let what you say be simply 'Yes' or 'No'" (5:37, ESV).
As disciples of Yeshua, we find tension between Yeshua's command to "love one another as I have loved you" (John 15:12) and His affirmation of the second commandment: "Love your neighbour as yourself" (Matthew 22:39). We cannot do one without the other; if we do not love ourselves - take care of ourselves, provide sensibly for our own food, clothing, time, study, leisure - then we cannot love others; we cannot give from a position of deficit. We are used to hearing the verses "Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others" (Philippians 2:3-4, ESV), tempting us always to accede to the requests or demands of others, even if unreasonable, on the grounds that loving and serving others is good, while loving ourselves is selfish. Notice, however, that Rav Sha'ul balances the interests of others with our own interests; both must be safeguarded and that means setting and enforcing boundaries to protect ourselves, our identities, our faith and our sanity! The text "G-d loves a cheerful giver" (2 Corinthians 9:7) is frequently used to exploit financial boundaries and oblige people to give more than they can afford or want to give, but how are we to be cheerful if we ignore the first part of the verse: "Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion" (ESV). This applies to every area of life: G-d doesn't want His people to be used or coerced.
Edom was prepared to defend their borders and G-d told Israel "I will not give you of their land so much as a foot can tread on" (D'varim 2:5, NJPS). Yeshua set boundaries for Himself and His disciples, so completed His ministry on time and without sin. We must do no less, resisting the enemy's attempts to push us into self-neglect and so neutralise and impoverish everything we would do for the kingdom of G-d!
1. - Thomas B. Dozeman, "Numbers" in The New Interpreter's Bible Commentary Vol I, edited by Leander E. Keck, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2015), page 772.
2. - Dennis T. Olson, Numbers, Interpretation, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), page 131.
3. - R. Dennis Cole, Numbers The New American Commentary, (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2000), pages 336-337.
Further Study: Mark 1:35-39; Matthew 14:22-23; Romans 12:10; Ephesians 4:2-3
Application: How firm are you about defining and enforcing your boundaries to ensure that you still have something to give without being burned out or sucked dry? Check your life balance today with the Quartermaster in Chief to make sure that your supply lines are not compromised so that your giving is matched by receiving and nurturing yourself.
Comment - 01:45 13Jun21 Bonnie: I thought of Jude 21 in The Living Bible: "Stay always within the boundaries where God's love can reach and bless you." Thank you.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2021
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