Lectures on the Torah Reading

by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University

Ramat Gan, Israel

Parashat Chukath

A project of Bar-Ilan University's Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Sponsored by Dr. Ruth Borchard of the Shoresh Charitable Fund (SCF). Published with assistance of the President's Fund for Torah and Science. Permission granted to reprint with appropriate credit.
Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il


Parashat Chukath 5758/1998


The Request to Cross Through Edom (Numbers 20:14-21)

Numbers 20:14-21 presents an exchange of words in two stages, concerning the Israelite request to pass through the land of Edom: vv. 14b-18, and 19-20a. After initially being refused permission by the king of Edom, the request is made again, this time in a different formulation; the second petition, like the first, meets with refusal. This exchange is framed, before and after, by a description of the background to the request and the practical outcome (vv. 14a; 20b-21).

The verb 'br, "to cross" or "to pass," which recurs throughout the story seven times, functions as the key word, which comes to stress the subject at hand. The verb appears triply in the first request (v. 17), two of these occurrences being at each end and stated in the affirmative: “Na’abrah na--Allow us, then to cross your country... ” and at the end of the request, “ until we have crossed--’ad asher na’avor-- your territory."[1] The third occurrence in this verse is in the negative: "We will not pass--lo na’avor-- through fields or vineyards."

As we said, the use of the keyword comes to stress the true subject of the passage. We can distinguish two senses of the verb here: one is to pass through or cross, the focus being on the act of going through, the other being to pass, to go beyond [2]. Thus the request begins by specifying the action for which they await permission ("Allow us to cross your country") and ends by indicating the result or end of the action ("until we have passed your territory"). In contrast to the three-fold occurrence of this verb in the first request, it only appears once at the end of the second request (19): "We ask only for passage on foot,-- beraglay e’evorah--" whereas the beginning of the second request (ibid.) uses other expressions: "We will keep to the beaten track."

Twice we have the use of the negative of this verb ‘abar -- "You shall not pass through"-- in the response by Edom: In the first instance, "You shall not pass through us,” (18) introduces the response to the first exchange; and in the second, the entire response is simply "You shall not pass through!" (20) and nothing more. The seventh and final occurrence of the verb is in the conclusion of the story: "So Edom would not let Israel cross--’avor-- their territory." (21)

Let us begin to read the two requests in detail. The first proposal is formulated in polite, diplomatic language. The interchange begins (14) "Thus says your brother Israel." Brother is a term used to denote an ally, and it reflects friendly brotherly relations [3]. The main substance of the request to the king is then prefaced by an historical overview stressing the hardships suffered by the Israelites in their descent to Egypt, their oppression, and their subsequent redemption, which brought them to their present site at Kadesh (15-16). What purpose does this historical overview serve?

A reasonable explanation is offered by several commentators (such as R. Joseph Bekhor Shor and Abarbanel), who view it as intended to evoke the king's compassion. Being made aware of the suffering of the Israelites should make him empathize with their request. Only after the historical introduction does Moses present his request, formulated courteously: "Allow us, then, to cross your country..." (in contrast to the more aggressive tone used towards Sihon: "Let me pass through your country," Num. 21:22). He also stresses the limitations that the Israelites will impose on themselves: "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."

The message sent to Edom is reminiscent of other biblical passages, especially the historical overview that Moses gives Jethro and the historical synopsis recited when bringing first fruits to the Sanctuary [4]. Comparing these three passages brings out their differences: Moses tells Jethro not only of the people's deliverance ("all the hardships that had befallen them on the way, and how the Lord had delivered them," Ex. 18:8), but also "everything that the Lord had done to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians for Israel's sake" (ibid.). The passage recited when bringing first fruits also notes, "the Lord freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents" (Deut. 26:8).

In contrast, the messengers sent to Edom do not say anything of the punishment meted out to those who enslaved Israel. Why forgo the message the Edomites could have deduced from the punishment visited on Egypt? Would it not have effectively conveyed a signal to Edom, persuading them to respond favorably to the request addressed to them by Moses on behalf of Israel? The absence of any reference to the punishment given the Egyptians seems to be deliberate and significant, its purpose apparently being to avoid even an implicit threat. The request to pass through their land is directed entirely at the conscience of the listener, leaving no place for innuendo and show of force.

The subtle, diplomatic request of the Israelites meets with menacing refusal by Edom: "You shall not pass through us, else we will go out against you with the sword." The contrast is striking, as if to say, "I am all peace; but when I speak, they are for war" (Ps. 120:7). Then the second proposal is made to Edom. The way negotiations are proceeding, one expects it to be more attractive than the first. Indeed, two differences stand out: the route mentioned is "the beaten track" instead of the "king's highway"; and payment is offered for what they drink, in contrast to the first proposal, in which they said they would not drink. What of this second offer? Does it reflect a more flexible Israelite position in order to obtain an affirmative response? Or is it simply a more persuasive formulation of what had been said before, with no essential modification?

Rabbi Joseph Bekhor Shor considers both these possibilities in his commentary concerning the drinking- water (v. 19): {1} as clarification of the original proposal: "That is to say, we wish to make clear from the outset that we shall not drink your well water unless we pay for it"; {2} as a substantive change in the offer: "At first they said, 'We will not drink from your wells that you worked to dig; but only from the rivers, which are free for all.' Finally they said that even for that water they would pay."[5] The other change can be viewed similarly. Some people identify the "king's highway" with the "beaten track,"[6] but many commentators distinguish between the two phrases, seeing this as a substantive change: first they spoke of crossing on the convenient main road [7]; then they offered only to cross on less convenient side roads [8-9].

Aside from its details, the second proposal is much shorter and more businesslike. Not only does it lack the historical overview, it also does not state the request itself, but only specifies the change: "We will keep to the beaten track." (19) This is due to the fact that it is the second proposal follows so closely on the first so that the basic details need not be repeated. Nevertheless, the second request, being short and to the point, is likely to sound more forceful although, as we have said, in terms of content it actually makes some concessions.

Why the change in tone between the two parts? Possibly, the difference might lie in a change of persons sending the messengers. With regard to the first, Scripture says, "Moses sent messengers" (v. 14), whereas with the second it says, "the Israelites said to them" (v. 19). Another possibility is that it was not a new delegation, but that this was their spontaneous response upon hearing the first refusal [10]. Israel's revised proposal, however, is also turned down, but this time the refusal is accompanied with action: "And Edom went out against them in heavy force, strongly armed." One would expect that this escalation meet with a firm Israelite response--military confrontation--and presumably also an Israelite victory. But, mirac, "Israel turned away from them," with nexplanation.

The reason is made explicit in Moses' oration in Deuteronomy: "You will be passing through the territory of your kinsmen, the descendants of Esau, who live in Seir. Though they will be afraid of you, be very careful not to provoke them. For I will not give you of their land so much as a foot can tread on; I have given the hill country of Seir as a possession to Esau" (Deut. 2:4-5). There, too, we find the word aheikhem, your kinsmen; however, in this instance the word is not used in the context of a courteous diplomatic request, but within the Israelite's own camp, in G-d’s words to Israel. Therefore the reference in Deuteronomy to Edom as kinsmen is not diplomatic flattery, but rather a forthright acknowledgment of the real relationship.

The use of this term, along with the explicit explanation given in Deuteronomy, shows clearly the reason why the Israelites knuckled under here in our Parasha-- they had no intention of entering a military confrontation. They requested right of passage, and having been refused it, they did not pass through.

Whereas for the king of Edom the horizon of Israelite history, as outlined in verses 15-16, begins only with the descent to Egypt, for the reader, the history of Israel-Edomite relations extends back to the days of Jacob and Esau. As one modern commentator notes, the words "your brother" that introduce the request to Edom are highly significant, providing insight into the attitude towards Edom expressed by the story [11].

The Sages perceived a reference back to this ancient level in the motif of the sword cited by Edom, “with the sword” (herev-- v.18) juxtaposed to the words of Israel in the historical overview, "We cried," (va-nits’ak--v.16) as symbolically representing the confrontation between the ancestors of both nations: "The voice [“we cried”] is the voice of Jacob, yet the hands [“with the sword”] are the hands of Esau" (Gen. 27:22) [12]. Rashi takes up this observation, using it in his commentary on three (of the eight) verses in our story [13].

Reading the text according to its plain (peshat) sense, one can certainly see in this story a contrast between the Edomite threat of the sword and the Israelite use of moderate, pacifying words in their request to Edom. Edom, turning to force of arms and setting out to attack Israel with a heavy force, continued the ways of Esau toward Jacob: "He himself is coming to meet you, and there are four hundred men with him" (Gen. 73:7). Even the narrator's preface to dispatching the messengers, "From Kadesh, Moses sent messengers to the king of Edom," is reminiscent of Jacob's delegation: "Jacob sent messengers ahead to his brother Esau in the land of Seir, the country of Edom" (Gen. 32:4). The similarity continues in the formulaic introduction by the messengers: "Thus says your servant Jacob" and "Thus says your brother Israel."

Finally, reference to the exodus from Egypt, though explicitly not mentioned in the historical background, also appears in the words of the narrator, albeit obliquely. As we mentioned above, the messengers refrained from noting that the Lord's response to the bondage in Egypt was to remove the Israelites from Egypt with a mighty hand ("yad hazakah," as mentioned in Deut. 26:8). But the same phrase, "yad hazakah," appears in the description of Edom's reaction, "And Edom went out against them in heavy force, strongly armed (be-yad hazakah)" (20), recalling what had been said about Pharaoh: "because of a greater might (be-yad hazakah) he shall drive them from his land" (Ex. 6:1). Indeed, this is precisely the action taken here by the king of Edom.

A second allusion to the exodus can be found in the context. The historical overview, whose details focus on the bondage in Egypt and the redemption from there, begins with the general statement, "You know all the hardships that have befallen us" (v. 14). A bit further on, the text proceeds to describe the implications of Edom's refusal: "They set out ... to skirt the land of Edom. But the people grew restive on the journey..." (21:4). The longer journey, a result of Edom's actions, turns out to have been very trying for the people, another hardship along their way. This in a way draws a parallel between Egypt and Edom. This parallel recurs in another place, in the wording of the law in Deuteronomy 23:8-9, but there too, in the context of illicit marital relationships, only Edom is referred to as "your brother."

The more parallels that are drawn between Edom and Egypt, and between Edom and Esau, the ancestor of this nation, the stronger the implicit criticism of the show of power by the king of Edom. The mightier this show of force, the more estimable and heroic the Israelites' action of refraining from hostilities with Edom, even at the cost of having to take a much longer route [14].

Dr. Amos Frisch

Dept. of Bible


  1. Several examples can be given of a short speech beginning and ending with the same words, thus underscoring its message: "You are spies... you are nothing but spies!" (Gen. 42:14-16); "Come, attack the camp,... t o attack the camp" (Jud. 7:9-11); "Then I cannot redeem it ... for I am unable to redeem it" (Ruth 4:6).
  2. Compare the entry under 'br in BDB (p. 717), definition 3a as opposed to 1b.
  3. Cf. especially: "My brother, he said, "what sort of towns are these you have given me?" (I Kings 9:13); "Your servant Ben-hadad says, 'I beg you, spare my life.'" He replied, "Is he still alive? He is my brother" (ibid ., 20:32).
  4. Cf. especially: "You know all the hardships that have befallen us"(14) and Ex.18:8 “all the hardships that had befallen them on the way”; “Our ancestors went down to Egypt...the Egyptians dealt harshly with us..”(16_17) and D eut.26:5-8 “He went down to Egypt...the Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us...We cried to the Lord...etc.
  5. The second interpretation is also offered by Nahmanides. Also cf. N. Leibowitz, Studies in Numbers, Jerusalem 1996, pp. 260-261.
  6. Cf. M. Naor, Ha-Mikra ve-ha-Aretz --Beur Geography la-Tanakh, I, Tel Aviv 1952, p. 126; also compare Y. Aharoni, Eretz Yisrael be-Tekufat ha-Mikra--Geographia Historit, revised edition, ed. Y. Efal, Jerusalem 19 87(1988), p. 41.
  7. The "king's highway" as a general noun denoting a public road (as in Y. Licht, Perush al Sefer Be-Midbar [11-21], Jerusalem 1991, p. 221) or as a proper noun denoting the international route that crosses Edom (as in B. A. Levine, Numbers 1-20, [Anchor Bible], New York 1993, pp. 492-493).
  8. For example, R. Samson Raphael Hirsch's commentary on the verse. According to Milgrom, the "beaten track" is only for travel on foot; cf. J. Milgrom, Numbers (JPS Torah Commentary), Philadelphia 1990, p. 168. According to Malbim, the second proposal spoke of a road along the border of the kingdom. Accordingly, he notes the precision in the answer by the king of Edom: only in the first instance did he say, "You shall not pass through us," i.e., inside my realm; whereas the second time his response was, "You shall not pass," not even along the edges of my land.
  9. There is a third way of interpreting the text, namely a substantive change in the issue of drinking water, but no change regarding the route. Cf., for example, Y. Avishur, in M. Weinfeld (ed.), Olam ha-Tanakh, Numbers, Tel Aviv 1993, p. 126.
  10. Apparently they had the authority to do so, according to Dr. Elgavish (D. Elgavish, Ha-Shaliah ve-ha-Shelihut -- ha-Sherut ha-Diplomati be-Mekorot ha-Yitedatiyim min ha-Mizrah ha-Kadum u-va-Mikra, Doctoral dissertation , Bar Ilan University, Ramat Gan 1990, pp. 38-39), who notes that the term mal'akh refers to a senior messenger or diplomatic emissary.
  11. B. Maarsingh, Numbers: A Practical Commentary (translated by J. Vriend), Grand Rapids 1987, p. 73.
  12. Cf. for example: "But two things Isaac passed on to his two sons: to Jacob he gave the voice, as he said, 'The voice is the voice of Jacob,' and to Esau he gave the hands, as he said, "Yet the hands are the hands of Esau.' Es au was proud of the trait he had inherited, as it is said,' But Edom answered him: You shall not pass through us, etc.; and Jacob was proud of the trait he inherited, as it is said, 'We cried to the Lord , the G-d of oufathers'..." (Exodus Rabbah 2 1.1), and other similar midrash comments.
  13. S.v. : va-yishma koleinu (16); s.v. pen ba-herev etze likratekha (18); s.v. u-ve-yad hazakah (20).
  14. Moses attitude towards Edom's response, as revealed in his speech in Deuteronomy 2:29, deserves attention in its own right, but this is not the place to discuss the matter.