Scripture: But he said, “You shall not pass through.” And Edom came out against them with a large army and with a strong force. Thus Edom refused to give Israel passage through his territory, so Israel turned away from him. Number 20:20-21 ESV
Observation: As commentators concur, from this point forward in the book of Numbers, the timeline has skipped past decades of wandering, and Israel is now beginning its last trek to the Promised land. Instead of making speed along the coastal highway into Canaan, thanks to the spies’ fear-mongering report, Israel reroutes on a forty-year southern circuit to the eventual north and is now approaching Canann. Seeking passage along the King’s Highway through the territory of Edom, Moses sends messengers from Kadesh to the king of Edom. Humbly, they request that the king grant access along this segment of the King’s Highway that divides Edom with the assurance that Israel would neither stray from the path nor obtain resources from the land without compensation. But the king would have none of it and dispatches a large army as a show of force. So Israel loops around Edom’s easterly border northward toward Moab (20:1-21).
Of note, Edom is the land granted to Esau, the brother of Israel’s forefather, Jacob. We later read that for this reason, God forbade Israel from even taking a foothold on the land of Edom (Deuteronomy 2:4-6), which perhaps explains why God did not order Israel to respond to Edom’s aggressive actions. Indeed, the arid land of Edom, mainly comprised of wilderness, could hardly support an army that could rival the 600,000+ fighting men of Israel (Numbers 1:46). But Moses would graciously move on with God’s people, encountering yet another delay, but months rather than years this time.
Takeaway: From Edom’s perspective, they acted foolishly toward an ally nation of the same heritage: their common forefather Isaac. Obadiah would prophesy their ruin for later aiding Babylon in capturing fleeing Israel (Obadiah, chapter 1). This strategy would backfire as Babylon would soon overrun their borders, with a remnant narrowly escaping to southern Judea (later referred to as Idumaeans in New Testament times). Sadly, their nation would never recover its identity.
For Moses, back on track from his misstep at Meribah, he acts honorable and turns away the fool’s wrath. Solomon later offered some wise words along this line: “The vexation of a fool is known at once, but the prudent ignores an insult… Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself.” (Proverbs 12:16, 26:4 ESV). Moses took the high road, which had its delays but was the best way forward.
The takeaway for us? First, it is better to err on being generous toward our neighbors than build walls to protect our possessions. To do the latter, we will reap what we sow, and we will reap loneliness and eventual losses if we sow seeds of distrust and aggression. Secondly, the “highway” Moses and Israel took, turning away from a fool’s wrath and allowing God to mete justice, was far better—even with delays.
Prayer: Father God, we thank you for your Son who turned away the wrath of those who opposed him and stayed on course to his mission’s end—trusting that you would exact justice. Would you please help us follow your Holy Spirit’s lead in doing the same and turn away from those who are aggressive toward us, taking your highway? Amen.
Rev. Gordon Green, M.Div., M.A. Counseling
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