Excerpts from Bible as History

On the threshold of the promised land

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14. On the threshold of the promised land.

Rise of a new generation — change of plan — transit permit through Edom requested — pressing on through Transjordan — King Og's “iron bedstead” — dolmen discovered near Amman — Moab sends its daughters — Baal worship in Canaan — Moses sees the Promised Land — camping opposite Jericho.
And he made them wander in the wilderness forty years, until all the generation that had done evil in the sight of the Lord was consumed” (Num. 32:13).
Not until the long years of their wanderings are approaching an end does the Bible take up the thread again of the story of the children of Israel. A new generation has sprung up and is ready to cross the threshold of the Promised Land. None of the men who led the Exodus out of Egypt will, according to the Bible, set foot in the land of promise – not even Moses himself.

The new plan of campaign is to conquer Canaan from the east, i.e., the territory east of the Jordan. Nevertheless the road to Upper Transjordan from Kadesh is blocked by five kingdoms, which occupy the broad strip of land between the Jordan valley and the Arabian desert: in the north, beginning at the spurs of Hermon is the kingdom of Bashan, then the Amorite kingdom of Sihon, next, the kingdom of Ammon, then the kingdom of Moab, on the east side of the Dead Sea and, right in the south, Edom.

Edom is therefore the first kingdom that has to be negotiated on the way to Upper Transjorda. The children of Israel ask Permission to pass through:

“And Moses sent messengers from Kadesh unto the king of Edom.... Let us pass, I pray thee, through thy country” (Num. 20:14-17).

Main roads are the quickest roads to anywhere. In those days what corresponded to our trunk roads and motorways in the 20th century was a road that ran right through the middle of Edom, This was the old “King's Highway” which dated back to Abraham's time. “Let us pass, I pray thee, through the country,” they asked; “We will go by the king's highway” (Num 20:17).

The settled population of the East always distrusts nomads, nowadays as much as long ago, even though Israel's emissaries declare expressly: “We will not pass through the fields, or through the vineyards... we will not turn to the right hand nor to the left, until we have passed thy borders.... And if I and my cattle drink of thy water, then I will pay for it” (Num. 20:17-19).

In the course of an expedition which lasted several years Nelson Glueck confirmed the aptness of the Biblical description of Edom. In the southern part of Transjordan, in the territories that had once belonged to Edom and Moab, he came across numerous traces of a settlement which dated from the beginning of the 13th century. Signs of cultivated ground, which were also discovered, suggested well stocked fields. It is therefore understandable that in spite of all assurances Edom refused the children of Israel permission to use the road and pass through their country.

Their hostility compelled Israel to go a long way round. They trek northwards along the western edge of Edom towards the Dead Sea. Punon, now called Kirbet-Feinan, an old copper-mine, and Oboth, are visited for the sake of their water supplies. Then the Israelites follow the little river Sered, which marks the frontier between Edom and Moab, and reach Transjordan. They make a wide circle round Moab on the south-east side of the Dead Sea. By this time they have reached the river Arnon and the southern frontier of the kingdom of the Amorites (Num. 21:13). Once more the Israelites ask for permission to use the “King's Highway” (Num. 21:22). Once more it is refused, this time by Sihon, king of the Amorites. A battle begins and the process of conquest by force of arms has started.

By defeating the Amorites the Israelites collect their ftfst laurels. Conscious of their strength they push northwards over the river Jabbok and conquer the kingdom of Bashan in addition. Thus by their first determined attack they have become masters of Transjordan from the river Arnon to the banks of the Lake of Galilee.

Into the matter-of-fact description of this military offensive in Transjordan there has crept a reference to the “iron bed” of a giant, King Og of Bashan (Deut. 3:11), which may have puzzled many people. This mysterious and improbable sounding passage in the Bible has, however, a very natural and at the same time striking explanation. The Bible is preserving here in all faithfulness a memory which takes us back to Canaan's dim and distant past.

When the scholars were searching the Jordan country for evidence which would tie up with Biblical history, they came upon remarkable structures such as archaeologists had already encountered in other countries as well. These consisted of tall stones, built in oval formation and every now and then roofed over with a heavy transverse block — the famous Great Stone Graves. They are also called megalithic graves or dolmens, and were once used for burying the dead. In Europe — they are found in North Germany, Denmark, England and North-west France — they are called locally “Giants' Beds.” Since these massive monuments are also found in India, East Asia and even the South Sea Islands, they are ascribed to a great mass migration in early times.

In 1918 Gustav Dalman, the German scholar, discovered in the neighbourhood of Amman, the modern capital of Jordan, a dolmen which aroused unusual interest because it seemed to shed light on a factual Biblical reference in quite an astonishing way. Amman stands precisely on the old site of Rabbath-Ammon. The Bible says about this giant king Og: “Behold his bedstead was a bedstead of iron; is it not in Rabbath of the children of Ammon [Rabbath-Ammon]? nine cubits was the length thereof, and four cubits the breadth of it, after the cubit of a man” (Deut. 3:11). The size of the dolmen discovered by Dalman corresponded approximately to these measurements. The “bed” consists of basalt, an extremely hard grey-black stone. The appearance of such a burying-place may have given rise to the Biblical description of the “iron bed” of the giant king. Further investigations have proved that dolmens are common in Palestine, principally in Transjordan above the river Jabbok, that is, in present day Ajlun. Well over a thousand of these ancient monuments are to be found the coarse grass of the highlands. The country above the Jabbok, so the Bible tells us, is the kingdom over which King Og of Bashan is said to have reigned, Og who alone “remained of the remnant of giants” (Deut. 3:11). Bashan, which was conquered by Israel, was also called “the land of giants” (Deut. 3:13).

West of the Jordan the only dolmens to be found are in the neighbourhood of Hebron. The scouts, whom Moses sent out from Kadesh, “ascended by the south, and came unto Hebron... and there we saw the giants, the sons of Anak” (Num. 13:22-33). They must have seen the stone graves which have now been discovered at Hebron in the vicinity of the Valley of Grapes.

Who the “giants” really were is still quite unknown. Possibly they were a people who were much taller than the old established population around the Jordan. Clearly there was some racial memory of a taller type of man, which was enough to make a deep impression, and perhaps this is the reason why it appears in the Bible too.

These huge stone graves and the stories about giants once again bear witness to the colourful and varied history of the Land of Canaan, that narrow strip of land on the Mediterranean coast, into which from earliest times waves of alien peoples surged incessantly and left their mark behind them.

The news that Israel had conquered the whole of Jordan put King Balak of Moab into a panic. He was afraid that his own people too would be no match in physique or military skill for these tough sons of the desert. He convenes “the elders of Midian” and incites them against the children of Israel (Num. 22:4). They resolve to employ other than military measures. They will attempt to impose a check on Israel by means of magic Incantations and curses, in the efficacy of which the peoples of the Ancient East firmly believed, will assuredly smash Israel's power. Balaam is summoned in haste from Pethor in Babylonia, where these black arts flourish. But Balaam, the great sorcerer and magician, fails. As soon as Balaam tries to utter a curse, a blessing upon Israel comes out instead (Num. 23). Then the king of Moab throws the most dangerous trump card in existence into the balance, a wicked card that is to have a lasting effect on to lives of the children of Israel.

The Bible passage which contains a description of the abominable stratagem of King Balak is felt by theologians to be embarrassing and therefore they prefer to gloss it over. The real question is, however, why such a scandalous affair appears in the Bible at all. The answer is simple: the event was one which was of the deepest and most fateful significance for the people of Israel. That is the reason why the narrator does not maintain a modest silence but gives a frank and candid account of what actually happened.

It was in the thirties that French archaeologists, working at the Mediterranean port of Ras Shamra — the “White Haven” on the coast of Phoenicia — under the direction of Professor Claude Schaeffer of Strasbourg brought to light some evidence of Canaanite religious practices. Only then was it possible to estimate and understand what is recorded in Num. 25.

“And Israel abode in Shittim, and the people began to commit whoredom with the daughters of Moab. And they called the people unto the sacrifices of their gods” (Num. 25:1-2).

It is not the attractions of vice that the children of Israel are faced with. That is something that is and always had been universal. It was not professional prostitutes who led Israel astray. It was the daughters of the Moabites and the Midianites, their own wives and sweethearts. They enticed and seduced the men of Israel to take part in the rites of Baal, the fertility cult of Canaan. What Israel encountered, while still on the other side of Jordan, was the voluptuous worship of the Phoenician gods. The leaders of Israel struck swiftly and struck hard. They did not even spare their own men. Offenders were slaughtered and hanged. Phinehas, grand-nephew of Moses, who saw an Israelite taking a Midianite woman into his tent, took a javelin “and thrust both of them through, the man of Israel, and the woman through her belly” (Num. 25:8). The people of Moab were spared since they were related to Israel — Lot, Abraham's nephew, was regarded as their ancestor (Gen. 19:37). But against the Midianites a war of extermination was let loose, the classical “herem” or ban, as it is laid down in the Law (Deut. 7:2ff, 20:13ff). “Now therefore kill every male among the little ones and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him,” ordered Moses. Only the young girls were spared, everyone else was killed (Num. 31:7-18).

“And Moses went up from the plains of Moab unto the mountain of Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, that is over against Jericho. And the Lord showed him all the land” (Deut. 34-1).

Moses had now fulfilled his heavy task. From the bond-cities of Egypt, through the years of hardship and privation in the steppes right up to that moment he had had to travel a long and bitterly hard road. He had nominated as his successor Joshua, a tried and trusted man and an unusually gifted strategist, which was what Israel was most in need of. Moses had finished the course and could take his leave of the world. He was not allowed to set foot himself on the soil of the Promised Land. But he was allowed to glimpse it from afar, from Mt. Nebo.

To visit this Biblical mountain means a journey of about 18 miles from Amman, centre and seat of government of the present kingdom of Jordan. The trip takes rather more than half an hour in a Land-Rover, crossing the hill-country on the edge of the Arabian desert, through wadis and sometimes past ploughed fields, heading straight for the south-east in the direction of the Dead Sea.

After a short climb over bare rocks we reach a broad barren plateau, 2,500 feet above sea level. On the western edge the cliffs drop sharply down to the Jordan basin. A fresh breeze blows on the summit. Under the clear blue skies there stretches into the distance in front of the enchanted visitor a unique panorama.

To the south lie the broad waters of the Salt Sea with their silvery sheen. On the far bank rises a dreary desolate scene of stone humps and hillocks. Behind it towers the long chain of brownish white limestone mountains of the Land of Judah. Just where it begins, rising sharply out of the Negev, lies Hebron. In the west, towards the Mediterranean, two tiny dots can be distinguished with the naked eye from the mountain range that stands out against the horizon — the towers of Bethlehem and Jerusalem. The eye wanders northward over the highlands of Samaria, past Galilee to the snow capped peaks of Hermon in the shimmering distance.

At the foot of Nebo narrow gorges slope downwards, brilliant with the green of their pomegranate trees and their orange coloured fruit. Then the ground sinks abruptly into the desolate steppe of the Jordan basin. A landscape of dazzling white chaft hills, almost as ghostly as the mountains of the moon and without a single blade of grass, flanks the mere 30 foot width of the river Jordan. The only comfort to the eye is a small green patch in front of the mountains that rise steeply on the west side of the Jordan — the oasis of Jericho.

This view from Nebo into Palestine was the last thing that Moses saw.

But beneath him on the broad steppe of Moab thin columns of are rising heavenwards. Day and night campfires are burning among the mass of black goatshair tents. Joined to the hum of voices of all these men, women and children, the wind also carries over to the Jordan valley the bleating of grazing flocks. It is a peaceful scene. But it is only a moment of respite before the long yearned for day, the great calm before the storm which is decisively to affect the destiny of Israel and that of the land of Canaan.

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