God’s Word for You
Numbers 20:14-17 A test on Edom’s doorstep
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Thursday, October 21, 2021
Edom Denies Israel Passage
14 Moses sent messengers from Kadesh to the king of Edom to say, “This is what your brother Israel says: You know all the hardship that has come upon us. 15 Our ancestors went down to Egypt, and we lived in Egypt for a long time. The Egyptians mistreated us and our ancestors. 16 When we cried to the LORD, he heard our voice, sent an angel, and brought us out of Egypt. So look, here we are in Kadesh, a city on the edge of your territory. 17 Please let us pass through your land. We will not pass through any field or vineyard. We will not drink water from any well. We will go on the King’s Highway. We will not turn to the right or to the left until we have passed through your territory.”
Looking from the west (i.e., from southern Canaan), Edom was a long, high height, many miles long, a high bluff towering overhead on the opposite side of the deep depression of the valley south of the Dead Sea. It truly looked as if the Edomites nested with the eagles (Jeremiah 49:16). The heart of Edom was this line of mountains east of the Arabah (the Arabah was the deep valley south of the Dead Sea). The mountains run south to north from the Gulf of Aqaba (the eastern arm of the Red Sea) all along the Arabah depression until they end abruptly, dropping thousands of feet at the deep gorge of the River Zered just south of the Dead Sea.
On top of that long bluff was a portion of an ancient road known as the King’s Highway. There was a low point in Edom far to the south that ran up to this high bluff. Moses proposed that Israel might ascend at one point (probably that ‘ramp’ in the south) and then remain on the King’s Highway without turning aside. In other words, they would not camp. Their plan was to travel through Edom without stopping until they arrived at the Zered, and there they would ask permission once again (we would suppose) of the King of Moab for the second stage of their journey.
The letter Moses sent followed the classic style of letters written to kings at this time, with standard points:
1, The recipient (“To the King of Edom”).
2, The formula, “This is what ___ says.”
3, The sender, usually “your servant” but here “your brother.”
4, The present situation and therefore the reason for the request.
5, The request itself.
6, Some promise might be made (“We will not turn…”).
Based on the response in the verses that follow, we see that Moses had hoped that Edom would be generous with them, not only permitting the passage along the King’s Highway but also that they might be supplied with water, food, and even other assistance. Moses may even have hoped that Israel would be allowed to camp as long as necessary with their ancient brothers the Edomites. Politeness and the way of speaking at this time often stated the hope as a negative. Arriving at a friend’s home just at dinner time would mean saying, “We wouldn’t dream of imposing or staying for dinner. Please excuse the intrusion,” hoping of course to be invited to the table.
Centuries before, when their namesake ancestors Jacob (Israel) and Esau (Edom) met after a long absence, Jacob sent gifts of many flocks and herds ahead of him as gifts to his brother Esau. Esau tried to refuse these gifts, but when Jacob insisted, he received them with thanks and brotherly love (Genesis 33:11). Brotherly love was behind this letter. The Edomites were not one of the nations that God wanted destroyed.
Moses was commanded only to bring Israel to the Promised Land by following the pillar of cloud that was the Glory of the Lord. The land of Canaan was inhabited by many nations that were to be driven out: “The Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hivites and Jebusites” (Exodus 13:15, 23:23,28, 33:2). However, there was no command to destroy Edom, their ancient brothers. So when Israel was led to the border of Edom, Moses politely sent a letter ahead to ask permission to cross through. Permission or no, they were headed north. “We must obey God,” the apostles acknowledged (Acts 5:29); “We walk in obedience to his commands” (2 John 1:6). And yet, there was a government to respect on their path.
In his preface to his lectures on Galatians, Martin Luther said: “If I am a servant, I faithfully tend to my master’s affairs. Whoever knows for sure that Christ is his righteousness not only cheerfully and gladly works in his calling but also submits himself for the sake of love to magistrates, also to their wicked laws, and to everything else in this present life—even, if need be, to burden and danger. For he knows that God wants this and that this obedience pleases him” (LW 26:12). So if I am in a land where the government says that I may or may not travel a certain road, then I submit to that government, as God commands in Romans 13:1-5, as long as my obedience to the government is not actually a sin against God’s law. If my master (government, employer or parent) demands something of me that is not forbidden by God, then far be it from me to rebel against that authority! On the one hand, if I rebel, my children will learn from my example and rebel against me, even though God has given me the responsibility of being his representative to them, so that my example would lead them to rebel against God. Lord, save me from such folly and wickedness! And on the other hand, if I rebel, my God will know all about my rebellion and he will hold every action, every word and every sinful thought in evidence against me and he will lay this on my account. For by rejecting his representatives, I would have rejected him, and this is the rebellion, rejection and unbelief, that Israel kept falling into through their long exodus and sojourn in the wilderness. They had kept on saying, “I will obey my opinion and not God’s command or God’s authority.” Would they do this once again? Here on the doorstep of Edom, Israel had the opportunity to knock, to ask, to hold their hat in their hand as it were, and even to beg permission. Lessons had been taught; this was a test. Would they submit to Edom, their brother and the local authority, or would they sin?
Edom’s response to their request was unimportant. What Israel would do with Edom’s response was really what was at stake.
How will you and I be tested today? What will truly be at stake?
Pastor Timothy Smith