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God’s Word for You

Numbers 20:18-22 When I disagree with my government

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Friday, October 22, 2021

18 Edom said to him, “You must not pass through our territory, or we will go out to meet you with the sword.”

The refusal of the king of Edom hardly surprises us, nor could it have surprised Moses very much. The life of mankind is difficult in many ways, ever since the Lord cursed the ground on account of Adam (Genesis 3:17), but Edom in particular stands under God’s judgment for “the pride of your heart” (Obadiah 1:3). These wise men, men of understanding, would have decided through their reasoning that one of three things was about to take place:

  1, Israel’s use of spies had surely become known. Edom feared that their peaceful relations with the Canaanites west of the Jordan would be upset if it was thought that they helped Israel to cross over into the Promised Land.

  2, Israel might have decided to abandon the invasion of Canaan, and were setting their sights on the rich farmlands of Bashan to the north. In that case, relations with Bashan would be hurt if Edom allowed Israel to pass through.

  3, Israel might possibly have simply decided to pass into Edom (to the Edomites, this garish rocky wilderness was their private paradise) and then simply drive out the Edomites.

In either case, it was in the interest of Edom’s human relationships to oppose Israel. What Edom should have known, descended as they were from Abraham and Isaac, is that to oppose the people of God was not in the best interest of any nation, but to help God’s people and to draw closer to God was and is always wise.

19 The Israelites said to them, “We will go up on the main road. If we drink your water, we and our herds of livestock, then we will pay for it. Just let us pass through on foot, nothing else.”

In the beginning of this exchange, Moses spoke for Israel. For Moses himself to switch subjects here in verse 19 is unusual. Also, he does not drop to a formal “Israel” while in communication with the formal “Edom” (see verses 18 and 20), but says “the sons (children) of Israel,” usually translated “the Israelites.” This is a strong hint that Moses was not the source of this second message, which drops all formality and has the desperate tone of begging. The tribes were desperate to get through. Seeing no other course, someone (one of the tribal heads?) dashed off a note promising not to do more than drink a little water and pay for it.

20 Edom said, “You will not pass through.”

This sentence is much shorter in Hebrew. The Edomite king or his ambassador may have been behind this message, or it may simply have been the commander of the army that was now on its way south to the place where Israel was encamped. This reply, just two words in either Edomite or Hebrew (closely related languages, only separated by the shape of certain letters and some idioms, like the difference between American and Canadian English), was not formal but was clearly a threat: “Not pass (through).”

Edom went out to meet them with a large force of many people. 21 Edom refused to give Israel passage through their territory, so Israel turned away from them. 22 The entire community of the Israelites set out from Kadesh and came to Mount Hor.

Perhaps if only the 600,000 warriors had been present as an organized force, this incident would have ended differently. But their wives and children were with them, so they did not go up into Edom.

This meant that there were only two ways open to them. Either they would need to go all the way around Edom, staying to the south, crossing eastward below Edom and then heading north in the stony wasteland known today as the Altubiaq Natural Reserve (the Black Hills in South Dakota are a more inviting spot), or skirting the foot of Edom’s towering cliffs and walking along the eastern shore of the Dead Sea, a salt “beach” filled with noxious stinks, sudden thunderstorms, and death. This is one of the reasons that Israel wanted to ascend to Edom’s mountains. Down at the level of the Dead Sea, the daytime temperatures soar above a hundred degrees as early as May, and we know from chapter 33 that this was August.

The American Naval officer who surveyed this region almost 200 years ago wrote, while on the banks of the Dead Sea: “The weather during the morning was exceedingly sultry and oppressive. At 8:30 (AM), thermometer 106°. The clouds were motionless, the sea unruffled, the rugged faces of the rocks without a shadow… At 6:00 PM, a hot hurricane, another sirocco, blew down the tents and broke the… barometer, our last remaining one…” (Lt. Lynch, Narrative of the US Expedition to the River Jordan and the Dead Sea, 1849, ch. XVIII).

Israel, it seems, stayed along the edge of the valley south of the Dead Sea and did not climb up into Edom nor go around it, but slunk along through the some of the foothills between Edom’s heights and the Sea. The traditional site of Mount Hor is there, about thirty miles south of the Dead Sea, and about two and a half miles east of the ancient temple-city of Petra.

Israel obeyed the Fourth Commandment here, submitting to the sovereignty of a nation with whom they had no quarrel. Edom might have acted ungraciously, and even with hostility, but a government “does not bear the sword for nothing” (Romans 13:4). We might be disappointed with a government. We might disagree with it. But rebelling against that government is a sin. “Why,” Luther writes in the Large Catechism, “do you think, that the world is now so full of unfaithfulness, shame, misery, and murder? It is because everyone wishes to be his own master, be free from all authority, care nothing for anyone, and do whatever he pleases. So God punishes one knave by means of another. When you defraud or despise your master, another person comes along and treats you likewise. Indeed, in your own household you must suffer ten times as much wrong from your own wife, children, or servants” (Large Catechism, Ten Commandments, par. 154).

To obey when rulers seem to be acting unfairly is a godly thing. “The fear of the Lord—that is wisdom, and to shun evil is understanding” (Job 28:28), and “does not God see my ways and count my every step?” (Job 31:4). So if a government seems wicked, that is a matter for God’s wisdom and justice, not for the wisdom of my flawed opinion, or my vigilante justice. If Edom was acting wickedly, then there was solace, for the wicked “will not enjoy the streams, the rivers flowing with honey and cream” (Job 20:17). For God’s people, there is glory given to God by living in a godly way even under times of such trouble. God is not the author of our troubles. “It is unthinkable that God would do wrong.” So praise God with your life today. He has removed the guilt of your sins, and “our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2 Corinthians 4:17). Bruises and tears are temporary. God’s love and light are waiting for us, in our Savior’s open arms.

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

Pastor Tim Smith

About Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. To receive God’s Word for You via e-mail, please contact Pastor Smith.


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