Numbers 20


You shall not pass through my land [Edom] – Numbers 20:18

No one shall pass through [the land of Edom] forever and ever. – Isaiah 34:10


There is a whole branch of study known as Chaos Theory. Chaos Theory starts with history as it stands. Then it introduces one seemingly insignificant change somewhere in the timeline. And it watches the huge chain of events that follows. The process of playing out this change is sometimes called “the butterfly effect.” For Chaos Theory was introduced to the community at large with the formula: “If a butterfly in China flaps its wing….” And they proceeded to demonstrate that the butterfly’s ill-timed flap could result in a hurricane in America some weeks later.


Numbers 20:14-21 tells the account of how the King of Edom refused to let Israel cut through their land. The account is well known, but the enormity of this decision is unknowable.


The immediate effect was that Israel had to travel around the land of the Edom. This is somewhat like driving to Ocean City, and finding out the Bay Bridge is closed. Edom – just like the Chesapeake – took up a large amount of space. You and I would be redirected to northern Delaware; Israel was redirected to the Red Sea. Predictably, Israel complained (Numbers 21:5).


God responded to their complaining with a plague of fiery serpents. God had not previously retaliated. There are at least three reasons why this one might have called for retaliation: 1) The blossoming of Aaron’s rod served as final warning; 2) The intensity of the complaining was greater; 3) Moses may himself have been in peril. Introducing the serpents to Israel triggered a round of events all its own:


·         Many (an unspecified number) died.


·         God told Moses to make a bronze image of a serpent, place it on a pole, and raise it up.


·         John used this account to launch the revelation of how to receive eternal life. (John 3:14)


·         New rounds of people receiving Life are being recorded even as we read this.


There is another dimension to the consequences of the King of Edom refusing Israel’s request. It was Step 1 in Edom’s destruction.


By way of background, Edom is the common Hebrew word for “red.” Jacob’s twin brother Esau had red hair. Nothing changes much over the course of 4000 years. When someone has red hair, there is a tendency to nickname that person Red. Besides Esau and Edom, the Bible uses two other names for the nation of Edom: Seir (or Mount Seir – Ezekiel 35:5); and Idumea (Isaiah 34:5 KJV).


When Moses pled with Edom, he appealed on the basis that Israel and Edom are brothers (Numbers 20:14).It was an appeal of convenience only. Jacob and Esau spent lots of time fighting. And the battle was still going on. It is no real surprise that Edom declined Israel’s request.


Nonetheless, Esau was of the seed of Abraham through Isaac, the son of promise. So Edom was entitled a blessing, which God required Israel to honor (Deuteronomy 2:5). And for about 700 years, the nations of Israel and Edom managed a cordial but peaceful co-existence. During those 700 years, Edom receives two mentions: 1) 2 Kings 3, where Edom and Israel become allies in a battle against Moab; and 2) 2 Chronicles 25, where Judah defeats Edom in battle.


Later on in the Old Testament, there will be four pronouncements against the nation of Edom:


Isaiah 34

Jeremiah 49

Ezekiel 35




Isaiah’s pronouncement was a little more than 100 years before the other three. It began:


“For My sword shall be bathed in heaven;

Indeed it shall come down on Edom.”


And you wonder what might have set God off so mightily against Edom – until you get to Isaiah 34:10:


No one shall pass through it forever and ever.


The language reeks of the language of Numbers 20:18: You shall not pass through my land. And we remember that God still has the final say.


In 587 BC, Nebuchadnezzar and Babylon marched against Jerusalem. And Edom helped. This is roughly the same as me bragging that “Me and A-Rod have combined for 629 home runs.” For Edom’s alignment (Psalm 137:7) with Babylon to assure Judah’s defeat, Edom receives the title “Daughter of Babylon” (Psalm 137:8) no doubt a deliberate sissifying of Edom’s character, followed by an astonishing God-breathed pronouncement against Edom (Psalm 137:9 ) that if I hadn’t read it for myself, I would have denied it was really in the Bible. But it is there, and that settles it.


Ezekiel, Jeremiah and Obadiah have to be comprehended in the context of the day they were written. Edom was no doubt very interested in Judah evacuating Jerusalem. They were ready to occupy Jerusalem themselves. And Isaiah’s prophecy may have stirred up some resentment within Edom. But God sent Jeremiah with the promise that the evacuation would last only 70 years, and then Judah would return to Jerusalem. God sent Ezekiel with the warning that the nation of Edom would be destroyed if they were to try to occupy Jerusalem. And God sent Obadiah with the final pronouncement of judgment: The pride of your heart has deceived you (Obadiah 3). Finally, 200 years later, God sent Malachi to deliver Edom’s obituary: “But Esau I have hated, And laid waste his mountains and his heritage For the jackals of the wilderness” (Malachi 1:3 – all verbs in past tense).


History records that Herod the Great was an Idumean. It is possible his homeland was approximately where Edom once flourished. But by that time, Edom as a nation had been dead for a few centuries.


“When the drum beats, no one knows how far the sound travels.” – tribal proverb


1 There are no interim time markers from the Kadesh-Barnea rebellion in 1444 BC to the Jordan River in 1406 BC. Just to pick a time, Israel might have been in sojourn for about five years. And they have progressed to the very location that their sojourn began. Israel, already characterized by their complaining, might have had just cause in the flesh to question Moses’ leadership at this point.


2 An absurd but effective way to remember what the book of Obadiah is about: O Bad Edom!!


3 Mis-cited as Psalm 137:7 in a previous comment.


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