Around Edom


Numbers 21

View of Eilat and Edom Mountains. Photo by Alexey Sergeev

4From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom.

Most of us just skip over place names when reading in scripture. They do not ring any bells for us. They are just strange places far away. But this simple reference to Israel’s journey around Edom is poignant. Edom blocks their way into the land of Canaan. Edom, the land of Esau, the brother from whom Jacob stole the blessing. It occupies the region south and east of the Dead Sea and they will not let the descendants of Jacob pass through. The only way to go around is to go back toward the Red Sea and then far out into the desert.

There had been another choice, of course – to go straight up through the Negev into the southern hill country. But before venturing into the promised land, they sent in spies who came back with stories of giants – powerful enemies born of the gods. All the spies except Joshua said they would never be able to overcome them, and the people refused to go forward along the path God set before them.

So although they stand at the edge of the promised land, they must now go back – back towards the Red Sea – and start over. A longer journey. A journey in which the faithless generation must die off before a new generation rises up to take possession of God’s rich promises. Forty years in the wilderness.

4From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom.

They’ve been on the road a long time, and now they are headed back the way they came. And so comes the grumbling, the murmuring, the poisonous speech against God, blaming God for their troubles. Blaming Moses. Remembering as rich and abundant their lives in the land that had kept them in bondage and sought to destroy their sons. Faithless, bitter speech that corrodes a community. Toxic speech full of death and not life. The bread of heaven has become tasteless in their mouths: “we detest this miserable food.”

Their poisonous speech comes back upon them in the form of poisonous snakes.

And what shall save them? What shall save this people who did not trust that the God who defeated pharaoh’s army and parted the sea could fulfill his promise of the land?

Once more they are asked to trust a promise. They are asked to turn their eyes to an image of their bitter poison and see there the healing work of God. “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.”

And so we are invited to turn our eyes to the bitter fruit of our human violence and see in the cross the healing work of God who bears upon himself the sins of the world. To see there a God who does not respond to violence with violence, who does not answer hate with hate. To see there the God who chooses forgiveness and suffering love. To see and to trust this God to make us whole.

Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.


2 thoughts on “Around Edom

  1. What is the role of the theft of Esau’s birthright in this? Theft is generally frowned upon in the scripture, but in this case it seems to be endorsed – I’ve always wondered why. In this case one could postulate that the Israelites might not be having the problem of passing through Edom if Jacob had not stolen Esau’s birthright – but if that had not occurred, Israel would look very different. What’s your take on why God blessed that particular instance of theft?

    • Thanks for the comment. It’s a great question.
      The simple answer, I would argue, is that the narrative of Jacob and Esau shows a God who chooses according to his purpose and not our merit and who is able to redeem our ‘evil’ by drawing forth from it his good (as in the Joseph story).
      The narrative of the patriarchs is a story of high calling – to be an agent of blessing – and their struggle to fulfill that purpose. When they are faithful, the peoples around them are blessed. When they are unfaithful (when Abraham lies about Sarah, for example) the people around them are harmed.
      It echoes the high calling of the kingship and the nation as a whole until their failure to be a blessing culminates in the folly that brings their destruction. But God has a purpose and even this failure does not prevent God from his work of redemption. He makes a way in the desert. He does the unthinkable, forgiving their betrayal (“My ways are not your ways.” Isaiah 55:8). It is the same theme as Paul’s transformation from persecutor to apostle.
      The more complex answer recognizes that these narratives have a history before they are taken into the Biblical narrative. These ancient stories reflect a different set of cultural values – so that Jacob is celebrated for his cleverness/shrewdness and shows himself a man of such power that he can wrestle with a river daemon/spirit and prevail. But the Biblical author utilizes that story to show a man who burns all his bridges until he has no hope but in God’s promise – as the nation in exile has no hope but in God’s promise.
      So the historic conflict between Israel and Edom is shown to be the inheritance of our sins. And Israel, failing to embody God’s will as revealed in the Torah, fails to be the agent of God’s blessing to the nations and finds itself in constant conflict within the royal house and on its borders.
      But God still has a purpose for them, for the world, and for all creation.
      “My ways are not your ways…declares the LORD.”
      I hope this makes sense. Thanks again.

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