The Conquest of the Trans-Jordan Region and Significance

In public mourning of Aaron, the people of Israel now for thirty days have been encamped under the shadow of Mount Hor, when the command comes to them to press onward to Canaan. It means that the desert period of Israel’s national existence has ended. Moving southwards round the mountains of Edom at the head of the Elanitic Gulf of the Red Sea, they turned northwards, marching to Moab, by the way of the great eastern desert. The first part of their journey was most trying and difficult. It took them through a region that was pre-eminently “that great and terrible wilderness,” of which Moses afterwards spake to the people. The spirits of the people again fell and bitter reproaches rose against God and Moses. The terrible punishment which the region itself provided for such disloyalty and rebellion—venomous serpents abounding in it spread terror and death—the remedy which was provided in the “brazen serpent,” raised upon a pole, are incidents to which adequate reference has already been made. From this time the trials of wilderness life may be said to have ended.

Continuing their journey, the people came to the brook Zered, a watercourse which was dry except in the rainy season—thus a wady—and which formed the boundary line between Edom and Moab. Crossing this brook they left Edom and the desert behind them and entered on the rich uplands of Moab. Precisely thirty eight years had elapsed from the time of their first departure from Kadesh-barnea. During that time all the old generation was wasted out from among the host, the hand of the Lord having been against it to destroy it from the host until all were consumed. Of this the new generation was afterward reminded by Moses. (Deut. 2).

Ere long, the marching host reached the Arnon, “the rushing river,” the first stream they had seen since leaving the Nile. At present the width of its chasm is about three miles from crest to crest. Below, at a depth of 2000 feet, its bright waters descend down to the blue waves of the Dead Sea. So, they must have crossed far to the east, where the stream is yet inconsiderable.

While the people of Israel were still encamped on the south side of the Arnon, the Lord made it known to them that He had given into their hands Sihon the Amorite, king of Heshbon, and his land and that therefore they should possess the land and contend with the Amorites in battle. (Dent. 2:29). And Israel smote him with the edge of the sword and possessed all his land from Arnon to Jabok. Thereupon turning north, they smote Og, king of Bashan, and possessed the land. It is these conquests to which we now direct our attention. In treating this subject, I arrange my material under the following points. (1) the region conquered; (2) the conquest of it; (3) the significance of its conquest.

1. The land of Canaan is a strip of country approximately 140 miles in length and 40 miles in breadth. It is bordered on the west by the Mediterranean Sea and on the east by the river Jordan. This is the land that was promised to Abraham and his seed. Thus as the region with whose conquest we are now occupied lies east of the Jordan, it was not included in the original promise. But the people of Israel had to pass through this region to enter Canaan. And its kings were hostile. It was in connection with this emergency that the people learned that it was the Lord’s will that they should possess themselves also of this trans-Jordanic region.

It was a district of considerable size as compared with Canaan proper. Its southern boundary line was formed by the river Arnon. From there it extended for a distance of 100 miles to Mount Herman. The breadth of its northern half—the section later occupied by the half tribe of Manasseh and forming the ancient Bashan—was twice that of Canaan. Its southern half—the part apportioned to the tribes of Gad and Reuben—measured barely 25 miles in breadth. This section, hemmed in between the Arnon on the one hand and the Jabbok on the other, was known to the Israel of the Old Testament as the land of Gilead, while in the New Testament times it formed the province of Perea.

The region did not include the countries of Moab, Ammon, and Edom. The Lord had forbidden the children of Israel to meddle with these peoples, told them that He would not give them their land, not as much as a footbreadth and this because He had given these peoples the country which they occupied for a possession. Thus the children of Israel, in passing through their lands, should buy meat and drink from them for money (Deut. 2). So, against these peoples, they were forbidden to engage in acts of violence, the reason being that Moab and Ammon were descendants of Lot, Abraham’s nephew, and that Esau was Israel’s brother. “Ye are to pass through the coasts of your brethren . . . Take ye good heed unto yourselves, meddle, not with them”. (Deut. 2:5).

Some of the earliest known inhabitants of this region were the Emims the Anakims and the Zam- zummins. According to Deut. 2:11, 12, the Emims were many and of tall stature. The Anakins, too, were reckoned among the giants. It is probable, therefore, that the “giant” Goliath and his family were of this race. The view that these people were of the same stock, being given different names by the different tribes who came in contact with them, is in all likelihood correct. It is also held to appear probable that they came from the Aegean like the Philistines. The Emims were dispossessed by the Moabites and the Zamzummims by the Ammonites. But shortly after the Exodus this region was overrun by the Amorites. The Amorite chieften Og possessed himself of Bashan (Deut. 3:8), and Sihon, “king of the Amorites”, conquered much of the district occupied by Ammon— almost the whole country between the Arnon, on the south, and the Jabbok, which flows into the Jordan, on the north—and the northern part of Moab; fixing his capital in the strong fortified city of Heshbon, lying about 3000 above the level of the Mediterranean, and over 4000 above the level of the dead sea, from which it is visible. According to Gen. 10:16, the Amorites were descendent from Canaan, the son of Ham, whom Noah cursed, and were thus under the ban of God. They were a powerful people and widely spread through the promised land before the settlement of the Israelites.

In its natural aspects, this trans-Jordanic region is full of interest. As to Bashan, its northern section, the product of eruption from extinct volcanoes, spread over the adjoining plains, have given to the soil that character of fertility for which it has been in all ages remarkable—in all ages, thus also at the time of its invasion by the Israelites. The volcanic soil, we are told, yields on the average, in some places, eighty returns of wheat and a hundred of barley. The mountains themselves are richly clothed with forests of various kinds of trees, among which the evergreen oak is especially abundant. It was and still is one of the most remarkable regions on the earth’s surface.

Gilead, the southern portion of this trans-Jordan region, is, as has already been suggested, a narrow strip of low-lying plain along the Jordan. It has an average elevation of 2500 feet above the Mediterranean. The eastern slopes of the Gilead range are today comparatively bare of trees; but the western are well supplied with oak, terebinth, and pine. The pastures we are told, are everywhere luxuriant, and the wooded heights and winding glens, the open glades and flat meadows of green turf, present great beauty of vegetation.

2. The conquest of this region. Humanly speaking; this was no easy task. The Amorites, as was said, were a powerful people. The city of Heshbon, in which Sihon had fixed his capital, was a strong fortified city. Edrei (Deut. 3:1), Og’s capital, was in ordinary circumstances almost unassailable. It was built in a hollow artificially scooped out of the top of a hill, isolated by deep gorges from the country round (Riehm Edrei). Its streets may still be seen running in all directions beneath the present town of Adraha. But still stronger was Kenath, in the district called Argob (Deut. 3:4), for it was built in the crevices of a great island of lava which had split, in cooling, into innumerable fissures, through whose labyrinth no enemy could safely penetrate. Smith’s Dictionary of the Bible. Porter’s Giant cities of Bashan. Some are therefore of the opinion that it would have been impossible for Israel to have overcome a people so strongly entrenched, but for the presence at the time of vast swarms of hornets, a plague common in Palestine, which drove the population into open ground where they could be attacked. To give to their view an air of plausibility, they refer us to a town in Joshua 24:12, called Zoreah—a place of hornets. We are told further that there is a case on record of a Babylonian army put to flight by bees, and that the Phasaleans, a Canaanitish people, were driven permanently from their homes by wasps and hornets. But, as we shall have occasion to notice, there is no need of resorting to this hornet theory to explain the military successes of the Israelites in these regions.

But there were more fastnesses than those just mentioned. So many as sixty cities “fenced with high walls, gates and bars, beside unwalled towns a great many,” had also to be taken. (Deut. 3:4, 5). Thus the task to which the people of Israel were now commanded to address themselves was one certainly adapted to excite fear or deter from undertaking. Yet there was no ground for fear at all. For the Lord had spoken “Behold I have given into thine hand Sihon the Amorite, king of Heshbon, and his land: begin to possess it,” and again with a view to Og, “Fear him not: for I will deliver him, and all his people, and his land, into thine hand. . .” (Deut. 2:24; 3:2), Thus they could enter upon this venture a people—the host of the Lord—who had the victory (I have given into thine hand. . . .) as a people who were more than conquerors in their God. The victory was theirs ere they engaged the enemy. So, by this word, did the Lord reassure His people.

To Sihon as to the others—Edom, Moab and Ammon—a friendly message was sent, asking a passage through his kingdom. “Let me pass through thy land”: so the message ran, “I will go along thy highway, I will neither turn unto the right nor to the left. Thou shalt sell me meat for money, that I may eat; and give me water for money, that I may drink: only I will pass through on my feet; as the children of Esau which dwell in Seir, and the Moabites which dwell in Ar, did unto me, so do thou unto me, until I pass over Jordan into the land which the Lord our God giveth us”. (Nu. 21:21, 22; Deut. 2:26-28). The petition was refused. Sihon would not let the people of Israel pass by him (vs. 30). Adding insult to injury, he at the head of his people even came out against Israel to engage with him in battle. The sacred narrator ends with this reaction not in the king but in the Lord. “For the Lord thy God hardened his spirit, and made his heart obstinate, that he might deliver him into thy hand, as appeareth this day.” (vs. 30).

Sihon’s army fled and was slaughtered at a spot called Jahaz, “A place trodden down”. Among the slain were numbered the king himself and his sons. All the cities were utterly destroyed and their inhabitants—the men, the women, and the children, were put to the sword none were left to remain. Thus the whole country between Arnon and Jabbok, with Heshbon itself, at once passed into the hands of Israel. Henceforth the Arnon was the boundary of their possessions only the land south of it being left to Moab.

In petitioning Sihon for a passage through his territory, Moses held before him the good example of Edom, the friendly attitude that he had adopted toward Israel. Yet according to a previous notice the attitude of Edom had been hostile. He, too, “had refused to give Israel passage through his border and had even come out against him with much people and with a strong arm”. (Nu. 20:21). This apparent discrepancy can be removed. The western border of Edom, through which Israel first sought a passage, when starting from Kadesh, could easily have been defended on account of its mountainous character and few passages. This Edom threatened to do. The eastern line of frontier, on the other hand, lay wide open and could therefore be defended only with great difficulty. Hence, prudence dictated that Edom adopt a friendly attitude toward Israel on this frontier.

In order of time, the revelation of the divine purpose that Israel possess himself also of this trans-Jordan region is first and not the petition, addressed to Sihon, that he grant Israel a passage through his kingdom. For the revelation of this purpose came to the people of Israel when they were encamped on the south side of the Arnon, while the request for this passage was not made until the Arnon had been crossed. Such is the order of events in Nu. 21:11 reads, “And they journeyed from Obeth and pitched in the wilderness which is before Moab,” thus on the south side of the Arnon. According to Deut. 2:24, it was here that they learned of God’s purpose. The text reads, “Rise ye up, take your journey, and pass over the river Arnon: behold, I have given into your hand Sihon . . .” Then they removed and “pitched on the other side of the Arnon, which is in the wilderness that cometh out of the coast of the Amorites” (Nu. 21:13). Thus they were now on Sihon’s eastern line of frontier and on the north side of the Arnon. This is followed by the notice at vs. 21 that “Israel sent messengers unto Sihon, king of the Amorites”.

The facts of the matter then are these: Before Sihon had opportunity to refuse, God was determined to destroy him on account of his refusal. This shows that God’s purpose was not conditioned by, but was sovereignly determinative of Sihon’s actions. Such is the implication of the notice that God hardened his heart. Thus the petition or command that came to him was not expressive of God’s willingness or desire that he should yield;. It was but the means by which he was hardened. And it was given him that he should be without excuse.

The Lord had forbidden Israel to molest Ammon, whose country bordered that of the dispossessed Sihon on the eastern frontier. So Israel next turned north and went up the way to Bashan. The revelation of the divine purpose on the south side of the Arnon makes no mention of this district. This has led some to suppose that now Israel acted upon his own impulses. The war spirit, now fairly aroused, found fresh vent in an expedition northward, so it is said. Especially the great tribes of Reuben, Gad and Manasseh, whose hearts delighted in sheep and cattle far more than in agriculture, could not resist the temptation of invading a country so famed for its pastoral wealth. But this reasoning is wrong. It was Jehovah’s warfare that Israel was warring, and not his own. Thus also in extirpating the Amorites of Bashan, he acted under divine necessity. All the Amorites were under the ban of God, thus also the tribes infesting this district.

The king of Og, hearing of Israel’s advance, came out against him, thus forsook his fastness for the open plain. This, too was of the Lord. God hardened also his heart. The narrative says nothing about hornets. In this crisis, Israel is assured that he is in God’s way. “Fear him not,” said the Lord to Moses, “for I will deliver him into thine hand . . .” All difficulties were soon overcome, for the Lord fought for Israel. Thus also this country passed into the hands of Israel.

As Israel had done with Sihon, so he did with Og and his people and his cities. All were utterly destroyed.

3. The purpose and significance of this conquest. A statement of purpose is found at Deut. 2:25, “This day will I begin to put the dread of thee and the fear of thee upon the nations that are under the whole heaven, who shall hear report of thee, and shall tremble, and be in anguish because of thee”.

The trembling and woe of the people even when only the mere report of Israel came, answers as the echo to the dread and fear which was connected with Israel. In the final instance it was a fear not of the people of Israel as such but of Israel’s God. What God was there in heaven or in earth that could do according to His works, and according to His might. The military successes of Israel in this trans-Jordan region, the amazing speed with which these successes were achieved, formed a series of wonders of Israel’s God, who fought for him, wonders (the consideration which struck terror to the Amorites who occupied Canaan proper, filled them with a great dread and thus utterly disqualified them for military enterprise. They were completely demoralized by the report of God’s doings. What might be known of God—His power and godhead—was manifest in them. His power was clearly seen, being understood by His wonders in that land east of the Jordan, so that the witness of the conscience of the inhabitants of Canaan now was, “As to the Jehovah of Israel, verily He is the God”. Thus also as a result of these works of God, His name was now being declared in the whole of Canaan. For this purpose He had raised up Pharaoh and for this very purpose He also had raised up Sihon and Og. The sacred narrator thus also associates the wonders of God in Egypt with His doings in that region west of the Jordan. “Wherefore it is said in the book of the wars of the Lord, What he did in the Red Sea (did to Pharaoh and his hosts), and in the brooks of Arnon, and at the stream of the brooks that goeth down to the dwelling of Ar, and lieth upon the border of Moab.” (Nu. 21:14, 15).

Finally by these wonders he provided the new generation with copious fresh evidence that He was their God, was for them, and that thus they could enter upon the conquest of Canaan proper in the assurance that the victory was theirs.