Numbers 20:21—How could this verse say that Israel went around Edom when Deuteronomy 2:4 says they passed through it?
Problem: God would not allow Israel to do battle with the Edomites because He had given the land of Edom to Esau as an everlasting possession. Numbers 20:21 states that “Israel turned away from him.” However, when Moses reviews these events in Deuteronomy 2:4, he states that the Lord said, “You are about to pass through the territory of your brethren, the descendants of Esau.” Likewise, Deuteronomy 2:8 says Israel “passed beyond our brethren the descendants of Esau.” Did they pass through Edom or did they go around it?
Solution: In one sense it can be said that Israel passed through Edom when they entered it in order to make the request to continue their journey along the King’s highway that ran through their land. However, the text never actually says that they did, or that they would pass through the land. Actually, the same Hebrew word (abar) is used in each case. It can be used to mean pass through or pass by. The historical record clearly describes their journey as passing along the eastern border of Edom (Deut. 2:8). God had warned Israel that as they would pass along the eastern border, they should not provoke the Edomites to war (Deut. 2:5).
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This excerpt is from When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1992). © 2014 Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe. All rights reserved. Used by permission. Click here to purchase this book.