The itinerary in Numbers (Numbers 27)

Illustration: Mount Sinai

The Israelites’ journey from Egypt to the Red Sea and then on to Mount Sinai, Kadesh Barnea and Moab is recorded in the book of Numbers in two forms. First, isolated references from chapters 1 to 32 from a part of the narrative (e.g. Numbers 27:14). Second, an explicit itinerary of this journey is spelled out in Numbers 33:1-49.

Numbers 33 identifies 42 sites, 16 of which appear in no other Biblical text. Many of these locations can no longer be identified, probably because they were undeveloped caravan stops, significant only based upon the availability of water. Yet collaborating texts from Egypt, Moab and Mesopotamia shed light on both the form of the list and its interpretation, helping to confirm the Biblical account’s credibility and antiquity and suggesting that the itinerary recorded in Numbers 33 should be interpreted as the account of a protracted military campaign. Such records would have been retained as a continuing reminder of the protection God had provided His people as He led them through the wilderness.

Extrabiblical texts shedding light on this itinerary are as follows:

  • Three lists from Egypt mention sites that also appear in the Numbers 33 register. One ia an inscription of Thutmose III at the temple of Amon at Karnak. The other two are from Amenhotep III< both are inscribed on a temple at Soleb. Comparison of the three texts provides the series of place/names in the identified order in which they are found in the Biblical text (Numbers 33:44-49): Iyyin equates to Iyim, Dibon corresponds with Gad, and Abel isa reference to both Abel-Shitti, and the Jordan.
  • The annals of Egypt’s Thutmose III reveal that his campaigns were recorded on a leather scroll deposited in the temple of Amon, an attestation that military record-keeping was practices prior to the Mosaic perios (see Numbers 33:2).
  • Although no evidence of Late Bronze Age occupation has been discovered at Dibon (modern Dhiban), the appearance of this name in these Egyptian texts confirms its existence during this early period. The Moabite Stone, a ninth century B.C. inscription of Mesha, king of Moab, mentions Dibon and Amon Diblathaim, both of which are also listed in the Biblical itinerary (Numbers 33:46).
  • Mesopotamian texts demonstrated that the genre of the Israelite itinerary (the type of literature, not the itinerary itself) was widely attested in the ancient world. Other examples have been found in two military texts dating to the Assyrian kings Tukulti-Ninurta II and Ashurnasirpal II (ninth century B.C.).

Such texts follow a recurring pattern: “From (city A) I departed; in (city B) I passed the night.” In this formula the name of each site is mentioned twice: first as a destination (B”) and next as a departure point “A”). This follows closely the general format seen in Numbers 33.

The extrabiblical itineraries briefly comment on water crossings, encampment sites, military encounters, problems associated with the water supply and other events, such as those remarks we find scattered throughout Numbers 33.

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