The Journey to Abel-Shittim

Numbers 20:14-21:20; 33:37-49; Deuteronomy 2:1-23; Judges 11:14-27

Four separate passages of Scripture recount the Israelites’ journey from Kadesh-barnea to Abel-shittim, yet precisely tracing this route on a map is surprisingly difficult. Most of the specific locations mentioned are either unidentified or uncertain, and some comments about the journey can seem difficult to reconcile with other comments. Yet the relevant passages provide enough geographical markers that can be identified with reasonable confidence to make it possible to reconstruct what was likely the route they took to Abel-shittim (shown here). At this time Edom appears to have controlled the area southeast of Kadesh-barnea, which is why the Israelites told the king of Edom that they were on the edge of his territory while they were still at Kadesh-barnea (Numbers 20:16). When the king of Edom refused their request to pass through his land, Israel turned back (Numbers 20:21; Deuteronomy 2:1) and apparently headed southeast, skirting the Edomite land of Seir. The term Seir in the Old Testament referred to the hill country near the Wilderness of Zin (see Deuteronomy 33:2; Joshua 11:17; 12:7; 1 Chronicles 4:42-43). Two passages mention Mount Hor, where Aaron died, as one of the first stages on the Israelites’ journey (Numbers 21:4; 33:37), but it is unclear where this mountain was located. A popular tradition locates it about 22 miles (35 km) south of Punon at Jebel Harun, but this location is too far from Kadesh-barnea to be one of the first stops on their journey, and at this time it was in the middle of Edom’s territory rather than on the edge of it, as both passages imply. Any candidate for Mount Hor must have been southeast of Kadesh-barnea, since Israel “turned back” to begin their journey, and Har Karkom (as shown here) fits these requirements. Then, in an apparent shift from earlier, Israel passed through Edom (Numbers 33:42-43; Deuteronomy 2:2-6) and turned from the Way of the Arabah to pass through Punon (Deuteronomy 2:8). Then they camped at Iye-abarim and apparently camped again further east in the Zered Valley (Numbers 21:11-12; 33:44-45). Then they avoided passing through Moab by taking the Wilderness Road east of Moab (Judges 11:18). Once past Moab, the Israelites sent messengers to Sihon, asking permission to pass through his land (Numbers 21:21-22; Deuteronomy 2:24-29; Judges 11:19). Years earlier Sihon had taken the land north of the Arnon River from the Moabites (Numbers 21:26), which explains why this area was still referred to as Moab at times (e.g., the plains of Moab). Sihon refused to allow the Israelites permission and instead attacked them at Jahaz, but the Israelites defeated him and took his land for themselves (Numbers 21:23-31; Deuteronomy 2:30-36; Judges 11:20-22). Then they set up camp at Abel-shittim and prepared to enter the Promised Land of Canaan (Numbers 33:48-49).

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