Boot Camp for the Coming Battle

21 Then Israel sent messengers to Sihon king of the Amorites, saying, 22 “Let me pass through your land. We will not turn aside into field or vineyard. We will not drink the water of a well. We will go by the King’s Highway until we have passed through your territory.” 23 But Sihon would not allow Israel to pass through his territory. He gathered all his people together and went out against Israel to the wilderness and came to Jahaz and fought against Israel. 24 And Israel defeated him with the edge of the sword and took possession of his land from the Arnon to the Jabbok, as far as to the Ammonites, for the border of the Ammonites was strong. 25 And Israel took all these cities, and Israel settled in all the cities of the Amorites, in Heshbon, and in all its villages. 26 For Heshbon was the city of Sihon the king of the Amorites, who had fought against the former king of Moab and taken all his land out of his hand, as far as the Arnon. 27 Therefore the ballad singers say,

“Come to Heshbon, let it be built;
    let the city of Sihon be established.
28 For fire came out from Heshbon,
    flame from the city of Sihon.
It devoured Ar of Moab,
    and swallowed[f] the heights of the Arnon.
29 Woe to you, O Moab!
    You are undone, O people of Chemosh!
He has made his sons fugitives,
    and his daughters captives,
    to an Amorite king, Sihon.
30 So we overthrew them;
    Heshbon, as far as Dibon, perished;
    and we laid waste as far as Nophah;
    fire spread as far as Medeba.”

31 Thus Israel lived in the land of the Amorites. 32 And Moses sent to spy out Jazer, and they captured its villages and dispossessed the Amorites who were there. 33 Then they turned and went up by the way to Bashan. And Og the king of Bashan came out against them, he and all his people, to battle at Edrei. 34 But the Lord said to Moses, “Do not fear him, for I have given him into your hand, and all his people, and his land. And you shall do to him as you did to Sihon king of the Amorites, who lived at Heshbon.” 35 So they defeated him and his sons and all his people, until he had no survivor left. And they possessed his land. Numbers 21:21-35 ESV

This is the Numbers’ version of the story of Israel’s unfortunate confrontation with the Sihon, the king of the Amorites. It’s also recorded in Deuteronomy 2, but in this rendition, Moses reveals that “Israel settled in all the cities of the Amorites, in Heshbon, and in all its villages” (Numbers 21:25 ESV). Not only did they conquer the Amorites, but they confiscated their cities and villages and moved into them. For the first time since leaving Egypt 39 years earlier, the Israelites found themselves living in real houses and enjoying all the amenities of a semi-settled existence.

On this occasion, they refused to walk away from a fight as they had in Edom because the territory of the Amorites provided the only access point to the land of promise. The Amorites were attempting to block the Israelites’ way to their inheritance. And while Moses tried to reason with Sihon, he soon discovered that brute force would be the only negotiating tool that got the king’s attention.

God provided the Israelites with a decisive victory over the Amorites, and Moses makes it clear that the land Israel conquered and confiscated had originally belonged to the Moabites. This is significant because, according to Deuteronomy 2, God had commanded the Israelites to avoid any conflict with the Moabites and had forbidden them from attempting to occupy any of their land. The territory of the Moabites was off-limits and under a divine ban.

“Do not bother the Moabites, the descendants of Lot, or start a war with them. I have given them Ar as their property, and I will not give you any of their land.” – Deuteronomy 2:9 NLT

But it appears that God provided Moses with a special dispensation regarding these cities and villages because Sihon had stolen them from the Moabites. These lands had transferred hands and, technically, no longer belonged to the Moabites.

Heshbon had been the capital of King Sihon of the Amorites. He had defeated a former Moabite king and seized all his land as far as the Arnon River. – Numbers 21:26 NLT

This transfer of ownership officially rendered the land open for conquest and occupation. But Moses points out that the Israelites went as far as the border of the Ammonites and no further. This is because the Israelites had been forbidden from taking any land belonging to the Ammonites or Moabites. These two people groups were the descendants of the two sons born to Lot through his incestuous relationship with his own daughters (Genesis 19:34-38).

But God had been explicit when issuing His prohibition about Moabite and Ammonite land.

“Do not bother the Moabites, the descendants of Lot, or start a war with them. I have given them Ar as their property, and I will not give you any of their land.” – Deuteronomy 2:9 NLT

“Today you will cross the border of Moab at Ar and enter the land of the Ammonites, the descendants of Lot. But do not bother them or start a war with them. I have given the land of Ammon to them as their property, and I will not give you any of their land.” – Deuteronomy 19:18-19 NLT

The land occupied by the Moabites and Ammonites was not part of the inheritance God had promised to Abraham. So, there was really no need for Israel to get comfortable on this side of the river. Their land lay to the west and would be theirs soon enough.

But for the time being, God allowed them to live in the cities and villages they had taken from the Amorites. And Moses relates the lyrics of a so-called “Song of Heshbon,” a ballad that had been composed by the Amorites commemorating Sihon’s defeat of the Moabites.

“Come to Heshbon and let it be rebuilt!
    Let the city of Sihon be restored.
A fire flamed forth from Heshbon,
    a blaze from the city of Sihon.
It burned the city of Ar in Moab;
    it destroyed the rulers of the Arnon heights.
What sorrow awaits you, O people of Moab!
    You are finished, O worshipers of Chemosh!
Chemosh has left his sons as refugees,
    his daughters as captives of Sihon, the Amorite king.
We have utterly destroyed them,
    from Heshbon to Dibon.
We have completely wiped them out
    as far away as Nophah and Medeba.” – Numbers 21:27-29 NLT

This little ditty provided justification for Israel’s occupation of the former Moabite cities because they had originally been stolen and occupied by the Amorites. So, technically, Israel had not violated God’s decree.

Notice that Moses is very specific with his wording.

Thus Israel lived in the land of the Amorites.” – Numbers 21:31 ESV

And God allowed Israel to continue their conquest of additional Amorite-occupied land. He also provided them with decisive victories over the kingdom of Bashan.

“So the Lord our God handed King Og and all his people over to us, and we killed them all. Not a single person survived. We conquered all sixty of his towns—the entire Argob region in his kingdom of Bashan. Not a single town escaped our conquest. These towns were all fortified with high walls and barred gates. We also took many unwalled villages at the same time. We completely destroyed the kingdom of Bashan, just as we had destroyed King Sihon of Heshbon. We destroyed all the people in every town we conquered—men, women, and children alike. But we kept all the livestock for ourselves and took plunder from all the towns. – Deuteronomy 3:3-7 NLT

Israel’s wandering days were over. And with these battles, God was giving them on-the-job training, preparing them for the day when they crossed over the Jordan River and began their conquest of the land of Canaan. These victories on the east side of the Jordan were less about land acquisition than they were about providing the Israelites with much-needed military experience. They were learning how to conduct urban warfare. They were developing tactical strategies and honing their skills as warriors. And their access to well-fortified cities provided them with protection from their growing list of enemies. Until God gave them their marching orders to cross the Jordan, they would live on the east side and fine-tune their fighting skills.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.