26 “So I sent messengers from the wilderness of Kedemoth to Sihon the king of Heshbon, with words of peace, saying, 27 ‘Let me pass through your land. I will go only by the road; I will turn aside neither to the right nor to the left. 28 You shall sell me food for money, that I may eat, and give me water for money, that I may drink. Only let me pass through on foot, 29 as the sons of Esau who live in Seir and the Moabites who live in Ar did for me, until I go over the Jordan into the land that the Lord our God is giving to us.’ 30 But Sihon the king of Heshbon would not let us pass by him, for the Lord your God hardened his spirit and made his heart obstinate, that he might give him into your hand, as he is this day. 31 And the Lord said to me, ‘Behold, I have begun to give Sihon and his land over to you. Begin to take possession, that you may occupy his land.’ 32 Then Sihon came out against us, he and all his people, to battle at Jahaz. 33 And the Lord our God gave him over to us, and we defeated him and his sons and all his people. 34 And we captured all his cities at that time and devoted to destruction every city, men, women, and children. We left no survivors. 35 Only the livestock we took as spoil for ourselves, with the plunder of the cities that we captured. 36 From Aroer, which is on the edge of the Valley of the Arnon, and from the city that is in the valley, as far as Gilead, there was not a city too high for us. The Lord our God gave all into our hands. 37 Only to the land of the sons of Ammon you did not draw near, that is, to all the banks of the river Jabbok and the cities of the hill country, whatever the Lord our God had forbidden us.” – Deuteronomy 2:16-25 ESV
Forty years earlier, when the people of Israel had been poised to enter the land of Canaan, they had received news from the spies that it was occupied by giants and its cities were “great and fortified up to heaven” (Deuteronomy 1:28 ESV). This news had caused the Israelites to reject God’s command to occupy the land. In their minds, the odds were stacked against them and the enemies they faced were more powerful than the God they served. So, they had walked away from the land flowing with milk and honey and had wandered in the wilderness for the next four decades.
Now, a new generation had taken their place and stood on the eastern side of the Jordan River, with the land of Canaan lying before them. But before they could possess the promise, they would have to obey the promise-maker. God had a preliminary step they would have to take before they could begin their official conquest of the land.
After having declared the land of the Edomites, Moabites, and Ammonites as off-limits and unvailable for conquest, God told Moses to attack the land belonging to King Sihon of Heshbon.
“Rise up, set out on your journey and go over the Valley of the Arnon. Behold, I have given into your hand Sihon the Amorite, king of Heshbon, and his land. Begin to take possession, and contend with him in battle.” – Deuteronomy 2:24 ESV
God clearly commanded Moses to lead the Israelites into battle against Sihon and his forces. Yet, we read that Moses sent messengers to Sihon with words of peace, asking Sihon to allow the Israelites to pass through his land unhindered. Moses promised to restrict his people to the main road and even offered to pay Sihon if he would provide the Israelites with food and water. But Sihon refused to grant Moses and the people of Israel access to his land. Instead, he attacked the Israelites.
The parallel passage outlining the details of this story is found in Numbers 21. Neither here in Deuteronomy or in Numbers are we given an explanation as to why Moses decided to make peace overtures to Sihon. It seems quite evident that God expected the Israelites to do battle with the people of Heshbon. God had told Moses to “content with him in battle.” He had not instructed Moses to broker a peace agreement. Was this a case of disobedience on the part of Moses? Was he guilty of second-guessing God and coming up with an alternative strategy that would circumvent the need for bloodshed? We’re not told. But it would appear that God was unwilling to risk Sihon accepting the peaceful alternative offered by Moses. Moses himself wrote:
But Sihon the king of Heshbon would not let us pass by him, for the Lord your God hardened his spirit and made his heart obstinate, that he might give him into your hand, as he is this day. – Deuteronomy 2:30 ESV
Perhaps Moses had been looking back on the ease with which they had passed through the lands of Edom, Moab, and Ammon. It only made sense to do whatever it took to avoid unnecessary risks or the loss of life. After all, the land of Heshbon was on the wrong side of the Jordan and not part of the land of Canaan, so why go to war when you could simply broker a peace agreement?
But regardless of the solid logic behind Moses’ thinking, he didn’t know what God had in mind. He was oblivious to God’s plan regarding the lands belonging to Sihon. He was also unaware that God was going to use Israel’s defeat of Sihon and his troops to send a message to the people occupying the land of Canaan. Once He had given the Israelites victory over Sihon, the news would travel fast and the people living west of the Jordan River would become disheartened.
“This day I will begin to put the dread and fear of you on the peoples who are under the whole heaven, who shall hear the report of you and shall tremble and be in anguish because of you.” – Deuteronomy 2:25 ESV
We don’t always understand God’s ways. To our minds, God’s plans often appear illogical and unnecessarily difficult. So, we attempt to come up with an easier alternative. We choose to help God out by coming up with a plan of our own. Abraham and Sarah did just that when they determined that God’s promise to give them a son was not going to work out. After all, they were both advanced in years and Sarah was barren. So, Sarah came up with a Plan B, offering her handmaiden to Abraham and demanding that he impregnate her with their future heir. Like any red-blooded male, Abraham eagerly listened to his wife and took her up on her offer. The result was the birth of Ishmael. But Sarah’s Plan B was not God’s will. Ishmael was not to be Abraham’s heir or the son through whom God was going to fulfill His promise to Abraham.
And God wasn’t interested in a peace treaty with Sihon. So, He hardened Sihon’s heart and caused the pagan king to reject the peace overtures of Moses. And the result was a rousing victory by the Israelites.
And the Lord our God gave him over to us, and we defeated him and his sons and all his people. And we captured all his cities at that time and devoted to destruction every city, men, women, and children. We left no survivors. – Deuteronomy 2:33-34 ESV
Yet, even now, we read this story and we immediately sense what appears to be the needless destruction of innocent people. Why did King Sihon and his people have to die if they people of Israel were not even going to settle in their land? Why would God order the senseless and seemingly barbaric slaughter of innocent women and children?
As recorded above, the defeat of Sihon and the people of Hesbon was meant to send a message to the people occupying the land of Canaan. It would let them know that Yahweh, the God of the Israelites was all-powerful and that His people were fully capable of defeating anyone who stood opposed to them. What would appear to us as a senseless, unnecessary slaughter was actually part of a divine strategy for fulfilling God’s covenant promise.
If we fast-forward to the point in the story when Israel made its first foray into the land of promise, we discover the two spies who had entered the city of Jericho to assess its strength and document its defenses. They were given shelter by a prostitute named Rahab. When they prepared to leave her home and return to the camp of Israel, she pleaded with them to spare her life and those of her household. And here is why she was so adamant that they promise to protect her:
For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and Og, whom you devoted to destruction. And as soon as we heard it, our hearts melted, and there was no spirit left in any man because of you, for the Lord your God, he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath. – Joshua 2:10-11 ESV
The news about Israel’s victory over Sihon would spread. The annihilation of the people of Heshbon would send shudders of dread and fear among the nations living west of the Jordan. Israel’s victory over Sihon would put the fear of God into the people of Canaan. But there was a second purpose behind God’s command for Israel to destroy Heshbon. The land that once belonged to King Sihon would eventually become part of the land awarded to the tribes of Gad and Reuben, and half of the people of the tribe of Manassah. This land was perfect for raising livestock and these three tribes were predominantly herdsman by trace. So, God allowed the settlement of these three tribes on the eastern side of the Jordan. But why?
Because God had promised to give Abraham far more land than that occupied by the Canaanites. In the book of Genesis, we have recorded the exact words God spoke to Abraham when He detailed the extent of the land to be inherited by Abraham’s offspring.
“Lift up your eyes and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward, for all the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring forever. I will make your offspring as the dust of the earth, so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring also can be counted. Arise, walk through the length and the breadth of the land, for I will give it to you.” – Genesis 13:14-17 ESV
And God went on to provide even greater detail.
“To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebusites.” – Genesis 15:18-21 ESV
Notice the vast size of this land grant. It extends from the Brook of Egypt to the Euphrates. It is massive in scale and includes the land of Heshbon. God had originally intended to give Israel far more land than they ever occupied, even under the kingships of David and Solomon. And just so we understand why God would take this land from one nation and award it to another, Moses later explains the method behind God’s seeming madness.
“After the Lord your God has done this for you, don’t say in your hearts, ‘The Lord has given us this land because we are such good people!’ No, it is because of the wickedness of the other nations that he is pushing them out of your way. It is not because you are so good or have such integrity that you are about to occupy their land. The Lord your God will drive these nations out ahead of you only because of their wickedness, and to fulfill the oath he swore to your ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. You must recognize that the Lord your God is not giving you this good land because you are good, for you are not—you are a stubborn people.” – Deuteronomy 9:4-6 NLT
We may not understand or even approve of God’s ways, but it is important that we trust Him. He is the sovereign God of the universe and His ways are always just and right. From our limited perspective, it may not always appear that way, but we must trust that He knows what is best. His plan is perfect and His ways are always right.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
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.