Encounters with Esav, Moav, and Ammon in Bemidbar and Devarim


Sefer Devarim's accounts of events from the forty years in the Wilderness are usually briefer than the originals. However, when it comes to the retelling of the nation's traversing of the lands of Edom, Moav, and Ammon, the opposite is true.  Sefer Bemidbar (Chapter 20-21) mentions the encounters with the various nations only in passing, while in Devarim Moshe elaborates on them for an entire chapter (Devarim 2). Why was this such an important topic that it merited so much press space in Moshe's closing speech, while it is almost totally ignored earlier? What message did Moshe wish to relay through the many details he added?

Content Parallels

Both Bemidbar and Devarim recount the travels taken by Israel through the lands on the eastern side of the Jordan, highlighting which lands they crossed through or around, and which they attacked. We are told that Israel journeyed from Kadesh, by way of the Red Sea, around Mt. Seir, and from there to the wilderness of Moav and Wadi Zered.  Regarding the land of Esav, both accounts discuss the desire to pass through the land peacefully while buying food and water.  Beyond these points, however, there is not much overlap.

Points of Contrast

The differences between the accounts are numerous. [For a full comparison of the two accounts open the comparison table and expand to full screen.]

  • Nations mentioned – While Bemidbar mentions only the lands of Esav and Moav, Devarim speaks also of Ammon. In addition, whereas Bemidbar refers to Esav as Edom, and its leader as "the king of Edom", Devarim speaks of Seir and makes no mention of a king.
  • Esav's aggression – In Bemidbar, the nation's request to pass through the land of Edom is turned down and the king even acts in a hostile fashion, advancing towards the Israelite camp with his army.  In Devarim, in contrast, the people are told that Seir "will fear you" and the request to traverse the land and buy food and water appears to be accepted.1
  • "אַל תִּתְגָּרוּ בָם" – Only in Devarim are we informed that Israel was forbidden to attack each of these countries and to inherit their lands.
  • Present from Hashem – In Moshe's speech, he emphasizes how the lands of each of the three nations were given to them as an inheritance by Hashem.2  This is absent in Bemidbar.
  • Conquering giants – In Devarim, Moshe speaks at length about the initial conquests of Seir, Moav, and Ammon, detailing how Hashem had rid each land of their previous inhabitants: the Chorim, Eimim, and Zamzumim.  Each of these groups is described as "עַם גָּדוֹל וְרַב וָרָם כָּעֲנָקִים".  Significantly, these apparent tangents actually comprise the bulk of Moshe's description, suggesting that these points are somehow crucial to Moshe's message.  No parallel can be found in Bemidbar.
  • Moav's Fear – Devarim omits mention of Moav's fear of the Israelites and their attempt to have Bilaam curse the nation.


The differences between the accounts suggest that Moshe's objective in relaying the details of the nation's travels was distinct from the Torah's goal when discussing them in Bemidbar. Throughout Moshe's speech in Devarim, he attempts to ensure that the people do not repeat the mistakes of the Spies, encouraging them that they will succeed in the Conquest of Canaan. As such, he often recasts and molds his telling of past history so as to best meet this objective. Bemidbar, in contrast, is a more prosaic history of the nation's journey. These factors can account for many of the differences noted above:

  • "אַל תִּתְגָּרוּ בָם" – RashbamDevarim 2:4Devarim 2:5,12About R. Shemuel b. Meir explains that Moshe recounts the prohibition against battling Seir, Moav, and Ammon in order to ensure that the nation understood the true reason why they did not inherit these lands.  Otherwise, they might have mistakenly assumed that the decision not to conquer stemmed from a lack of ability.
  • The inheritance of the three nations – RashbamDevarim 2:4Devarim 2:5,12About R. Shemuel b. Meir further explains that Moshe goes on at length about how Hashem gave these three nations their lands to prove to Israel how He has done, and will do the same (and more) for them.3 The Torah even makes the comparison explicit, "‎‏‎כַּאֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה יִשְׂרָאֵל לְאֶרֶץ יְרֻשָּׁתוֹ אֲשֶׁר נָתַן י"י לָהֶם".‎4
  • Overcoming the giants – The repeated mention of Hashem's overcoming of giants serves the same purpose.  The Spies lost their courage upon meeting the giants of Chevron, and consequently demoralized the entire nation. Moshe, therefore, highlights how Hashem has already eradicated giants from the lands of others, subtly reminding the nation that they therefore need not fear the giants of Canaan.5 The centrality of this message is emphasized by the fact that the word "עֲנָקִים" appears only in two places in Torah, in Moshe's account here and with reference to the Story of the Spies.6
  • Edom vs. Seir – As Moshe's words regarding Edom appear to, not only differ from, but actually contradict the story in Bemidbar, several commentators suggest that he is speaking about a different event altogether.7  Moshe might have chosen to mention only the episode with Seir because it was they who feared the Israelites and acted accordingly.  This encouraged the nation that similar reactions could be anticipated from the Canaanites.  On the other hand, Moshe had no desire to remind the nation of their encounter with Edom, an aggressive enemy whom they did not conquer.
  • Balak and Bilaam – It is possible that the nation was wholly unaware of Balak's attempt to have Bilaam curse them.8  If so, Moshe had no reason to share the episode with the nation.