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Bible Commentaries

Layman's Bible Commentary

Deuteronomy 3

Conquest of Heshbon and Bashan (2:26-3:11)

Israel’s first victories converted the territories east of the Jordan (except for Moab and Ammon, which, as we have seen, were spared) into a base for military operations west of the Jordan.

The two kingdoms which first fell to Israel were the Amorite kingdoms of Sihon of Heshbon (immediately east of the north end of the Dead Sea) and of Og of Bashan (east and southeast of the Sea of Galilee).

The Amorites (from Amurru, meaning "Westerners") originally came from northwestern Mesopotamia and northern Syria. They overran Mesopotamia and Palestine early in the second millennium B.C. and therefore were established in the latter area before the coming of Abraham (see Genesis 14:7; Genesis 14:13; Genesis 15:21; Exodus 3:8). According to Numbers 21:26-30 the kingdom of Sihon consisted of territory wrested from the king of Moab. It appears from archaeological evidence that between about 2000 and 1300 B.C. there was a gap of varying proportions in the sedentary occupation of Transjordan, southern Transjordan remaining especially open until the thirteenth century B.C. It is likely that both these Amorite kingdoms were of fairly recent origin when the Israelites invaded them.

It is significant that Moses offered Sihon terms of peace. Moses’ objective is declared to be the territory west of the Jordan; he wished only to pass through Sihon’s land. But Sihon’s refusal made it necessary for Israel to besiege his fortified towns and capture the entire kingdom. The Deuteronomic writer in retrospect regards Sihon’s refusal as providential. He even writes that God "hardened his spirit and made his heart obstinate" (2:30). In the Old Testament, before the rise of the idea of Satan, evil attitudes and acts are sometimes attributed to divine instigation. What is struggling for expression here is that, in the providence of God, good often comes out of evil: God makes the wrath of men to praise him. Men may choose what course of action they will; but they cannot determine the consequences of their choices. These are determined by him who is the Lord of history.

The second kingdom to fall to the invaders in Transjordan was that of Og, king of Bashan. He is described in 3:11 as a giant, the last of the Rephaim (one of several names in the Old Testament for the alleged aboriginal giants; see 2:10-11; Numbers 13:33). It is probable that the "bedstead of iron" was a sarcophagus of black basalt, some thirteen and a half feet by six feet, which in later times was pointed out as the coffin of Og.

The destruction of the two kingdoms was thoroughgoing. The cities and their inhabitants were "utterly destroyed" (2:34; 3:6). Only the cattle and certain booty from the cities were appropriated by the victors. We have here the first mention in Deuteronomy of what is known as "holy war." For Israel, as for other ancient peoples, war was from first to last a religious act. The victory was accomplished by the tribal deity. Since the enemies and their property belonged to a foreign deity now opposing himself to Israel’s God, both must be obliterated before the face of the conquering deity.

In actuality, there was some variation in the extent of the destruction wrought by Israel. The instructions for the obliteration of Jericho (Joshua 6:17-19) exempted Rahab and all in her house, as well as the silver and gold and the vessels of bronze and iron. The valuable objects mentioned were to be turned over to the treasury of the Lord. Saul spared Agag, the king of the Amalekites, and the best of the livestock, to the wrath of Samuel, who believed that everything should have been destroyed (1 Samuel 15). It is probable that humanitarian and material considerations, in addition to special agreements and covenants, affected the application of the principle of complete destruction, although in the main it was rigorously carried out. Laws governing the destruction of conquered peoples are set forth in some passages of Deuteronomy (7:1-5; 20:10-18). (For the theological issue involved in the oft-recorded command of God concerning the extermination of conquered peoples, see the comment on 7:1-26 and 20:1-20.)

Verses 12-22

Assignment of Conquered Lands (3:12-22)

The defeat of Og was an event of magnitude in the life of Israel. This monster was the last obstacle to the entrance of the Promised Land. Many centuries later the slaying of both Sihon and Og was celebrated in the hymnody of Israel (Psalms 135:11; Psalms 136:19-20). All credit was given to God, "who smote many nations and slew mighty kings" (Psalms 135:10).

The conquered territory was assigned to the tribes of Reuben and Gad and half of the tribe of Manasseh. Reuben received the southern half of Sihon’s kingdom, Gad the northern half, and half-Manasseh the kingdom of Og. But the warriors of these three tribal groups were not yet free to settle down on their lands. They had yet to fight side by side with their brethren beyond the Jordan until all had received their inheritance. "One for all and all for one" was the principle by which Israel lived. No man was free to enjoy the fruits of his conquests until all were free. The spirit of brotherhood here displayed rebukes our contemporary indifference to individuals and nations who have yet to enter into their God-appointed inheritance.

The passage also elucidates the relationship between God and man in the historical process. Though the Hebrews gave all credit to God, they knew full well that God does not work in history alone. Men are his instruments, and it is by their wholehearted cooperative effort that God’s ends are accomplished. The Israelite warrior, as he pressed forward in battle, feared not his enemies, for he believed that the Lord his God was fighting for him (3:22). Paul expressed the same truth on a deeper level when he wrote, "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure" (Philippians 2:12-13).

Verses 23-29

Rejection of Moses’ Prayer (3:23-29)

Moses died on the east side of the Jordan without setting foot in the Promised Land proper. This was the fate of almost all the adult people he led out of Egypt, the only exceptions apparently being Caleb and Joshua, the two affirmative spies (1:34-40; Numbers 13-14). The great leader himself was denied the privilege of seeing the consummation of his lifework—a bitter disappointment which was hardly mitigated by a distant view of the land from the top of the Moabite plateau overlooking the north end of the Dead Sea.

Pisgah was a projecting point of the Abarim Mountains, a short distance from Mount Nebo and connected by a saddle to the latter. It is about 2,600 feet above sea level and nearly 4,000 feet above the Dead Sea. Projecting westward from Mount Nebo, which is behind and slightly higher, Pisgah offers a magnificent panorama in clear weather: Mount Hermon to the far north; Mount Tabor to the northwest; the peaks of Ebal and Gerizim in Samaria, between which ancient Shechem lay; the rugged mountains of Benjamin and Judah, with the Mount of Olives clearly identifiable; the tumbling hills to the south of Jerusalem, in which Bethlehem and Hebron lie; the Jordan rift, with a green gash of life winding crazily through its barren bottom; the Dead Sea, shimmering eerily under the haze of its massive evaporation; and, directly north, the lush forests of Gilead. To one standing here, especially if he had come out of the merciless deserts behind him, it would seem life’s ultimate catastrophe to be denied the right to step across the Jordan into the goodly land.

Moses’ spirit here exhibits the qualities which so clearly marked his career. Although he was old, he was still full of adventure and dauntless courage: "0 LORD God, thou hast only begun to show thy servant thy greatness and thy mighty hand .. ." (3:24). He knows full well that the toughest battles lie ahead, but he is eager to get on with the struggle and personally to participate in it. But when it becomes clear to him that his work is done and he will have to pass the leadership over to Joshua, he accepts his disappointment with equanimity and seeks to prepare his successor for the role that he himself so much wanted to play. Humble submission to the will of God and the role marked out for him by God, with no claim to special prerogatives, is the essence of that meekness which was so prominent a characteristic of Moses (Numbers 12:3).

The reason for Moses’ failure to get into the Promised Land is not clearly indicated in the Old Testament. It is suggested in Numbers 20:2-29 that Moses and Aaron in smiting the rock at Kadesh, instead of speaking to it, were guilty of unbelief and rebellion against God. Deuteronomy 32:48-52 also lays the blame on Moses’ and Aaron’s own sin. But other passages place the blame upon the people and suggest that Moses, though personally innocent, somehow shared in the punishment meted out by God to the people (Deuteronomy 1:37; Deuteronomy 3:26; Deuteronomy 4:21). Perhaps the explanations are not mutually exclusive (see Psalms 106:32-33). Aaron defected seriously in the incident of the golden calf (Exodus 32), and we are not led to believe that Moses’ faith and obedience were perfect. But that Moses suffered bitterly because of the sins of his people, far beyond any consequences of his own doing, is altogether clear. The good often suffer with the evil while they seek to rescue them from their evil. In this respect Moses was like the Second Moses—Jesus Christ—and the prototype of the Servant of the Lord of Isaiah 53.

It must be borne in mind, of course, that the explanations of Moses’ death outside the Promised Land are only "explanations." The theology of the early Hebrews tended to view every misfortune as punishment for sin, and this is particularly true of Deuteronomy. Natural factors in the death of Moses—he is said to have been 120 years old at the time of his death (34:7)—must not be overlooked.

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Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Deuteronomy 3". "Layman's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lbc/deuteronomy-3.html.