The Book of the Wars of the Lord (Num. 21:14–20) Philology and Hydrology, Geography and Ethnography

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Richard C. Steiner



Num. 21:14 contains one of the most enigmatic phrases in the Pentateuch בּסוּ ָפה  The usual interpretations of ֶאת turn the phrase into gibberish because they require the presence of a verb, which is nowhere to be found. Some scholars have supplied an understood verb; others have resorted to emendation. A better solution is available: ֶאת in our passage is a verb masquerading as a preposition. It is easily construed, without the slightest change, as an archaic apocopated/biliteral imperative of א-ת-י, meaning “come!”

This construal of ֶאת transforms our understanding of Num. 21:14–20 in many ways. For example, it reveals that ַעל־ ֵכּן יֵָא ַמר ְבּ ֵסֶפר ִמ ְלֲחמ ֹת הʹ ֶאת־ָו ֵהב , “On account of that, it is said in the Book of the Wars of the Lord, ‘Come to (Mount) Waheb’,” bears a striking resemblance to ַעל־ ֵכּן י ֹא ְמרוּ ַהמּ ֹ ְשׁ ִלים בּ ֹאוּ ֶח ְשׁבּוֹן , “On account of that, the bards say, ‘Come to Heshbon’,” thirteen verses later. More generally, the new construal, taken together with some pertinent geographic, ethnographic, and hydrologic facts, makes possible a new, more coherent reading of the entire passage.

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