East of Canaan

A glance at a topographical atlas of Canaan will reveal nothing particularly daunting about the terrain north of Kadesh-Barnea, a semiarid wilderness known as the Negeb (lit., dry, parched; but usually translated as “the south”). Edersheim says that north of Kadesh, the wilderness changes into broad valleys, which means that from a strategic standpoint, Kadesh-Barnea was an exceptional location from which to launch an invasion of Canaan (Num. 13.26).But forty years later, when God is again ready to send Israel into the Promised Land, He doesn’t do so from Kadesh, but instead directs His people to the Moabite plateau east of Canaan.

Invading Canaan from the east might make sense in an Inchon, Korea-sort of way, but most commanders would not have considered it a jumping-off point for at least three reasons.

Geographically, to get to the east of Canaan involved an arduous journey through mountainous terrain, culminating in a natural barrier known as the Jordan River when it was at flood stage (Josh. 3.15).

Politically, both Edom and Moab were hostile, offering Israel no help or comfort (Num. 20.14–21. 22.3ff).

Ethnically, the indigenous peoples east of Canaan were a scary bunch. “The Emim had dwelt there in times past, a people as great and numerous and tall as the Anakim. They were also regarded as giants . . . . That was also regarded as a land of giants; giants formerly dwelt there. But Ammonites call them Zamzummim, a people as great and numerous and tall as the Anakim” (Deut. 2.10–11, 20–21). The meanings of the proper nameshere are worth noting. Daniel Block, in his commentary on Deuteronomy, says that Rephaim (translated as “giants” in 2.11,20) means ghosts, Emim means terror, Anakim means giants, and Zamzummim means confused/threatening sound. The Transjordan peoples of Moses’ day would have made modern terrorists look like a Girl Scout troop. Underscoring the danger is Moses’ note that Og, king of Bashan, an enemy Israel fought and defeated, was a survivor of the race of aboriginal giants, who slept in a 13½ ╳ 6 feet iron bed that could still be viewed in the town of Rabbah (Deut. 3.11). Clearly, there were easier ways to enter Canaan than from the east.

But that’s precisely why God led Israel to the east of Canaan—He didn’t want it to be easy. As with the Exodus from Egypt, so with the entrance into Canaan—God wanted the situation so fraught with insurmountable obstacles that when Israel surmounted them, only He could be given the credit. When the Midianites occupied Israel like a swarm of locusts (Judg. 6.5), 32,000 responded to Gideon’s call to arms. And what did God say about this turnout? “The people who are with you are too many” (Judg. 7.2). Say what?!—32,000 against a numberless horde are too many? Only after God had reduced Gideon’s ranks to less than 1 percent of the original force was He ready to give a victory that could only be ascribed to His grace and power (Judg. 7.2). It is victories won by faith that bring glory to God

God will not hesitate to precipitate a crisis in order to sharpen our focus and strengthen our faith. He readily stacks the odds against us if that’s what it takes for us to see that He alone is “God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome” (Deut. 10.17) and that we can trust Him implicitly. Lack of faith during a battle robs us of courage and might; pride after a battle robs God of the glory. So whenever we are tempted to walk on the terrace of our palace and say “Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by the might of my power and for the glory of my majesty?”— God leads us east of Canaan, pares down our resources, and turns us out to pasture until we confess, “for Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever” (1 Chron. 29.11).