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Deut. 2:20-23 is another parenthetical explanation inserted into Moses' speech, where Ezra gives further background regarding the original inhabitants of the land of Ammon.
20 (It is also regarded as the land of the Rephaim, for Rephaim formerly lived in it, but the Ammonites call them Zamzummin, 21 a people as great, numerous, and tall as the Anakim, but the Lord destroyed them before them. And they dispossessed them and settled in their place, 22 just as He did for the sons of Esau, who live in Seir, when He destroyed the Horites from before them; and they dispossessed them, and settled in their place even to this day. 23 And the Avvim, who lived in villages as far as Gaza, the Caphtorim who came from Caphtor, destroyed them and lived in their place.)
The Rephaim, as I have said, were the result of the unlawful marriages in Gen. 6:1-4, where two types of beings were “stitched” together, as their name implies. This race of giants came to be known as Zamzummim, or “plotters,” as Gesenius defines the name. Most likely their name was another reference to Genesis 6, in the sense that the “sons of God” plotted to violate the law by their unlawful marriages.
The Ammonites defeated them, and so the Zamzummim were extinct by the time of Moses.
Verse 23 then speaks of the Avvim “who lived in villages as far as Gaza.” They were defeated and displaced by the Philistines who had immigrated to the coast of Canaan from Caphtor (that is, Crete). Amos 9:7 also speaks of “the Philistines from Caphtor.”
Genesis 10:13 and 14 tells us that the Philistines descended from Mizre, the son of Ham who became the progenitor of the Egyptians (Mizraim). Hence, the Philistines were related to the Egyptians, but they settled in Crete and also the Aegean Sea. They were known as “Sea People,” and as such they settled many coastlands.
The Philistines brought with them higher forms of art and, more importantly, the use of iron. This gave them a military advantage over the Canaanites (and later the Israelites), who were still limited by bronze (an alloy of copper strengthened by tin).
In the days of Moses, the Philistines were a small but warlike colony along the southern coast of Canaan. Exodus 13:17 says,
17 Now it came about when Pharaoh had let the people go, that God did not lead them by the way of the land of the Philistines, even though it was near; for God said, “Lest the people change their minds when they see war; and they return to Egypt.”
It would have been much quicker for Israel to enter Canaan by the “way” (i.e., main highway), but this would have led them directly into a conflict with this Philistine colony. Though the Philistine population was yet relatively small there, they were militarily strong, having iron weapons and chariots.
About a century before Saul was crowned king, an important sea battle took place between Egypt and the Philistine navy from Crete. The Philistines lost, and the Egyptians captured many of them. These Philistines were placed in southern Canaan, substantially increasing its Philistine presence there. Hence, by the time King Saul was crowned, the Philistines were strong.
Israel was unable to expel the Philistines, and Saul was eventually killed in battle against them, but David made them tributaries of his kingdom.
The Philistines did not totally destroy the Avvim, but apparently subdued them and incorporated the remnants into their nation. When Israel conquered Canaan, they did not conquer all of the territory. Joshua 13:1 tells us that when Joshua was old, the Lord told him, “very much land remains to be possessed.” Verse 3 tells us that the Avvites (i.e., Avvim) had yet to be conquered. They and the Philistines were not conquered until the time of David. These Avvim were giants and so remained distinct from the Philistines, but yet they were Philistines by citizenship.
Joshua did manage to destroy most of the Anakim giants, who had settled in Hebron, for we read in Joshua 11:22,
22 There were no Anakim left in the land [that was conquered] of the sons of Israel; only in Gaza, in Gath, and in Ashdod some remained.
It is likely that Goliath, the giant that David killed, was a remnant of these Avvim living among the Philistines. Goliath lived in Gath, a Philistine city in Gaza (1 Sam. 17:4). When David took up Goliath’s challenge to a duel, he asked, “Who is this uncircumcised Philistine?” (1 Sam. 17:25). Though he was a Philistine by nationality, he was an Anakim (probably of the Avvim) by genealogy.
Moses then continues his speech in Deut. 2:24, saying,
24 Arise, set out, and pass through the valley of Arnon. Look! I have given Sihon the Amorite, king of Heshbon and his land into your hand; begin to take possession and contend with him in battle. 25 This day I will begin to put the dread and fear of you upon the peoples everywhere under the heavens, who, when they hear the report of you, shall tremble and be in anguish because of you.
This Amorite king had taken the northern portion of Moab from the Moabites earlier (Num. 21:26). God allowed this in order to give it to the Israelites without actually displacing any Moabites. Even so, God instructed Moses to give Sihon an opportunity to avoid war and thus remain in the territory that he had conquered.
26 So I [Moses] sent messengers from the wilderness of Kedemoth to Sihon king of Heshbon with words of peace, saying, 27 “Let me pass through your land, I will travel only the highway; I will not turn aside to the right or to the left. 28 You will sell me food for money so that I may eat, and give me water for money so that I may drink, only let me pass through on foot, 29 just as the sons of Esau who live in Seir and the Moabites who live in Ar did for me, until I cross over the Jordan into the land which the Lord our God is giving to us.”
There is an important lesson in this. God told Moses that He had given Sihon's land to Israel. Many would assume from this that God had given Israel the automatic right to make war on Sihon without any diplomatic action. But there are proper procedures and laws of war that had to be followed. Deut. 20:10 says,
10 When you approach a city to fight against it, you shall offer it terms of peace.
In other words, sneak attacks are not permissible under biblical law. If a nation has wronged another, every effort ought to be made to secure “terms of peace.” Peace is reconciliation. All wrongs should be made right, and ultimately all justice between nations must be defined according to divine justice. If kings cannot agree, and there is no higher authority on earth to whom an appeal can be made, then the kings must appeal to God.
The problem comes, of course, when each nation had its own national god, whose laws differed from those revealed in Scripture. Those gods were nationalistic and were not concerned with international justice but with increasing the wealth, power, and territory of their own “chosen” people.
It is therefore unlikely that any of those other nations would have done what Moses did. Moses asked Sihon for safe passage, stipulating that Israel would not steal food or water from the Amorites along the way. Virtually all nations in that day would have acted according to their own self-interest with no regard for actual justice.
The God of Israel was obviously very different in His character from the gods of the other nations. Yahweh's standard of justice, established by His law, was not nationalistic in this way, but was meant to emerge as the divine standard for international justice.
30 But Sihon king of Heshbon was not willing for us to pass through his land; for the Lord your God hardened his spirit and made his heart obstinate, in order to deliver him into your hand as he is today. 31 And the Lord said to me, “See, I have begun to deliver Sihon and his land over to you. Begin to occupy, that you may possess his land.”
God's sovereign act of hardening the heart of Sihon brings up many interesting points. First of all, it reminds us of how God dealt with Pharaoh earlier. Even before Moses returned to Egypt to confront Pharaoh, God told him in Exodus 7:3,
3 But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart that I may multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt.
From the earthly perspective, Israel was not allowed to make war on Sihon without some kind of provocative action making war necessary. Israel had to follow the law of God in this. Yet from the heavenly perspective, God remained sovereign with the ability to cause Sihon to make war with Israel, thus giving Israel lawful cause against Sihon.
No doubt Sihon's “obstinate” heart got him into trouble. Sihon assumed that the God of Israel was as nationalistic as his own god. So he assumed that Israel intended to attack the Amorites, because that is what he himself would have done if the situation had been reversed. In other words, he interpreted Israel's motives according to the idol of his own heart. This got him into trouble, because his paranoia (fear motive) brought about the very disaster that he was attempting to avoid.
32 Then Sihon with all his people came out to meet us in battle at Jahaz. 33 And the Lord our God delivered him over to us; and we defeated him with his sons and all his people. 34 So we captured all his cities at that time, and utterly destroyed the men, women and children of every city. We left no survivor. 35 We took only the animals as our booty and the spoil of the cities which we had captured. 36 From Aroer which is on the edge of the valley of Arnon and from the city which is in the valley, even to Gilead, there was no city that was too high for us; the Lord our God delivered all over to us. 37 Only you did not go near to the land of the sons of Ammon, all along the river Jabbok and the cities of the hill country, and wherever the Lord our God had commanded us.
God did not allow Israel to take land from the Ammonites, for they, like the Moabites, were the children of Lot. Yet their conquest of Sihon brought them to the border of Bashan. King Og of Bashan then felt threatened and came to attack Israel.