The King’s Highway ran along the eastern side of the Jordan Valley from Damascus in the north to Arabia in the far south reaching the Gulf of Aqaba. The King’s Highway was used by caravans and by the militaries of the kings (including kings from the East as in Genesis 14 and Thutmose III from Egypt). A request to pass peacefully through the land of Edom is sent to the King of Edom in the spring of the year when grain fields of Edom are approaching harvest.
The form of diplomatic letter that was sent by Moses conforms to the style of letter found in the archives of Mari, Babylon and El-Amarna. These ancient diplomatic letters that survive today include these parts that can be found in a similar format and sequence in Moses’ letter to Edom:
- Mention of the recipient – “King of Edom”
- Introduction formula - “Thus says…,” or “This is what ___ says…”
- Identity of the sender and their position or rank - “Israel, your brother…”
- Historical Situation – “You know about our hardships…Our ancestors went down into Egypt...mistreated…cried out to the Lord…brought us out of Egypt.”
- Present predicament and motive from request - “Now we are here at Kadesh…edge of your territory.”
- The request is made – “Please let us pass through your country.”
- Terms and Conditions – “We will not go through any field or vineyard, or drink water from any well. We will travel along the King’s Highway…until we have passed through your territory.”
It is interesting to see that Moses appeals to the King of Edom’s knowledge of Israel’s history in Egypt, Israel’s deliverance by the Lord and Israel’s time in the wilderness. This information is also known by the people of Jericho and Rahab in Joshua 2:8-13.
Israel promises to be respectful of Edom’s fields, vineyards and wells by eating their own food and drinking their own water. Israel will be careful not to trample the grain fields that are nearing harvest stage and will bring enough water for their journey from Kadesh.
Moses’ request is rejected along with a threat of military support by Edom. Moses counters by emphasizing that Israel “will go along the main road,” and if any water of Edom’s is used Israel will pay for it. Moses states that they will be on foot just to pass through on the caravan route which is contrary to being on horseback using chariots in a military invasion.
Edom again responded with a negative “You may not pass through” reply and supported their statement by lining up Edom’s military to enforce their response if needed.
Israel turned and went south around Edom taking the longer, slower approach to begin their conquest.
It is interesting to note that even though the Lord was with Israel and had defeated Egypt and the Amelekites while promising Israel that “every place where you set your foot will be yours” (Deuteronomy 11:24), the Lord did not entertain the thought of rolling through Edom and crushing their military as part of Israel’s conquest promise. In this case the Lord is in support of Edom’s own volition and Edom’s right to the territory the Lord had given them. Moses is warned by the Lord to not engage Edom in war or provoke them because the Lord had given them this land and Israel would be defeated if they faced Edom in battle at this time. Moses records this warning and direction from the Lord in Deuteronomy 2:4-6:
‘You are about to pass through the territory of your relatives the descendants of Esau, who live in Seir. They will be afraid of you, but be very careful. Do not provoke them to war, for I will not give you any of their land, not even enough to put your foot on. I have given Esau the hill country of Seir as his own. You are to pay them in silver for the food you eat and the water you drink.” - Deuteronomy 2:4-6