In this chapter, Moses narrates the Israelites' journey from the wilderness to their victory over king Sihon.
This chapter is more interesting than the last one because while it still recapitulates a large section of Numbers, it also includes some new details that validate a lot of my commentary on those prior chapters. I could pretend this is because I'm just-so-good at interpreting Numbers, but in reality I just read Deuteronomy in advance and used it to formulate my earlier hypotheses.
For instance, verses 1-3 help us confirm the exact timing of the 40 years in the wilderness, and explain the gap that occurs between Numbers 14 and 15, though it could have also occurred later, e.g. between Numbers 17 and 18. I pondered this in my commentary on Num 20, and while the content of this chapter confirms my suspicion, it does not help us pin down the timing more precisely. Just as with the last chapter, this one omits numerous stories from Numbers, such as Korah's rebellion and Aaron's blooming staff. The rest of the content of Numbers 15-19 is legal stuff that Moses ignores. Also the events of Num 20 and large parts of 21 are also not listed here.
So this chapter informs us that the Israelites did, in fact, spent 40 years in the desert between the rebellion of Num 14 and the attempt to pass through Edom in Num 20, but it does not tell us more precisely than that. What it does tell us is that the Israelites spent the 40 years "circling Mount Seir for many days". While it doesn't say explicitly, it suggests that the Israelites spent the entire 40 years wandering in circles around Mount Seir.
As before, this is written in the same polemical style so perhaps we shouldn't regard this as a factual claim. Either way, it should give us a clear idea that the Israelites spent the time wandering aimlessly and without purpose in the desert, until such time as the older generation died off (v. 16).
Next, we are given another recounting of the Israelites' passage through (or around) Edom, Moab and Ammon. I have already discussed the delicate political position between Israel and Edom and Moab in my commentary on Num 20 and Num 22. I briefly mentioned Ammon in my commentary on Num 21. I mentioned back then that Israel would refuse to fight these three nations because they shared lineage through Terah (to Lot) and Isaac (to Esau). In this chapter, we are also told that the LORD warned Israel against attacking these nations because the LORD "gave" their lands to them "as a possession", just like he is giving Canaan to the Israelites. For now, it appears that this will maintain a peace between these nations, but with the foresight of having read the rest of the OT, I can tell you it won't last forever.
Some commentators raise the question of whether the Israelites went around Edom or through it. This chapter seems to imply that Israel travels through the land of Edom in v. 4 and v. 8. However, Num 20 makes it pretty clear that Moab resisted Israel, and Israel "turned away" as a result. Between the two accounts, I am much more inclined to take Num 20 as a historical narrative. We have only read two chapters in Deuteronomy and already I have pointed out numerous stories from Numbers that are omitted here. It is very reasonable to suspect that Deuteronomy is simply omitting the story of Edom's resistance because it's not cogent to the author's purpose.
Also, verse 4 is only a command to go through Edom, not a statement that's what Israel did. While v. 8 does suggest that Israel "passed beyond" Edom, I think there's room to suggest that Israel merely passed around Edom rather than through it. Verse 29 also suggests that Israel passed through Edom and Moab, but I'm hesitant to read too much into it given the context. In this verse, Moses is speaking through a messenger to Sihon, so it's possible he's just summarizing a much longer story and we are misinterpreting the summary as if that were the whole story (from Numbers we know that it is not). That is the general trend of Deuteronomy so far.
The next interesting thing we see from this chapter is that the Rephaim controlled a lot of territory in this region until the various descendants of Terah started to wipe them out. Rephaim is an umbrella term that seems to include the Anakites (who we have seen before) as well as the "Emim" and "Zamzummin" (who we have not). All of these groups are described as being "great, numerous and tall", or as I like to call them, abnormally large man-giants. More specifically, this chapter suggests that Emim and Zamzummin are simply two other names for the same group, so we can possibly regard them all as Anakites with the same national identity. I'm not sure I understand the distinction between the Rephaim and the Anakites. For our purposes, it is probably not a big deal, but it's possible that the Rephaim are a larger collection of tribes similar to how Israel is a collection of twelve tribes. Or it's possible that "Rephaim" is a general term for "large man-giant". I don't think the biblical text makes it clear, though it's possible a linguistic analysis would provide more insight (since I don't speak ancient Hebrew, I cannot comment further on this point).
What we can also see from this chapter is that in spite of their large size and numbers, the Rephaim are being slowly wiped out. The Emim "formerly lived" in the land of Moab, but have since been exterminated or driven off. The Zamzummin were similarly "destroyed before [the Ammonites]". Now the Israelites are traveling to the promised land with a command from the LORD to wipe out the inhabitants (including Anakites). Many of the enemies of the Israelites as they pass into the land are Anakites, so we will see this term show up several more times. As time passes, the Rephaim will become more and more rare, and combined with their freaky physical appearance, this gives them a mythical quality.
Since Num 13:33 associates the
Anakites with the Nephilim (from Gen 6:4), this stirs up quite a bit of controversy and conspiracy theories: More conspiracy theories than are appropriate, I think, but if it makes people more interested in the bible I guess it's not such a bad thing. There's not enough hard biblical evidence for me to say much about the
Anakites, which is probably why conspiracy theorists are happy to "fill in the gap" with their own ideas. All I can say is that I am skeptical of any strongly-worded statement regarding the Nephilim precisely because they are so sparsely mentioned in the OT (and never mentioned at all in the NT, apart from one possible reference in Jude 1:6).
It's worth mentioning that the Edomites also wiped out a nation called the Horites (probably named after Mount Hor), but there is no indication here that the Horites were Rephaim. It does give us another hint that the Edomites only took their land by displacing prior inhabitants, just as the Israelites intend to do.
After this we are given the account of Israel's war against Sihon. Even before sending a messenger to Sihon, the LORD tells Moses that he will defeat Sihon in battle "to put the dread and fear of you upon the peoples everywhere under the heavens" (v. 24-25). Contrary to the warnings against provoking the Edomites, Moabites or Ammonites, Moses is encouraged to destroy the Amorites. This makes his peaceful message to Sihon look pretty strange, since by then Moses had a full expectation of going to war against Sihon (v. 26-29). Moses is possibly just maintaining the decor of politeness that we find in much of the Pentateuch. The Israelites destroy all of Sihon's kingdom, having slain "the men, women and children of every city". Just as the later war against Moab, the Amorites are granted no mercy.