B'Midbar/Numbers 20:14 And Moshe sent messengers ... "Thus says your brother Israel ..."
The use of the words , "he sent messengers", seems to be a deliberate reflection of a previous encounter between Israel and Edom in the persons of their forebears Ya'akov and Esav, for the Torah uses the exact same words in the narration of that meeting: "And Ya'akov sent messengers before him to his brother Esav in the land of Seir, the field of Edom" (B'resheet 32:4). Both here and on the previous occasion, Ya'akov/Israel are returning to their homeland and have to try and negotiate passage past the potentially hostile Esav/Edom. Hence the sending of messengers in advance and the use of the word , "your brother" inviting the Edomites to remember the familial connection and receive the diplomatic request favourably. We should notice the similarities and differences in the two narratives: in B'resheet, Esav approaches Ya'akov with an armed force, but after Ya'akov's gifts and humility, Esav forgives him and shows considerable fraternal affection; in B'Midbar, although Israel makes overtures of peace, the Edomites approach with an armed force and show no sign of forgiveness or affection.
Moshe's approach to the king of Edom demonstrates an important principle, however. The offer that Israel made to the Edomites was considerable: although they were undeniably a substantial number of people - probably somewhere between two and three million, plus flocks and herds - they offered to keep only to the King's Highway, a well-known and established caravan route used by all the traders who passed through Edom; moreover, although G-d normally provided both their food and drink, by way of the manna and the well that followed them, they offered to buy all their food and drink from the Edomite merchants, thus providing a significant boost to both their local and national economy. Moshe had anticipated that Edom might feel threatened by the presence of Israel and respond in an aggressive way, so he made a conciliatory approach, designed to show peaceful intent, to try and reach a peaceful agreement for Israel's passage through the Land of Edom without the need for conflict.
The writer of the Proverbs tells us that, "A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger" (Proverbs 15:1, ESV) or, as another version says, "A gentle answer will calm a person's anger, but an unkind answer will cause more anger" (NCV). When we respond gently to a person's aggression, rather than in a brusque or abrasive manner, we greatly increase the prospect of being able to reach an amicable or negotiated settlement, rather than having to fight about the issues involved. Do notice, however, that this is not an instruction to surrender your principles or engage in appeasement, simply buying someone's apparent goodwill by giving them what they were demanding - that simply encourages aggression and shows weakness that has historically always led to disaster.
The principle of avoiding conflict at a personal level - while recognising that it may be essential in extremis or on behalf of those for whom one is responsible - is one that Yeshua and the apostles took seriously. Yeshua taught, "Make friends quickly with your opponent at law while you are with him on the way, in order that your opponent may not deliver you to the judge ... " (Matthew 5:25, NASB), to show that we should try to reach agreement with people rather than calling for outside arbitration. Acknowledging that it will not always work, Rav Sha'ul comments, "If possible, and to the extent that it depends on you, live in peace with all people" (Romans 12:18, CJB), putting great responsibility on believers to show restraint and not be the one who escalates a dispute. Rather, we should always seek to reach a peaceable solution to any disagreements that spring up, so that we become known as the people of peace.
Further Study: Isaiah 55:6-7; Job 22:21-22; Hebrews 12:14
Application: Do you find it easy to get along with people, easily turning aside or ignoring potentially critical comments and remarks? Or do you find your hackles rising when people seem to casually pass judgement on your speech, clothes or behaviour? Pray for peace inside and peace to share with those around you in your life today.
© Jonathan Allen, 2007
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