The way of the Spies and Hormah

Hormah = Zephath Judges 1:17

"Then Judah went with Simeon his brother, and they struck the Canaanites living in Zephath, and utterly destroyed it. So the name of the city was called Hormah." Judges 1:17

The location of Hormah:

  1. Zepeta: "After a further journey of two hours and a half in a south-westerly direction, he found some ruins, which the Arabs called Zepāta. (Robinson also visited this spot, but could not discover the name of the ruins.) Rowlands could not for a moment doubt that this was the site of the ancient Zephath (or Hormah, vid. Josh. 15:30 and Judg. 1:17). (History of the old covenant: Johann Heinrich Kurtz,1872 AD, Vol 3, Geological survey, p217-254)
  2. Tel Masos: Hormah/Zephath figures as a flourishing town at the time of the conquest (Numbers 21:1-3; Judges 1:17), yet excavations at the site thought to be Hormah/Zephath (Tel Masos) have revealed a fortification from the Middle Bronze II period (c. 1900-1550 B.C.) and an Iron Age (12th century B.C.) settlement, but no intervening occupation. (Redating the Exodus, Bimson, Livingston, BAR 13:05, Sep/Oct 1987) This of course fits well with an exodus dated at 1446 BC at which time Hormah was destroyed and not occupied for several hundreds of Years. Problem is, Hormah cannot be located at Tel Masos, because it is no where near the transjordan Edomite territory.


"This land will become your inheritance ... On the east side the boundary will run between Hauran and Damascus, along the Jordan between Gilead and the land of Israel, to the eastern sea and as far as Tamar"(Ezekiel 47:13, 19). Biblical Tamar, 30 miles south of the Dead Sea, was one of the main cities on the spice trade. More than 25,000 objects ranging from the First Temple period to the early Arab period have been uncovered here, including a pit with Edomite cultic figures, Iron Age walls, gates and an altar, and a Roman fortress. Dig directors Tali Erickson of the Israel Antiquities Authority, Mark Shipp of Austin College and Craig Bowman of Rochester College will focus on the Iron Age walls this season. Tamar is one of the few sites where volunteers can dig for a single day. The references to Arad, Hormah, and the Way of the Atharim have provided biblical historians, geographers, and archaeologists considerable difficulties. If the reference to Arad means the city of Arad, as identified with Tel Arad in the eastern Negev, then the problem is quite perplexing. Tel Arad was a substantial urban center during the Early Bronze Age, destroyed ca. 2650 b.c., but then remained unoccupied until the early Israelite monarchy.1 Since no remains exist that might be identified with this Arad in the latter part of the Late Bronze Age (or early Iron I), many modern commentators have taken the reference to a King of Arad as a later gloss in the text based on Josh 12:14.2 Alternative suggestions have been made to solve this dilemma. First, the reference to the King of Arad may be a regional designation, like the aforementioned "King of Edom" in Num 20:14, who may have ruled from the city of Hormah (v. 3) or even in the vicinity of Yeroham.3 Hormah has been identified by some with Tel Malhata (Tel el-Milh),4 a city of the Middle Bronze and Iron Ages about eight miles southwest of Tel Arad.5 Others simply place the city of Arad at the site of Tel Malhata at this point in history, in keeping with the occasional transference of a city name to another location, and then locate Hormah at Tel Masos (Kh. el-Meshash), three miles to the west of Tel Malhata.6 The occupational history of Tel Masos is similar to that of Tel Malhata.7 One must note that Hormah, meaning "destruction," is a name given to the site after the defeat of the Canaanites in this part of the Negev. Multiple cities (˓ārźhem, "their cities") are said to have been completely or utterly destroyed by the Israelite armies, and the use of the toponym Hormah in 21:3 may designate a single key city of this campaign or the region of the defeated towns.8 The "Way of the Atharim" (derek hā˒ătārīm) was described by Y. Aharoni as "leading from Kadesh-barnea to Arad," along which the fortresses of Bir Hafir, Oboda, and Aroer were built during the Israelite monarchy.9 The meaning and location of hā˒ătārīm apparently were lost early in history, and the later Syriac and Targums took this as the "Way of the Spies" from tārīm ("those who scouted, explored"). This gave rise to the tradition that the Israelites under Moses tried to enter the land through the same route as the previous generation. But this identification is untenable on linguistic, historical, and literary grounds. An expansion of the term tārīm to (hā)˒ătārīm would have been highly improbable.10 Second, the naming of a trade route after a portion of the pathway taken by the scouts seems unlikely. If such a toponymic designation had occurred at such a dark moment in the wilderness journey of Israel, it most likely would have been recounted in history in the manner of such sites as Meribah, Kibroth Hataavah, Taberah, and here Horah. Third, the evidence is lacking for the tradition that Moses and the Israelites were attempting to enter the land from the Negev along the pathway in which they were thwarted nearly forty years before, or even that Moses was trying to enter the land from the South against the expressed will and judgment of the Lord (20:12), both on literal and literary readings of the text. There is no hint in the text of Moses even attempting to circumvent Yahweh's directive against him leading the Israelites into the Promised Land, though no doubt he would have desired to do so. Otherwise, after the Lord gave them a resounding victory at Hormah, it would have seemed quite natural to proceed northward into the upper reaches of the Negev (even to Arad itself) and into the central hill country. Instead, in the literary movement through the chapter, the victory over the Canaanites of Arad provided the new generation a foretaste of great things to come when they would enter the Promised Land under the power of God and the leadership of Joshua. The key statement in this passage is that the Israelites, when faced with the adversity of an ambush by the Canaanites, consulted the Lord and vowed to put their enemies under the destructive condemnation of holy war.11 Budd has offered a better suggestion that the Way of the Atharim may be a reference to the road leading to Tamar, or Ein Tamar, located about ten miles south of the Dead Sea.12 Such a desert road from Kadesh would have followed a line east northeast across the southern Negev to the basin of the Nahal Avedat and the Nahal Zin, south of the Machtesh Gadol. Modern Israeli mapping has labeled a mountain along this route as Hor Hahar (Mount Hor, Num 20:22; 21:4) about eighteen miles southwest of Ein Tamar. Along this route the Canaanites of the Arad (and Arad Yerocham) region may have perceived that the Israelites were encroaching upon their territory and hence came down to attack them, perhaps also ascertaining that since they had defeated them a generation before (14:35), they would again seek to demonstrate their territorial control and sovereignty. According to Num 21:4 the Israelites journeyed from Mount Hor, via the Way of the Red Sea (derek yam-sūp), which Aharoni ascertained was the trade route extending from Elath on the eastern finger of the Red Sea in the Gulf of Aqaba northward through the Arabah to the Dead Sea. Hence the desert route would have them approaching the northern end of the Arabah from the west southwest, and then crossing the Arabah between Tamar and Zalmonah. (The New American Commentary Num 21:1-3, 2000 AD)


What the Bible says about Hormah:

1.      "Now the Amalekites and the Canaanites live in the valleys; turn tomorrow and set out to the wilderness by the way of the Red Sea. ... For the Amalekites and the Canaanites will be there in front of you, and you will fall by the sword, inasmuch as you have turned back from following the Lord. And the Lord will not be with you. ... Then the Amalekites and the Canaanites who lived in that hill country came down, and struck them and beat them down as far as Hormah. Numbers 14:25,43,45

2.      " When the Canaanite, the king of Arad, who lived in the Negev, heard that Israel was coming by the way of Atharim, then he fought against Israel and took some of them captive. So Israel made a vow to the Lord and said, "If You will indeed deliver this people into my hand, then I will utterly destroy their cities." The Lord heard the voice of Israel and delivered up the Canaanites; then they utterly destroyed them and their cities. Thus the name of the place was called Hormah. Then they set out from Mount Hor by the way of the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; and the people became impatient because of the journey." Numbers 21:1-4

3.      "The Amorites who lived in that hill country came out against you and chased you as bees do, and crushed you from Seir to Hormah." Deuteronomy 1:44

4.      "the king of Hormah, one; the king of Arad, one;" Joshua 12:14

5.      "Now the cities at the extremity of the tribe of the sons of Judah toward the border of Edom in the south were Kabzeel and Eder and Jagur, and Kinah and Dimonah and Adadah, and Kedesh and Hazor and Ithnan, Ziph and Telem and Bealoth, and Hazor-hadattah and Kerioth-hezron (that is, Hazor), Amam and Shema and Moladah, and Hazar-gaddah and Heshmon and Beth-pelet, and Hazar-shual and Beersheba and Biziothiah, Baalah and Iim and Ezem, and Eltolad and Chesil and Hormah, and Ziklag and Madmannah and Sansannah, and Lebaoth and Shilhim and Ain and Rimmon; in all, twenty-nine cities with their villages." Joshua 15:21-32

6.      "and Eltolad and Bethul and Hormah," Joshua 19:4

7.      "Then Judah went with Simeon his brother, and they struck the Canaanites living in Zephath, and utterly destroyed it. So the name of the city was called Hormah." Judges 1:17

8.      "and to those who were in Hormah, and to those who were in Bor-ashan, and to those who were in Athach," 1 Samuel 30:30

9.      "Bethuel, Hormah, Ziklag," 1 Chronicles 4:30






By Steve Rudd: Contact the author for comments, input or corrections.


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