Today I express my confusion about Hormah as a place. There are several passages that mention it.
First, in Numbers 21:3 it is a place that the Israelites attacked from their base in Kadesh and conquered.
“The Lord listened to the voice of Israel and delivered up the Canaanites, and they utterly destroyed them and their cities. So the name of the place was called Hormah” (NET Bible).
Second, in Numbers 14:45, in a chapter with the theme of the people’s rebelliousness toward Moses, the people go out from Kadesh and attack the Canaanites in spite of Moses’ opposition. The result was this:
“So the Amalekites and the Canaanites who lived in that hill country swooped down and attacked them as far as Hormah” (NET Bible).
This could be reconciled if we reversed the chronology of these events so that Israel first destroyed Hormah and then was driven back to that place if after a later battle. Both of these stories show Israel attacking from the south.
Third, there is Judges 1:17 where the tribes Judah and Simeon and, perhaps some Kenites, attack from the north, from the wilderness of Judah:
“The men of Judah went with their brothers the men of Simeon and defeated the Canaanites living in Zephath. They wiped out Zephath. So people now call the city Hormah” (NET Bible).
Adding to the confusion are two other passages. Deuteronomy 1:44 seems similar to the Numbers 14 passage except that the enemy is the Ammorites and they chase Israel “from Seir as far as Hormah”. Seir usually means a mountain range southeast of the Beer-Sheba valley.
Then there is Joshua 12:14 which lists Hormah as a city taken by Joshua.
Now Hormah seems to mean something like destruction or obliteration. So that figures in to several of these passages.
Hormah matters to me because many archaeologists is identify Hormah as Tel Masos, an important site in the Beer-Sheba valley. It is important because it is a very large settlement that coincides in time with the large number of villages that suddenly appeared in the hill country of Israel in about the 12th century BCE.
Most identify these settlers as Israelite by the type of houses and the pottery. Tel Masos has the same kind of houses and pottery. But it is a much larger settlement than those in the hill country. Also, provocatively, there are a few buildings in Tel Masos built in Egyptian style. The main occupation seemed to be raising cattle.
You can find the transcript of a talk by William G. Dever on “How to tell a Canaanite from an Israelite” here. I don’t know if everyone can get access to that page, though.
He says this about Tel Masos:
I also want to mention the site of Tel Masos from this same period, where the paleoethnozoologist analyzed the animal bones and found that more than 65 percent of them were cattle bones—not sheep and goats. These people were not shepherds settling down; they were experienced stockbreeders. They were not country bumpkins either, since the pottery shows trade contact with urban sites on the coast. Now Finkelstein argues that Tel Masos is not Israelite. Why? Because it doesn’t fit his model! But not even the Bible suggests that all Israelite sites were alike. Masos is different in some ways. Some of the Masos houses are larger than others, but there is no monumental architecture at all. There are no palaces, no city walls or gates, no temples.
Scholars identify Tel Masos as Hormah because of its position between Beer-Sheba and Arad.
But there seems to be no destruction layer for the late Bronze or early Iron Age. It looks like no one lived there for centuries before a late 13th or early 12th century settlement. Of course, an army could have been destroyed there without leaving an archaeological trace.
I think that the name, Hormah, might apply to more than one place. It might have been a popular etiology (explanation of a name) for battle sites.
And I am at a loss for a biblical identification of the site at Tel Masos. Was it a place where Israelites who had formerly been in Egypt settled? Was it the base for those who eventually moved up the road and took Hebron? The Calebites?
Some argue that it is non-Israelite, perhaps the “city of Amelek” in I Samuel 15:5.
I do not know. But I am dissatisfied with the Hormah identification.