Facing Long-Standing Foes
Several commentators identify the Canaanites with whom the Israelites fought as the nation of Amalek, continuing the Israelites struggle against their age-old enemy.
The following article is reprinted with permission from the Orthodox Union.
Imperceptibly, the Torah has skimmed over nearly 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. The generation of the Exodus has expired, and the generation of the wilderness has taken its place. Two beloved leaders of the Exodus generation--Miriam and Aharon--were taken from them. A new reality crystallizes: this will be the generation that will conquer and settle the Land of Israel, and will establish a society based upon the Torah.
The wilderness generation will fight many wars. Their parents had fought only once against Amalek in Refidim (Exodus 17:8-16). And when they themselves are faced with the threat of war against Edom, they are constrained to withdraw:
And Edom refused to allow Israel to cross his border, and Israel turned away from him (Numbers 20:21).
But now, on the edge of the land of Edom, the new generation of the Children of Israel are about to encounter their first war:
And the Canaanite, the king of Arad, who dwelt in the Negev/South, heard that Israel was coming by the way of the Atarim, and he attacked Israel, and he took some of them captive. And Israel vowed a vow to Hashem, and said: "If You will surely deliver this people into my hand, then I will consecrate their cities" (root ch-r-m). And Hashem listened to the voice of Israel, and He delivered the Canaanite, and he (Israel) consecrated them and their cities (root ch-r-m). And he (Israel) called the name of the place Chormah (Numbers 21:1-3).
This incident echoes earlier events. "The way of the Atarim," according to the Targumim (Aramaic translations), Rashi, Ibn-Ezra (12th century Spain), and others, is the way of the tarim, referring to the scouts of Chapter 13 above. The report reaches "the Canaanite, the king of Arad" that the Children of Israel are approaching their Promised Land, intending to follow the same route used by their scouts a generation earlier. Certainly, the inhabitants of the land would remember this, and, fearing an invasion, they launch a preemptive strike.
As to the identity of "the Canaanite, the king of Arad," Rashi notes a problem: Canaan is a descendant of Cham (Genesis 10:6), but from the report of the scouts (Numbers 13:29) we know that those "who dwelt in the Negev/South" refers to Amalek, a descendant of Esav/Edom (Genesis 36:12)! In addition, the expression used here, "and he attacked (vayilachem b') Israel," is reminiscent of the earlier battle against Amalek: