The word Shittim, literally means acacia trees. This name designates a region in the plains of Moab just Near East of the Dead Sea. It is perhaps the same as Abel-shittim (Numbers 33:49), possibly the modern Tell el–Hammâm, some 5 mi. north of Beth-jeshimoth.
Shittim is mentioned significantly in the history of the Hebrews. It is cited as the last encampment site in the record of the Israelites journey from Egypt to the Jordan River (Numbers 33:49). It is from here that Joshua later sent men to spy out the land of Canaan in the neighborhood of Jericho (Joshua 2:1; 3:1). And from here the Israelites departed for the passage of the Jordan (Joshua 3:1).
At this place, the people fell into great error, for many Israelites took wives from among the Moabites (Numbers 25:1). This was clearly done at the suggestion of Balaam, who had failed in his attempts to help the Moabites in driving out the Hebrews (Numbers 31:16). In divine judgement, God sent a plague, in which twenty-four thousand died for their intermarriage with heathens and open idolatry (Numbers 25:9).
Here, also was a census taken of the men twenty years of age and over. Clearly, it was a military conscription, but it was done also with the thought of the final Israeli occupation of Canaan (Numbers 26:2). A successful military campaign against the Midianites was carried out by the Israelites during the encampment, which helped them obtain a great booty. The tribes of Reuben and Gad and half of the tribe of Manasseh decided to stay on the East side of the Jordan River, but only after Moses made them promise that they would assist the rest of the Israelites in their conquest of Canaan.
From this location, Moses realized that he would not see the Promised Land and that Joshua was to come after him as the leader of the Hebrews (Numbers 27:13-23). Moses gave his farewell speech then looked at the Promised Land from Mt. Nebo just before his death.
The prophet Micah refers to “what happened from Shittim to Gilgal” (Micah 6:5), reminding the Israelites of God’s mercy which was shown in the Jordan crossing. While Shittim was the last stopping place of the Israelites before they crossed the Jordan (Joshua 3:1), Gilgal was the first encampment in the land of Canaan (Joshua 4:19). In their travel from Shittim to Gilgal, the Israelites had seen the miraculous interposition of God in their behalf (Joshua 3; 4).
Finally, the prophet Joel writes about a fountain which shall “water the valley of Shittim” (Joel 3:18). This reference may be a symbol of dry wilderness which Joel envisions as being changed by God’s power. But it is doubtful that the land referenced in Joel is the same land of Shittim in Moab, opposite Jericho, where the children of Israel encamped before entering the land of Canaan (Numbers 25:1; Numbers 22:1). A comparison with Ezekiel 47:1–12 suggests that this valley was perhaps the Kidron with its wadies.
In His service,