Defining The Land of Canaan in Numbers 34
In the first 12 verses of Numbers 34, God lays out the precise boundaries of the Land that the Israelites are expected to conquer. In their present context, the “boundaries of the Land of Canaan” (v. 2) are a part of the final instructions given by God to Moses and through him to the Israelites, in the final days leading up to his death. The boundary instructions may have been clear to the author, but for centuries, scholars have debated their exact referents. I will highlight some of these debates here.
The Identification of the Boundaries
We cannot positively identify every single point that is included in the “Boundaries of Canaan.” We have a good idea about many of them, while some are debated. Since space is short, we will only focus on a few of the more important sites.
Southern Border – Kadesh-barnea (and Kadesh)
ג וְהָיָ֨ה לָכֶ֧ם פְּאַת־נֶ֛גֶב מִמִּדְבַּר־צִ֖ן עַל־יְדֵ֣י אֱד֑וֹם וְהָיָ֤ה לָכֶם֙ גְּב֣וּל נֶ֔גֶב מִקְצֵ֥ה יָם־הַמֶּ֖לַח קֵֽדְמָה: ד וְנָסַ֣ב לָכֶם֩ הַגְּב֨וּל מִנֶּ֜גֶב לְמַעֲלֵ֤ה עַקְרַבִּים֙ וְעָ֣בַר צִ֔נָה והיה וְהָיוּ֙ תּֽוֹצְאֹתָ֔יו מִנֶּ֖גֶב לְקָדֵ֣שׁ בַּרְנֵ֑עַ וְיָצָ֥א חֲצַר־אַדָּ֖ר וְעָבַ֥ר עַצְמֹֽנָה:
3 Your south side shall be from the wilderness of Zin alongside Edom, and your southern boundary shall be from the end of the Salt Sea on the east. 4 And your boundary shall turn south of the ascent of Akrabbim, and cross to Zin, and its limits shall be south of Kadesh-barnea.
The boundary description begins at the southeastern corner of the land, “from the end of the Salt Sea on the east” (מִקְצֵה יָם-הַמֶּלַח קֵדְמָה). It goes by Maaleh-Akrabbim and Zin and passes south of Kadesh-barnea.
In the early years of research several sites were suggested for Kadesh-barnea, but since the late nineteenth century most scholars of biblical historical geography have identified the site of with the oasis of ‘En el-Qudeirat and the nearby ‘En el-Qudeis, first visited in 1842 by John Rowland. A large Iron Age II-Persian Period fortress, apparently a part of the southern defenses of the Kingdom of Judah, was excavated there by Israeli archaeologists during the Israeli occupation of Sinai.
While the name “Kadesh” obviously refers to a sanctuary or holy spot, the meaning of the appellation “barnea” is not clear. The Septuagint consistently uses the forms Kades andKades Barne, making no effort to either translate or identify the toponym.
Before the identification of Kadesh-barnea with Ein el-Kudeirat, most commentators believed the area to be somewhere in the southern Transjordan; it is described as being near the border of Edom, and many associated it specifically with the area of Petra. The Jewish Aramaic translations of the Bible such as Onkelos consistently translate “Kadesh” as רקם, “Rekem”—the Aramaic name for Petra (as per Josephus and Eusebius), and “Kadesh-barnea” as רקם גיאה, “Rekem of the valley.” The tenth century Jewish Arabic translation of Sa‘adia Gaon uses the form “Rekim.”
The toponym קָדֵשׁ, “Kadesh,” is mentioned a total of 24 times in the Hebrew Bible, all (perhaps with the exception of Psalm 29:8) in connection with a place or places in the southern wilderness. Ten of the 24 references include the additional designation “barnea” and scholars have debated whether these two terms refer to the same place.
Several of the medieval Jewish commentators noted that Kadesh is sometimes (such as in Num. 13:26) mentioned in connection with the wilderness of Paran, while at other times (such as in Num. 20:1) it is in the wilderness of Zin. A few modern scholars—like Dudu Cohen—have claimed that there were, indeed, two sites, one called “Kadesh” (in the Zin Wildernesss) and the other “Kadesh-barnea” (in the Paran Wilderness). However, the majority has assumed that there was, in fact, only one Kadesh. It is very striking that such an important place, Kadesh(-barnea) is totally absent from most of the Bible and the Apocrypha.
Southwestern Border – The Brook of Egypt
דb וְיָצָ֥א חֲצַר־אַדָּ֖ר וְעָבַ֥ר עַצְמֹֽנָה: ה וְנָסַ֧ב הַגְּב֛וּל מֵעַצְמ֖וֹן נַ֣חְלָה מִצְרָ֑יִם וְהָי֥וּ תוֹצְאֹתָ֖יו הַיָּֽמָּה:
4b then it shall go on to Hazar-addar, and pass along to Azmon. And the boundary shall turn from Azmon to the Brook of Egypt, and its termination shall be at the sea. And the western boundary, you shall have the Great Sea and its boundary; this shall be your western boundary.
The identification of “the Brook of Egypt” has also been contested. On one hand, Targum (Pseudo-)Jonathan translated this term as נילוס דמצראי, “the Nile of Egypt,”, which is taken by most modern commentators as referring to the now-dried-up eastern-most branch of the Nile Delta, east of what is now the Suez Canal. On the other hand, the 10th century R. Sa‘adiah Gaon, in his Arabic translation of the Torah, rendered נחל מצרים as Wadi El-‘Arish, which is a large stream that drains much of the Sinai into the Mediterranean Sea, about two-thirds of the way from the Suez to Gaza.
Sa’adiah’s identification, which differentiates between נחל מצרים and נהר מצרים (the latter is certainly the Nile), was accepted by many medieval and almost all modern commentators, travelers, and geographers. It makes sense geographically, since when traveling from the Land of Israel towards Egypt, El-‘Arish is the western-most settlement along the coast before one enters a long stretch of uninhabited wilderness.
However, in 1979 Tel-Aviv University Professor Nadav Na’aman reopened the debate, claiming that in biblical times, the real southwestern-most boundary of settlement was actually at what is better known as the Naḥal Besor, which spills into the sea just south of the city of Gaza. Na’aman’s proposal has been accepted by some scholars, while others have preferred to adhere to the more traditional identification of Wadi El-‘Arish.
West and Northwestern Border – Mount Hor
ו וּגְב֣וּל יָ֔ם וְהָיָ֥ה לָכֶ֛ם הַיָּ֥ם הַגָּד֖וֹל וּגְב֑וּל זֶֽה־יִהְיֶ֥ה לָכֶ֖ם גְּב֥וּל יָֽם: זוְזֶֽה־יִהְיֶ֥ה לָכֶ֖ם גְּב֣וּל צָפ֑וֹן מִן־הַיָּם֙ הַגָּדֹ֔ל תְּתָא֥וּ לָכֶ֖ם הֹ֥ר הָהָֽר:
6 And the western boundary, you shall have the Great Sea and its boundary; this shall be your western boundary. 7 And this shall be your northern boundary: from the Great Sea you shall mark out your line to Mount Hor.
The western boundary is, of course, the Mediterranean Sea. The northwestern corner is marked by something called הֹר הָהָר, often translated “Mount Hor,” but seeming to mean something like “Mount Mountain.” The name is identical to the place at which Aaron died and was buried in Num. 20:25, although it must be a different place, this time near the northern coast. In fact, some manuscripts of Rashi’s commentary include a hand-drawn map, apparently drawn originally by Rashi himself, which explains that this “Mount Hor” is not the same as the “Mount Hor” at which Aaron was buried!
In his commentary here on הֹר הָהָר, Rashi explains that this is a mountain that slopes into the sea, and which is located near Antioch! However later travelers such as the 14th-century Ishtori HaParchi and practically all modern scholars realized that placing the northern corner so far north contradicts any geographical logic, and suggested various peaks along the Lebanese coast, much farther south, as the actual “Mount Hor.”
North and Northeastern Border – Lebo-hamath
ח מֵהֹ֣ר הָהָ֔ר תְּתָא֖וּ לְבֹ֣א חֲמָ֑ת וְהָי֛וּ תּוֹצְאֹ֥ת הַגְּבֻ֖ל צְדָֽדָה: ט וְיָצָ֤א הַגְּבֻל֙ זִפְרֹ֔נָה וְהָי֥וּ תוֹצְאֹתָ֖יו חֲצַ֣ר עֵינָ֑ן זֶֽה־יִהְיֶ֥ה לָכֶ֖ם גְּב֥וּל צָפֽוֹן:
8 From Mount Hor you shall mark it out to Lebo-Hamath, and the end of the boundary shall be at Zeded. 9 And the boundary shall extend to Ziphron, and its end shall be at Hazar-enan; this shall be your northern boundary.
The key point on the northern border is לְבֹא חֲמָת, “Lebo-hamath.” We first encounter the term לְבֹא חֲמָת as a marker for the northern border of the Land in the description of the mission of the twelve spies in Num. 13:21, and it is repeated, in Josh. 13:5 and in Judges 3:3 (the land that Joshua did not conquer), 1Chron. 13:5 (David’s kingdom), 1Kings 8:6 (Solomon’s kingdom), in 2Kings 14:25, Amos 6:14 (both referring to northern Israel under Jeroboam II), and finally in Ezekiel 48:1 (referring to the future resettlement of the tribes).
That this expression has something to do with Hamath, and that this Hamath is the well-known city on the Orontes River in central-west Syria (today’s Hama), is accepted universally. But what does the term לְבֹא mean?
Traditionally it is derived from the verb בוא, “to come in,” and that it means “the entrance to Hamath.” This is how it is translated in the Septuagint, in the Vulgate, in the various Aramaic Targumim, and in most older English Bibles as well, such as the KJV’s “unto the entrance of Hamath.” The question was only whether it referred to the entrance to Hamath from the north (Targum (Pseudo-)Jonathan’s “entrance to Antioch”), including all of Syria within the Land, or from the south or the sea, leaving Hamath and central Syria outside the Land.
In 1975, however, Benjamin Mazar published an article that showed that “Lebo” is actually the name of a city in the Lebanese Beqa‘ south of Hamath (today called Labweh), and that the combination “Lebo-hamath” actually means “the town of Lebo, in the vicinity of the well-known Hamath.” Mazar’s idea has gained widespread acceptance, and most newer translations (such as NJPS) use the form “Lebo-hamath”.
Eastern Border – Golan Heights, Jordan River, and Dead Sea
י וְהִתְאַוִּיתֶ֥ם לָכֶ֖ם לִגְב֣וּל קֵ֑דְמָה מֵחֲצַ֥ר עֵינָ֖ן שְׁפָֽמָה: יא וְיָרַ֨ד הַגְּבֻ֧ל מִשְּׁפָ֛ם הָרִבְלָ֖ה מִקֶּ֣דֶם לָעָ֑יִן וְיָרַ֣ד הַגְּבֻ֔ל וּמָחָ֛ה עַל־כֶּ֥תֶף יָם־כִּנֶּ֖רֶת קֵֽדְמָה: יב וְיָרַ֤ד הַגְּבוּל֙ הַיַּרְדֵּ֔נָה וְהָי֥וּ תוֹצְאֹתָ֖יו יָ֣ם הַמֶּ֑לַח זֹאת֩ תִּהְיֶ֨ה לָכֶ֥ם הָאָ֛רֶץ לִגְבֻלֹתֶ֖יהָ סָבִֽיב:
10 And you shall mark out your eastern boundary from Hazar-enan to Shepham. And the boundary shall go down from Shepham to Riblah on the east side of the Ain; and the boundary shall go down, and reach to the shoulder of the sea of Chinnereth on the east. And the boundary shall go down to the Jordan, and its end shall be at the Salt Sea; this shall be your land with its boundaries all round.
From Lebo-hamath the boundary passed through several additional sites in what is now southern Syria, eventually reaching “the shoulder of the sea of Kinneret on the east” (probably the cliffs that descend from today’s Golan Heights toward the Kinneret/Sea of Galilee), and following the Jordan back to the Dead Sea.
This survey makes it clear that over time maps become hard to understand, especially as toponyms become difficult to identify. The places that seem to retain their identity most securely are the bodies of water. It may be that we do not know for sure where Mount Hor is or how many Kadeshes there were, but we can still easily identify the Mediterranean and Dead Seas, the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan River. Finally, we can see that modern scholarship helped clarify some of the ambiguities, since we now know the locations of such previously opaque place names such as Kadesh-barnea, Lebo-Hamath, and (perhaps even) the Brook of Egypt.
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Dr. Yigal Levin teaches the history of the biblical period at the Israel and Golda Koschitzky Department of Jewish History at Bar-Ilan University. He received his Ph.D. in Bible from Bar Ilan University. Specializing in historical geography and in biblical genealogies, Levin was co-editor of War and Peace in Jewish Tradition from Biblical Times to the Present and is presently working on a commentary on Chronicles
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