Parashat Masei contains one of the more detailed descriptions of the Land of Canaan in the Torah. The boundaries of the Promised Land depend differ in the Priestly source and the Deuteronomistic source, so that the Tanakh holds no single set of definitive borders of Israel’s land. The current borders of the State of Israel – mistakenly believed by many to be the biblical borders – actually conform to the borders of the British Mandate of Palestine according to a 1923 French-British boundary agreement.
The literary differences between Priestly and Deuteronomistic sources have political meaning far beyond the usual textual theory of source critics. Indeed, along with distinct vocabulary, the Priestly and Deuteronomistic sources preserve different views on the state, the land, and the people.
The Priestly Conception of the Land: Delimited by the Jordan River
The description of the land in Parashat Massai (Num 34) belongs to the Priestly Source, which, true to its appellation, promotes a state comprised of united tribes that confer lands and tithes on an aristocratic priesthood. At the core of the Priestly ideology stands the difference between Kohanim and the rest of Israel amplified by a concern for the difference between Israel and other peoples. Priestly literature obsesses about maintaining borders (pure vs. impure, holy vs. profane, priest vs. Israelite, etc.).
Deep investment in the notion of boundaries characterizes Priestly descriptions of the Land of Canaan. The Jordan River forms the essential border that distinguishes territory conferred by God (Promised Land) from the places where Israel wandered and transgressed (wilderness). The ideal of a distinct and purified Israel in Priestly and related literature relies upon the Jordan as a foundational geographic limit (Num 34:12, Ezekiel 48:1-28). At the same time, the Jordan operates as one border in a complex system of borders.
In Priestly literature, delimitation defines the holy. The holy is set apart from the ordinary through boundaries that the priests police. By delimiting territory, the Jordan makes Israel holy and by representing water, it suggests that Israel’s territory is pure.
By looking at the Jordan as an important border in a highly structured binary system, we can see to what degree Priestly writers favor a limited homeland ordered according to divine categories rather than a vast kingdom that absorbs many nations and peoples. From the Priestly perspective, it is more important to safeguard the system than to enlarge the national territory. In fact, expansion – which by definition overruns borders – threatens the system.
Greater Israel – The Euphrates Map (Including the Transjordan): The Deuteronomistic Vision of the Land
In contrast to the limited, symbolic conception of territory advanced by Priestly writers (admittedly still more expansive than the actual settlement boundaries appear to have been), the Deuteronomistic writers promote an ironically inclusive map of Israel’s land that stretches from the Mediterranean Sea to the Euphrates River (Gen 15:18, Exod 23:31, Deut 1:7, Deut 11:24, Josh 1:4, I Kings 5:1). As they advance the Euphrates map, the Deuteronomists also portray the Jordan as a kind of normative limit of the legitimate homeland and span of the law.
Exactly as they guide political leaders to set their sights on expanding their territorial holdings right up to the edge of Mesopotamia, the Deuteronomistic writers also limit national membership, primarily to those west of the Jordan.
Concurrently, Deuteronomy promotes a temple capital as the fixed national center. Although this center is most properly established in Jerusalem and is not transferable in the manner of the Priestly sanctuary, the Deuteronomists convey less anxiety than the priests about the need for definitive borders. As long as the nation remembers Jerusalem as it stands and fights together, then the contingency of borders need not be viewed as a threat.
Thus, the Deuteronomists (authors of the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings) seek to efface tribal and regional affiliations by presenting leaders like Joshua and the judges as leaders of all Israel, even while recognizing that they have tribal affiliations. This means that the assertion of tribal and regional identities by characters in Deuteronomistic literature, as with Achan (Josh 7:1) or Shimi ben Gera (2Sam 16:5) usually signals the onset of disruption and fragmentation. Perhaps because centralization is the name of the game in the Deuteronomistic thought, there is less investment in fixed boundaries.
Priestly and Deuteronomistic Maps: Egyptian versus Mesopotamian Conceptions of Canaan
The Priestly and the Deuteronomistic maps tell us important things about how the two groups think of the nation. They also point toward how the respective writers viewed Israel’s place in regional politics.
The two maps of the land—the Jordan map and the Euphrates map—cite a river as the eastern border, although their rivers are different. The similarity depends upon shared ideas of the cosmos and the difference arises from the fact that the two maps mimic different imperial taxonomies. The Priestly map imagines Israel as replacing an Egyptian-ruled land of Canaan, whose eastern border was the Jordan River, and the Deuteronomistic map presents a mighty Israel that abuts and thus rivals Babylonia. Insofar as empires advance the technology of cartography, national maps simply place the nation in an imperial scheme.
Although the maps of ancient Israel emulated those of local empires, they attest to a national, rather than an imperial, self-conception. The span of the Promised Land is not associated with any one leader. It is “God’s land” or “the Promised Land,” but not “Joshua’s Land,” “David’s Land,” or even “Abraham’s Land.” The notion of “promise” may evoke ancestral recipients, yet the maps purport to represent future attainments rather than present accomplishments.
Biblical Maps: Reflecting More Ideology than Reality
In the book of Numbers, the map stipulates the place that the People of Israel will reach at the conclusion of their wanderings. The Euphrates maps “predict” the future in some cases (Gen 15:18; Exod 23:31; Deut 1:7, 11:24; Josh 1:3-4) and declare the accomplishment or potential of a Davidic monarch in others (I Kgs 5:1).
For the most part, however, the maps do not describe a particular manifestation of Israel or exalt kings and their accomplishments. Rather, by focusing on the land without reference to history, the Jordan maps sideline the kings in order to promote Priestly ideologies. The Euphrates maps enunciate more support for monarchs, but only for the very few of whom the Deuteronomists approve. Biblical maps then concern the idea of the nation much more than they concern the actual political boundaries of Israel at any one point in history.
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July 16, 2015
March 11, 2020
Dr. Rachel Havrelock is Associate Professor of Jewish Studies and English at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Rachel’s book, River Jordan: The Mythology of a Dividing Line combines biblical studies, literary and political theory, and the politics of interpretation. Rachel’s current book project, The Joshua Generation: Politics and the Promised Land, focuses on the structure and meaning of the book of Joshua and its interpretation. Her co-authored book, Women on the Biblical Road, was the beginning of her work on gender and the Bible.
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