The Geopolitical Context Behind the Boundaries in Numbers 34
The modern study of biblical geography is a part of the larger scholarly objective to understand “the real world” that lies behind the texts. By getting to know the reality with which the biblical authors were familiar, we can come closer to appreciating the when, how and why these texts were composed and what their authors intended for their readers to understand.
The Meaning of the Multiple Maps
As discussed in detail in my essay “The Three Biblical Maps of Israel: Small, Medium, and Large,” the Torah contains at least three main descriptions of the borders of the land:
- A Small Map – From Dan to Beer Sheva
- A Medium-Sized Map – From Kadesh-barnea/Brook of Egypt to Lebo-Hamath
- An Expansive Map – From the Nile to the Euphrates
Traditional commentaries—even the modern traditional ones—have ignored the historical background of the various boundary definitions. The reason for this is clear. For them, these are the boundaries of the land that God chose to promise the Patriarchs or their descendants, so their particular historical context does not matter. Put in other terms, the similarities between the area promised in Gen. 15:18, i.e., the expansive map (“from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates”) and the territory of a Persian satrapy might be interesting, but not really important.
To the modern scholar, however, these connections are critical. Precisely these connections serve to give us the Sitz im Leben, the real-life context of the text, helping us to determine its origin, its date and circumstances of composition and its original meaning.
The small map probably refers to the actual place of Israelite settlement in the Iron Age, but the other two maps appear to represent something else. The expansive map bears a strong resemblance to the Persian description of their Satrapy from across the Euphrates. “Across the River” (עבר הנהר in Hebrew, עבר נהרא in Aramaic and eber-nāri in Akkadian) is a Mesopotamian term indicating everything west of the Euphrates, all the way to the border of Egypt. During the Persian Period, it was the official name of the satrapy that included Syria, Phoenicia, and the land of Israel.
Here I would like to focus on the medium-sized map which contains a more limited view of the territory (Num. 34:2-12), and ask, why these particular borders? Where did the writer of Numbers, or more precisely the writer of what is often called the “Priestly source” in the Pentateuch, get this detailed description?
There have been several attempts to understand the geo-political reality behind the description of the boundaries of “The Land of Canaan” in Num. 34:2-12.
Ideal Borders vs. Real Borders
Some modern scholars have considered the borders to be “to some extent ideal; the country included within them was never in its entirety in the occupation of the Hebrews.”
Others assumed that Numbers 34’s listing of precise (and mostly otherwise unknown) boundaries must reflect a geopolitical reality, a real description of the Land in some historical period. Karl Elliger, for example, assumed them to reflect the kingdom of David. Similarly, according to Martin Noth, they reflect the actual Israelite settlement at its greatest extent, the southern border being identical with that of Judah and the northern boundary reflecting the northern settlement of the tribe of Dan.
However, As Benjamin Mazar realized long ago, such boundaries that include the Phoenician coast but not Transjordan do not reflect the political reality of the Israelite kingdoms at any known time.
The 13th Century Egyptian Province of Canaan
Mazar’s hypothesis was that these boundaries reflect those of the thirteenth-century Egyptian province of Canaan, fixed around 1270 B.C.E. after the battle of Kedesh (on the Orontes, north of Lebo and south of Hamath) between Rameses II of Egypt and Hattushilis III of Hatti. According to Mazar, these boundaries of Egyptian-ruled Canaan were kept as “a territorial concept,” from the Late Bronze Age all the way into the Israelite period, even if they never represented an actual area of Israelite settlement.
A Modern Day Example: The Borders of Israel and Jordan
In modern terms, this could be compared to the familiar map of British-mandate Palestine, including Gaza, Judea and Samaria but excluding the Golan Heights and Transjordan. Before this time, all of this land was part of the Ottoman Empire, and the Transjordan together with the Cisjordan was known broadly as Palestine. The largely arbitrary British-mandate borders took form over a period of several decades of diplomatic activity between colonial powers (the most famous of which was the 1916 Sykes-Picot treaty between Britain and France), and were only finalized with the final separation of Transjordan from Palestine in 1923.
These borders of Mandatory Palestine were then in effect for only 25 years, until the establishment of the State of Israel in part of the territory in 1948 and the occupation of the rest by Egypt and Jordan. Despite the arbitrary and temporary nature of the “map of Palestine,” however, it was adopted by the mainstream Zionist organizations, by the Palestinian national movement, and eventually by the international community, so that now, over 60 years later, it is still a significant geographical icon.
Many scholars have accepted Mazar’s theory. Others have questioned how what Mazar called “a fixed territorial-administrative formula” from the thirteenth-century Egyptian administration would have reached the Priestly literature, usually dated to either the exilic or post-exilic period.
The Area of Canaan Conquered by Necho
I believe that the establishment of the northern border at Lebo-hamath and at nearby Riblah (see 2Kings 23:33) had more to do with the conquest of the area by Necho king of Egypt in 609 BCE than with the geopolitics of the Late Bronze Age. The possibility that the text is thinking of a 7th century Egyptian reality as opposed to a 13th century one is strengthened by the Torah’s reference to the Edomite area as a border, since this kingdom does not appear to have existed as early as the 13th century.
Conclusion: Taking History into Account
If I am correct, we have evidence that the Priestly map of the Promised Land (from Kadesh-barnea to Lebo-hamath) stems from the brief period of Egyptian dominance in Canaan in the late seventh century B.C.E., whereas the expansive map (from the Nile to the Euphrates) comes from the Persian period. What this might mean about each author’s ideology of the land is an intriguing question, but our ability to identify the time period and the cultural context of each map is an important step in the process of decoding the Torah’s meaning.
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July 15, 2015
September 17, 2020
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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