The Three Biblical Maps of Israel: Small, Medium, and Large
From Sinai to Lebanon– The Medium Map
The “Land of Canaan” delimited in Num. 34 includes the Negev, the Philistine coast, the coast of Lebanon at least as far north as the Beirut region (if not beyond), parts of the Lebanese Beqa‘ and southern Syria, but not the Golan and Transjordan. This delineation of borders is similar to some others in which “the Brook of Egypt” and/or Kadesh(-barnea) serve to mark the southern boundary, and Lebo-hamath the northern one.
This is first seen with the spies back in Parashat Shelach, who go from Kadesh as far as Lebo-hamath (Num 13:21), and continues in the description of the land not conquered in Joshua 13 and Judges 1. It is also found in 1Kings 9, 2Chronicles 8, Amos 6, and finally in Ezekiel 47’s vision of the future Land, which is basically an “updated” version of Num. 34.
Alternative Descriptions of the Same Map
Gen. 10:19 delineates a similar area somewhat differently:
And the territory of the Canaanites extended from Sidon, in the direction of Gerar, as far as Gaza, and in the direction of Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, and Zeboiim, as far as Lasha.
This description, though much less detailed than Num. 34:1-12 and described counter-clockwise rather than clockwise, like the description in Parashat Massei, delimits territory from the Lebanese coast in the north, to Gaza in the south-west, to the southern end of the Dead Sea in the south-east.
Several other geographical references seem to define the same basic area:
- “From the Philistines to Lebanon to Lebo-hamath” Judges 3:3.
- “And Joshua defeated them from Kadesh-barnea to Gaza” (Joshua 10:41; delimiting southern area).
- “From the Shichor to the Philistines” (Joshua 13:3; delimiting the southern area).
These maps all refer to Gaza or to “the land of the Philistines” as the southern or southwestern corner of the Land, and in that respect seem to be in harmony with the Num. 34 description.
But the Bible provides us with at least two additional “maps” of the Land.
From Dan to Beer Sheva– The Small Map
One of these can first be seen in Moses’ vision of the Land from the peak of Mount Nebo in Deut. 34:1-3, from Dan in the north to the Negev in the south. “From Dan to Beer-sheba,” is the schematized extent of the area actually settled by the tribes of Israel, and thus do not include the area north of Dan or Mount Hermon and or the Philistine and Phoenician coastal regions, where Israelite tribes did not settle.
The expression first appears in Judges 20:1 and then another six times in Samuel and Kings and twice in Chronicles (in reversed order: “from Beer-sheba to Dan,” in 1 Chron. 21:2 and 2 Chr. 30:5), but it is implied in quite a few additional passages as well. These borders are also implied in Amos 8:14.
In fact, the “land that remains” in Josh. 13:2-5 seems to be a sort of negative, describing the area that is included in the Num. 34 “land of Canaan,” but not in “from Dan to Beer-sheba,” not settled in practice by the tribes of Israel. In short, the small map represents the area of actual Israelite settlement in the Cisjordan during the Iron Age.
From the Nile to the Euphrates– The Expansive Map
A more difficult issue is the relationship between the Num. 34 “Land of Canaan” and the land promised to Abraham in “the Covenant of the Cuts/Pieces” (ברית בין הבתרים) in Gen. 15:18-21:
“On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites’”.
This description of the Promised Land includes everything south and west of the Euphrates, including all of Syria, the land of Canaan/Israel, the Phoenician and Philistine coasts, and reaching all the way to “the River of Egypt”(נהר מצרים as opposed to נחל מצרים). It is also repeated or alluded to several times in various parts of the Bible, and would seem to serve as the basis for the idealized depiction of Solomon’s empire in 1 Kings 5:1-4 (4:21-24 in non-Jewish English Bibles):
“Solomon was sovereign over all the kingdoms from the River to the land of the Philistines, even to the border of Egypt; they brought tribute and served Solomon all the days of his life… For he had dominion over all the region beyond the River from Tiphsah to Gaza, over all the kings beyond the River; and he had peace on all sides.”
Squaring the Promises to the Patriarchs with the Map of the Conquest (Num 34)
The obvious differences between the descriptions of “the Promised Land” on one hand and those of “the Land of Canaan” on the other raise an exegetical dilemma: is it possible that God promised the Patriarchs that their descendants would inherit a huge swath of land, but when the time came, only ordered Moses and Joshua to conquer a small part of that land? Alternatively, should we understand the two “maps” as being complimentary, as really expressing the same territory in different terms?
Among the medieval commentators, Rashi assumed the latter view, while Ishtori HaParchi (ca. 1280-1355; author of the Kaftor va-Ferach) espoused the former.
Rashi, following the rabbis of the Talmud, identified “Mount Hor” and “Lebo-hamath” in the very far north, identifying the latter as Antioch (Num 34:8) and making them parallel to the Euphrates. Ishtori (and others), however, looked for points farther south, realizing that the northern boundary of Canaan as described in Num. 34 did not reach the Euphrates. Thus, Ishtori (Kaftor va-Ferach ch. 11) identifies the northern border as Beirut, some 350 kilometers south of Antioch.
The same debate appears with regard to the southern border. Rashi, followed by Radak (Josh 13:3), assumed that “the Brook of Egypt” and “the River of Egypt” are one and the same and both refer to the Nile, while Sa‘adiah Gaon, followed by Ishtori (ch. 11) and Abarbanel (Gen 15:15), saw them as distinct bodies of water.
Modern versus Traditional Premises
Modern scholars look at the different geographical descriptions of the land and try to understand what each represented to their respective authors. Since most academics believe that the Torah—and certainly the Bible—developed over time and reflects more than one viewpoint and author, contradictory images of the extent of the land are not troubling.
For traditional commentators, who understand the Torah as a unified work stemming directly from God, this tension poses a problem, and more than one solution has been proposed. Rashi, who believed that the two larger maps represent the same territory, assumed that God was being consistent. Thus, God orders the Israelites to conquer the land promised to the Patriarchs. A different assumption underlies the understanding of Ishtori, who believed the two maps to be distinct. According to this view, God’s promise to the Patriarchs referred to the distant future; the land which God commands Joshua to conquer is, thus, just a first stage of conquest.
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July 15, 2015
January 9, 2021
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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