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A Song of Biblical Geography

  • Rav Yoel Bin-Nun
Jeffrey Paul Friedman z"l
August 15, 1968 – July 29, 2012
יהודה פנחס בן הרב שרגא פייוועל ז"ל
כ"ב אב תשכ"ח – י' אב תשע"ב
Dedicated in memory of Miriame bat Vtele
whose yahrtzeit is Rosh Chodesh Av
I. The Stories Behind the Song
The book of "the journeys of the children of Israel" is a poem/song,[1] and like all of the songs in the Torah, it is written as a separate book:
And Moshe wrote their goings forth, journey by journey, by the commandment of the Lord. (Bemidbar 33:2)
This song of 42 journeys is filled with the names of places in the wilderness, most of which are not known. Behind these names lie entire stories that were not told about the generation of the wilderness.
Some stories are related in brief. The story of the exodus from Exodus is told in a single verse: "from the morrow after the Passover… with a high hand." Similarly, the stories of Israel's passing through the sea into the wilderness (without mentioning the Egyptian army and God's war against them, and without the Song of the Sea), the springs in Eilim, and the absence of water in Refidim (without mentioning the war against Amalek, which was written in a separate book) are recounted in brief. The death of Aharon at Hor Ha-Har appears in greater detail, including the full date. And finally, mention is made of the Canaanite king of Arad (without mentioning the war at Chorma) in anticipation of the journey to the Transjordan.
There are, however, three particularly puzzling matters:
  1. There is no allusion to the revelation at Mount Sinai. The "wilderness of Sinai" is simply another station in the book of journeys.
  1. There is no reference to the story of the scouts-spies, to the crisis in its wake, or to the decree of forty more years in the wilderness. "Kadesh-Barnea" in "the wilderness of Paran" is not even mentioned as a station!
  1. There is no mention whatsoever of the "Zered stream" or of the "Arnon streams," which appear in the Song of the Well in "the book of the Wars of the Lord" (Bemidbar 21:12-14).
Various strange theories have grown out of these questions, but in my opinion, the answers are simple:
1.  It is impossible to describe the revelation at Mount Sinai in just a few words, without diminishing its significance. The covenant of Sinai is the essence of the Torah, and it was also recorded in the Book of the Covenant. It is impossible to mention the covenant of Sinai in brief, as if it were just some other event at one of the stations.
For the same reason, the Torah does not specify the precise date of the revelation at Sinai. The Torah belongs to every day and to all days. 
2. "Kadesh Barnea" represents a crisis and a failure on the way to the Land of Israel. The book of "journeys," in contrast, describes the journey that succeeded despite the crisis and the failure.
3. The "book of the Wars of God" describes a military campaign, which led to victory and song. That journey was written as a separate book. The book of "journeys," in contrast, describes a civilian journey, without any wars at all. Only the army of Israel passed through the "Zered stream" and the "Arnon streams." This is alluded to by the change from the fixed formulation used in the book of "journeys" ("And they journeyed… and they pitched"):
From there they journeyed, and pitched in the valley of Zered; from there they journeyed, and pitched on the other side of the Arnon… Therefore, it is said in the book of the Wars of the Lord…. (Bemidbar 21:12-14)
II. The Borders of the Land
The passage regarding "the land of Canaan according to the borders thereof" is also filled with riddles. Some of the places are difficult to identify, especially those along the northern border. In contrast, the "border of the south" (Bemidbar 34:3-5) has been clearly and reliably identified.
Most researchers have identified "the ascent of Akrabim" with the great curve of the Small Crater. Indeed, from the road that goes down from Arad to the Arava intersection, and from there to the Arava, one can clearly see "the bare mountain that goes up to Se'ir" (Yehoshua 11:17), the natural southeastern border of the Negev and the Judean Hills – a wondrous sight.
Here we would expect to find "the stream of Tzin." Indeed, "the wilderness of Tzin" in the Torah is the Negev highlands (south of the valley of Be'er-Sheva).
From this identification of the "southern border," it follows that the border of "the land of Canaan" passes along the length of the northern rim of the Ramon Crater, up to the slopes of Sinai (= "Paran") in the west. There, in fact, we find the El-Kadis Spring, which preserves the name Kadesh, at the edge of the Negev highlands ("the wilderness of Tzin").
One who stands and looks out from the north towards the Ramon Crater sees a wonderful natural border between the boulders of the "Judea Group" and the sandstone and volcanic remains inside the crater. One cannot but recite the blessing: "Blessed are You, O Lord, Master of the work of creation"!
In the book of Yehoshua (15:2-4), this route appears also as the southern border of the territory of the tribe of Yehuda, paralleling a unique archaeological find.
During the heyday of David and Shelomo (according to most scholarly opinions), dozens of small Israelite settlements were established, with protective fortresses, in the Negev highlands, right up to the Ramon Crater.[2] This is solid proof for the accepted identification of "the wilderness of Tzin, the same is Kadesh" (Bemidbar 33:36) and of "the ascent of Akrabim" in the Negev highlands, from the Small Crater to the Ramon Crater. Similarly, the Israelite fortresses in the region of Kadis (= "Kadesh") and Kudirat (= "Kadesh-Barnea") in Sinai correspond precisely with the turn of the border "southward of Kadesh-Barnea" (Bemidbar 34:4), and the turn toward the northwest in the direction of Wadi El-Arish, which R. Saadya Gaon already identified with "the stream of Egypt."[3]


 Two additional fascinating points may be learned from the borders of the land.
First, the entire Kinneret and the settlements south of it are included in "the land of Canaan" west of the Jordan.[4] The border goes down from "the slope of the sea of Kinneret eastward," toward the Jordan (Bemidbar 34:11-12), or, as we would say, from the southern Golan Heights to Naharayim.
 Another interesting point is that the "western border" is not the coast line. The Torah also recognizes territorial waters – "the Great Sea for a border" (Bemidbar 34:6).
III. Is the East Bank of the Jordan Part of the Land of Israel?


Is the Jordan River the eastern border of the Land of Israel? What is the status of the tribal territories of Reuven and Gad? Are there in fact "two banks to the Jordan," or really only one?
There are two answers to this question in the Torah,[5] as well as to this very day, setting "the land of Canaan, according to the borders thereof" versus the land of the covenant of the pieces.
"The land of Canaan according to the borders thereof" (Bemidbar 34:2) is located between the sea and the Jordan. The great trade routes in the coastal valley and in the Jordan Valley determined the geographical-historical character of the land of Canaan:
And you shall mark out your line for the east border… And the border shall go down, and shall strike upon the slope of the sea of Kinneret eastward; and the border shall go down to the Jordan, and the goings out thereof shall be at the Salt Sea. (Bemidbar 34:10-12)
This is also explicit in the section dealing with the cities of refuge and the cities of the Levites:
When you pass over the Jordan into the land of Canaan… then you shall appoint you cities to be cities of refuge for you… You shall give three cities beyond the Jordan, and three cities shall you give in the land of Canaan. (Bemidbar 35:10-14)
"The land of Canaan" was already set at the heart of the covenant of circumcision in the Torah sections dealing with Avraham (Bereishit 17:8).
In contrast, the "land" referred to in the covenant of the pieces (Bereishit 15:18-21) explicitly includes the east bank of the Jordan – between the sea and the wilderness: "from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates." Ten nations live in the expanse of "the land."
God's decree prevented Moshe from crossing the Jordan and entering "the land of Canaan," the land of the patriarchs, but he certainly entered "the land" the moment he crossed the Arnon stream, led the battle against Sichon the king of the Emorites and Og the king of Bashan (Devarim 1:4; 3:8-17), and conquered on behalf of the people of Israel "beyond the Jordan eastward":
From Aroer, which is on the edge of the valley of Arnon, even unto Mount Sion, the same is Chermon. (Devarim 4:46-49).
And here comes the surprise: In all of Moshe's words in the book of Devarim, there is no mention at all of "the land of Canaan." What we find is "this land that the Lord has given you," as opposed to "the land that the Lord your God gives them beyond the Jordan" (the west bank; Devarim 3:18-20), and similar formulations:
When the Lord your God shall bring you into the land. (Devarim 7:1)
For you are to pass over the Jordan to go in to possess the land that the Lord your God gives you. (Devarim 11:31)
But when you go over the Jordan, and dwell in the land that the Lord your God causes you to inherit. (Devarim 12:10)
The prohibition imposed upon Moshe against entering "the land of Canaan, which I give to the children of Israel" (Devarim 32:48-52) is mentioned only once in the book of Devarim – not by Moshe, but as the word of God (in the wording of the book of Bemidbar). In the words of Moshe, we find only a prohibition to cross the Jordan. Moshe even describes how he pleaded before God and how God instructed him to go up to "the top of Pisga" and lift up his eyes "westward, and northward, and southward, and [also!] eastward, and behold with your eyes; for you shall not go over this Jordan" (Devarim 3:27). 
In light of this, it appears that the book of Devarim was not given in anticipation of Israel's entry into the land (as is customarily understood). Rather, it is the book of the covenant of the Torah in the land!
Two clear proofs of this discrepancy between the two border systems, and between the book of Bemidbar and the book of Devarim, are found in Parashat Chukat and in Parashat Matot, in comparison to Parashat Devarim.
In clear contrast to Parashat Devarim, in the book of Bemidbar, the people of Israel are not warned not to harm or conquer even a small part (= "not so much as for the sole of the foot to tread on"; Devarim 2:5, 9, 19). This is because the entry into "the land of Canaan" will take place only after crossing the Jordan, and the east bank of the Jordan is "outside."
Only in the book of Devarim, where the borders include the entire "land" until the wilderness, is it necessary to warn Moshe and the people of Israel not to provoke a war against the descendants of Esav and the descendants of Lot, because their rights to their lands are included in God's promises to Avraham. In the book of Bemidbar this was inconceivable.
A second proof may be brought from the fact that the very request of the people of Reuven and the people of Gad to receive their territory on the east bank of the Jordan aroused a furious response on the part of Moshe. Moshe's reaction stemmed from the fact that their words, "Bring us not over the Jordan," were interpreted to mean that those tribes were turning their backs to the war over the holy land of the patriarchs, "the land of Canaan" on the west bank of the Jordan. In Parashat Devarim, there is no mention of such a problem!
IV. The Bridge of the Two and a Half Tribes
Do we find in the Torah a "bridge" between these two conceptions and between these two border systems, between the two banks of the Jordan? The bridge was established with the pledge to be the vanguard of the conquest of the land.
The proposal to be "ready armed to go before the children of Israel" (Bemidbar 32:16-19) was meant to respond to Moshe's fear of another crisis with tribes who did not want to take part in the war over "the land of Canaan." But in the background the question remained: What would happen if entire tribes (unlike half the tribe of Menashe) would settle on the east bank of the Jordan? Would they one day become distanced from the rest of the tribes of Israel, and be considered like the nations of Amon, Moav, and Midyan, like tribes who seceded, who are living on "impure" land?[6]
Moshe heard the words "Bring us not over the Jordan" (Bemidbar 32:5) as an evasion of the most difficult campaign and as another rebellion against the leadership that was striving to reach the land of the patriarchs. Moshe's outburst and lengthy remarks reflect the enormous tension in anticipation of the last and most difficult stage of the journey.
Moshe did not give up on the idea that the two and a half tribes would serve as a vanguard, as a "bridge" between the two banks of the Jordan, but he rephrased it by adding four mentions of the name of God – "a bridge of holiness":
If you will arm yourselves to go before the Lord to the war… and the land be subdued before the Lord, and you return afterward; then you shall be clear before the Lord and before Israel, and this land shall be to you for a possession before the Lord. (Bemidbar 32:20-23)
The question of the eastern border depends not only on volunteering to be the vanguard, but also on the sanctity of the land. If you join all the other tribes of Israel in the war over "the land of Canaan," then your inheritance on the east bank of the Jordan will also become sanctified "before the Lord." If not, the Jordan will remain the eastern border of the holy land of the patriarchs.
In the words of Moshe in Parashat Devarim:
The Lord you God has given you this land to possess it; you shall pass over armed before your brethren, the children of Israel… until the Lord give rest to your brethren, as to you, and they also possess the land which the Lord your God gives them beyond the Jordan [on the west bank]. (Devarim 3:18-20)
V. The Sanctity of the Tribal territories and the struggle against bloodshed
Six cities of refuge and 42 Levitical cities (which also provided refuge; Bemidbar 35:6-7), scattered across the country, contend with the chain of blood vengeance. This chain of revenge prevails to this very day in tribal societies. It is, however, precisely the sanctity of the Land of Israel that dictates a strong and sharp struggle against this chain of bloodshed:
And no expiation can be made for the land for the blood that is shed therein… And you shall not defile the land which you inhabit, in the midst of which I dwell; for I the Lord dwell in the midst of the children of Israel. (Bemidbar 35:33-34)
The Torah's approach is based on restricting the right to impose a death sentence for the deliberate killing of another person to an authorized court – "that the manslayer die not, until he stand before the congregation for judgment" (Bemidbar 35:12), providing a safe "refuge" in all parts of the country for those who killed inadvertently.
The culture of "revenge killing" and "blood vengeance" has almost completely disappeared from Jewish culture. Only in criminal organizations do we still find "revenge killing"; "blood vengeance" as a cultural phenomenon has disappeared from Jewish society.
R. Kook saw this model in many of the Torah's commandments, through which the Torah created an amazing system that is capable of repairing society.[7] This repair will not be brought about all at once (which is impossible), but by way of a long and drawn out process.
In contrast to various accusations that were cast in different periods, the Halakha and the Torah's commandments are not prepared to compromise on eternal ideals, nor are they satisfied with half-measures. Rather, they carry on to the ultimate objective, to the great light, with patience of steel, which itself embraces the great light with deliberate diminution. The long process itself contains within it something of the infinite, which leads to greater and greater revelation of the infinite in actual life.
From this perspective, it is easy to see that the Torah brought about many upheavals by way of a gradual and historical course, without destroying social and tribal institutions. We will mention several striking examples:
  1. The Torah did not completely abolish slavery, but rather put it in a legal framework, with emancipation as a foundational idea. At the end of a long historical process, slavery was abolished in the civilized world.
  1. The Torah did not abolish the tribes, but rather created tools and processes for pan-tribal unity. At the end of a long historical process, communities and sectors were created in place of tribes, but the main thing is the people of Israel as a whole.
  1. The Torah did not prohibit polygamy, but it presented the ideal of a man and his wife in the Garden of Eden, and it expressed its reservations regarding concubines by imposing full marriage in the case of a daughter who was sold as a maidservant[8] (Shemot 21:7-11) and in the case of a woman who was taken captive in war (Devarim 21:10-14). It recoiled from the situation of two wives, where "the one is loved, and the other hated" (Devarim 21:15-17). At the end of a long historical process, Rabbeinu Gershom's ban on taking more than one wife was set in place.
  1. The Torah did not forbid the eating of meat (as alluded in the story of Adam, Bereishit 1:29, in contrast to 9:2-5), but it totally forbade the consumption of blood and certain fats and created deliberate kashrut limitations. Vegetarianism remains the ideal of the future!
  1. The Torah did not prohibit wars, but imposed limitations on them and obligated calling out to the enemy in peace (Devarim 20). Peace remains a future ideal (Yeshayahu 2:2-4).
Spreading the Torah's ideas in the world can lead to a cessation of bloodletting and revenge killing and it can bring atonement to the world, in anticipation of a world of "vegetarianism and peace."
(Translated by David Strauss)

[1] Many Torah readers read the journeys with a special melody, in groups of two or three, in accordance with their respective traditions.
[2] Rudolf Cohen, "Ha-Metzudot Ha-Yisraeliyot Be-Har Ha-Negev," Katedra 11 (1979), pp. 37-45.
[3] In his translation of the chapter (34:5); see Torat Chayyim edition.
[4] This parallels the borders of the State of Israel after the War of Independence.
[5] See my article, "Ha-Aretz Ve-Eretz Canaan Ba-Torah," on my website.
[6]  This fear would later be explicitly mentioned in the dispute between the tribes in Yehoshua 22:19-28.
[7] In his article, Chazon Ha-Tzimchonut Ve-Ha-Shalom; see my book, Ha-Makor Ha-KafulHashra'a Ve-Samchut Be-Mishnat Rav Kook, chapter 4.
[8] See my book (co-authored by R. Shaul Baruchi), Mikra'ot Le-Parashat Mishpatim, pp. 52-58.