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For those who cherish precision in words the Torah leaves much to be desired. We struggle with the meaning and intent of many passages, and since much of the earliest Hebrew uses obscure words, our translations are at best only educated guesses. Even when the text seems to be precise and the references concrete, we need to consider whether we truly understand what we are reading. Here in the second half of our sidra, the Masei portion, we are treated to what could be a surveyor’s report of the boundaries of the land that the people will occupy. I don’t say “surveyor’s report” factiously—the language used in the Torah describing the land’s borders is extraordinarily similar to royal land grants made in other ancient middle-Eastern cultures such as the Hittite Empire of the 14th to 12th centuries BCE and states the boundaries in the same manner as does the modern surveyor.
Reading these passages closely we find what appears to be the most precise description of the borders of the land of Israel to be found anywhere in the Bible. But just how precise is this description? Must we struggle with trying to interpret what on its surface appears to be a very clear description of the land’s borders? Is this description precise enough to actually draw the borders of Israel on a map? There have been many attempts to do just that over the years, so let’s examine just how successful we would be if we tried to do so.
Numbers 34:1 begins,
And God spoke to Moses, saying: “Command the people and tell them, when you enter Canaan, this is the land that shall become your inheritance—the land of Canaan according to its borders. Your southern border, from the Wilderness of Zin...”
Obviously the eastern and western borders are clear. There’s no doubt where the Jordan River and the “Western Sea” (Mediterranean) are located. While our parashah gives the eastern border as the Jordan, in the first half of our parashah, in Matot, we read that the tribes of Gad, Reuben, and half of Manasseh requested and received permission to settle the grazing lands to the east of the Jordan (Num. 32:1–5), thus extending the border into present-day Jordan.
Concerning the northern and southern borders there is less agreement. Opinions range from the smallest area, which is defined as:
In the north, in southern Lebanon from the Metulla area to along the
Litani River to the sea and
in the south, in the Negev along the Gaza to Beersheba line.
to the largest, where
the northern border lies somewhere in southern Turkey and northern Syria while
the southern border is located deep in the Sinai desert.
Obviously the latter opinion has a much inflated view of the land promised to Israel. In order to get another idea of the extent of the “Promised Land” we must review God’s promise to Abraham. When God first chooses Abraham, He promises him a special land (Gen. 12:7). At Shechem, Abraham is told, “I will assign this land to your offspring.” Later, at Bethel, God tells him, “Raise your eyes and look out from where you are... for I give all the land that you see” (Gen. 13:15). However, in Genesis 15:18-21, we learn that: “On that day God made a covenant with Abraham, saying: to your offspring I assign this land, from the river of Egypt [the Nile] to the great river, the river Euphrates, the Kenite, and the Kenizzite... and the Canaanite....” This covenant describes virtually the entire Levant!
When we then read Genesis 17:8 we see that the size of the land is smaller: “I will give the land in which you sojourn to you and your offspring to come, all the land of Canaan.” likely referring to Canaan as described in Gen. 10:19, “And the border of the Canaanites was from Sidon [the Litani valley] down the coastal plain to Gerar and Gaza, [and from Sidon] to Sodom [the Dead Sea area].” These descriptions were obviously recorded during the monarchies and they should be viewed as the nationalistic statement that they were.
Thus the Promised Land described in our sidra is the full extent of Canaan, probably as known during the monarchic period—the extent promised, from Dan to Beersheba—with the natural geographic delimiters being the Mediterranean to the west, the mountains of Lebanon to the north, the Great Rift Valley (Galilee to Eilat) to the east, and the Negev to the south. This is the “core” of the Promised Land; it could be enlarged by conquest as the Bible reports occurred under the rule of Solomon.
It seems that the description of the land’s borders given in this parashah, together with the knowledge of when the description was recorded, does give Israel’s borders with reasonable precision. I won’t even go into whether Israel should assert God’s original covenant with Abraham—claiming all the land from the Nile to the Euphrates!
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