Excerpts from Bible as History


The long journey to Canaan



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6. The long journey to Canaan.


Six hundred miles by the caravan route — nowadays four visas are required — the land of purple — punitive expeditions against “Sanddwellers” — proud seaports with a troublesome hinterland — an Egyptian best-seller about Canaan — Sinuhe praises the Good Land — Jerusalem on magic vases — strongholds — Sellin finds Shechem — Abraham chooses the high road.
And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother's son, and all their substance that they had gathered, and the souls that they had gotten in Haran: and they went forth to go into the land of Canaan” (Gen. 12:5).
The road from Haran, the home of the patriarchs, to the land of Canaan runs south for more than 600 miles. It follows the river Balikh as far as the Euphrates, thence by a caravan route thousands of years old via the oasis of Palmyra, the Tadmor of the Bible, to Damascus, and from there in a south-westerly direction to the Lake of Galilee. It is one of the great trade routes that have always led from Euphrates to Jordan, from the kingdom of Mesopotamia to the Phoenician seaports on the Mediterranean and the distant Nile lands in Egypt.

Anyone nowadays wanting to follow Abraham's route requires four visas: one for Turkey, in which the site of Haran lies, one for Syria to cover the section from the Euphrates via Damascus to the Jordan, and one each for the states of Jordan and Israel, which occupy what was once Canaan. In the time of the father of the patriarchs all this was much easier. For on his long trek he had only to pass through one large stretch of national territory, the kingdom of Mari, which he was in fact quitting. The smaller city states between the Euphrates and the Nile could be bypassed. The road to Canaan lay open.

The first city of any size that Abraham must have struck on his journey is still standing today: Damascus.

To go by car from Damascus to Palestine is, particularly in springtime, an unforgettable experience.

The ancient city with its narrow streets and dark bazaar-alleys, with its mosques and its Roman remains, lies in the center of a wide and fertile plain. When the Arabs speak of Paradise they think of Damascus. What other Mediterranean city can compare with this place, which every spring is decked with an incredible mantle of gay blossom? In all the gardens and in the hedgerows beyond the city walls apricots and almonds are a riot of pink. Flowering trees line the road which climbs gently as it heads for the south-west. Tilled fields alternate with olive groves and large mulberry plantings. High above, to the right of the road, rises the El Barada river, to which the land owes its fertility. Here mighty Hermon thrusts its steep slopes 10,000 feet into the heavens above the flat and verdant plain. From the side of this famous mountain ridge, to the south, gushes the source of the Jordan. Towering over both Syria and Palestine and visible from afar it seems to have been placed there by Nature as a gigantic boundary stone between them. Even in the blazing heat of summer its peak remains covered in snow. The effect becomes even more impressive as on the left of the road the green fields disappear. Monotonous gray-brown hills, streaked with dried up river beds, pile up towards the distant shimmering horizon where the scorching Syrian Desert begins — the home of the Bedouins. The road climbs gradually for an hour and a half. Fields and groves become rarer. The green is more and more swallowed up by the sandy gray of the desert. Then suddenly an enormous pipeline crosses the road. The oil that flows through it has already come quite a way. Its journey began in the oil wells of Saudi Arabia, over a thousand miles away, and will end in the port of Saida on the Mediterranean. Saida is the old Sidon of the Bible.

Behind a ridge suddenly appear the hills of Galilee. A few minutes later comes the frontier. Syria lies behind. The road crosses a small bridge. Under the arch a fast moving narrow current hurries on its way. It is the Jordan: we are in Palestine, in the young state of Israel.

After a few miles between dark basalt rocks the bright blue of the Lake of Galilee sparkles up at us from far beneath, It was on this lake, where time seems to have stood still, that Jesus preached from a boat off Capernaum. Here he told Peter to cast his nets and raise the great draught of fishes. Two thousand years before that the flocks of Abraham grazed on its shores. For the road from Mesopotamia to Canaan went past the Lake of Galilee.

Canaan is the narrow mountainous strip of land between the shores of the Mediterranean and the borders of the desert, from Gaza in the south right up to Hamath on the banks of the Orontes in the north.

Canaan was the “Land of Purple.” It owed its name to a product of the country which was highly prized in the olden days. From earliest times the inhabitants had extracted from a shellfish (Murex), which was native to these parts, the most s famous dye in the ancient world, purple. It was so uncommon, so difficult to obtain and therefore so expensive, that only the wealthy could afford it. Purple robes were throughout the Ancient East a mark of high rank. The Greeks called the manufacturers of purple and the purple-dyers of the Mediterranean Phoenicians. The country they called Phoenicia, which meant “purple” in their language.

The land of Canaan is also the birthplace of two things which have radically affected the whole world: the word “Bible” and our alphabet. A Phoenician city was godparent to the Greek word for “book”: from Byblos, the Canaanite seaport, comes “Biblion” and hence, later, “Bible.” In the 19th century B.C. r the Greeks took over from Canaan the letters of our alphabet.

The part of the country which was to become the home of the Israelite people was named by the Romans after Israel's worst enemies: Palestine comes from Prelisted, as the Philistines are called in the Old Testament. They lived in the southernmost part of the coast of Canaan. “All Israel, from Dan even to Beersheba” (1 Sam. 3:20) is how the Bible describes the extent of the Promised Land, that is, from the sources of Jordan at the foot of Hermon to the hills west of the Dead Sea, and the Negev in the south.

If we look at a globe of the world, Palestine is only a tiny spot on the earth's surface, a narrow streak. It is possible to drive comfortably in a single day round the borders of the old kingdom of Israel: 150 miles from north to south, 25 miles across at its narrowest point, 9,500 square miles in all, its size was about that of the island of Sicily. Only for a few decades in its turbulent history was it any bigger. Under its renowned kings David and Solomon its territory reached to the arm of the Red Sea at Ezion-Geber in the south, and far beyond Damascus into Syria on the north. The present state of Israel with its 8,000 square miles is smaller by a fifth than the old kingdom.

There never flourished here crafts and industries whose products were sought after by the world at large. Traversed by hills and mountain chains, whose summits rose to over 3,000 feet, surrounded in the south and east by scrub and desert, in the north by the mountains of the Lebanon and Hermon, in the west by a flat coast with no natural harbors, it lay like a poverty stricken island between the great kingdoms on the Nile and the Euphrates, on the frontier between two continents. East of the Nile delta Africa stops. After a desolate stretch of 100 miles of desert Asia begins, and at its threshold lies Palestine.

When in the course of its eventful history it was constantly being dragged into the affairs of the wider world, it had its position to thank for it. Canaan is the link between Egypt and Asia. The most important trade route of the ancient world passes through this country. Merchants and caravans, migratory tribes and peoples, followed this road which the armies of the great conquerors were later to make use of. Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks and Romans one after another made the land and its people the plaything of their economic, strategic and political concerns.

It was in the interests of trade that the giant on the Nile in the third millennium B.C. was the first great power to stretch out its tentacles towards Canaan.

“We brought 40 ships, laden with cedar trunks. We built ships of cedar wood: One 'Pride of Two Lands' — ship of 150 feet: And of meru-wood, two ships 150 feet long: We made the doors of the king's palace of cedar wood.” That is the substance of the world's oldest advice note from a timber importer about 2700 B.C. The details of this cargo of timber in the reign of Pharaoh Snefru are scratched on a tablet of hard black diorite, which is carefully preserved in the museum at Palermo. Dense woods covered the slopes of Lebanon then. The excellent wood from its cedars and meru, a kind of conifer, were just what the Pharaohs needed for their building schemes.

Five hundred years before Abraham's day there was a flourishing import and export trade on the Canaanite coast. Egypt exchanged gold and spices from Nubia, copper and turquoise from the mines at Sinai, linen and ivory, for silver from the Taurus, leather goods from Byblos, painted vases from Crete. In the great Phoenician dye-works well-to-do Egyptians had their robes dyed purple. For their society women they bought a wonderful lapis-lazuli blue — eyelids dyed blue were all the rage — and stibium, a cosmetic which was highly thought of by the ladies for touching up their eyelashes.

In the seaports of Ugarit (now Ras Shamra) and Tyre there were Egyptian consuls; the coastal fortress of Byblos became an Egyptian colony; monuments were erected to the Pharaohs and Phoenician princes adopted Egyptian names.

If the coastal cities presented a picture of cosmopolitan life which was busy, prosperous and even luxurious, a few miles inland lay a world which provided a glaring contrast. The Jordan mountains have always been a trouble-spot. Bedouin attacks on the native population, insurrection and feuds between towns were unending. Since they also endangered the caravan route along the Mediterranean coast, Egyptian punitive expeditions had to bring the unruly elements to heel. The inscription on the tomb of the Egyptian Uni gives us a clear picture of how one of these expeditions was organized about 2350 B.C. Uni, an army commander, received orders from Pharaoh Phiops I to assemble a striking force against Bedouins from Asia who were attacking Canaan. His report on the campaign reads as follows:

“His Majesty I made war on the desert peoples and His Majesty gathered an army: in the south beyond Elephantine... all over the north... and among the Jertet-, Mazoi-, and Jenam Nubians. I was entrusted with the whole campaign.” The morale of this multi-colored fighting force comes in for high praise, and in the course of it we learn what sort of attractions Canaan offered in those days in the way of loot: “None of them stole the sandals off anyone who came their way.... None of them stole food from any of the cities.... None of them stole any goats.” Uni's war-diary proudly announces a great victory and in passing gives us valuable information about the country: “The king's army returned in good order, after laying waste the country of the desert peoples,... after destroying their fortresses ... after cut­ting down their fig-trees and vines... and carrying off a large number into captivity. His Majesty sent me five times to ravage the land of the desert peoples with these troops every time they revolted.”

Semites thus made their first entry into the land of the Pharaohs as P.O.W.'s where they were contemptuously described as “Sanddwellers.” Chu-Sebek, adjutant to King Sesostris III of Egypt, wrote in his war-diary 500 years later the following account which had been preserved at Abydos on the Upper Nile, where it was chiselled out on a monument: “His Majesty proceeded northwards to crush the Asiatic Bedouins.... His Majesty went as far as a place called Sekmem.... Sekmem collapsed together with the whole miserable country of Retenu.”

The Egyptians called Palestine and Syria together “Retenu.” “Sekmem” is the Biblical town of Shechem, the first town which Abraham struck on entering Canaan (Gen. 12:6).

With the campaign of Sesostris III about 1850 b.c. we are right in the middle of the patriarchal period. Meantime Egypt had taken possession of the whole of Canaan: the country now lay under the suzerainty of the Pharaohs. Thanks to the archaeol­ogists we possess a unique document from this epoch, a gem of ancient literature. The author: a certain Sinuhe of Egypt. Scene: Canaan. Time: between 1971 and 1928 B.C. under Pharaoh Sesostris I.

Sinuhe, a nobleman in attendance at court, becomes involved in a political intrigue. He fears for his life and emigrates to Canaan:

“As I headed north I came to the Princes' Wall, which made the land and its people the plaything of their economic, strategic and political concerns.

It was in the interests of trade that the giant on the Nile in the third millennium B.C. was the first great power to stretch out its tentacles towards Canaan.

“We brought 40 ships, laden with cedar trunks. We built ships of cedar wood: One 'Pride of Two Lands' — ship of 150 feet: And of meru-wood, two ships 150 feet long: We made the doors of the king's palace of cedar wood.” That is the substance of the world's oldest advice note from a timber importer about 2700 B.C. The details of this cargo of timber in the reign of Pharaoh Snefru are scratched on a tablet of hard black diorite, which is carefully preserved in the museum at Palermo. Dense woods covered the slopes of Lebanon then. The excellent wood from its cedars and meru, a kind of conifer, were just what the Pharaohs needed for their building schemes.

Five hundred years before Abraham's day there was a flourishing import and export trade on the Canaanite coast. Egypt exchanged gold and spices from Nubia, copper and turquoise from the mines at Sinai, linen and ivory, for silver from the Taurus, leather goods from Byblos, painted vases from Crete. In the great Phoenician dye-works well-to-do Egyptians had their robes dyed purple. For their society women they bought a wonderful lapis-lazuli blue — eyelids dyed blue were all the rage — and stibium, a cosmetic which was highly thought of by the ladies for touching up their eyelashes.

In the seaports of Ugarit (now Ras Shamra) and Tyre there were Egyptian consuls; the coastal fortress of Byblos became an Egyptian colony; monuments were erected to the Pharaohs and Phoenician princes adopted Egyptian names.

If the coastal cities presented a picture of cosmopolitan life which was busy, prosperous and even luxurious, a few miles inland lay a world which provided a glaring contrast. The Jordan mountains have always been a trouble-spot. Bedouin attacks on the native population, insurrection and feuds between towns were unending. Since they also endangered the caravan route along the Mediterranean coast, Egyptian punitive expeditions had to bring the unruly elements to heel. The inscription on the tomb of the Egyptian Uni gives us a clear picture of how one of these expeditions was organized about 2350 B.C. Uni, an army commander, received orders from Pharaoh Phiops I to assemble a striking force against Bedouins from Asia who were attacking Canaan. His report on the campaign reads as follows: “His Majesty made war on the desert peoples and His Majesty gathered an army: in the south beyond Elephantine... all over the north... and among the Jertet-, Mazoi-, and Jenam Nubians. I was entrusted with the whole campaign.” The morale of this multi-colored fighting force comes in for high praise, and in the course of it we learn what sort of attractions Canaan offered in those days in the way of loot: “None of them stole the sandals off anyone who came their way... .None of them stole food from any of the cities.... None of them stole any goats.” Uni's war-diary proudly announces a great victory and in passing gives us valuable information about the country: “The king's army returned in good order, after laying waste the country of the desert peoples,... after destroying their fortresses... after cutting down their fig-trees and vines... and carrying off a large number into captivity. His Majesty sent me five times to ravage the land of the desert peoples with these troops every time they revolted.”

Semites thus made their first entry into the land of the Pharaohs as P. O. W.' s where they were contemptuously described as “Sanddwellers.” Chu-Sebek, adjutant to King Sesostris III of Egypt, wrote in his war-diary 500 years later the following account which had been preserved at Abydos on the Upper Nile, where it was chiselled out on a monument: “His Majesty 1 proceeded northwards to crush the Asiatic Bedouins.... His Majesty went as far as a place called Sekmem.... Sekmem collapsed together with the whole miserable country of Retenu.”

The Egyptians called Palestine and Syria together “Retenu.” “Sekmem” is the Biblical town of Shechem, the first town which Abraham struck on entering Canaan (Gen. 12:6).

With the campaign of Sesostris III about 1850 B.C. we are right in the middle of the patriarchal period. Meantime Egypt had taken possession of the whole of Canaan: the country now lay under the suzerainty of the Pharaohs. Thanks to the archaeologists we possess a unique document from this epoch, a gem of ancient literature. The author: a certain Sinuhe of Egypt. Scene: Canaan. Time: between 1971 and 1928 B.C. under Pharaoh Sesostris I.

Sinuhe, a nobleman in attendance at court, becomes involved in a political intrigue. He fears for his life and emigrates to Canaan:

“As I headed north I came to the Princes' Wall, which was built to keep out the Bedouins and crush the Sandramblers.1 I hid in a thicket in case the guard on the wall, who was on patrol at the time, would see me. I did not move out of it till the evening. When daylight came... and I had reached the Bitter Lake2 I collapsed. I was parched with thirst, my throat was red hot. I said to myself: This is the taste of death! But as I made another effort and pulled myself on to my feet, I heard the bleating of sheep and some Bedouins came in sight. Their leader, who had been in Egypt, recognized me. He gave me some water and boiled some milk, and I went with him to his tribe. They were very kind to me.”

Sinuhe's escape had been successful. He had been able to slip unseen past the great barrier wall on the frontier of the kingdom of the Pharaohs which ran exactly along the line which is followed by the Suez Canal today. This “Princes' Wall” was even then several hundred years old. A priest mentions it as far back as 2650 B.C.: “The Princes' Walls are being built to prevent the Asiatics forcing their way into Egypt. They want water... to give to their cattle.” Later on the children of Israel were to pass this wall many times: there was no other way into Egypt. Abraham must have been the first of them to see it when he emigrated to the land of the Nile during a famine (Gen. 12:10).

Sinuhe continues: “Each territory passed me on to the next. I went to Byblos3, and farther on reached Kedme4 where I spent eighteen months. Ammi-Enschi5, the chief of Upper Retenu6, made me welcome. He said to me: 'You will be well treated and you can speak your own language here.' He said this of course because he knew who I was. Egyptians7 who lived there had told him about me.”

We are told in great detail of the day to day experiences of this Egyptian fugitive in North Palestine. “Ammi-Enschi said to me: 'Certainly, Egypt is a fine country, but you ought to stay here with me and what I shall do for you will be fine too.'

“He gave me precedence over all his own family and gave me his eldest daughter in marriage. He let me select from among his choicest estates and I selected one which lay along the border of a neighboring territory. It was a fine place with the name of Jaa. There were figs and vines and more wine than water. There was plenty of honey and oil; every kind of fruit hung on its trees. It had corn and barley and all kinds of sheep and cattle. My popularity with the ruler was extremely profitable. He made me a chief of his tribe in the choicest part of his domains. I had bread and wine as my daily fare, boiled meat and roast goose. There were also desert animals which they caught in traps and brought to me, apart from what my hunting dogs collected.... There was milk in every shape and form. Thus many years went by. My children grew into strong men, each of them able to dominate his tribe.

“Any courier coming from Egypt or heading south to the royal court lived with me.8 I gave hospitality to everyone. I gave water to the thirsty, put the wanderer on the right way, and protected the bereaved.

“When the Bedouins sallied forth to attack neighboring chiefs I drew up the plan of campaign. For the prince of Retenu for many years put me in command of his warriors

and whichever country I marched into I made... and... of its pastures and its wells. I plundered its sheep and cattle, led its people captive and took over their stores. I killed its people with my sword and my bow9 thanks to my leadership and my clever plans.”

Out of his many experiences among the “Asiatics” a life and death duel, which he describes in detail, seems to have made the deepest impression on Sinuhe. A “Strong man of Retenu” had jeered at him one day in his tent and called him out. He was sure he could kill Sinuhe and appropriate his flocks and herds and properties. But Sinuhe, like all Egyptians, was a practiced bowman from his earliest days, and killed the “strong man,” who was armed with shield, spear and dagger, by putting an arrow through his throat. The spoils that came to him as a result of this combat made him even richer and more powerful.

At length in his old age he began to yearn for his homeland. A letter from his Pharaoh Sesostris I summoned him to return: .”..Make ready to return to Egypt, that you may see once more the Court where you grew up, and kiss the ground at the two great gates.... Remember the day when you will have to be buried and men will do you honor. You will be anointed with oil before daybreak and wrapped in linen blessed by the goddess Tait. You will be given an escort on the day of the funeral. The coffin will be of gold adorned with lapis-lazuli, and you will be placed upon a bier. Oxen will pull it and a choir will precede you. They will dance the Dance of the Dwarfs at the mouth of your tomb. The sacrificial prayers will be recited for you and animals will be offered on your altar. The pillars of your tomb will be built of limestone among those of the royal family. You must not lie in a foreign land, with Asiatics to bury you, and wrap you in sheepskin.”

Sinuhe's heart leapt for joy. He decided to return at once, made over his property to his children and installed his eldest son as “Chief of his tribe.” This was customary with these Semitic nomads, as it was with Abraham and his progeny. It was the tribal law of the patriarchs, which later became the law of Israel. “My tribe and all my goods belonged to him only, my people and all my flocks, my fruit and all my sweet trees.10 Then I headed for the south.”

He was accompanied right to the frontier posts of Egypt by Bedouins, thence by representatives of Pharaoh to the capital south of Memphis. The second stage was by boat.

What a contrast! From a tent to a royal palace, from a simple if dangerous life back to the security and luxury of a highly civilized metropolis. “I found his Majesty on the great throne in the Hall of Silver and Gold. The king's family were brought in. His Majesty said to the Queen: 'See, here is Sinuhe, who returns as an Asiatic and has become a Bedouin.' She gave a loud shriek and all the royal children screamed in chorus. They said to his Majesty: 'Surely this is not really he, my lord King/ His Majesty replied: 'It is really he.”

I was taken to a princely mansion,” writes Sinuhe enthusiastically, “in which there were wonderful things and also a bathroom... there were things from the royal treasure house, clothes of royal linen, myrrh and finest oil; favorite servants of the king were in every room, and every cook did his duty. The years that were past slipped from my body. I was shaved and my hair was combed. I shed my load of foreign soil11 and the coarse clothing of the Sandramblers. I was swathed in fine linen and anointed with the finest oil the country could provide. I slept once more in a bed. Thus I lived, honored by the king, until the time came for me to depart this life.”

The Sinuhe story does not exist in one copy only. An astonishing number of them has been found. It must have been a highly popular work and must have gone through several “editions.” Not only in the Middle Kingdom but in the New Kingdom of Egypt it was read with pleasure, as the copies found indicate. One might call it a “best-seller,” the first in the world, and about Canaan, of all places.

The scholars who came across it again at the turn of the century were as delighted with it as Sinuhe's contemporaries had been 4,000 years before. They regarded it however as a well-told story, exaggerated like all Egyptian writings and completely without foundation. The Tale of Sinuhe became a mine of information for learned Egyptologists, but not for historians. They were so busy disputing about the clarification of the text, the letters, the construction and connection of the sentences that the contents were forgotten.

Meantime Sinuhe came into his own. For we now know that the Egyptian had written a factual account of Canaan at about the time that Abraham migrated there. It is to hieroglyphic texts dealing with Egyptian campaigns that we owe the first evidence we possess about Canaan. They agree with Sinuhe's description. Similarly, the Egyptian nobleman's story shows in some places almost literal correspondence with verses of the Bible which are often quoted. “For the lord thy God bringeth thee into a good land,” says Deut. 8 — “It was a fine country,” says Sinuhe. “A land,” continues the Bible, “of wheat and barley and vines and fig trees....” “Barley and wheat, figs and vines were there,” Sinuhe tells us. And where the Bible says: “A land of oil, olive and honey, a land wherein thou shalt eat bread without scarceness,” the Egyptian text reads: “There was plenty of honey and oil. I had bread as my daily fare.”

The description which Sinuhe gives of his way of life among the Amorites, living in a tent, surrounded by his flocks and herds, and involved in conflict with presumptuous Bedouins whom he has to drive away from his pastures and his wells, corresponds with the Biblical picture of life in patriarchal times. Abraham and his son Isaac have also to fight for their wells (Gen. 21:25, 26:I5, 20).

The care and accuracy with which Biblical tradition depicts the actual living conditions of those days is best seen when we examine the results of sober investigation. For the variety of recently discovered documents and monuments makes it possible for us to reconstruct a true picture of the conditions of life in Canaan at the time when the patriarchs entered it.

About 1900 B.C. Canaan was but thinly populated. Properly speaking it was no-man's land. Here and there in the midst of ploughed fields a fortified keep could be seen. Neighboring slopes would be planted with vines or with fig trees and date palms. The inhabitants lived in a state of constant readiness. For these widely scattered little townships, like veritable islands, were the object of daring attacks by the desert nomads. Suddenly, and when least expected, these nomads were upon them, with indiscriminate butchery, carrying off their cattle and their crops. Just as suddenly they would disappear again into the vast recess of the desert plains to the south and east. There was endless war between the settled farmers and cattle breeders and these plundering hordes who had no fixed abode, whose home was a goats hair tent somewhere out under the open skies of the desert. It was into this restless country that Abraham made his way with his wife Sarah, his nephew Lot, his kinsfolk and his flocks.

“And into the land of Canaan they came. And Abram passed through the land unto the place of Sichem, unto the plain of Moreh.... And the Lord appeared unto Abram and said: Unto thy seed will I give this land; and there builded he an altar unto the Lord, who appeared unto him. And he removed from thence unto a mountain on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent having Bethel on the west, and Hai on the east: and there he builded an altar unto the Lord, and called upon the name of the Lord. And Abram journeyed, going on still toward the south” (Gen. 12:5-9).

In the twenties, remarkable sherds were found on the Nile, the chief finds at Thebes and Saqqara. Archaeologists in Berlin obtained some of them, others went to Brussels, and the rest went to the great museum at Cairo. Under the careful hands of experts the fragments were reassembled into vases and statuettes, but the most astonishing thing about them was the inscriptions.

The writing is full of menacing curses and maledictions like: “Death strike you at every wicked word and thought, every plot, angry quarrel and plan.” These and other unpleasant wishes were generally addressed to Egyptian court officials and other eminent people, but also to rulers in Canaan and Syria.

In accordance with an old superstition it was believed that at the moment the vase or statuette was smashed the power of the person cursed would be broken. It was common to include within the spell the family, relatives, even the home town of the victim of the curse. The magical texts include names of cities like Jerusalem (Gen. 14;19), Askelon (Jud. I:18), Tyre (Josh. 19;29), Razor (Josh. 11:1), Bethshemesh (Josh. 15:10), Aphek (Josh. 12:18), Achshaph (Josh. 11:1) and Shechem (Sichem). Here is a convincing proof that these places mentioned in the Bible existed already in the 19th and 18th centuries B.C., since the vases and statuettes date from that time. Two of these towns were visited by Abraham. He calls on Melchizedek “King of Salem” (Gen. 14:18) at Jerusalem. Jerusalem is well enough known, but where was Sichem?

In the heart of Samaria lies a broad flat valley, dominated by the high peaks of Gerizim and Ebal. Well cultivated fields surround Ashkar, a small village of Jordan. Nearby at the foot of Gerizim in Tell el-Balata the ruins of Sichem were discovered.

It was due to the German theologian and archaeologist Professor Ernst Sellin that during excavations in 1913-14 strata from very early times came to light.

Sellin came across remains of walls dating back to the 19th century B.C. Bit by bit the picture emerged of a mighty surrounding wall with strong foundations, entirely built of rough boulders, some of them 6 feet in diameter. Archaeologists call this type a 4tcyclops-wall.” The wall was further strengthened by an escarpment. The builders of Sichem fortified the 6 feet thick wall with small turrets and provided an earth wall in addition.

The remains of a palace also emerged out of the ruins. The square cramped courtyard, surrounded by a few rooms with solid walls, hardly deserved the name of palace. All the Canaanite towns whose names are so familiar, and which the Israelites feared so greatly in the early days, looked like Sichem. With few exceptions the notable building projects of that period are now known. Most of them have been excavated within the last sixty years. For thousands of years they have been buried deep in the ground, now they stand clearly before us. Among them are many towns whose walls the patriarchs had seen: Bethel and Mizpah, Gerar and Lachish, Gezer and Gath, Askelon and Jericho. Anyone who wanted to write the history of the building of fortresses and cities in Canaan, would have no great difficulty in doing so in view of the wealth of material going back to the third millennium B.C.

The Canaanite towns were fortresses, places of refuge in time of danger, whether it was from sudden attack by nomadic tribes or civil war among the Canaanites themselves. Towering perimeter walls built of these great boulders invariably enclose a small area, not much bigger than St. Peter's Square in Rome. Each of these town-forts had a water supply, but they were not towns in which a large population could have made a permanent home. Compared with the palaces and great cities in Mesopotamia or on the Nile they look tiny. Most of the towns in Canaan could have gone into the palace of the kings of Mari comfortably.

In Tell el-Hesi, probably the Eglon of the Bible, the ancient fortifications enclosed an area of just over an acre. In Tell es-Safi — formerly Gath — twelve acres; in Tell el-Mutesellim — formerly Megiddo — about the same amount; in Tell el-Zakariyah — the Biblical Azekah — less than ten acres; Gezer, on the road from Jerusalem to Jaffa, occupied just over twenty acres. Even in the more built-up area of Jericho, the inner fortified wall, the Acropolis proper, enclosed a space of little more than five acres. Yet Jericho was one of the strongest fortresses in the country.

Bitter feuds between the tribal chiefs were the order of the day. There was no supreme authority. Every chieftain was master in his own territory. No one gave him orders and he did what he pleased. The Bible calls the tribal chieftains “kings.” As far as power and independence were concerned that is what they were.

Between the tribal chiefs and their subjects the relationship was patriarchal. Inside the wall lived only the chief, the aristocracy, Pharaoh's representatives, and wealthy merchants. Moreover they alone lived in strong, solid, mostly one-story houses with four to six rooms built round an open courtyard. Upper class homes with a second story were comparatively rare. The rest of the inhabitants — vassals, servants, and serfs — lived in simple mud or wattle huts outside the walls. They must have had a miserable life.

Since the days of the patriarchs two roads meet in the plain of Shechem. One goes down into the rich valley of the Jordan. The other climbs over the lonely hills southwards to Bethel, on past Jerusalem and down to the Negev, or the Land of the South as the Bible calls it. Anyone following this road would encounter only a few inhabited areas in the central highlands of Samaria and Judah: Shechem, Bethel, Jerusalem and Hebron. Anyone choosing the more comfortable road would find the larger towns and more important fortresses of the Canaanites in the lush valleys of the Plain of Jezreel, on the fertile coast of Judah and amid the luxuriant vegetation of the Jordan valley.

Abraham, as the Bible tells us, chose for his first exploration of Palestine the lonely and difficult road that points over the hills towards the south. For here the wooded hillsides offered refuge and concealment to a stranger in a foreign land, while the clearings provided pasture in plenty for his flocks and herds. Later on he and his tribe and the other patriarchs as well went back and forth along this same wretched mountain track. However tempting were the fertile valleys of the plain Abraham preferred to establish himself at first up in the hill country. For with his bows and slings he was in no condition to risk a clash with the Canaanites, whose swords and spears were more than a match for him. Abraham was not yet ready to venture out of the highlands.







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