The Promised Land: In Canaan or in Nubia?
Avner Ramu. Journal of Religious Thought. Washington: 2001-2005. Vol.57/58, Iss. 2/1-2; pg. 83, 10 pgs
Abstract (Document Summary)
In spite of statements made by later scribes, authentic biblical references to the land of the patriarchs apparently do not claim that their land was in Canaan. Ramu proposes that the genuine biblical description of the land of the patriarchs refers to the western Nubian Desert. Ancient Egyptian inscriptions mention a few Nubian place names, some of those bear a similarity to the biblical place names associated with the lives of the patriarchs.
Full Text (4092 words)
Copyright Howard University 2001-2005
According to the Bible, Abraham was the first follower of the Lord. The first revelation of the Lord occurred to Abraham in Haran: "And the Lord said to Abram: Go from your country, and your birthplace to the land that I will show you" (Gen. 12:1). Shortly after arriving there, near a place called Shechem, the Lord said to Abraham, "To your offspring I will give this land" (Gen. 12:7). Later, Abraham settled in Alonei Mamre, where, apparently, the Lord promised him, "To your descendants I give this land" (Gen. 15:18). Up to this point in the biblical narrative about Abraham, the Lord's name in the Hebrew Bible was Yahweh, and he had not yet specified the name of the land promised to Abraham's descendants.
Noticeable changes occur in Genesis 17, where God is referred to by two new Hebrew names, El-Shadai and Elohim. Now we read for the first time: "I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land of your residence, all the land of Canaan, a holding forever" (Gen. 17:8). Julius Wellhausen indicated that although God is Elohim in two of the sources of the biblical material, it is the priestly source that emphasizes the need to obey the religious rituals and laws.1 The essence of the covenant in Genesis 17 is the law about circumcising every newborn male on the eighth day. Such content suggests that the chapter is of a priestly source, which generally is dated to the sixth or fifth century BCE. Therefore, the reference to Canaan in Genesis 17:8 is probably a late addition to the biblical text.
If the biblical Abraham is a historical person, he most probably lived in the first part of the second millennium BCE. However, there is no extra biblical evidence that Shechem, Alonei Mamre, or any other place name that is associated with Abraham existed in Abraham's era in Canaan. Furthermore, I will demonstrate that although the biblical description of the land of the patriarchs is not compatible with Canaan, it could be located in the western Nubian Desert.
Is Hurran the Biblical Haran?
If Haran was indeed the birthplace of Abraham (Gen. 12:1), then verses 11:31 and 15:7, which mention "Ur of the Chaldees," could not be genuine. In addition to the book of Genesis, forty-one other biblical verses refer to Abraham. The only other verse that tells us he came from "Ur of the Chaldees" is in the book of Nehemiah (9:7). Because that book was written in the Persian period (538-333 BCE), the credibility of its information about an event that occurred many centuries earlier may be doubted. The town of Ur (150 miles southwest of Susa) is mentioned in the records of the Persian King Artaxerxes II.
Nehemiah, as a high court official in Susa (Neh. 2:1-9), was probably aware of the impressive remains of the great Ziggurat of Ur. That structure had been built many centuries earlier when Ur was the capital of Sumer. Because the first biblical account about Abraham appears immediately after the narrative about the tower built in Shinar (corresponds to the region of Sumer), it is not improbable that Nehemiah-or a contemporary scribe-assumed that Abraham was from Ur. In the Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian period, Sumer was referred to as Chaldea, and the expression "Ur of the Chaldees" is a further indication that some material was added to the text in this late period.
However, if the scribe's assumption is incorrect and if the journey of Abraham did not begin in the land of the Chaldees, one has to wonder where Haran was located. It is generally assumed that the ancient ruins near Hurran, a town situated on the river Belikh in southeast Turkey, is the biblical Haran.2 In the early second millennium BCE, Hurran was controlled by the Hurrians, whose heartland was northern Mesopotamia. The Hurrians had a well-developed culture (as is evident from the remains of the towns of Mari and Nuzi) and a written language. The Hurrian language, which is not Semitic, includes Indo-Iranian names and shows the influence of languages of the Caucasus region. In the biblical accounts that relate to the birthplace of Abraham, one finds no clue that suggests a connection to the Hurrian culture or that language. On the contrary, the patriarchs are clearly Semitic; therefore, it is unlikely that the Hurran is the biblical Haran. The location of the biblical Haran remains unknown.
In Search of the Promised Land
As indicated above, in Genesis 12, the Lord sent Abraham to an unnamed country, yet we read that "they set forth to go to the land of Canaan, and they had come to the land of Canaan.... At that time, the Canaanites were in the land" (Gen. 12:5-6). From the beginning of the Bible until the end of the book of Joshua, the word "Canaan" appears in sixty biblical verses (excluding the mention of men named Canaan). In fifty-nine of those verses, we find the expression "land of Canaan." In the remaining part of the Bible, the phrase "land of Canaan" appears in only five verses. Besides Genesis 12:5, there is one other verse in which the land of Canaan appears twice. In an awkwardly constructed verse, we read that "As you are coming to the land of Canaan, this is the land that shall fall to you for an inheritance, the land of Canaan by its borders" (Num. 34:2). In a manner similar to that found in Genesis 12:5, the writer of Numbers 34:2 appears to make the utmost effort to inform the reader that the Hebrews are about to take possession of Canaan and not of any other place.
The geographical name "Canaan" appears in Tell el-Amarna's letters (written between 1400 and 1300 BCE). Although the borders of the Egyptian province of Canaan shifted from one period to the next, the name "Canaan" generally referred to an area along the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Similarly, the biblical "land of Canaan" is roughly between the town of Gaza in the south and Syria in the north (Gen. 10:19). The writer of Genesis 12:5-6 apparently knew the location of Canaan, but it is not clear whether he indeed knew, or just assumed, that Abraham came from Haran to the land of Canaan. In fact, there are a number of reasons to conclude that the land reached by Abraham was not Canaan.
We read that shortly after Abraham's arrival "There was a famine in the land. So Abram went down to Egypt to reside there ... for the famine was severe in the land" (Gen. 12:10). Famine was not an unusual event in the patriarchs' land, and the severe famine that occurred during Isaac's time nearly compelled him to go to Egypt. Later, because of yet another extended famine, Jacob had to order his sons-twice in fact-to go to Egypt and buy food. Finally, the famine forced Jacob and his household to pack up all their belongings and immigrate to Egypt.
James Hoffmeier believes that from time immemorial hunger and thirst drove the pastoral nomads of Canaan and the Sinai with their flocks to Egypt's lush Nile Delta. Hoffmeier's belief relies on his interpretation of lines 91-93 of the Merikare.3 However, in those lines, the speaker explains the causes for the nomadic lifestyle of the miserable Asiatic, but not necessarily the reasons for the immigration of some of them to Egypt. Undoubtedly, in various historic periods, Asiatic people have immigrated to the Nile Delta and have settled as farmers or have raised cattle. But it is highly improbable that the delta's farmers would let pastoral nomads tend their flocks in the Egyptians' cultivated fields. In fact, the Bible tells us "all shepherds are abhorrent to the Egyptians" (Gen. 47:34).
Water as a Clue
Although not "a land flowing with milk and honey," Canaan had water resources that could always sustain a population much larger than the patriarchs' families. The climatic history of the Middle East indicates that, although no major changes have occurred in the last five millennia, the region is somewhat more arid today than it was in the past. Throughout history, people left (willingly or not) the land of Canaan for a variety of reasons. However, with the exception of Genesis, no biblical account provides any evidence that people of Canaan moved to Egypt as a result of a famine or lack of water. It is thus unlikely that the land of the biblical patriarchs was in Canaan.
Water wells and the scarcity of water play a pivotal role in biblical descriptions of the lives of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, yet rainfall is not mentioned even once. Although the annual rainfall in the land of Canaan varies considerably from one year to the next, I am not aware of any evidence suggesting that there was ever a year with no rain at all. In Canaan, the rainy season begins in the fall and ends in the spring. Rain clouds arrive from the west and release most of their content over the western slopes of the mountain ranges extending in a north-south direction in the center of the country. The eastern slopes of the Samaria and Judea mountains experience much less precipitation than do the western slopes. The north-south distribution of rain is not even, and the southern regions receive much less rainfall than the north of Canaan.
Before the completion of the National Water Carrier Project some years ago, farming was limited primarily to the northern half of Israel, and the relatively arid south was the domain of pastoral nomads (e.g., Bedouins). In years with exceptionally low rainfall, a migration of the Bedouins with their herds to the north, where grass was more abundant, was a common practice. In such dry years, even the most ignorant herdsman in Palestine would not have contemplated the idea of driving his flock southwest through the dry and barren deserts of the Negeb and the Sinai Peninsula (which are even more arid than southern Canaan) to Egypt.
Thus, if the pastoral biblical patriarchs were forced by famine in their land to go down to Egypt, it is very unlikely that their land was in Canaan. In Genesis 41:54-57, we are told about a period of seven years of famine in Egypt. During most, or all, of that period, there was also a famine in the land of the biblical patriarchs (Gen. 42:1-2, 45:6-11). Because the climatic systems responsible for the weather in Canaan are independent of the systems causing the monsoon rains in the Ethiopian highland (which determine the annual water flow rate in the Nile), it is unlikely that such an extended famine would occur in Canaan and Egypt at the same time. We, therefore, need to search for the land of the biblical patriarchs in a region that is influenced by the same climatic systems that affect Egypt. One such area is located south of Egypt.
"Going Down" as a Clue
Whenever the Bible describes the movements of the pastoral patriarchs from one region of their land to another, the following expressions are used: "passed through the land to the place of," "he removed from there to a mountain," and "he went on his journey from," but the phrases "going up" or "going down" are not once used. However, when Abraham was forced by the famine to leave his land and go to Egypt, the Bible states that "There was a famine in the land. So Abram went down to Egypt" (Gen. 12:10), and "So Abram went up from Egypt ... Hanegba" (Gen. 13:1).
The repeated biblical use of the term "going down" to describe a journey taken from the land of the patriarchs to Egypt was not missed by the renovators of the modern Hebrew language. The contemporary Hebrew word for an immigrant to Israel literally means "one who goes up," and a person who emigrates from Israel is called "one who goes down." Viewing the Middle East on a map usually does not raise questions regarding the use of "going down" to describe a southwestward voyage from Canaan to Egypt, but the experience on the ground is totally different. A journey from the Beer-Sheba region in the land of Canaan through the northern Sinai Peninsula to Egypt does not give the perception of "going down."
One biblical figure who took part in a journey from Canaan to Egypt was the prophet Jeremiah. Although Jeremiah referred multiple times to such journeys from Canaan to Egypt, or from Egypt to Canaan, at no time did he use the expression "going down to Egypt" or "going up from Egypt" (Jer. 2:18, 26:21, 37:5, 37:7, 41:17, 42:15, 42:17, 42:19, 43:2). If the biblical patriarchs indeed "went down" from their land to Egypt and were "going up" on their return, we should seek the location of their land somewhere other than Canaan.
The Bible tells us where we should look: "So Abram went up from Egypt ... Hanegba" (Gen. 13:1). The Hebrew word Hanegba means "southward." Coming out of Egypt, one may experience the sensation of "going up" only when following a southward direction. If one uses no other mean, watching the flow of the Nile river may give such an impression. Incidentally, the ancient Egyptians referred to the southern part of their land as Upper Egypt, which suggests the possibility that the land of the biblical patriarchs was somewhere in northern Sudan. That area is very arid, and the local rainfall is so scant and infrequent that it has almost no effect on the water supply. Furthermore, throughout history, the pastorals of Nubia (the desert regions of northern Sudan) in a similar manner to the biblical patriarchs had to migrate far and wide to maintain their herds. They also frequently reached the areas controlled by Egypt.