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Descriptive Geography and Brief Historical Sketch of Palestine

By Rabbi Joseph Schwarz, 1850

A Descriptive Geography of Palestine.


It is difficult to determine, with any degree of accuracy, the former limits of Palestine, especially as there are apparently several contradictions in this respect in the holy Scriptures. For instance, it is said in Genesis 15:18, "Unto thy seed have I given this land from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates." Again, in Exodus 23:31, "and from the desert unto the river" (Euphrates); and again "from the river, the river Euphrates, even unto the uttermost sea shall your coast be."

So, also, Joshua 1:4, "From the wilderness and this Lebanon, even unto the great river, the river Euphrates, and all the land of the Hittites, and unto the great sea toward the going down of the sun, shall be your coast." In Numbers 34., however, where the precise boundary of Palestine is laid down by divine authority, we do not find that it was to extend from the Red Sea to the Euphrates; the most southerly points are עצמן Azmon, and קדש ברנע Kadesh-Barnea, and the most northerly, the Mount Hor הר ההר and no mention is made of the Red Sea on the one or the Euphrates on the other side.

To reconcile this contradiction, I would offer the following suggestion: The promise of the extended boundary of Palestine is only a future prediction, and merely a reward held out in case the Israelites would live according to the will and the commandments of God, in which case they should become powerful, and so numerous that they should be compelled by their large population, gradually to extend their boundaries to the widest given limits; as we read in Exodus 23:30, 31: "By little and little I will drive them out before thee, until thou be increased and inherit the land; and I will set thy bounds from the Red Sea unto the sea of the Philistines, and from the desert unto the river." The Red Sea and the Euphrates are accordingly indicated as the utmost points, which the Israelites should acquire in their most flourishing condition. But when their boundaries were fixed for them at their first entrance into Palestine (Numbers 34.), these were determined in due proportion to their numbers, their population; because from the paucity of their numerical strength they were not able to take possession of, to inhabit, and to people fully the wide extent of land from the Red Sea to the Euphrates, which points should become the boundaries* of their country at a later period, when their population had sufficiently increased; and, indeed, under the reign of David and Solomon (and afterwards under Herod) the boundaries of Palestine extended thus far, although only for a very short period. But when the Israelites were, at a later period, through the mercy of God, permitted to return to their former country from their exile to Babylon by the permission of Cyrus (כורש) King of Persia, after Palestine had been a desolate waste for seventy years, they were not able to take possession of the whole of the land after its former dimensions; but the small number of the returning exiles were only empowered to occupy a small portion of Palestine, which accordingly was comprised within narrower and different limits from any of the preceding ones. We have, accordingly, three different boundaries of the land of Israel at three different periods.

*To this, likewise, refers the passage of Deuteronomy 19:8,9, "And if the Lord thy God enlarge thy coast as he hath sworn unto thy fathers, and give thee all the land which he promised to give unto thy fathers: then shalt thou add three cities more for thee (for cities of refuge) besides these three," which would, accordingly give us nine such cities, to wit, three east of Jordan, three in Palestine proper, and three in the new territory between that and the Euphrates.

I. The promised limits from the Red Sea to the Euphrates.

II. Those of the conquest by Joshua from Azmon and Kadesh-Barnea at the south, to Hazar-Enan and the Mount Hor at the north, as they are described in Numbers 34.

III. Those which were established when the Israelites returned from their exile under Ezra and Nehemiah, when the most northern points of their possessions were Chezib and Akko,* as I shall show more particularly hereafter.

* This will explain for us the passage in Shebiith vi. § 1 (as also Challah iv. § 8), which says that there are three different districts with reference to the laws relating to the seventh or release year, when in Palestine proper it was not permitted to sow or to reap. The country, taken possession of by the returning exiles, is given as to Chezib, whereas that conquered by Joshua is described from Chezib to the river, and from the same point to Amana,  אמנהwhich, according to my view, is as follows: the Chezib here mentioned, is the Achzib of Joshua 19:29, or the village three hours (about 8 miles) distance north of Akko, now called Al Zib. Amanah is the Mount Hor, the most northerly point of Palestine, of which I shall speak more circumstantially hereafter. The river here spoken of cannot be easily determined. For it is not possible that the Euphrates is here understood, since, as already said, the Israelites under Joshua never penetrated that far, wherefore it cannot be taken as the boundary of their possessions. Maimonides, and the author of the Kaphtor Vapherach think it to be the Wady al Arish (see farther down concerning the River of Egypt נחל מצרים); but this stream is at the southwest corner, and here reference is made to a northern point. But it appears to me that the river spoken of here is the Pharpar of 2 Kings 5:12; in Arabic Fidjeh, which takes its course from the village Dar Kanon, which I suppose to be identical with Chazar-Enan, for Chazor is in Arabic Dar "dwelling;" Enan is easily corrupted into Kanon; the place, therefore, is the most northeasterly of Palestine proper (Numbers 34:9). Now this little stream runs from the north to the south, and forms measurably the northeastern boundary of the land of Israel, and as the Amanah is the northwestern, so is the Pharpar or Fidjeh, the northeastern limit.

The passage in Gittin, fol. 8a, "How far does Palestine extend? from Amanah southward, belongs to Palestine, from that point northward, does not belong to it," refers, according to my opinion, to the country conquered by Joshua; but where the boundary points are given by Achzib, Zib, and Akko, I take the same to refer to the boundaries of the returned exiles under Ezra.