From Camp To CampOnce more they set out on their travels, made but a fleeting halt at Bethel and left again. Frequently they traveled by round-about ways; twice they crossed the Negeb desert, touched on Egyptian territory and came back to Bethel. The time between the first and second halt at Bethel appears to be an interlude. YAHWEH did not reveal himself again and a fairly long interval elapsed in the dialogue between YAHWEH and man. It provided for Abram a further period of pastoral life during which we can observe his behaviour as a wandering shepherd.
From Shechem To BethelFrom there [Shechem] he moved on to the mountainous district east of Bethel where he pitched his tent with Bethel to the west and Ai to the east. There he built an altar to YAHWEH and invoked the name of YAHWEH (Bereshith 12:8).
They had seemed, after all, comfortably settled at the Oak of Moreh and then suddenly they strike camp and are off. These constant changes of camping ground took place always for the same reason: Abram left the valley of Shechem because there was no longer enough grass for the flocks. And so from the mountain of Samaria they went over to the neighbouring mountain Ephraim, a mere seventy-five miles, or ninety, at the most with the wandering nature of the paths and byways. Mount Ephraim was well known among the wandering shepherds for its rich pastureland, continually freshened by an abundant rainfall.
And so they set out for Mount Ephraim. They camped, the Scriptures tells us, between Bethel and Ai, that is, on the direct route from Shechem. Here they were some eleven miles, as the crow flies, to the north of a rock on which stood a city of the name of Urusalim, the future Yerusalem. Bethel and Ai, two picturesque names, were also to become famous in Scriptural history.
Bethel. In Hebrew, Beth'El, The House Of YAHWEHWhen Abram, with his men and his beasts, came to this rocky plateau the village of Bethel did not yet exist, nor indeed did the place bear this name; probably it had none at the time. As we shall see, the name Beth'EI was given to this site a hundred years later by Yacob, Abram's grandson, after the famous night spent near the small village of Luz. Consequently, Abram a hundred years earlier could not have known the place under the name of Bethel. But the scribe obviously needed a distinctive name to designate, at least approximately, the site of Abram's camp. This place is situated a short distance from the ancient city of Luz (or Luza) which for long remained distinct though quite near the village of Bethel. 1
Some historians, basing their conclusions on certain ancient ruins which bear witness to a tradition that has endured, are inclined to locate the site of the patriarch's camp on the hill now known as Khirbet el- Bordy, about half a mile from the present village of Beitin! the former Bethel. From this hill-top (altitude 2800 feet) there is a fine view: to the east runs the deep valley of the Yardan, enclosed on its left bank by the gloomy rampart formed by the mountains of Moab and Gilead, and even the northern shore of the Dead Sea can be seen; to the west and south the white hills of Judaea can be made out and also certain faces of the rock of Yerusalem.
Ai (or Hai) -the 'ruin' or the 'heap of stones' -was formerly a powerful and ancient city, dating from about the year 3000. But it was destroyed at the beginning of the second millennium; in Abram's time there still remained imposing ruins, hence its name. 2
There could be only one answer to YAHWEH's recent revelation, that of thanksgiving. And so once more an altar was put up, this time at Bethel (Bereshith 12:8-9), by Abram, just as he had done at Shechem. The Hebrew shepherd then 'invoked the name of YAHWEH', following the rites which were described above in accordance with the evidence which we at present possess. Then, the Scriptures goes on, he made his way stage by stage to the Negeb.
The Negeb was the 'dry land', the 'land of the south', 'the southern region'. What exactly was the attraction of this region for which the patriarchs, Abram, Yitschaq and Yacob, seemed to show a special preference? Certainly it was rather poor country, and some parts of it were rocky and presented a stony and inhospitable appearance. There were rocky, mountainous slopes with little or no rainfall. This unwelcoming, hostile aspect is to be found especially on the slopes going down to the Dead Sea.
On the other hand, on the eastern side the hills of the Shephelah region form a junction with the gently rolling hills of the coastal region. On the eastern side of the mountain mass the land of Negeb contains many valleys, some of them fairly wide; springs are to be found there and water is easily obtainable by digging wells.
In ancient times urban centres appear to have been fairly numerous in this region of the Negeb which can only relatively be described as a desert. Some names recur frequently in the history of the patriarchs: in the first place Beersheba, probably on account of its famous well, and Kedesh, with its pleasant oasis, conveniently placed for caravans on the way to Egypt.
It may well be wondered what secret motive the patriarchs had for their unexpected preference for the Negeb when in the north and the centre of the land of Canaan, on the mountain slopes of Samaria and of Judaea, there was good pasture to be found. It seems that the motive was spiritual. In the main part of the country there were too many Canaanite cities and too many camps of Canaanite shepherds. Relations with these idolaters obviously provided a constant source of danger for the Hebrew shepherds who would appear to have had an innate tendency to revert to the idols of their Semitic ancestors. They were obliged to isolate their followers or at least to endeavour to lessen opportunities for contact between the two civilizations. Throughout the history of the Chosen People we shall frequently have occasion to observe how the exchange of ideas between the Canaanites, the ancient inhabitants of the country and the sons of Abram, the new arrivals, proved extremely harmful to the development of the high set apart standards of the Yisraelites.
On account of its geographical isolation and the semi-desert nature of the region the Negeb stood out as a quiet part of the country which was almost uninhabited. Here YAHWEH's chosen people were to find beneficial solitude and an isolation favourable to meditation on the Word of YAHWEH.
1 Nowadays the ancient Luz and the ancient Bethel form a single village under the name Beitin.
2 When we come to study the various phases of the conquest of the Promised Land under Yahshua Ben Nun we shall find the Canaanites making use of this kind of bastion to stem the advance of the Yisraelites (about 1200). The still imposing remains of Ai were uncovered between 1933 and 1935 on the hill of Ettel, to the east of Bethel.
Abram's round journey: from Bethel back to Bethel by way of the Negeb and Egypt
1. Abram, coming from Shechem in the Ephraim mountain mass, goes on to that of Judaea and sets up his I tents between Bethel and Ai.
2. Then, by stages he went forward towards Hebron in the Negeb region (and probably stopped at Beersheba).
3. A famine occurred, as a consequence, probably, of a hot summer which burnt up the pasture, so they went down towards Egypt. In the map an approximative route has been shown, since the Scriptures gives very little or no precise information about the exact route followed.
4. After a more or less prolonged sojourn, not in Egypt but merely in the frontier region of the Delta (the only place where the Egyptians allowed the Bedouins to graze their flocks), Abram returned to the mountain region of Judaea and settled again in the same camping ground that he previously occupied between Ai and Bethel.