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Geography, Trade and Peace With Our Neighbors

Historically speaking, we know Eretz Yisrael as the land of the Jews, living alongside many Nations who resided near and with the Israelites, and traded with them. Israel’s ancient lands were, and are, a crossing point for many peoples, not just our own. In that regard, we tend to think of maps of Israel as being “accurate” for a given time, but the reality is that our understanding of geography, much like our people, is always in motion. We now see borders as an ordered divisible line, often fixed by latitude and longitude and not as they were: natural features throughout most of human history. Rivers were borders and gave Israel safety but they were and are corridors for people and goods and the source of fertility that created the wealth of the land. Mountains were boundaries but also places of deep spirituality and where rivers get their start. Maps and Torah point to Mount Tabor as the border between Zebulun, Issachar and Naphtali. This lends credence to the fact that natural features were also logical borders between tribes, and as the border proper of Israel. We know this instinctively, but Torah rarely discusses the use of rivers as means of goods and transit, yet I argue that this is notion of the movement of goods and people, of working with the outside world, is critical to a secure and stable peace and a respect for Israel as a nation. The greatest danger to Israel is that of ignorance: that the enemies of Israel fail to see its advantageous geography and its people as potential partners as they were historically, and instead see the warfare and conquest often depicted in religious texts as a false justification for the destruction of Israel.

In the spirit of understanding geography, borders were not then the grey lines precisely drawn by instruments and expressed in latitude and longitude that we see on many maps today. The measure of latitude would not be invented until almost a thousand years later. While the measured mile existed, and known paths of travel and roads were certainly measured accordingly, the concept of a fixed border along mathematical lines postdates the Ancient Kingdom of Israel. Our lands aren’t always precisely expressed within Torah or later discussions. For example, in the Torah, the land of Zebulun is partially described as “Their border went up westward, even to Maralah, and reached to Dabbesheth; and it reached to the brook that is before Jokneam.” (Joshua 10:11) The border stream could now be the Yokne’am Stream, a stream that has been artificially constrained by modern works, and flows from the Nahal Kishom. However, this border could also have been Nahal Sanin or the Nahal Shinayim, nearby rivers. Joshua’s depiction of borders on the west only extend as far as Yokne’am, some 20 miles east of the Mediterranean Sea. However, many Torah scholars describe the border of Zebulun as the Mediterranean Sea, based on Genesis 49:13. In a nation that isn’t all that wide to begin with, 20 miles is quite a distance.

Zebulun was thought to be the tribe of merchants, yet there is no literal indication in the Torah of them being merchants. Rather, that Zebulun and Issachar enjoyed a symbiotic relationship of sorts, that Zebulun would enjoy going out of his tents, and Issachar staying within (Deuteronomy 33:18). The Talmud later discussed this as Issachar being more focused inwardly and in study, and Zebulun reaching out as merchants and traders (Rabbah 99:9). Wheat, Olive Oil, and Wine would have been regularly exported to areas like Egypt, Minoan Crete, Greece and to Anatolia (modern Turkey). It is likely that while Zebulun had its home in the valley described in Torah, the Tribe also traveled along the Nahal Kishom to modern Haifa, which would have been the ancient city of Tel Abu Hawam. The Nahal Kishom passes northwesterly from Mt. Gilboa out into the sea, so goods flowed from Israel to the world. It was Israel’s highway out to the world, as many goods would have been borne by boat. It is in trade and the fertile exchange of ideas that Peace is born in exchange, we see the goods mentioned above come to Israel.

The Talmud states “Through Zebulun’s commerce, merchants of the world’s nations will come to his land. Now Zebulun is located at the border, so these merchants will say, ‘Since we have taken so much trouble to reach here, let us go to Jerusalem and see what the God of this nation is like and what they do.’” (SIfrei 33:19) Excavations at the site of Tel Abu Hawam, modern Haifa, have indicated Egyptian, Cypriot and Syro-Lebanese goods of the era (Artzy, 2016). If the Tribe of were indeed the merchants, then they likely did their exchanges at this site. They also viewed commerce as an action to share in the awesomeness of G-d before all nations. It was not in the sense of “Israel is better than you”, but rather that the concept of G-d as a G-d for all peoples and not just one was a path to peaceful exchange among all.

A more modern saying that describes this idea is “Where trade goes, soldiers don’t.” While military battles and the People Israel’s constant facing of destruction and resultant salvation by G-d and their own martial and intellectual efforts make perhaps for more potent religious allegory, these stories obscure the fact that Israelites lived most of their lives not as soldiers, but as farmers, traders, merchants and sailors. Most people want to work at a trade of their choosing, raise a family and live well. We see ancient geography far too often through conflict and not through the lives of people. Most of us are familiar with Exodus 23:5; “You shall not oppress a stranger for you know the feelings of the stranger having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” We are directly commanded to treat others fairly. Far more often did people cross into Eretz Yisrael in Peace throughout its history than war. I am not arguing that Israel should lessen its security or be unwary of those who would do it harm. I do however believe that many peoples, especially those would harm Israel, should instead realize that history, geography, and Torah all argue that peace and trade with Israel is a far more fertile path to a better world than one of constant war.


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