Sunday, January 22, 2017

Bible Road Trips: The Land's Roads and Highways

Roman road in Syria
During the past several months I've been posting Bible study devotions based on biblical roads and highways. I've written several and have several to go.

Four years ago, I did some (to me) interesting research on the major Middle Eastern highways in the biblical land, in addition to the local roads that Jesus and others traveled, and posted my notes from several Bible dictionaries and articles.

This post, imported from my other Bible-related blog, has less devotional value but digs into the scripture's historical background.

The major road of the ancient Near East was the Via Maris (way of the sea) or in Hebrew, derekh hayyam (Isa. 9:1), also called the Great Trunk Road. It was the most important road from Egypt to Babylonia and many parts of the Fertile Crescent.(1). The road began at Memphis, went first through Gaza. As Barry J. Beitzel puts it, Gaza “sometimes served as a launching pad or Egyptian campaigns through Palestine and Syria. Thus is was an important highway for the security of Egypt.” In Exodus 13:17 it was called the “way to the land of the Philistines”.(2)

The Via Maris then reached Megiddo and had at least three different branches, one along the Sea to Syrian Antioch, and another route eastward to the city of Beth-shan and then north to the Sea of Galilee and then along the western shore of that see to Gennesaret. The third branch crossed the Jezreel Valley, through the hills of Nazareth and near Mt. Moreh, and then made and eastward then northward path where it met the road from Beth-shan near the Sea of Galilee. From the northern places then road continued to other areas, including a long road from Aleppo along the Euphrates River to Babylon, Uruk, Ur, and the Persian Gulf.(3) If you consult a map that illustrates this route and shows you these towns, you can get a better idea of the extensive reach of this particular highway system.

There was also the King’s Highway (derekh hammeleskh). The King’s Highway connected with the Via Maris at Damascus.(5). Gregory Linton writes, “Since the work of Nelson Glueck, historians have used the phrase to refer to a major international route in Transjordan that descended south from Damascus and passed through Ashtaroth, Ramoth-gilead, Rabbath-ammon [Amman], Heshbon, Dibon, Kir-hareseth, and Bozrah until it reached Elath on the Gulf of Aqaba. Its northern section from Heshbon to Ashtaroth was called ‘the road to Bashan’ (Num 21:33, Deut 3:10).”(4). Linton notes that the derekh hammeleskh appears in Num. 20:17 and 21:22, but also may be referred to in Gen. 14 and Num. 33:41-49; thus it was one of the roads of the Israelite wanderings. The King’s Highway was also the trade route fought over in 2 Kings 10:33 and 2 Kings 16:7).(6)

Another important ancient highway was the Assyrian-Hittite Road, which passed through major Assyrian cities toward Kanish, and through Derbe, Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch in Psilidia, also intersecting with Laodicea, Philadelphia, Sardis, and Ergamum. (7)

Still another key road was the National Highway through the Israel highlands, passing through Jezreel, Samaria, Shechem, Bethelem, Jerusalem, Hebron, and Beersheba.  Jesus traveled around Galilee and areas like Judea, the Decapolis, Samaria, Phoenicia, and Paneas. Yet another major road passed south from Damascus through Capernaum and Tiberius southwest toward Megiddo then to Caesarea and south along the coast toward Egypt.(8)

Of course, small local linked with international trade routes. In his article, Lincoln Blumell lists several scriptures that detail Jesus’ childhood travel and his adult years. (9)

Michael Vanzant notes that these highways “were more curse than blessing for Israel” when the Egyptian, Assyrian, and Babylonian armies traveled on them. Josiah, in fact, was killed at Megiddo---itself a frequent area of conflict---on the Via Maris while opposing the Egyptian army, in 2 Kings 23:39.(10) As indicated above, the King’s Highway was the trade route fought over in 2 Kings 10:33 and 2 Kings 16:7.(11)

On the other hand, the highways through the Land helped build the Davidic empire. Vanzant writes, “Key to the success and expansion of the kingdoms of David and Solomon was control of the Jezreel Valley and the key routes leading to both Phoenicia and Damascus. During the divided kingdom period, the presence of these two major trade routes in northern Israel created not only financial opportunity but also the religion syncretism seen within the Ahab-Jezebel-Elijah stories (1 Kgs 16:29-22:40).  Control of the trade led to great wealth, reflect in the oracles of Amos against the northern kingdom of Israel in the mid-8th cent. BCE.” (12) Of course, the Israelites “were not seafaring peoples,” although Solomon had a fleet and port at Ezlon-geber on the Red sea (1 Kings 9:26-28). (13)

Gregory Linton goes on to describe roads of the Assyrians, and the Persians improved the Assyrian system. Classical Greece had no well developed system of roads, while the Romans had a sophisticated system of thousands of miles of roads.(14)  Also the fact that Roman roads were not only well constructed and paved (with flat stone) and capable of high volume traffic, but they were also straight, and marked with mileposts. (15) The apostle Paul used a Roman road from Antioch to Tarsus, Derbe, Iconium, Lystra, and Pisidian Antioch during his second missionary trip (Act 15:41-16:6), and also the Via Egnatia from Neapolis to Philippi and eventually Thessalonica (Acts 16:11-17:1). Linton also says that he would have used the road to Apamea, Laodicea, and Ephesus (Acts 19:1) during his third trip.  He also would’ve traveled the famous Appian Way (Acts 28:13-16). (16)

The kind of highway named by the Hebrew word derekh (Num. 20:17, 19, Judg. 21:19) “was the most common type of road in ancient Israel, formed through continual use compressing the soil and removing vegetation, and sometimes improved.  The mesilla (built-up road) was intentionally constructed with a high center and drainage on the edges. This type only became common in the Roman era.” The usage of the words was variable: the derekh of Jeremiah 18:15 is not built up, while the derekh of Job 19:12 is built-up. (17) As reflected in passages such as Prov. 15:19, Prov. 22:5. Isa. 40:3, Isa. 57:14, Isa. 62:10, and Hos. 2:6, a typical road was constructed by filling holes on the path, removing large stones and brush, and leveling the path.(18)

Michael Vanzant goes on to say that highways are figurative images in the Bible, like Prov 15:19, 16:17, Jere. 18:15, 31:21. “Isaiah 35:8 notes a ‘built-up’ derekh called the Highway of Holiness, the route of returning exiles.”(19) A related image is that of God’s peace.  “Often the image of ‘the way’ or a ‘highway in the desert’ that is leveled, open, or straight metaphorically denotes a period of peace, usually a prophetic view of the future. ‘A voice cries out “....make straight in the desert a highway for our God”’ (Is. 40:3). Road systems that were free, protected, and in good condition represented prosperity and peace for the people and nations of the ancient world.”(20)

Among the different reasons for travel in biblical times were religious purposes, such as visits to temples and shrines of particular God, and for Jews, too, the pilgrimage festivals of Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. “Josephus reports that so many Jews would travel to Jerusalem for Passover that the city was literally overflowing with visitors during the time of its celebration.”(21)

Of course, we think of the Jericho road where the Samaritan of Jesus’ story became Good. Emmaus (at least the place archaeologists believe the town existed) was about seven miles northwest of Jerusalem, and it was along that road where Jesus met the two downcast disciples in Luke 24. And the Via Dolorosa is today a Jerusalem street but was a portion of a Roman-era road that passed through the city.


1. Lincoln Blumell, “Travel and Communication in the NT,” The New Interpreter’s Bible Dictionary, Vol. 5, S-Z (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2009), 656-657.

2. Barry J. Beitzel, “Roads and Highways (Pre-Roman)", The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. 5, O-Sh, (New York, Doubleday, 1992), 778

3.  Beitzel, “Roads and Highways (Pre-Roman)", 778-779

4   Gregory L. Linton, “King’s Highway,” The New Interpreter’s Bible Dictionary, Vol. 3, I-Ma (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2008), 523.

5. Beitzel, “Roads and Highways (Pre-Roman)", 779.

6.  Linton, “King’s Highway,” 523.

7.  Beitzel, “Roads and Highways (Pre-Roman)", 780.

8.  Lincoln Blumell, “Travel and Communication in the NT,” The New Interpreter’s Bible Dictionary, Vol. 5, S-Z (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2009), 654

9. Blumell, “Travel and Communication in the NT,” 654

10. Michael Vanzant, “Travel and Communication in the OT,” The New Interpreter’s Bible Dictionary, Vol. 5, S-Z (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2009), 657

11. Linton, “King’s Highway,” 523.

12  Vanzant, “Travel and Communication in the OT,” 657

13  Ibid.

14. Gregory L. Linton, “Road,” The New Interpreter’s Bible Dictionary, Vol. 4, Me-R (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2009), 826.

15. Linton, “Road,” 825.

16. Linton, “Road,” 826.

MIchael G. Vanzant, “Highway,” The New Interpreter’s Bible Dictionary, Vol. 4, Me-
R, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2009), 654.

18. Linton, “Road,” 825.

19  Vanzant, “Highway,” 654; Linton, “Road,” 825.

20. Vanzant, “Travel and Communication in the OT,” 656-657.

21. Blumell, “Travel and Communication in the NT,”  653.

See also:

F. F. Bruce, “Travel and Communication in the NT,” The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. 6,
Si-Z (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 648-653.

David F. Graf, Benjamin Isaac, Israel Roll, “Roads and Highways (Roman),” The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. 5, O-Sh (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 782-787.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Landscape: Cox

John Rogers Cox (1915-1990), "Gray and Gold" (1942). In the Cleveland Museum of Art:  Copied under fair use principles.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Bible in a Year: Genesis 23-45

I'm reading through the Bible this year at a rate of about 22 chapters a week (1189 total chapters
divided by 52 weeks), and taking notes on the readings. This week, we have the remaining chapters of Abraham and Sarah's stories (23:1-25:18), the "Jacob cycle" (25:19-36:43), and the Joseph narrative, which is 37:1-50:26 but this week I'm stopping at the stories' climax, chapter 45.

This is the end of Abraham's stories, though the beginning of the long story of God's promise to him. In 23:1-20, we read of the only part of the promised Land that Abraham actually owned by legal contract: the tomb and field where he will bury Sarah. Abraham and the Canaanite Ephron strike a deal, and there Sarah is buried, and eventually Abraham (25:1-18) and later Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob, and Leah. If I remember correctly, this is the last time we meet Ishmael in the story, when he joins Isaac in burying their father.

I remember reading in one of Brevard S. Childs' Old Testament studies, that the paucity of Isaac stories raises the question of whether there once was a cycle of his stories as long as those of his father and son. I also remember reading, in Torah: A Modern Commentary, that Isaac seems passive in the stories: things happen to him, rather than him taking initiative. He goes along with the near-sacrifice in chapter 22, and with the selection of Rebekah in chapter 24, and is sadly victim to his son's and wife's scheming in chapter 27.

The long chapter 24 gives of the story of the wooing of Rebekah, where the servant of Abraham helps gain her as Isaac's wife. We have a series of rich interconnections in these chapters. The Harper's Bible Commentary author notes that chapter 24 is structured similarly as Abraham's call in chapter 12, with the repeating of key words "bless" and "go," and chapter 24 also forms a frame for the chapter 12 promise. Rebekah, after all, is essential for the promise and enters the family as Isaac's wife. (Sadly compare the expulsion of Hagar in chapter 21 with the acceptance of Rebekah, though Ishmael's descendants are provided a genealogy, 25:12-18). The initial "barrenness" of Rebekah (25:21) also provides a narrative connection back to Sarai/Sarah.

The Harper's commentary points out other connections. Conflict and deception are themes through the Abraham stories and now both the Jacob and Joseph cycles---mostly familial strife, though Jacob contends with the mysterious challenger in 32:24-32, and we can remember Abraham's verbal contention with God over the fate of Sodom in chapter 18. Not to mention, chapter 26 has the story of Isaac, Rebekah, and Abimelech, where (like his father's two deceptions about Sarah) Isaac does not want it known that Rebekah is his wife, and in the meantime gains substantial property (again, similar to his father's experience in chapter 12, and Jacob a bit later).

The fraternal twins Jacob and Esau have trouble right away, with Jacob pushing Esau to despise his birthright (chapter 25), and the more elaborate deception of chapter 27. The Harper's commentary makes an interesting point: that the resourcefulness of Rebekah to ensure her son's future is similar to the story of Moses' mother in Exodus 2:1-10. There are other interesting connections, like Jacob's outrage at Laban's deception--he who was the deceiver has now been deceived---and Laban's own deceptive advocacy of his daughter Leah, which echoes Rebekah's advocacy of Jacob (chapter 29).

We can also make connections to the sacred place of Bethel, the site of Jacob's dream of the ladder/stairway and God's retelling to Jacob of the promise to Abraham. Bethel was an alternative sacred place (1 Kings 12:26-33, Amos 7:1-13) while Salem/Jerusalem (Genesis 14) became the city of the Temple and the southern kingdom. Another significant place for Jacob is the location in Genesis 32 where he wrestles... who? An angel? A human adversary? Although the sacred site is given the name Penuel, the more significant change is Jacob's, who gains the name Israel, "one who contends with God."

I always love the story of Jacob meeting Esau, because how many times have I anticipated something with deep dread but it turned out alright, and even very well! Sometimes it takes years for situations to work themselves out. Although many of us turn our troubles over to God, we always should remember that we may not get quick answers and easy solutions---but God does hear our prayers! Although Esau is used as a negative example in Hebrews 12, here he seems open and magnanimous toward his deceitful brother and welcomes him as a brother.  We learn of Esau's descendants in chapter 36, and as the Harper commentary tells us, we find later references to those descendants ("Edom") in 2 Sam. 8:14, 1 Kings 11:14-22, 2 Kings 8:20-33, and elsewhere.)

Jacob's children were (with wife Leah), Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, and Diana. With maidservant Bilhah: Dan and Naphtali. With maidservant Ziplah: Gad and Asher. With wife Rachel: Joseph and Benjamin. Of course, these sons became the founders of the tribes of Israel. I found an interesting site that considers the background of Jacob's genealogy: The terrible story of Diana's rape and her subsequent avenging connects to a later story of David's daughter Tamar in 2 Samuel. I recommend the article "Women in Genesis" in the Harper's commentary (pp. 116-118) that discusses the relationship of mothers and children in Genesis; contrasts the voiceless Diana with the resourceful Tamar and Rebekah; discusses the contrasting emotional situations of Leah and Rachel; points out that the rejected Hagar is given a theophany of God; notes the double standards that we find amid the Genesis stories (Lot sins, but only his wife is punished; both Abraham and Sarah laugh, but only Sarah is scolded for her laughter, etc.), and so on.

The stories of Joseph are so well known: we've read them in Sunday school and perhaps can sing along to the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice musical! They have several parts:

37:1-36, Joseph's relationship with his brothers and father, his brothers' cruel plan first to kill and then to sell Joseph, and his forced journey to Egypt.

39:1-30, Joseph's first experience in Egypt and his unjust imprisonment.

40:1-41:-57,  Joseph gains favor as an interpreter of dreams and becomes a significant official in Pharaoh's government, planning for the anticipated famine.

42:1-45:28, the wonderful stories of Joseph's meeting with his brothers, their failure to recognize him,  the way Joseph "messes" with them for a while, and finally his tearful revelation of himself to them and their reconciliation.

Chapters 46-50 also deal with Jacob and Joseph and the brothers. I'll read those chapters next week.

I love these Joseph stories in part because God is hardly mentioned in them---and I don't mean that in a negative way. God does not appear in theophanies and miracles in these stories, but the providential guidance of God is assumed. To me, this is a very realistic narrative about ways God may work in our lives, though obviously with different life experiences than Joseph's. We, too, experience painful times, suffer injustice, struggle through periods of difficulty but eventually we turn the corner from those periods into times of well-being again. We still have questions for God: why did I have to suffer so long in that situation, and why couldn't God have shortened the pain (as Joseph languished in prison for two years)? But we rejoice when we do, indeed, see (often in hindsight) how God was guiding us all along.

I didn't mean to skip the dark story of Judah and Tamar, which is inserted not the text (chapter 38) just as Joseph is being carried off to Egypt. Tamar, the daughter in law of Judah, loses her husband before she had children. By the laws and the customs of the time, the husband's brother was obligated to impregnate her, but he withdrew before ejaculation---and shortly died! Again, according to the views of the time, semen was considered spiritually unclean outside the body, and he also had declined a serious obligation---for Tamar was a widow with no children, a bad situation in which to be. But Judah refused to offer her his remaining son, and so Tamar deceives Judah into impregnating her instead. There's that theme of advantageous deception that we find throughout Genesis. Like Rebekah, Tamar has twins, Zerah and Perez.

My commentary points out that Judah's first son and also these two sons become important tribes within the larger tribe of Judah---in fact, Judah is the primary surviving tribe following the Exile, and Perez is an ancestor of Jesus himself. Again, the strange providence of God amid very complicated, painfully human circumstances.

Ghost Signs: Altamont, IL

This ghost sign is on the north side of downtown Altamont, IL. From 1907 until the early 1950s, Gold Medal Flour had a famous slogan: "Eventually - Why Not Now?" 

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Ghost Signs: Vandalia, Illinois

"Ghost signs" are old, hand-painted advertising signs that appear on the side of (usually) brick buildings. Some are nearly or mostly unreadable, some are clear but have earlier signs appearing amid the more recent letters, and some are fading but legible. Over the next several months I plan to post some photos of signs that I've found. This one is on the side of the downtown Higgin's Cleaners in my hometown, Vandalia, Illinois. "Shoes" is visible, and there seems to have been a round logo. What did the sign used to say? As long as I can remember, the sign has been faded like this. 

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Landscape: Morisot

Berthe Morisot, "La Chasse aux papillons," 1874. Morisot was born on this day, January 14, 1841.

From this site.  
Copied under fair use principles. 

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Mendel, Bateson, and Genetics

I love antique books, and this past year I decided to collect a few notable science books from the nineteenth century. Over these past several weeks, I've written about them on this blog, teaching myself many new things in the process.

While I was reading about Charles Darwin last fall, I had in the back of my mind the fact that Darwin did not have the benefit of Gregor Mendel's principles of inheritance, for the Austrian friar's 1865 and 1866 papers on the subject were little known. Finally in 1900, nearly twenty years after Darwin's death, Mendel's work began to be appropriated by the scientists Hugo de Vries, Carl Correns, and Erich von Tschermak, as well as William Bateson, an eager promoter of Mendel's ideas, and also scientists like J. B.S. Haldane, Sewall Wright, and Ronald Fisher.

I found a significant book online, William Bateson's Mendel's Principles of Heredity (Cambridge University Press, 1909). Although the word "gene" (from the Greek genos, "origin") already existed, Bateson coined the term "genetics." This site, , explains the significance of Bateson (1861-1926) and his work.

"At the turn of the twentieth century, William Bateson studied organismal variation and heredity of traits within the framework of evolutionary theory in England. Bateson applied Gregor Mendel's work to Charles Darwin's theory of evolution and coined the term genetics for a new biological discipline. By studying variation and advocating Mendelian genetics, Bateson furthered the field of genetics, encouraged the use of experimental methodology to study heredity, and contributed to later theories of genetic inheritance." Studying discontinuous variation within species, he was criticized by scientists, especially those in biometry, who were using statistical methods to explain Darwin's evolutionary theories. Working with his sister Anna and another woman botanist, Edith Rebecca Saunders, he continued to experiment. But in 1900, he and Saunders discovered Mendel's 1866 publication about pea inheritance. "Bateson adopted Mendel's work, and he advocated for others to do so. The majority of Bateson and Saunders's results from flowering plant crosses fit Mendel's laws of inheritance. In 1902 Bateson published Mendel's Principles of Heredity..."

Please read the whole article. The author continues that, thanks to Bateson, Mendel's theories were publicized and accepted among scientists. Bateson's book became a landmark study in the history of heredity theory and the eventual synthesis of genetics and evolutionary biology.

A colleague who is an actual historian of science recommends this book for more on this whole subject: