All the Israelites in the Torah are descended from one man, Jacob (a.k.a. Israel). Jacob emigrates from Canaan to Egypt in the book of Genesis, but when he dies his sons bury him back in the family plot, and a memory of allegiance to Canaan is passed down through the generations for four hundred years.
When God liberates the “Children of Israel” from slavery in Egypt in the book of Exodus/Shemot, God promises to “give” them the land of Canaan. They travel as far as Mount Sinai in Exodus, then continue north toward Canaan in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar.
This week’s Torah portion in Numbers, Shelach-Lekha (“Send for yourself”), opens when the Israelites and their fellow-travelers have crossed the Wilderness of Paran and camped at its northern edge, facing a range of hills on the southern border of Canaan. The people are understandably nervous about marching in to conquer the inhabitants of Canaan. So God calls for a scouting party.
Then God spoke to Moses, saying: “Send men for yourself, and they shall reconnoiter the land of Canaan ,which I am giving to the Israelites. You shall send one man from each tribe of his fathers, and every one a chieftain among them.” And Moses sent them from the Wilderness of Paran according to the word of God, all of them heads of the Israelites. (Numbers/Bemidbar 13:1-2)
Paran (פָּארָן) = a particular mountain in the northeastern Sinai Peninsula; an uninhabited area including that mountain.1
In the book of Numbers, Paran is a wilderness, a large desert with no settlements. The Israelites cross it safely without encountering any other people.
In the book of Genesis, Paran is where Ishmael lives after his father, Abraham, has exiled him from the family camp at Beersheva.2
And God was with the young man, and he grew big, and he lived in the wilderness and he became a bowman. And he lived in the Wilderness of Paran, and his mother took a wife for him from the land of Egypt. (Genesis 21:20-21)
Meanwhile Ishmael’s half-brother, Isaac, grows up in Abraham’s camp. During his life he moves to three other locations, but he never leaves the region of Canaan.
At least one modern scholar has argued that Paran was inserted in the story of Ishmael by a redactor of Genesis in the 6th to 5th century B.C.E., a period when nomadic Arab warriors controlled commerce in the desert between Judah and Egypt.3
But the contrast Genesis sets up between the outsider Ishmael living in the Wilderness of Paran and the insider Isaac living in the civilized land of Canaan also informs the story of the scouting party in this week’s Torah portion. The use of the place-name Paran reminds us that the Israelites are still outside their promised land, still nomads with no permanent home.
Following God’s suggestion, Moses sends twelve men to scout out the land of Canaan, one for each tribe of Israelites.4
And they went up into the Negev and they came to Chevron, and there were … the Anakites. (Numbers 13:22)
Chevron (חֶבְרוֹן) = the site of the modern West Bank city of Hebron.
When they return to the Israelite camp forty days later, ten of the twelve scouts report that Canaan is impossible to conquer, with its fortified cities and imposing warriors.
“All the people that we saw in it are men of unusual size. And there we saw the Nefilim, descendants of Anak from the Nefilim!5 And we were like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and so we must have been in their eyes!” (Numbers 13:32-33)
The other two scouts, Caleb and Joshua, declare that the Israelites can conquer Canaan because God will be on their side. But the people despair and decide not to cross the border. God does not give them another chance at the conquest of Canaan until they have been in the wilderness for forty years. Then Moses’ successor, Joshua, leads the people across the Jordan River into northeastern Canaan. Year by year, Joshua conquers the lands of petty kings and drives Anakites out of the hill-country6. Caleb offers to conquer Chevron and dispossess the Anakites there.
Therefore Chevron became Caleb’s … because he remained loyal to God, the God of Israel. And the name of Chevron was previously Kiryat Arba; the man was big among the Anakites … (Joshua 14:14-15)
Kiryat (קִרְיַת) = town of.
Arba (אָרְבַּע) = four. (But Joshua 14:15 implies that Arba was also the name of a large or important Anakite.)
The book of Genesis also identifies Chevron with an earlier town called Kiryat Arba, but in Genesis the residents of the area are ordinary Hittites, not Anakites. Adjacent to this town is the grove of Mamrei, where Abraham and Sarah are camping when three “men” who turn out to be angels visit and announce that Sarah will have a son at age 90.7 Abraham moves his household to Gerar and then Beersheba, but at some point Sarah returns to Mamrei without him.
And Sarah died at Kiryat Arba, which is Chevron, in the land of Canaan … (Genesis 23:2)
That is where Abraham buys the field containing the cave of Makhpeilah as a burial site. Eventually he is buried in the cave next to his wife Sarah. So is their son, Isaac, who moves there from Beersheba after he is old and blind.
And Jacob came to Isaac, his father, at Mamrei, Kiryat the Arba, which is Chevron; Abraham and Isaac had sojourned there. (Genesis 35:28)
Isaac and his wife Rebecca are buried in the cave, Jacob buries his first wife, Leah, there, and in the last Torah portion of Genesis, Jacob’s twelve sons carry their father’s embalmed body back to Makhpeilah and bury him there.8
The graves of six key ancestors of the Israelites are in a cave near Chevron in Canaan. This should make the city a magnet that draws the people home to where their forebears lived and died. But in this week’s Torah portion in Numbers, the Israelites are overwhelmed by the fear of giants living there.
The use of the place-name Chevron emphasizes that the land the Israelites are refusing to enter is their own ancestral homeland, not just the land God promised to give them. By turning away from Canaan, they are choosing to be permanent outsiders.
After murmuring about returning to Egypt, the Israelites choose to settle for several decades at the oasis of Kadesh-Barnea on the northern edge of the Wilderness of Paran. In the Torah they make that choice because they do not trust God to grant them victory in the conquest of Canaan, not because they have any sympathy for the Canaanite tribes minding their own business in their own land.
But what if the land you think of as home is also the home of people who have been living there for hundreds of years? Jews faced this question in 1948 when the present nation of Israel was founded. The question still has not been answered.
- Mount Paran is cited as a place where God appears in Deuteronomy 33:2 and Habakkuk 3: 3. In an Islamic tradition, Paran (or Faran) is the desert extending down the east side of the Red Sea, and includes Mecca.
- Ishmael is Abraham’s son with an Egyptian slave named Hagar. After Abraham’s wife, Sarah, finally has her own son, Isaac, she insists that Abraham must drive out Hagar and Ishmael, so that Isaac will be the sole heir. See my post Shavuot, Vayeira, & Ruth: Whatever You Say.
- Yairah Amit, “Ishmael, King of the Arabs”, https://www.thetorah.com/article/ishmael-king-of-the-arabs
- The scouts and their tribes are listed in Numbers 13:4-15. In this list the twelve tribes bear the names of ten of the twelve sons of Jacob (a.k.a. Israel) in the book of Genesis. Levi is omitted, since Moses has designated that tribe for religious work. And instead of a single tribe named after Jacob’s son Joseph, we get tribes named after Joseph’s two sons, Menasheh and Efrayim. They become legitimate founders of tribes in Genesis 48:5-22, when Jacob adopts them.
- The Nefilim are demi-gods mentioned in Genesis 6:4.
- Joshua 11:21. Also see Judges 1:19-20;
- Genesis 18:1-15.
- Genesis 35:27-29, 49:29-32, and 50:13.