Greater Men and Women of the Bible by James Hastings: 041. The Route

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Greater Men and Women of the Bible by James Hastings: 041. The Route

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The Route

1. The route by which Abraham and his train were led into the promised land cannot be clearly ascertained. Dr. Malan argues for a line from Haran to Thapsacus, the Biblical Tiphsakh, some forty-five miles below Balis, where the Euphrates changes its course from south to south-east, and where there is a very celebrated ford westward of the junction of the Belîkh with the Euphrates. If this was Abraham's track he would have descended the fertile country down the course of the Belîkh, have crossed the desert to the oasis of Tadmor, and thence probably to Damascus. But if he had flocks of sheep, it does not seem likely that he would have crossed the desert; and the easier travelling, and the traditions, make it more probable that this was not his route, nor the way by the ferry of Bîr. The discovery of the true Carchemish at the modern Jerabolus, about seventeen miles south of Bîr, and on a much more fertile tract of travel, and a straighter line towards Canaan, makes it most likely that this was Abraham's way across the Euphrates.

Standing not very long ago on the top of the vast mound of Carchemish, overhanging a bend of the Euphrates, I could detect on the south-eastern horizon the outline of the vast and rich plains of Haran, and while there I saw a party of Bedouins cross the river. Even so high up the Euphrates is a mighty river, and I know of no spot further down its course where its turbid and eddying waters can be crossed as at Carchemish, which completely commands the passage. The Arabs crossed from the other side in a primitive style. Their goats, asses, and cows were tied together in single file. The leader mounted on an inflated hide on which he paddled himself, with the line of animals attached, down stream, till, taking advantage of the bend, he landed his convoy about a mile down the river on my side (the west). Other files followed, with women sitting astride behind them, or children bound round their shoulders. I went to meet them, and, enquiring whence they were, was told that they had come away from Haran in quest of fresh pasturage.1 [Note: H. B. Tristram, in Church Congress Report [Carlisle], 1884, p. 242.]

2. Following still the great route, Abraham would pass on with the grand range of Anti-Lebanon rising to his westward side, until he descended into the lovely plain of Damascus.

Damascus lies about seventy miles from the seaboard, upon the east of Anti-Lebanon, and close to the foot of the hills. It is an astonishing site for what is said to be the oldest, and is certainly the most enduring, city of the world. For it is utterly incapable of defence; it is remote from the sea and the great natural lines of commerce. From the coast of Syria it is doubly barred by those ranges of snow-capped mountains whose populations enjoy more tempting prospects to the north and west. But look east and you understand Damascus. You would as soon think of questioning the site of New York or of Sydney or of San Francisco. Damascus is a great harbour of refuge upon the earliest sea man ever learned to navigate. It is because there is nothing but desert beyond, or immediately behind this site; because the Abana, instead of wasting her waters on a slight extension of the fringe of fertile Syria, saves them in her narrow gorge till she can fling them well out upon the desert, and there, instead of slowly expending them on the doubtful possibilities of a province, lavishes all her life at once in the creation of a single great city, and straightway dies in face of the desert-it is because of all this that Damascus, so remote and so defenceless, has endured throughout human history, and must endure.2 [Note: G. A. Smith, The Historical Geography of the Holy Land, 642.]

3. Leaving the immediate neighbourhood of the beautiful and well-watered city, and with his patriarchal caravan under experienced eyes, and doubtless with due precautions in the disposal of his trained servants against a sudden attack, Abraham would slowly traverse the broad rich land lying for leagues around Damascus, crossing the Pharpar stream in its slow meandering course, and in due time ascending the stony uplands to the high levels of Bashan, the region which was to receive its name from Jetur the son of Ishmael. These rugged highlands and far-extended downs sloping away eastward to the desert were even then held by fierce and strong marauders, the Rephaim, whose chief seat of rule and sanctuary of idolatrous worship was at Ashtaroth Karnaim, or Ishtar of the two horns, that is, of the crescent moon,

The mooned Ashtaroth,

Heaven's queen and mother both;

these, with the Zuzim in Ham, and the Emim in the plain of Kiriathaim, and the more southern Khorites in their mount Se'ir, had lately been reduced to subjection by Chedorlaomer.

In this romantic and beautiful region, shaggy in its western glens with the abundant growth of oak and ilex, and with parklike glades of rich herbage and lovely flowers, “where wood-pigeons rose in clouds from the oaks, and jays and wood-peckers screamed in every glade,” a land where the open pastures are unrivalled in their depth of herbage, and the vines, now so long untended, still bear their clusters among the ruins, it was Abraham's lot to “ride upon the high places of the earth,” so swept by cool and healthy breezes, so watered by the dews of heaven and by springs and rills of the earth, that all things must have tempted him to linger on his way.1 [Note: H. G. Tomkins, Abraham and His Age, 84.]

Dr. Tristram gives a delightful account of this part of Bashan: Though, when viewed from an eminence, the whole country seems a boundless elevated plain, covered with forest, it was by no means over a plateau that we had to ride. Rising, as the country does, suddenly from the deep valley of the Jordan, it is naturally, along its whole western border, deeply furrowed by many streams which drain the district; and our ride was up and down deep concealed glens, which we only perceived when on their brink, and mounting from which, on the other side, a short canter soon brought us to the edge of the next. The country was surpassingly beautiful in its verdant richness and variety. We first descended the ravine of a little streamlet, which soon grew to a respectable size, its banks clothed with sparse oaks and rich herbage. The cheery call of the cuckoo and the hoopoe greeted us for the first time this spring, and resounded from side to side. Then our track meandered along the banks of a brook, with a dense fringe of oleanders, “willows by the water-courses” shading it from the sun, and preventing summer evaporation, while they wasted their perfume on the desert air, without a human inhabitant near. Lovely knolls and dells, in their brightest robes of spring, opened out at every turn, gently rising to the wooded plateau above. Then we rose to the higher ground, and cantered through a noble forest of oaks. Perhaps we were in the woods of Mahanaim.1 [Note: H. B. Tristram, The Land of Israel, 462.]

4. From some commanding height, Abraham must have gained his first thrilling sight of the promised land, and looked down on the sweet blue waters of Gennesaret. “It is said,” writes Dean Stanley, “by those who have visited those parts, that one remarkable effect produced, is the changed aspect of the hills of Judah and Ephraim. Their monotonous character is lost, and the range when seen as a whole is in the highest degree diversified and impressive. And the wide openings in the western hills, as they ascend from the Jordan-valley, give such extensive glimpses into the heart of the country, that not merely the general range, but particular localities can be discerned with ease.”

The same view is thus described by the Rev. A. E. Northey: “We could clearly discern the north end of the Dead Sea as well as part of the Sea of Galilee, with the whole extent of the Jordan valley, the river gleaming here and there at its windings. In front of us, a little south of west, were Ebal and Gerizim, and directly opposite to us we could distinguish Mount Tabor, with the ridge of Carmel stretching into the far distance, and the wide plain of Esdraelon, narrowing into the Wady Farrah which debouches on the Ghor. Farther north we could see Jebel Safed behind the Sea of Galilee, and far away in the blue haze we were gladdened at last by the sight of the snow-sprinkled peaks of Hermon. It was a glorious panorama, embracing many points of interest, and withal most lovely in itself. Immediately in front were fine forests of oak covering the rounded hills that trend down westwards towards the Ghor. Behind us lay the undulating heights of Gilead, the valleys of Kefrenjy and Zerka making wide landmarks.”

5. The last descent would bring the long train down into the “fine wide valley” of the Jabbok (now the Zerka), “a rapid stream only to be waded at certain spots,” fringed with oleanders and other shrubs, and with “beautiful level meadows” on its banks; and then into the deep green valley of the Jordan, where they must have passed the waters of the rushing river probably at the ford of Damieh, “just below the junction of the Zerka and Jordan.” Once across the stream, Abraham stood at length on “the land that Jehovah would shew him.”