Every spot on which your foot treads, I give to you, as I promised Moses.” Joshua 1:3
In contrast to many modern countries, where the automobile is king, in Israel time is made for the foot journey. It is an interesting aspect of Israeli culture is that hiking is an educational and national priority. Students, soldiers, and employees are taken on trips all over the country, not only to see the sites but to walk the land. During holidays, a good percentage of Israeli families will head, yes, for their cars, but only as a means to ultimately arrive at some sort of nature walk.
How did this national pastime develop?
First, we can look to biblical sources. G-d commands Abraham to walk the land in the following story.
Abraham enters the land, and travels along the spine route from Shchem (Nablus) to Beer Sheva (today’s Route 60). It is then that a famine strikes the land and Abraham and his family move to Egypt. When the famine is over, they move back to Israel traveling along the same road and settle between Ai and Beit El, near Route 60 between Bitin and Deir Dibwan. He needs to split up the grazing land with his nephew, Lot, in order to minimize conflict.
How to split the land with his only male relative – potentially the one who will inherit the message and continue what will become the Jewish people (Isaac has not yet been born)? Abraham offers Lot a choice: if Lot goes left, Abraham will go right; or if Lot prefers, Lot will take the right and Abraham the left.
Reading this today, we may think that “left” and “right” are arbitrary directions and are meant to be taken figuratively. In ancient times, however, these directions were not ambiguous. Directions were oriented towards the orient or East. It is reasonable, then, that Abraham and Lot were facing East and Abraham offered Lot either the northern half of the country (to the left) or the southern half (to the right).
Lot’s choice here is crucial and seals his fate. He looks straight ahead and sees the plain of the Jordan. It reminds him of Egypt in its fertility. He chooses to go East, which was not an option given by Abraham! Lot sets his tent in Sodom, away from Abraham and cuts himself off from Abraham’s future inheritance.
At this time, G-d tells Abraham that he will inherit the land (without Lot) and he should “walk about the land, through its length and its breadth”. Why is it so important for Abraham to walk the land? What does walking around the land add to G-d’s promise?
Firstly, walking the land shows some degree of ownership. People are prevented from walking where they are not welcome and have no business being. Posting “Keep Out” signs clearly tells one that this property is not mine but rather belongs to someone else.
Secondly, walking the land by foot provides familiarity with a place in a way that cannot be accomplished any other way. Adam Zartal, an archaeologist who has worked on archaeological survey in Israel and identified Joshua’s altar on Mt. Eval, when asked about modern survey methods stated, “There is no hi-tech substitute for walking the land, meter by meter, with your own two feet.” The more we personally walk the land, not only do we discover more about it, but also we develop a close relationship with it.
Walking ties us to the land. It is easier to give up on places that you have never seen with your own two eyes. People fight for their homes not just because they own them, but because they have grown to love them through their investment of themselves and their very existence there. So, too, for land that you have walked; you expend effort in order to be there and so you grow to love it.
It is exactly for these reasons that G-d commanded Abraham to walk the land which would become Israel. Not just to own it, but more importantly to learn to love it.
In my next post, discover the roots of hiking in Israel in the modern period. You may be surprised!