Yoel Elitzur, Places in the Parasha: Biblical Geography and Its Meaning (Maggid Tanakh Companions Series, 2020), 829 pages
Reviewed by Hayyim Angel
When learning Tanakh with the literary-theological method, certain elements become primary. Others lend themselves less to this type of analysis and religious exploration. To cite a familiar example, one learning the Book of Joshua likely will focus on the gripping narratives of chapters 1–12 and then skip to chapters 22–24. Joshua’s role as leader and his relationship to Moses’ leadership, the balance between God’s intervention and human efforts, the reenactment of the covenant, the thorny question of war against the Canaanites, and many other vital religious and human issues dominate the discussion. The lengthy city lists in chapters 13–21 would receive scant attention at best, perhaps a few scattered bullet points. Further, the classical commentators do not offer extensive help expanding the middle chapters, since they generally were unaware of the geography of the Land of Israel.
Now imagine an entire book about those city list chapters, written by an expert in both the text of Tanakh and contemporary historical and archaeological scholarship. Imagine that book teaching a rigorous methodology in a clear accessible way that enlightens our understanding of Tanakh and strengthens our religious connection to the Land of Israel. Such a book would fill a monumental void in our learning. Professor Yoel Elitzur’s new book, Places in the Parasha, helps to fill that void.
Elitzur is a researcher of the Hebrew language and biblical and historical geography, a member of the Academy of the Hebrew Language, and heads the Land of Israel Studies Department at Herzog College in Alon Shvut. He has made a remarkable contribution to religious Tanakh study by focusing on the oft-neglected biblical places and names. Following in the footsteps of his venerable father and teacher, Professor Yehuda Elitzur z”l (1911–1997), our book’s author combines pioneering academic research with careful text analysis, bringing both together with rigor and religious passion.
To take one sample essay: Many of us, learning Parashat Va’era at the beginning of the Book of Exodus, would focus on the plagues, miracles, Moses’ leadership, and a host of other vital issues that emerge from the action-packed foundational narrative. Elitzur devotes his essay to an obscure grandson of Levi, named Hebron: “The sons of Kohath: Amram, Izhar, Hebron, and Uzziel; and the span of Kohath’s life was 133 years” (Exodus 6:18). [See excerpted chapter on Parashat Va’era below.]
There are occasions in Tanakh when a place is named after a person. For example, Cain names a city he builds after his son, Enoch (Genesis 4:17). In the case of Hebron, however, it appears that the person is named after the place. This phenomenon occurs elsewhere in Tanakh. For example, members of the Tribe of Benjamin bear the name Anatot (I Chronicles 7:8), and Anatotiah (I Chronicles 8:24). Jephthah’s father is named Gilead (Judges 11:1). Members of the Tribe of Manasseh bear the names Tirzah and Hepher, and these are names of towns conquered by Joshua (Joshua 12:17, 24). Naming after place names suggests tribal pride in their land inheritance.
Elitzur notes further that in the cases of Tirzah and Hepher, the people were named even before the nation entered the Land of Israel. Citing his father, Elitzur suggests that the Israelites may have had a tradition while yet in Egypt informing them of which tribes would inherit which parts of Israel. They named some of their children accordingly, expressing a longing to return to the Land of Israel.
In a similar vein, the Tribe of Levi may have had such a tradition regarding the city of Hebron. That city later was allotted to the Tribe of Levi, and served as a City of Refuge (Joshua 21:11-13). Evidently, the Tribe of Levi had a tradition that they would receive Hebron, and therefore Kehat named one of his sons Hebron to articulate a yearning to return to the Land of Israel.
In his essay on Parashat Matot, Elitzur asks two basic questions: 1. Why does the half-tribe of Manasseh appear in Numbers 32 only as an afterthought? Why were they not included with Reuben and Gad from the beginning of their request of the eastern lands of Sihon and Og? 2. After the Israelites defeated Sihon, why did they then march north to confront Og in the Bashan (Numbers 21:33)? They already had a clear entry path into the Land of Israel!
Prior to the nation’s entry into the Land of Israel, members of the tribe of Manasseh named some of their children Gilead, Hepher, Shechem, and Tirzah. These are place-names in Manasseh’s territory on both sides of the Jordan. These names expressed the wish of the tribe to return to their homeland, and evidently Manasseh considered territory on both sides of the Jordan as “home” already during the nation’s sojourn in Egypt.
Building on the medieval rabbinic suggestions of a student of Rabbi Saadia Gaon and Rabbi Yehuda the Pious, Elitzur proposes that while the nation was still in Egypt, certain families from Manasseh settled parts of the Bashan. Throughout Israel’s enslavement in Egypt, these Manassites remained in that territory and were there when Moses and the majority of the nation returned from Egypt. This hypothesis also accounts for the population explosion in Manasseh from the first year (32,200; see Numbers 1:35) to the fortieth year (52,700; see Numbers 26:34). Those who had left Egypt were joined by those living in Bashan.
Moses and the nation therefore marched north to Bashan, to greet and liberate their “sabra” brethren of Manasseh from the rule of Og. These Manassites also had nothing to do with Moses’ deal with Reuben and Gad, since this land belonged to them from beforehand. The tribe of Manasseh earned this additional territory as a consequence of their enthusiasm to inherit the land.
Prof. Elitzur has given us the opportunity to greatly enhance our understanding of many elements in Tanakh, rabbinic teachings, and even folk traditions. This volume enlightens our learning, and will foster a more profound love of the Land of Israel through intimate knowledge of the settings for the eternal prophetic narratives in Tanakh.
Rabbi Hayyim Angel, a member of TRADITION’s editorial board, is the National Scholar at the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals and serves on the Bible Faculty, Yeshiva University.
Excerpted chapter from Yoel Elitzur, Places in the Parasha for Parsashat Va’era (© and courtesy Maggid Books):
Amazing depth of scholarship and profound love of the land and histo-geography in every page. A must for every serious library on Israel, its people, and its Torah.