Palestine Calling
W. M. Christie

Chapter XIV

The Land of Goshen

In connection with Israel's Descent into Egypt, the enslavement there, and the Exodus story, the position of the Land of Goshen is one of the most important questions. With this correctly settled, the various incidents should fall into due relationship with one another, difficulties should be cleared up and we should have a comparatively harmonious narrative. Up to the present moment the identification most accepted has been what Ptolemy, the geographer, gives as the 20th Nome, a district to the S.W. of the present Kantara. It was represented in Egyptian by the consonants Q.S.M., which on account of our ignorance of Egyptian vocalisation we pronounce Qesem. But there are difficulties in the way of the consonantal interchange, and besides Ptolemy's evidence is 1800 years too late. Then the slight similarity of sound may be a mere coincidence, and in any case further corroboration is needed.


In studying this question we must also remember that during the period of the Hyksos Dynasties (1998-1587), the capital of Egypt, and the seat of the court, was at Zoan, later known to the Greeks as Tanis, and now to the Arabs as San. Its site was in the N.E. of Egypt proper, some 20 miles S.W. of Port Said, and westward of the present Suez Canal, built on one of the smaller eastern branches of the Nile. Then during practically the whole history a great part of the Sinai peninsula belonged to Egypt, and the River of Egypt, Nehar or Nahal Mitzraim, the present Wady el-Arish, either belonged to Egypt, or was its boundary on the route to Canaan (Gen. 15:18; Num. 34:5; Jos. 15:4, etc.); while at the present day the dividing line between the two countries runs thence to Akaba. The debatable land may indeed have extended to the borders of Palestine, for we find Sharhana (the Sharuhen of Jos. 19:6), reckoned as a border fortress of the Hykos. It was beseiged and taken by Aahmes in 1583 B.C., and it is also mentioned as a nation in connection with the expedition of Thothmes III in 1481.


And now we come to a consideration of the Descent of Jacob and his family into Egypt. In Genesis 45:10, Joseph invites his father to come down, "and thou shalt dwell in the land of Goshen, and thou shalt be near unto Me, . . . and there will I nourish thee." In response, Jacob left Canaan, offered sacrifices at Beersheba (46:1), sent Judah in advance, he and his family following "into the land of Goshen" (46:28). Joseph, on receiving the news, "made ready his chariot, and went up to meet Israel his father, to Goshen (46:29). These references clearly show that Goshen lay somewhere between Zoan, the capital of Egypt and the southern boundary of Canaan. Then in connection with the arrangements made for the settlement (47:1-6) we learn something of the nature of the district, eminently fitted for pasturage, evidently thinly populated by Egyptians, but having settlements for Pharaoh's cattle. We have also in Exod. 8:22; 9:26, an indication of the making a distinction between Egypt proper and the land of Goshen. Everything tends to show that while Goshen was in some sense apart, it was certainly an essential portion of Egyptian territory, for "Israel dwelt in the land of Egypt, in the country of Goshen" (47:27).


We may also note that in 45:10 the LXX reads, "Goshen of Arabia," while 46:28 gives us for "Goshen" as equivalent "over against Hieropolis in the land of Rameses." These are of course to be dated about 284 B.C., but the latter is partly in harmony with 47:11 (Hebrew text), which reads, "in the land of Rameses." The name Rameses here and elsewhere has been considered a difficulty, but that need occasion no trouble, for though it became the special designation of several of the Pharaoh's later on, it was one of the names of the rulers of Egypt as "sons of Ra." The note also "of Arabia" would, but for its lateness, emphasise our suggestion of a site between Egypt proper and Canaan.

But in addition to the passages already considered, we find the name Goshen in a rather unexpected place. In Josh. 10:41 and 11:16 we have it mentioned between Kadesh-barnea and Gaza, as also between the Negeb and the Shephelah, that is touching, or almost touching, Palestine on its S.W. border. In Josh. 15:51 there is a town of the same name somewhere in this same district.

Now if the land of Goshen extended from over against Hieropolis, taking in at the most a few miles from the west of the present canal, eastward toward the southern boundary of Canaan, all the allusions are fully met. At the present time great sections of this territory are under cultivation and are so indicated on good modern maps, and we know that under the Eastern Roman Empire many cities existed throughout the district (Tabula Peutingeriana), which seem to have been destroyed either by the Persians or the Moslems in the seventh century. In ancient times it was sufficiently fertile, supplying good pasture land, and having plenty of water below the surface if wells were dug. The description in Deut. 11:10 is extremely appropriate to this district, "and waterest it with thy foot." This is a common method of water-drawing and of irrigation from sunk wells in our own day, and we have seen the blind so employed in Galilee, sitting under a leaf-formed shade all day long, and driving a windlass with the feet. We do not, of course, suggest that the Israelites were in any great numbers in the immediate neighbourhood of Southern Canaan. A distribution as far as the River of Egypt (Wady el-Arish) satisfies every demand, and explains a great deal more.


But the question now suggests itself: Where was the place of bondage, and, what of the crossing of the Red Sea? Now a careful examination of the records reveals the fact that it is never said that the bondage was in Goshen, nor is it indicated that Moses was born there. The oppression was in the land of Egypt proper, and the service to be rendered was the building of the cities of Pithom and Rameses for the Pharaoh (Exod. 1:11). But there was another purpose to be served. The interests of the Hyksos kings would have been well served by a strong Semitic population in the outlying Goshen, but now that they were expelled, it became a positive danger, for in the event of another such invasion it was natural that the Israelites should do as the Pharaoh said, "join also unto our enemies, and fight against us" (Exod. 1:10). The better policy was to be wise in time, and if possible bring the male population into a state of helpless servitude. Great contingents were then drafted into Egypt, with the double purpose in view. There need be no difficulty about the numbers given--600,000, and we need not resort to the expedient of translating "families" instead of "thousands." The numbers here given are in harmony with those met with later on, and a change to meet difficulty here, only creates difficulty at a later stage. We know that the Egyptians employed great hordes of slaves, and Herodotus tells us (ii. 158) that in the making of part of a canal by Necho, no fewer than 120,000 perished.


The drafting of every man of fighting age out of Goshen for slave service in Egypt was well calculated for the end in view, and, this being understood, another difficulty vanishes. Practically the whole female and child population would be left in Goshen, and in so far as wives were allowed to accompany their husbands into Egypt they would be limited to these of the leading supervisors. This then accounts for the fewness of the midwives (Exod. 1:15), which many have hitherto considered an insuperable difficulty.

The intensity of Egypt's fear may be understood from the decree against even this minute existence of family life in the extermination of the male children. It was then in these circumstances and among these slaves that Moses was born, as the son of one of the "notables" of Israel, beside one of the branches of the Nile, and in the neighbourhood of one of the palaces. And when he grew up, it was this mass of enslaved male Israelites that he sought to liberate, and on whose behalf he contended with the Pharaoh at the Court in Zoan (Psa. 78:12, 43). And in connection with the plagues we can also understand that the remaining Israelites in Goshen (also now reduced to a minimum) would place as great a distance as possible between themselves and the capital, and in Divine providence too this would contribute to their escaping the plagues that owed their initiation to the presence of the River Nile (Exod. 7:19).


Moses' first purpose was evidently to re-unite the slave hosts with their families, and the three days would have been sufficient to bring a great part of them into that settlement. There, there was to be some great act of national worship, based on the fresh revelation of the God of Abraham. It was this great slave population (600,000 men alone, without children, Exod. 13:17, Heb.), that left the land, crossed the Red Sea, where they would be joined by their diminished families from Goshen. In Exod. 13:17 we have a note that indicates that it might have been considered natural to pass into Canaan by the sea route along the northern coast of Goshen, "the way of the land of the Philistines . . . that was near." Had the liberated slaves actually entered Goshen, that would have been the nearest way in ordinary circumstances, but from the point where the Red Sea must have been crossed they ought to have gone by the way of Shur to Beersheba. This seems to indicate that they did not enter Goshen, and the reason given is significant, "lest . . . they see war," for at this very time Amenhotop II was also arranging for an invasion of Canaan, and this too must have been known to Moses. Had they chosen the great military route to Gaza, they would certainly, as an unprepared and undisciplined host, have met somewhere the trained armies of Egypt. As it was, the Israelite population of Goshen would be drawn off before their advance, while for the purpose of avoiding conflict the way of Shur was also abandoned. This accordingly confines us to the usually understood way of Israel through the wilderness.

This leads us to a word of explanation on the manner of the journey. The majority of Bible readers picture for themselves great companies or battalions, moving day after day, like a modern army, and then there crop up for them innumerable difficulties in connection with their numbers, their flocks, food, water, sanitation, etc., and then doubts and unbelief creep in. Contact with hosts of moving nomads has dispelled for us most of these illusions, and we believe that the list of "stations" given (Num. 33.) represents what in modern times we should call the G.H.Q., while the tents around with their banners were those of the representatives of "the tribes," but the great mass of the people might very well have been scattered over hundreds of square miles of territory. Forty years ago we came into touch with Arab tribes accustomed to migrate with the seasons between the Persian Gulf and the borders of Transjordania.


But in the early days of Israel's sojourn in Goshen an incident occurred that seems to have had some influence on the future. The Hyksos were still in Egypt, for Ephraim, Joseph's son, was still alive. In 1 Chron. 7:20-22 we learn that the sons of Ephraim had settled in the land, and while making a cattle raid against the men of Gath, a number of them had been slain, and that for them Ephraim mourned many days. Later on (1 Chron. 7:24) his daughter Sherah, when grown up, built Bethhoron the Upper, and Bethhoron the Lower, as also Uzzen-sherah. We have evidently here an invasion of Canaan before the Exodus, by the sons of Ephraim, in his own lifetime, and long before the years of the oppression. Was the adventure of the sons of Ephraim an attempt to anticipate the Divine purpose, and consequently a source of temporary disaster at least? Was it also a first attempt on the part of Ephraim to seek that precedence in Israel that he aimed at for centuries, and which brought disaster and disruption to the kingdom?

Be these things as they may, we have here a possible explanation of one more difficulty--the presence of Israelites in Canaan before the Exodus. We learn from line 14 of the inscription of the Admiral Aahmes, during the time of Hyksos rule, that he captured and made slaves of Israelites on the shores of Canaan. Then in the year 1480 B.C. we have place names in the lists of Thothmes III (when Moses was a fugitive in Midian) that indicate the presence of Israelites. These are (line 78) Joseph-el, and (line 102) Jacob-el, hitherto a puzzle, but both quite possible and reasonable as place names, especially among the Ephraimites, descendants of Joseph and Jacob.

And finally we come to the "spying out of the land." It was Joshua, who with his friend and companion Caleb, gave in the favourable report, and urged immediate advance and conquest. What was the ground of their hope? We must recognise that very often Divine leading is at least in part given through the illumination of human circumstances and relationships. Joshua was a member of the tribe of Ephraim, closely related to the old settlers (1 Chron. 7:27). While the other spies had seen in Canaan nothing but the might of Egypt, and the desolations from the recent invasion, Joshua had come into contact with his kinsfolk, in the already established cities on the slopes of the Bethhoron ridge. Though small in number they had maintained themselves there through centuries, and they had also outlived the recent invasion. If they could do that, why not the hosts of Israel? Was that old time invasion of Canaan by the sons of Ephraim, with its loss and its success, to bear fruit now, in the inspiring words of the two faithful spies, "We are able to overcome?" Alas, with the people it failed, but Joshua and Caleb had the reward of their faithfulness, for in the end they entered into possession as leaders of a new Israel.

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