Transportation and Travel
Holman Bible Dictionary
Means and ways of commercial and private movement among towns and nations in the biblical period. Travel in the ancient, as well as the modern world, is the result of economic, political, social, and religious factors. For the most part, transportation and travel in the biblical world was on foot (Judges 16:3; Joshua 9:3-5; 1 Kings 18:46 ). At first this meant following the paths animals made through the hills and valleys of Palestine. However, as the economic and political demands of the region increased, so did the traffic. Better marked and smoother roads were needed for travelers and for the transport of larger amounts of goods from place to place. Large draft animals of various types also had to be domesticated and harnessed to this work (Exodus 23:5 ).As trade began to expand beyond the local area, international highways and trade routes, like the coastal road, the Via Maris, and the Transjordanian king’s highway were developed. Heavily traveled routes such as these were a factor in the founding of many cities. They also functioned as the principle link from which branched lesser roads connecting cities and towns in Palestine to the rest of the Near East (Proverbs 8:2-3 ). These highways promoted the movement of businessmen, religious pilgrims, government officials, and armies between regions of the country and foreign nations. The resulting blend of cultures and economies created the society described in biblical and extrabiblical texts.
Geographical Factors in Travel Perhaps the greatest obstacle that travelers and road builders had to overcome was the rugged geographical character of Palestine. The desert regions of the Negev and Judean highlands in the south required the identification of wells and pasturage for the draft animals. The hilly spine of central Palestine forced the traveler to zigzag around steep ascents (such as that between Jericho and Jerusalem), or follow ridges along the hill tops (the Beth Horon route northwest of Jerusalem), or go along watersheds (Bethlehem to Mizpah). Numerous streams as well as the Jordan River had to be forded by travelers (2 Samuel 19:18 ), sometimes at the expense of baggage and animals.
Where valleys, such as the Jezreel, had to be traversed, roads generally followed the higher ground along the base of the hills so as to bypass marshy areas and stay away from the raging torrents which sometimes filled stream beds in the rainy season. Narrow, twisting valleys, as in the Judean desert, often provided perfect areas for ambushes by bandits. Along the coastal plain, sandy dunes required a detour further inland into the foothills of the Shephelah plateau.
The rough coastline of Palestine lacked a good, deep-water port for shipping. As a result, an additional journey overland was required to transport agricultural and other trade goods to and from the ports of Ezion-geber (1 Kings 9:26-28 ) on the Red Sea and the Phoenician ports of Tyre and Sidon to the cities of Israel. Solomon kept a fleet of ships operating in the Red Sea to ply the African trade. Another group of Solomon’s ocean-going vessels (Hebrew, “ships of Tarshish”) joined forces with the fleets of Hiram of Tyre in the Mediterranean (1 Kings 10:22 ). Despite this activity, Israel’s kings had a general lack of experience with the sea. This sometimes made them reluctant to rely on shipping. For instance, king Jehoshaphat of Judah rejected further attempts to obtain gold from Ophir after his first fleet of ships was sunk off Ezion-geber (1 Kings 22:48-49 ). See Ships, Sailors.
Despite these difficulties, the desire to travel and the commercial needs of nations motivated the identification of routes that were relatively safe from attack by bandits and allowed free transport of goods by pack animals and carts to every region in the land. The roads that carried this traffic varied in size from two land thoroughfares about ten feet wide to simple tracks through fields barely wide enough for a man and donkey to pass single file. The determining factor in each case was the usage each received. Roads carrying two- and four-wheeled carts and wagons pulled by oxen required more room and a smoother road bed (Isaiah 62:10 ) than a lane crossing a vineyard.
Kings of the ancient Near East (Shulgi of Ur III, Mesopotamia, and Mesha, king of Moab) often boasted in their official inscriptions of their road-building activities. These roadways, so important to the maintenance of political and economic control of the nation, were probably kept in shape by government-sponsored corvee workers (2 Samuel 20:24; 1 Kings 9:15 ) or by the army. Since bridges were unknown in the biblical period, fords were identified (Judges 12:5-6 , NIV) for general use, and, in the Roman period, were smoothed by the placement of flat stones in the river bed. Where no river crossing could be found, boats were lashed together to form temporary ferries or large transports.
Political and Military Factors in Transportation While terrain had a great deal to do with the building of roads, another important factor was the political situation in the region. In ancient Israel, roads not only linked trading and religious centers, they also protected population centers and speeded the nation’s armies to war. The vast network of roads in the difficult area of the Judean hill country speaks eloquently of the importance of Jerusalem which was the hub of activities in that region. It functioned as the political center of the Davidic monarchy as well as the religious focus of the nation with many pilgrims making the ascent to Zion (Psalm 122:1 ). An even more elaborate system of highways was built by the Roman legions to help them dominate the country and forestall organized rebellion after the revolts of A.D. 69-70,135.
Throughout the monarchy, military campaigns required well-kept roadways to facilitate the movement of troops about the country. Protecting the valleys and highways which led to the capital at Jerusalem were a series of fortresses including Gezer, Beth Horon, Baalath, and Tadmor (1 Kings 9:17-19 , NIV). Royal entourages also traveled these guarded roads in peacetime to conduct governmental business (1 Kings 12:1; 1 Kings 18:16 ).
To help with the constant flow of government travelers, way stations (every ten to fifteen miles in the Persian Empire) and administrative outposts were constructed. In a time before inns, these stations provided supplies to traveling officials and fresh mounts to couriers. The private traveler had to rely on the hospitality of towns or friends along the way (Judges 19:10-15; 2 Kings 4:8 ).
The road systems and port facilities of the kings of Israel and Judah were expanded in times of prosperity and contested for in times of war (2 Kings 16:6 ). Megiddo, which commanded the western entrance into the Jezreel Valley, controlled the traffic along the Via Maris as it moved inland and then north to Damascus. Solomon demonstrated his awareness of its strategic importance for fortifying the site, along with Hazor and Gezer, to protect the borders of Israel (1 Kings 9:15 ). Foreign rulers also fought to hold the city (which was destroyed over a dozen times during its period of occupation), and king Josiah of Judah died here defending the pass against the army of Pharaoh Necho II in 609 B.C. (2 Kings 23:29 ).
Religious Factors in Travel One of the chief reasons given for travel in the biblical text was to visit a religious shrine and make sacrifices. Throughout much of Israel’s history the people are described as making journeys to places like Shechem (Joshua 24:1 ), Shiloh (1 Samuel 1:3 ), Ophrah (Judges 8:27 ), Dan (Judges 18:30 ), and Bethel (1 Kings 12:26-33 ). Here they would make their devotions before a sacred image or the ark of the covenant. High places (bamoth ) were also popular sites for religious pilgrims. In the period before Jerusalem’s ascendancy as the religious focal point of the nation, prophets like Samuel regularly visited these local shrines to officiate at sacrifices (1 Samuel 9:12 ). Local religious rites sometimes also included an ingathering of family from across the nation as well as part of the yearly celebration (1 Samuel 20:6 ).
Animals Used in Travel Most of what is known about the animals used to transport people and materials in the ancient world is based on textual evidence and art. The Bible mentions several different types of draft animals: donkeys, mules, camels, and oxen. Among these, donkeys appear to have been the most popular means of transport in the Near East. They are described in Old Assyrian texts (about 2100 B.C.) transporting copper ingots from Cappadocia in Turkey. The Beni-Hasan tomb paintings from Egypt dating to 1900 B.C. graphically portray Semitic caravaneers with their donkeys laden with baggage and trade goods.
In the biblical narrative the donkey was the chief means of private and commercial transport throughout the history of the nation of Isreal. Jacob’s sons carried their grain purchases from Egypt to Canaan on donkey back (Genesis 42:26 ); Jesse sent David and a donkey loaded with provisions to Saul’s court (1 Samuel 16:20 ); and Nehemiah became incensed when he saw Judeans transporting grain on donkeys during the sabbath (Nehemiah 13:15 ).
Mules are less commonly mentioned. This may be due to a shortage of horses for breeding or to a custom restricting the use of mules to the upper classes (2 Samuel 13:29 ). For instance, David’s sons Absalom (2 Samuel 18:9 ) and Solomon (1 Kings 1:33 ) are described as riding mules. One passage (Isaiah 66:20 ) pictures the caravan of returning exiles riding on horses, mules, and dromedaries, as well as in chariots and litters. Each of these means of transport, however, fits the prophet’s vision of a glorious procession on its way to Jerusalem rather than the normal groupings of travelers along the international route.
Camels appear several times in the text carrying huge loads (five times that of a donkey). One clear example of this is found in 2 Kings 8:9 (NIV). Ben-hadad, the king of Syria, sent “forty camel-loads” of goods to Elisha in an attempt to learn if he would recover from an illness. In another case Isaiah denounced the leaders of Judah for sending camel loads of gifts to Egypt to buy their aid against Assyria ( Isaiah 30:6 ). Because of their broad, but tender hoofs, best fit for desert travel, the camel was of little use in the hill country. These beasts were probably used only on the major routes such as the Via Maris, along the coast, or on the smoother valley roads of the Shephelah and the Negev.
Oxen are exclusively associated with travel by wheeled vehicle and will be discussed below in that context. Israelite use of horses does not appear in the text before the 1000 B.C. when David began to incorporate them into his forces (2 Samuel 8:3-4 ). They are mentioned primarily in military contexts: ridden into battle (Job 39:18-25 ) and harnessed to chariots (1 Kings 12:18 ). Official messengers also rode horses (2 Kings 9:18-19 ), as did scouts for the army (2 Kings 7:13-15 ).
Wheeled Vehicles The most commonly mentioned wheeled vehicle in the biblical narrative is the chariot. It was used first by Israel’s enemies during the conquest period (Judges 1:19; Judges 4:3 ). However, it could not be used effectively in the rough hill country where the tribes first settled (Joshua 17:16 ). Once the monarchy was established, chariots became an integral part of the kings’ battle strategy (1 Kings 10:26; 1 Kings 22:31-34 ). They were also used as a standard means of travel by kings (2 Kings 9:16 ) and nobles (2 Kings 5:9 ). Private ownership of chariots is found in Isaiah 22:18 . In this passage the prophet condemns Shebna, the king’s household steward for his extravagance and pride. His chariots, like his rock-cut tomb were status symbols for high-ranking members of the royal bureaucracy in Hezekiah’s time (see Acts 8:26-38 for a similar case).
No physical remains of chariots have been found in Palestine, although a magnificent example of a royal Egyptian chariot was discovered in the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamon (about 1300 B.C.). A three-man Judean battle chariot is depicted in the Assyrian relief (about 701 B.C.) of Sennacherib’s siege of Lachish. It was fitted with a yoke for four horses. Estimates of the chariot’s size in this period are based on the width of ruts in the roadways in Mesopotamian and Roman cities. If these are used, the standard width of chariots was 1.23 meters between the wheels and 1.53 meters overall.
The use of large-wheeled vehicles apparently originated in Sumer where models, dating to 2500 B.C., of large covered wagons drawn by oxen have been found. These bulky vehicles, carrying heavy loads, required well-kept, broad roadways. Neglected paths could become overgrown (Proverbs 15:19 ) or filled with stones from eroded hillsides. Thus, for traffic to be maintained, teams of workmen must have traveled the roads making necessary repairs. Gateways also had to be widened to permit the entrance of wheeled vehicles. Those excavated in Israel range in width from 2.5 to 4.5 meters. Some, like those at Gezer and Megiddo, had a cobblestone or crushed-stone roadbed within the heavily traveled gate complex.
Large two- and four-wheeled carts and wagons were also commonly used in biblical times for transporting heavy loads and people. In the patriarchal period, Joseph sent carts to Canaan to carry his father and the households of his brothers to Goshen (Genesis 45:19-27 ). After the completion of the wilderness tabernacle, six covered wagons, each pulled by two oxen, were donated by the tribal leaders to the Levites to transport holy items along the line of march (Numbers 7:1-8 ).
Once the people had settled into Canaan, carts became an everyday aid to farmers who had to transport sheaves of grain to the threshing floor (Amos 2:13 ). A similar two-wheeled cart was used by David to carry the ark of the covenant from Kiriath-jearim (also called Baale of Judah) to his new capital in Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6:2-17 ). The somewhat clumsy nature of these carts can be seen in its almost over turning as it came to the threashing floor of Nacon. Several men walked beside the cart to guide the oxen and prevent the cargo from shifting.
The broader roads and heavy wheeled vehicles of Palestine were also used, in the period of the Assyrian conquest, to transport the people into Exile. Sennacherib’s stone relief of his siege of Lachish includes a picture of Judeans being taken away in two-wheeled carts drawn by a team of oxen. The new exiles sit atop bundles containing their belongings while a man walks alongside the left-hand ox guiding it with a sharpened stick. Isaiah’s vision of the return (Isaiah 66:20 ) must have struck a poignant note for the exiles who had seen their ancestors depicted in the Assyrian relief. See Animals; Economic Life .
Victor H. Matthews
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for ‘Transportation and Travel’. Holman Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/
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