The Road to Jerusalem (Part I)

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Jerusalem in the Bible
Yeshivat Har Etzion

The Road to Jerusalem (Part I)


By Rav Yitzchak Levi


In his Commentary on the Torah, the Ramban explains the significance of the stories of the forefathers with the famous dictum, "The actions of the forefathers are a sign for the children":


I shall now teach you a general principle; understand it. In all of the coming episodes concerning Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, there is an important principle that is referred to by the Sages in brief when they teach, "Everything that happened to the forefathers is a sign for their descendants" (Tanchuma Lekh Lekha 9). Therefore, the text describes at length the story of the journeys and the digging of the wells and the other episodes.  At first glance, we might think that these stories are redundant and have no purpose.  But all come to teach about the future, for when a prophet comes to observe an episode that happens to one of the three forefathers, that which is decreed for his descendants can be understood.


And know that any decree of the Sages, when they proceed from a potential decree to a symbolic act, then the decree is fulfilled in any event, and therefore the prophets performed some act in their prophecies… And for this reason the Holy One caused Avraham to possess the land and showed him images of all that would happen to his descendants in the future; understand this. (Bereishit 12:6)


            The Ramban is teaching that the actions of the forefathers are prophetic signs, as it were, that pave the way for their descendants.  In this first lesson, we shall adopt the Ramban's approach concerning the manner in which our forefathers entered the Promised Land, and examine its significance with regard to Jerusalem – both for our forefathers and for all generations.  In Part I we shall discuss the route followed by the conquerors of the land – i.e., which cities they passed through when they entered the land; Part II addresses the spiritual significance of this route for all generations [1].


Part I: The Route


A.  Avraham


Avraham, the first of the forefathers who came to the Land, covers a route that includes cities of central importance, which will be of great significance in the unfolding of Israel's future.  Let us examine this route with a view to demonstrating the Ramban's assertion that it represents a pattern for future generations.


1.  Geographical background

The Torah does not specify Avraham's point of entry into the Land.  However, it seems probable that – coming from Charan – he crossed the Jordan River somewhere in the region of where the Adam Bridge stands today.  Throughout the generations, this place served as a major point of transition between the eastern and western sides of the Jordan [2].  From there, as far as we are able to ascertain, Avraham ascended via Wadi Paro – known as Nachal Tirtza, which would have brought him to the Shekhem region.  From here Avraham continued southward, following the line of the country's watershed, on the ancient road mountain road joining the Yizre'el Valley in the North and the Valley of Arad and Be'er Sheva in the South.  This road would have covered Jenin, Yivle'am, Shekhem, Shilo, Beit-El, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Hebron – at which point it splits into a western fork, leading in the direction of Devir and Be'er Sheva (via Beit Chaggai, Otniel, Meitar and Be'er Sheva of today), and an eastern fork, which continues towards Zif, Ma'on, Carmel, Yatir, and the Valley of Arad. Along the course of this geographic route, the Torah mentions various place names and describes events that took place there.


2.  Stations along the route

The first place that Avraham arrives at is "the place of Shekhem, Elon Moreh" (12:6).  Next he pitches his tent "between Beit-El and Ai" (8), and from there heads "towards the Negev (southward)" [3] (9).  Thereafter, Avraham "goes down to Egypt." His return journey from Egypt covers the same route, in the opposite direction: he comes first to the "Negev," then journeys to the place where he had dwelled originally – "between Beit-El and Ai," and finally ends up "in Elonei Mamrei, which is by Hebron" (13:1, 3-4, 18).


It is from here that Avraham goes out to fight the "first world war," to save Lot.  On his way back he reaches the "Valley of Shaveh, which is the King's Valley" (14:17).  Here he meets the king of Sedom and the king of Shalem [4].  Then Avraham once again moves southward, passing various stations (which we shall not enumerate here, for the sake of brevity), the last of which – the land of the Philistines – is the place where he receives the command to offer up his son Yitzchak at Moriah.


3.  Analysis

The major stations through which Avraham passes are Shekhem, somewhere between Beit-El and Ai (where he pitches his tent), Hebron, and Jerusalem (first the general environs of the city, later on Mount Moriah).

Avraham's descent to the Negev and to Egypt from the place between Beit-El and Ai are a sort of parenthetical insert in the journey, as indicated by the special emphasis that the text gives to the fact that Avraham returned to precisely the same place from which he departed:


He journeyed on his way from the Negev to Beit-El, to the place where his tent had been originally, between Beit-El and Ai – to the place of the altar which he had made there earlier, and Avram called in the Name of God. (13:3-14)


            This parenthetical insert would seem to hint at the continuation of Avraham's route in the Negev: between Kadesh and Shur, in Gerar, Be'er Sheva, and the land of the Philistines.  Indeed, in his later years, Avraham is located primarily in the South, and Yitzchak continues in his father’s path in the same region.  Yaakov, on the other hand, continues Avraham's legacy along the major route: Shekhem, Beit-El, Ai, and Hebron.


B.  Yaakov


1.  The route

On his own return journey from Charan back to Eretz Yisrael, Yaakov follows a route similar to that of Avraham.  At the end of Chapter 33 we find mention of Sukkot, which lies to the east of the Adam Bridge.  Hence, we deduce that Yaakov crossed over the Jordan at the same point that Avraham used to enter the Land.  From there he ascended via Wadi Paro to Shekhem (33:18), where the story of Dina takes place, following which Yaakov journeys – by God's command – to "Luz, which is Beit-El" (33:6).  On his way southward, Yaakov buries Rachel "on the road to Efrat, which is Bethlehem" (35:19), and then pitches his tent "beyond Migdal Eder" (33:20), until he finally returns to his father, Yitzchak, at "Mamrei, Kiryat Arba, which is Hebron."


2.  Analysis of the Route

Yaakov returns on Avraham's route, and he stops at the same stations that Avraham used [5].  The similarity of the route is not surprising in itself; after all, this was the main road along the hills.  What is notable about Yaakov's route, rather, is the stations through which he passes.  Firstly, he stops between Beit-El and Hebron to bury Rachel.  Secondly, unlike his grandfather Avraham – who covered the entire route from beginning to end (Shekhem, Beit-El and Ai, Hebron, Jerusalem), Yaakov does not continue from Jerusalem to Hebron.  The Hebron-Jerusalem link that is missing from Yaakov's travels is supplied, many generations later, by King David.


C.  Bnei Yisrael and Their Entry into the Land


1.  The route

According to the literal understanding of the text, the entry into the Land proceeded as follows: establishment of the camp at Gilgal – the first station mentioned in the text (Yehoshua 4:19); conquest of Jericho (Chapter 6); conquest of Ai (7-8); construction of the altar at Mount Eival, above Shekhem (8:30-35); wars against the kings of the South (10) and against the kings of the North (11).  With the conclusion of the wars, the actual settlement of the Land begins.  The first settlers are the tribes of Yehuda and Ephraim and the half of the tribe of Menasheh that settled on the western side of the Jordan.  The first city to be settled was Hebron (14:13-14).


The above – as we have noted – follows the literal text.  However, the Sages understood the entry into the land differently:


Look and see how many miracles were performed on that same day… Israel crossed over the Jordan and came to Mount Gerizim and Mount Eival – a distance of more than sixty 'mil'! (Sota 36a)


In other words, on the very same day that Israel crossed over the Jordan, they also reached Mount Gerizim and Mount Eival.  This opinion matches the text in Parashat Ki Tavo:


And it shall be, on the day that you cross over the Jordan to the land which the Lord your God gives to you, that you shall set up for yourselves great stones, and cover them with plaster. (Devarim 27:4)


Chazal understand the expression, "on the day" in the literal sense; on the same day that they passed over the Jordan, Bnei Yisrael arrived at Mount Eival, above Shekhem, and built an altar there.


2.  Analysis of the route

According to the literal text, the first place that Bnei Yisrael came to after entering the Land (in the region of Gilgal and Jericho) was Ai – Avraham's second station.  Only afterwards did they move on to Avraham's first stop and build an altar at Mount Eival.  According to Chazal’s interpretation, in contrast, Bnei Yisrael’s entry into the Land followed the same order as that of Avraham: first they went straight to Mount Eival, and thereafter – to Ai [6].


In the story of Ai, the text draws a clear connection between the conquest of the Land and the journeying of Avraham.  Concerning Avraham's arrival in this region, we are told: "He moved from there to the mountain, eastward of Beit-El, and he pitched his tent with Beit-El on the west and Ai on the east" (12:8).  When we come to the story of the war of Ai, we find a series of expressions that are remarkably similar to those in the above verse: "… Ai, which is beside Beit-Aven, east of Beit-El" (Yehoshua 7:2); "They dwelled between Beit-El and Ai, to the west of Ai" (Chapters 8, 9); "He placed them as an ambush between Beit-El and Ai, to the west of Ai" (8:12). Through the use of these expressions, the prophet hints at the unmistakable connection between the conquest of the Land in the days of Yehoshua, and the journeys of Avraham.


But the similarity to the story of Avraham stops here.  Bnei Yisrael arrive at Ai and at Mount Eival, north of Shekhem – but they do not reach Jerusalem, nor is there any mention of the city in the text at this stage [7].  The arrival in Jerusalem, the city, and Mount Moriah, with the completion of the entire development, is destined to come about only in the days of David, with the reign of a "king over all of Israel."


D.  The kingship of David

Following the death of Shaul, David rules over Yehuda in Hebron (II Shemuel 2:1-4) for seven years and six months.  When Mefiboshet – Shaul's son – dies, all the tribes of Israel come to coronate David in Hebron (5:1-3), and his first act as king over all of Israel is to conquer Jerusalem (6-9).  As king, then, David adopts the Hebron-Jerusalem track, and in accordance with this chronology – in which Hebron precedes Jerusalem – David has no connection to the Shekhem region or to the area of Beit-El and Ai [8].



We have seen that Avraham, in his journeys, sets forth a complete process that includes Shekhem, Beit-El and Ai, Hebron, and Jerusalem (the city and the Temple), but in the lives of his descendants this process is actualized in two stages: Yaakov and Bnei Yisrael carry out the first part – Shekhem, Mount Eival and Ai, up to Hebron; the second part – from Hebron to Jerusalem – is completed by David.


Part II – Significance of the Route


Let us now try to understand the significance of the route that we have sketched above.  We shall begin by examining the opinion of Prof. Moshe David (Umberto) Cassuto; thereafter we shall quote Rabbi Mordechai Breuer.


A.  Cassuto's commentary


            Concerning Avraham's journeys in Canaan, Cassuto writes [9]:


What was the intention of the text in conveying these details and listing Avram's journeys in Canaan as they are listed, from the beginning up to the environs of Shekhem, and then from there up to the environs of Beit-El, and finally from there on to the Negev? And why is the area of the land thereby divided into three regions…? And why are we told that it was specifically at those stations – around Shekhem and around Beit-El - that Avram built altars to God?

… And just as Avram's altars/markers were meant, as it were, to divide the land into three regions, each one further south than the next, so also the altars/markers of Yaakov, which were established at the same places.  And just as Avraham bought and paid in full for a certain place in the land – the Field of Makhpela, next to Hebron – so Yaakov, too, purchased and paid in full for a certain place next to Shekhem, and then two of his sons conquered all the surrounding area.  The parallel is clear…

The Torah… meant to present before us, with Avram's conceptual conquest, a sort of forecast as to what would happen to his descendants.  According to this tradition, the sign was first given to Avram; thereafter it was given again to Yaakov, and the repetition signifies confirmation and verification… Accordingly, Sefer Yehoshua describes the actual conquest in a manner that parallels the conceptual conquest of the forefathers – even using similar terms, as if to tell us that the acquisition of the Land achieved in the days of Yehoshua was already included, in principle, within the symbolic conquest carried out by the forefathers in their time.  Everything was planned in advance and foretold, in accordance with God's will.


            After listing his proofs, Cassuto emphasizes the aspect of the forefathers' route that divides the Land into three parts.  He does not address directly the quality and nature of the cities themselves; rather, he discusses what we may learn from them concerning the three-way geographic division of the Land: from Shekhem northward; between Shekhem and Beit-El and Ai; and from Beit-El southward, towards the Negev.


Aside from the geographical aspects, Cassuto goes on to note the significance of these places in the context of the division of the Land among the tribes:

-                   Shekhem is the heart of the inheritance of the children of Yosef; the border between Ephraim and Menasheh passes through it;

-                   Beit-El signifies the border between the sons of Rachel: Ephraim is to the north, Binyamin is to the south;

-                    The area south of Beit-El, towards the Negev, represents the inheritance of Binyamin – whose northern border is Beit-El and southern border is Jerusalem, and the inheritance of Yehuda – which stretches southward of Jerusalem.


In this context it is interesting to note that when the kingdom was divided, in the days of Rechavam and Yeravam, the border between the two kingdoms passed through the region of Beit-El.


According to Cassuto's view, then, we may say that Avraham's journeys not only set forth the path for his descendants, but also hint at the future division of the central hill region between the tribes.


B. Rabbi Breuer's commentary


In his article on Avraham's ascent to Eretz Yisrael [10], Rabbi Breuer likewise addresses – inter alia – the major stations in the Land:


First he passed through Shekhem and Beit-El, which were destined to be major cities in the kingdom of Ephraim.  After Lot separated from him, he arrived in Hebron, which was destined to be a royal city in Yehuda.  But in these journeys – as in the rest of his journeys in Canaan – Avraham did not reach Jerusalem.  We may understand this in accordance with all that we have explained here.  Separation is a major issue in Sefer Bereishit; any type of good that is revealed in this Sefer automatically brings about a rejection of the waste.  This process of selection and rejection automatically brings about a string of divisions, which characterize this Sefer: from the argument between Kayin and Hevel, up to the transfer of the birthright from Menasheh to Ephraim.  For this reason, when Avraham comes to the land he gets only as far as Shekhem and Beit-El, which are cities of Ephraim, and to Hebron, which is part of Yehuda.  But he cannot reach Jerusalem, for Jerusalem is located mid-way between Shekhem, Beit-El, and Hebron; it includes all of them and forges them into a single unity.  David, too, came from Hebron to Jerusalem only when he ceased to be the king of Yehuda and became the king of all of Israel.  Thus, Jerusalem transcends the divisiveness that pervades Sefer Bereishit; it is the city "that was not divided among the tribes" (Yoma 12a).  In fact, the fact that it is the capital of all of Israel symbolizes the idealized vision of incorporation, which is destined to prevail over the divisiveness.  [11]

… And at this time of revelation of the essence of unity, Jerusalem's hour has come.  For Avraham has already reached a level which transcends the usual reality of Sefer Bereishit.  For this reason, he no longer sees only Shekhem and Beit-El on one side and Hebron on the other; he merits seeing Jerusalem, which is located in between them and includes all of them.  Therefore, immediately "after his return from slaying Kedarlaomer and the kings who were with him," he meets with Malki-Tzedek, King of Shalem, who brings him Jerusalem's greetings.  For the vision of the unity of Jerusalem was indeed realized through Avraham's victory – for its fortress now extends as far as Sedom, and all the nations dwelling to the west and to the east of it were unified under him.

But it was only for a short while that Jerusalem was revealed to Avraham.  For Avraham knew that the time was not yet ripe for the realization of this dream of unity for Jerusalem.  For the world was still a world of duality [12].


Rabbi Breuer, unlike Cassuto, addresses the significance of the cities themselves.  Shekhem and Beit-El are destined to occupy a major place in the Kingdom of Israel: Shekhem as a capital city, and Beit-El as a central place of worship, where Yeravam will station one of his golden calves, on the southern border of his kingdom.  Hebron is destined to occupy a central place as the capital of the Kingdom of Yehuda.


In his travels, Avraham seeks to reach the place where he wants to dwell – Hebron.  But after he settles there, Avraham is forced to go to war, in the wake of which he also manages – on his return journey – to reach Jerusalem [13].


Avraham reaches Shekhem, Beit-El and Ai together with Lot, but in Beit-El their paths diverge, and Avraham comes to Hebron alone, without Lot.  The two of them meet up again for a short time in Jerusalem – which Avraham visits outside of the framework of his journeying; he goes to Jerusalem in the wake of his victory over the four kings – and thereby brings about a revelation of the unity of that city, before once again separating from one another.


Thus, Avraham's journeys pass through cities that are destined to represent the divided reality of the two Kingdoms – Yisrael and Yehuda, each with its own capital, while Jerusalem – which he fails to include within the framework of his traveling, but rather visits only in the wake of the war – hints at the ideal unity; a unity with the power to serve as a bridge between Shekhem and Hebron [14]. 


We may summarize, then, by saying that according to this interpretation, Avraham's route reveals the divisiveness that is expressed in the cities of Shekhem, Beit-El and Hebron, on the road towards unity and the amalgamation of forces in Jerusalem.



Having demonstrated the existence of a route of entry into the land that is followed by Avraham, Yaakov, and Bnei Yisrael, we presented two ways of understanding Avraham's progress via Shekhem, Beit-El, and Hebron prior to reaching Jerusalem and the site of the Temple.


Both approaches assume that the journeys of this forefather of the nation are meant to pave the way for his descendants.  Cassuto emphasizes the internal division of the Land that is represented by this route – as expressed later in the division of the Land between the tribes.  Rabbi Breuer notes the significance of the route as a progression on the road that leads from divisiveness towards unity.


In the next lesson, we shall attempt to understand this process in terms of the characteristics of these cities themselves: the spiritual make-up of each place and the reason why Avraham chose to plot his course in the order in which he did.




[1] All references are to Sefer Bereishit, unless otherwise indicated.

[2] It appears that the point of crossing was very close to the place concerning which we read (Yehoshua 3:16): "The water flowing down from on high rose up in a heap, very far from Adam, the city that is beside Tzartan." This, once again, represents the same principle that "the actions of the fathers are a sign for their descendants."

[3] Rashi, adopting Chazal’s interpretation, explains that Avraham traveled southward, towards Jerusalem.  However, the literal reading is "towards the (region of) the Negev."

[4] The presence of Malki-Tzedek, King of Shalem – which is Jerusalem – appears to indicate that the "King's Valley" was in the Jerusalem region.  We shall address proofs for this assertion in future lessons.

[5] There are, admittedly, some discrepancies in the definitions of the places themselves: Yaakov "came to Shalem, a city of Shekhem," rather than "to the place of Shekhem, up to Elon Moreh"; thereafter he arrives in Beit-El itself, rather than "between Beit-El and Ai," as mentioned in the context of Avraham.  The scope of this lesson does not allow for elaboration as to the respective significances of these differences.

[6] Bnei Yisrael’s next actions continue to reflect the path laid down by Avraham.  As mentioned, after building the altar at Mount Eival (Yehoshua 8:30 and after) and the wars against the kings of the South and the kings of the North, we find the settling of the tribes of Yehuda, Ephraim and half of the tribe of Menasheh.  It was in the context of this process that Hebron was settled for the first time (Yehoshua 14:13-14).  This matches the general order of the entry into the Land by both Avraham and Yaakov, as demonstrated above.

[7] Throughout the period of Yehoshua and the Judges, Jerusalem is mentioned only in passing.

[8] It is interesting to note that after the reign of David and Shlomo, we find Rechavam returning to Shekhem (I Melakhim 12:1), and Yeravam – to Shekhem and Beit-El (25:32).

[9] M.D. Cassuto, Commentary on Sefer Bereishit, Jerusalem 5725, pp. 207-209 (in the second section of the book – from Noah to Avraham).  Cassuto addresses the stories of Avraham in general; we quote here only the section that is pertinent to our discussion.

[10] Rabbi Mordechai Breuer, Pirkei Mo'adot I, Jerusalem 5753, pp.  266-299.

[11] Rabbi Breuer goes on to describe how, following his victory over the four kings, Avraham momentarily returns with Lot to Jerusalem; for a short time they are reunited in the city whose essence is unity.

[12] Ibid. pp. 295-296.

[13] We hope to discuss the proofs that Avraham reached Jerusalem in one of our future lessons.

[14] We shall not expand here on the issue of the unity that is revealed in Jerusalem.  This is a subject of major importance, and we hope to examine its various aspects in future lessons.


Translated by Kaeren Fish