[b-hebrew] "The Negev" at Genesis 12: 9 Is Not the Negev Desert

JimStinehart at aol.com JimStinehart at aol.com
Mon Aug 25 11:27:51 EDT 2008


Joel M. Hoffman:
 
You wrote:  “[I]n my dialect, there's no difference between "Negev-ward" and 
"toward the Negev."  … (And yes, NEGEV is also used metonymically for "south.")
”
 
I fear that you may be assuming that the word “negev” in Genesis refers to 
the Negev Desert.  But in fact, the word “negev” was  n-e-v-e-r  used in the 
secular history of the ancient world (at least prior to Roman times) as the 
proper name of the Negev Desert.  This is confirmed by an archaeological 
professor who lives and works in the Negev Desert:
 
“[Regarding] the Negev…the Northern Negev of today[,… w]e do not have any 
pre-biblical (Bronze Age or second millennium BC) texts, Egyptian or otherwise, 
which use the word.  …It is true that the Negev as such does not serve as a 
name for any administrative region, but I am not sure that it does not appear in 
texts from Roman and Byzantine times.”  Dr. Steve Rosen, Professor of 
Archaeology at Ben-Gurion University in the Negev
 
So at least prior to Roman times (and the Patriarchal narratives certainly 
were composed prior to Roman times), “negev” was  n-e-v-e-r  used as the proper 
name of the Negev Desert in the secular history of the ancient world.
 
Accordingly, in order to determine what geographical locale is being referred 
to in Genesis by the word “negev”, we must on each separate occasion examine 
the immediate context.  At Genesis 12: 9 (and at Genesis 13: 1 as well), the 
context makes it clear that, to paraphrase the text, Abraham traveled “to and 
through the hill country south of Beth-el”.  That is, in context, the 
reference in those two passages to “the South”/“the negev” is to the hill country 
south of Beth-el, not to the Negev Desert.  Also note that where the Hebrew 
directional suffix he/H applies to a region, as here (instead of to a city), a 
translation of “to” or “toward” is not as good as “to and through”, in my 
opinion.  As I understand Biblical Hebrew (and I would like to be corrected if I 
am wrong about this), the Hebrew directional suffix he/H, when applied to a 
region, means that the person both went “to” the region, and that the person 
traveled “through” the region.  The English word “toward” would imply in 
English that the person never actually made it to the region, which is not the 
meaning in Biblical Hebrew at all.  And the English word “to”, while not as bad, 
really just means “arrived at” in English, without the focus on traveling in a 
particular direction that applies in the Biblical Hebrew.
 
At Genesis 12: 9, the text is logically focusing on the fact that having 
observed drought/famine in the eastern part of both northern and central Canaan 
(Genesis 12: 6, 8), Abraham now observes the same drought/famine in the eastern 
part of southern Canaan proper as well -- the hill country south of Beth-el.  
It is on this basis that Abraham confirms that, as the text states at Genesis 
12: 10:  “And there was a famine in the land….”  That is, all of eastern 
Canaan proper (with no consideration being given to the Negev Desert, one way or 
the other) was experiencing a widespread drought/famine.  That fact is 
important in Abraham’s somewhat surprising decision to proceed immediately to Egypt.
 
There is no reason for the text to mention the Negev Desert here, and the 
text does not mention the Negev Desert.  The divine sign that Abraham should go 
down to Egypt immediately (to sell directly to Pharaoh’s royal buyers the lapis 
lazuli that Terakh had bought in Ur) is that all of eastern Canaan proper 
(excluding the Negev Desert) was experiencing a widespread drought/famine (though 
such drought/famine would soon prove to be of short duration).  If we focus 
on what the author is logically trying to tell us at Genesis 12: 9, we see that 
the author is stressing that the hill country south of Beth-el, like the rest 
of eastern Canaan, was at that time experiencing a drought/famine.  There is 
no reason for the author to mention the Negev Desert in this context, and he 
doesn’t.
 
In order to keep this post short, I will not go on to analyze the other uses 
of “negev” in Genesis.  But let me note that if we examined the rest of the 
Patriarchal narratives, we would find that (i) the phrases “the negev” and “
the land of the negev”  n-e-v-e-r  refer to the Negev Desert in the Patriarchal 
narratives (at Genesis 24: 62, Genesis 20: 1, or elsewhere), and (ii) the 
Patriarchal narratives  n-e-v-e-r  refer to the Negev Desert.
 
We must recognize that, historically, a reference in Biblical Hebrew to “the 
South” (that is, “the negev”) is inherently ambiguous on its face.  The 
actual geographical locale being referenced can only be determined by reference to 
the immediate context in which such phrase is used in the text.  Here at 
Genesis 12: 9, a close review of the text indicates that “the South”/“the negev” 
at Genesis 12: 9 is referring to the hill country south of Beth-el.  Genesis 
12: 9 is telling us that Abraham traveled “to and through” the hill country 
south of Beth-el, confirming that this part of Canaan proper, just like all the 
rest of eastern Canaan, was at that time experiencing a widespread 
drought/famine.  That was the divine sign that Abraham should then proceed directly to 
Egypt.  
 
JPS1917 translates Genesis 12: 9 as follows:
 
“And Abram journeyed, going on still toward the South.”
 
In context, that means, and could be paraphrased as:  “And Abram journeyed, 
going on in stages to and through the hill country south of Beth-el.”  There is 
no reason to focus on the Negev Desert here, and every reason to focus on the 
hill country south of Beth-el.  The hill country south of Beth-el was an 
integral part of Canaan proper and, in a somewhat unusual occurrence, was at this 
time experiencing a widespread drought-famine.
 
Finally, we should remember the words that Abraham had just recently heard 
from YHWH as part of that series of tremendous divine promises that YHWH made to 
Abraham in Harran:
 
“Now the LORD [YHWH] said unto Abram:  'Get thee…unto the land that I will 
show thee.’”  Genesis 12: 1
 
We soon find out that “the land that I will show thee” means, in part, that 
(i) Abraham will proceed first to eastern Canaan, which will at this time be 
experiencing a widespread drought/famine, and (ii) accordingly, Abraham should 
then proceed directly to Egypt, and (iii) Abraham will then soon return to 
Canaan from Egypt, with the short-lived famine in eastern Canaan already being a 
thing of the past, and with Abraham himself never to leave Canaan again.  
Those specific geographical details are of course not spelled out as such at 
Genesis 12: 1, but as the story plays out, we soon come to know what YHWH had meant 
by that important, but initially ambiguous, divine reference to “the land 
that I will show you”.
 
Jim Stinehart
Evanston, Illinois




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