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Material Culture Report: Roads

by Ryan Timpte

The transportation infrastructure in ancient Israel was quite sophisticated for the time period, to the point that Biblical Hebrew contains no less than six different words to describe various types of roads, including designations for lane, path, way, and highway. The differences between these multiple terms lie both in their size and in their primary usage, including religious pilgrimage and trade. The Biblical witness attests to these six types of roads in various ways. Isaiah 2 uses oreh (way) and derek (path) in describing how God will “teach us [God’s] ways and we will walk in [God’s] paths” (Isa 2:3); oreh and derek are normally found primarily in this ‘religious’ sense. Contrast that with mesilah (“highway”), as found in Job 19:12, when describing the procession of robbers. This specificity in describing the network of transportation is important because it shows how advanced the system really was at the times of the writing of the Older Testament. A thriving civilization needs a specialized network of roads, and the Biblical witness illustrates such a network.

In the region of Judea, especially around Jerusalem, the success of the road system was due in large part to the geography of the land. The many hills in the Judean countryside might seem like an impediment to transportation, but the valleys between those hills served as “natural roads” from very early on. In modern times, the fastest mode of transportation is usually the one that most closely approximates a straight line, but those living in ancient Judea were satisfied with any hard, level path, even if it was winding. Because the larger settlements in Israel – such as Jerusalem, Hebron, and Bethlehem – have existed continuously for the centuries since Biblical times, the road systems and networks have been maintained and even improved upon, using Jerusalem as a centralized hub. As Har-El writes, “The expansion or construction of the road network is a clear indication of the prosperity or deterioration of the region as a whole,” because the transportation network was vital to an agrarian, market-based economy. The relative ease of transportation in the region may have been one of the reasons it was consistently a target for invasion. Israel stood as a gateway between what would become the Roman west and the Far East, and though trade routes also went north and south of the region, a route that went directly to the Mediterranean sea would have been invaluable both for trade and for war. Thus, the network of roads made for an easy life in many favorable and unfavorable ways. The arrival of Roman technology improved upon the road system, but it was the previous existence of a road system that made the region of Judea so attractive in the first place.

Har-El, Menashe. “Jerusalem & Judea: Roads and Fortifications,” in Biblical Archaeologist 44.1 (Winter 1981).

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