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People in both the Old and New Testaments often spend a great deal of time moving and taking journeys. Find examples of those who traveled during biblical times, and learn how they utilized roads, chariots, animals and ships, and how travel presented dangers and rewards.


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Travel in Biblical Times

by Elizabeth McNamer

Reading through the Bible, one often gets the impression that those who people it spend a great deal of time moving about

In the Old Testament, Abraham moves from Ur in the Chaldees to the land of Canaan (a journey of six hundred miles). Jacob takes a trip to Haran to find a wife. His sons wend their way into Egypt not once but several times. The Israelites eventually leave Egypt and start a forty-year journey through the Sinai desert. Joshua gives details of their reconnoitering the land, then crossing the Jordan and marching through the country. Judges recounts Samson’s journey to court a woman in Timnah. Absalom moves from Jerusalem to Geshur. A queen comes all the way up from Ethiopia in Africa to visit Solomon. There is constant mention of visiting foreign dignitaries, going on business trips, or making pilgrimages for religious purposes.

In the New Testament, Mary travels from Nazareth to the hill country of Judea. Joseph and Mary take the baby Jesus through the hot desert into Egypt and then back again. Luke records that the parents of Jesus went every year to Jerusalem for Passover. Jesus journeys east to the Decapolis and north to Tyre and Sidon before he sets out for Jerusalem. And his last commission to his disciples is to “Go teach all nations,” a message the disciples took to heart as we know from the book of Acts. Paul trudged thousands of miles and sailed even more.

Whatever these people were and however varied their lives and fortunes through the centuries, we can say for sure that they were not inclined to stay put.

A certain amount of travel was essential. Merchants had to carry their goods across deserts and mountains to exchange with far-off neighbors. The pious wanted to make pilgrimages to holy places. Ambassadors needed to carry messages. Soldiers were required to march to war. And so roads had to be built.

Early Highways

A network connecting one place with another seems to have followed soon upon civilization itself. At first, these “roads” would have been mere tracks lined with gravel or sand, measuring perhaps six feet across. We know that the Egyptians lined their roads with trees so that wayfarers would not lose their way, but we do not hear of this happening in other places. A traveler would sometimes put a pile of stones along the road as a marker to find his way home again.

Later, stations were positioned at regular distances along the way. Shulgi, the King of Ur in the late 20th century B.C.E., claimed: “I built along the highways big houses, planted gardens alongside to them, established resting places, settled there friendly folks so that who came from below or who came from above might refresh themselves in its cool shade.”

Shulgi’s “houses” however, would have been nothing more than four plain walls encompassing a field, which would have been placed twenty miles apart (a day’s journey). The main purpose was to protect from wild animals at night.

Interestingly, the Hebrew word “beth” means “house.” Did some of these “houses” eventually develop into villages or towns (Bethlehem, Bethel, Bethany) along these routes?

The Greek historian Herodotus says that the famous royal road of the Persians had inns and waystations for the royalty and well-to-do stationed at intervals of ten to fifteen miles, depending on the terrain.

Roman Roads

By the time of Jesus, roads had greatly improved. The Romans were builders and roads were their passion. Using large stones for paving came in with Emperor Augustus. Roman commerce and the military depended on this infrastructure, and paved roads leading out from the forum in Rome connected every major city.

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Julius Caesar, at the beginning of his career, was appointed Curator of Roads, a very responsible position. Curators were accountable for keeping the roads in good repair, seeing to the building of bridges and the establishment of staging posts. Local communities could be called upon to carry out the repairs. And while public money was available, many curators paid out of their own pockets to ingratiate themselves to the people. Milestones were inscribed with the services the curator had done. So the traveler was grateful to (or mad at) the curator.

The remains of many of these roads can still be seen today: The Via Appia led out of Rome itself; the great road between Aleppo and Antioch was nearly twenty feet wide with cut blocks of hard limestone; the Via Egnatia near Philippi where Paul and his companions often traveled; the road, partly cut through solid rock, between Damascus and Beirut.

Modern archaeologists can find the road by finding the milestones. But what conveyances traveled along these roads?

Conveyances

Chariots were in use from about 1200 B.C.E. They are mentioned one hundred and sixty times in the Old Testament.

Chariots were mainly used for war and we have several pictures of Assyrian chariots, which they engraved on their wall in Nineveh. Chariots were drawn by horses. These vehicles had one great disadvantage: They could get stuck in the mud. The Exodus story tells us that the horses and chariots of Pharaoh’s army got stuck in the mud as the Red Sea flowed back over them.

In addition to the chariots, people also used carts, both two- and four-wheeled. We have pictures of some of these, courtesy of the Assyrians. We know from the Acts of the Apostles of an Ethiopian who traveled to Israel by such a conveyance.

These carriages would have been used for the transportation of baggage and foodstuffs, and we have a picture, now housed in the British Museum, of one carrying human cargo as the spoils of war. Farmers and fisherman used such carts to transport their grain and fish to markets.

Owning a carriage was an investment; laws existed to protect their owners.

Beasts of Burden

We first hear of camels in the twelfth century B.C.E. They were domesticated by the Midianites, a fierce people who lived in the desert.

Every so often their camel-mounted warriors would swoop down on Israelite towns, steal their crops and make off again before anyone knew what was happening.

“…they came like locusts; both they and their camels could not be numbered, so that they wasted the land as they came in” (Judges 6:5).

From that time on, caravans of camels trekked across the Middle East laden down with luxuries being traded from one people to another. Camels could carry a load of half a ton, travel twenty-five miles a day without food or water—very useful in desert conditions. The Magi coming from the east at the birth of Jesus would presumably have been mounted on camels.

Oxen were used to pull wagons and carriages. David used oxen to take the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6:6). Elisha was plowing with oxen when Elijah found him (I Kings 19:19) Amos asks glibly if one can plough the sea with an ox.

Mules are often mentioned in the Bible. David’s sons fled on mules from the place of Amnon’s assassination. Absalom was riding a mule when his hair got caught in a tree and he was run through by Joab. Mules moved at about three miles and hour with a little bit of prodding.

Horses were used by the army and rarely by the ordinary traveler since they could be commandeered by any soldier.

The donkey was the main mode of transportation. These sturdy little animals could climb hills with ease and walk on rough stony ground. Abraham saddled his donkey to go to the land of Moriah. The sons of Jacob traveled on donkeys from Egypt to Israel (Genesis 42:27). Balaam journeyed on a donkey. In the New Testament, Jesus rides a donkey into Jerusalem, the usual way that a king approached his kingdom (John 12:15).

Donkeys were also used to draw grain mills. But donkeys could be stubborn and refuse to move when tired or hungry. Laws regulated the amount of weight that a donkey could carry and the quality of his food.

Dangers

Travel in biblical times was fraught with difficulty and danger. There was the threat of heat and exhaustion, cold and hunger, peril from wild animals (lions and wild boars were still found in this part of the world at the time of the Crusades). Bandits and brigands were a constant hazard.

People did not journey alone. Caravans were organized by individuals or agencies that made the arrangements. And few would have traveled for pleasure. Going to Jerusalem for the pilgrimage feasts would have been the nearest one came to a vacation.

Carriages would have transported some of the pilgrims. The owners of such conveyances rented them out along with a guide. Donkeys, too, were rented for such journeys.

Passengers carried only what they needed for the journey: a bag to hold money, a walking staff, a second pair of shoes (Jesus tells his apostles not to take a spare pair) and a cloak. The cloak would be used as a blanket and most travelers slept on the ground. One would also carry a flask to draw water from wells during the journey.

Traveling by Ship

Travel by sea was even more precarious, but a little faster. It would have taken four weeks to travel from Antioch in Syria to Rome. But only the hardiest could tolerate the ship’s conditions (no love boat these).

One had to bring everything one would require, including food, water, bedding and an overcoat. Pompey, the great Roman general, rid the Mediterranean of pirates, but he could not rid ships of rats. Passengers had to beat off these creatures to keep them from attacking their food.

Commercial ships carried passengers and prisoners and were often overcrowded. Josephus tells us of one ship that carried over six hundred passengers, but he also notes that it sank!

Travel Rewards

Travel always carried risks. It was never done with ease and always done with apprehension. But travel they did and in doing so, sowed the seeds of our religious tradition.

Next time you set out on a journey, remember how it used to be, and be thankful that all you are likely to meet with is a few delays and ramped-up security at airports. It beats dealing with a recalcitrant donkey, battling with a rat on a ship, or meeting a lion.

Elizabeth McNamer, one of the co-creators of Scripture from Scratch and a frequent contributor, has an M.A. in religious studies from Gonzaga University and a Ph.D. in adult education/religious studies from Montana State University. She teaches at Rocky Mountain College in Billings, Montana. Each summer she travels to the Holy Land to take part in an archaeological dig at Bethsaida.

Next: Ezra and Nehemiah (By Dianne Bergant, C.S.A.)

Praying With Scriptures
Read Paul’s account of his travels in 2 Corinthians 11:16-28. He endured all of this so that the church might become a reality. Pray for those who have to make hazardous journeys to ensure a better life for you. Pray for the safety of present travelers.
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