DAILY LIFE

Travel in the Old Testament World—Jonah 3:3

The biblical text suggests that travel was a common practice in ancient Israel. Even though the books of the Old Testament often mention roads and highways, they do not describe their appearance, though scholars generally assume that the term mesilāh, often translated as “highway,” refers to a worked road, either paved or smoothed.

The development of a system of roads and highways in the ancient world at least partly resulted from the need of traders to transport goods and materials. Other motivations included providing smooth pathways for couriers and messengers and for the movement of armies. Aerial photographs of the region can still reveal traces of the ancient road system.

Evidence indicates that during the Iron Age, travel was not limited to any social class. Common people used the roads to go to a cultic center or visit extended family members. For safety reasons, people often went in caravans and groups, and hospitality from people along the way was paramount in making such journeys possible.

Ancient roads were not paved, unlike the main streets inside towns, which were surfaced with stone. On the basis of the widespread reference to chariots and carts, we can safely assume that roads in ancient Israel were wide enough for wheeled vehicles.

Most travels in ancient times took place on foot. The Hebrew verb translated “to go” literally means “walk.” Even warriors would march to battle. Depictions in Assyrian reliefs also show part of the king’s army traveling on foot to battle in distant countries. With a day’s journey by foot calculated at approximately 20 miles, it could have taken more than two months for Sennacherib’s army to go from Northern Mesopotamia to Judah. Aside from walking, donkeys and mules seem to have been the most common other means of transportation. The books of Samuel and Kings alone mention chariots, horses, and horsemen more than 100 times. The large stables excavated in some of the major cities, such as Megiddo, Tell Qasile, Lachish, and Beth Shemesh, just to mention a few, indicate their importance. During most of the monarchic period, people mainly used horses to pull chariots, but these were particularly not limited to war chariots. Chariots also served for hunting and for the everyday travel of the higher classes. If necessary a chariot could cover up to 40-45 miles in one day.

The Assyrians employed camels as pack animals, for example, as depicted in the Lachish reliefs. Camels could carry about five times as much as donkeys and could go without water for long periods of time, making them the choice animal for desert routes. A camel could cover between 25 to 60 miles in a single day, even with loads up to 1,000 pounds. Evidence suggests that Assyrian warriors rode camels to battle sites, but not into battle. Scholars have identified other depictions of camels and riders in the context of raids as those fleeing the scene and not entering battle. However, we do find depictions of Arabs riding camels into battle against the Assyrians.

 

Barnett, The Assyrian Palace Reliefs and Their Influence on the Sculptures of Babylonia and Persia.

Cantrell, The Horsemen of Israel: Horses and Chariotry in Monarchic Israel (Ninth-Eighth Centuries B.C.E.).

Dorsey, The Roads and Highways of Ancient Israel.

King and Stage, Life in Biblical Israel.

Koehler and Baumgartner, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament.

Wapnish, “Camels,” The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East.