Tribal Lands: The Twelve Tribes of Israel in Their Ancestral Territories, by Tamar Weissman. Renana Publishers, $27.99 USD (348p) ISBN 978-1-56871-593-3
The intellective task that Israeli Bible lecturer and certified tour guide Tamar Weissman has set for herself is to consider affinities between each of the twelve tribes of Israel and their territories allotted in the Land of Israel. This challenge is at once fascinating and ambiguous, as it presupposes a shared or mutually-informed identity between human beings and their geographic locales. In essence, the work ponders the ways in which the distinct tribes of Jacob influenced and were influenced by their respective land assignments, which were perhaps less random than one might imagine.
Weismann’s method is tripartite: a summary of the character traits of each Israelite tribe (shevet) as portrayed in the Torah, Talmud, and midrash precedes an analysis of the tribal region (nahalah), following which a modern itinerary is supplied for readers. By combining the insights of a scholar with the experience of a tour guide, the author reifies the otherwise abstract interplay between land and text. Moreover, Weissman assesses the meaning and relevance of the tribal names, blessings, traditional months, standards, and gemstones in the priestly breastplate, thereby offering a holistic inquiry into the nature of each tribe and its terrain.
In many ways, this is a study long overdue. Tribal Lands spells out for readers — especially Jewish readers — the overt and explicit connections between a people and its homeland, connections both intimate and symbiotic. The notion that provinces were not arbitrary but purposive underscores the significance of the bond between Jacob’s descendants and their unique inheritances, and avers a conceptual paradox that humans and their habitats are intrinsically not only cognate but correlative. When certain peoples reside in certain environs for peculiar reasons, then each becomes endemic to the other.
This premise further contextualizes the ensuing personages who arose and the events that transpired within and across the tribal territories. Why did the Tabernacle reside for hundreds of years at Shiloh in Ephraim? Why did the daughters of Israel dance on Tu B’Av in Shiloh’s vineyards? Was Rachel buried in Bethlehem of Judah or Bethlehem of Benjamin? How did King Saul of Benjamin unite the tribes into a nascent kingdom after a period of internecine civil war? These and other questions are thoughtfully examined in a lightly homiletic tone.
Readers of Tribal Lands will come to appreciate the outsider mentality of Dan and Gad, the pathos of Reuben and Simeon, the wealth of Zebulun and Asher, the wisdom and scholarship of Issachar and Naphtali, the centrality and promise of Ephraim and Manasseh, the enduring bond between Benjamin and Judah, and how they all fit together like pieces of a topographical puzzle, like a woven tapestry of intertribal influences.
Ultimately, the impression highlighted in these pages is one of a spiritual pact between dwellers and domains, whose fusion was not desultory but designed. Environments affect inhabitants, and vice versa, and never more so than when precision and specificity attend their mergers.
Weissman’s book is a welcome addition to the bookshelves of the learned, and will particularly appeal to all with an interest in the Bible, Middle East history, and Jewish studies.
The back matter includes a glossary, bibliography, and list of abbreviations, though an index would have been helpful. (March 2015)