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Was Canaan an improvement over Egypt?

The People of Israel are invited to settle in a place known for uncertainty and difficulty, where rain is desperately needed but never assured
Abraham and Lot separate, etching by Wenceslaus Hollar, 17th century, Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, Toronto. (public domain, Wikipedia)
Abraham and Lot separate, etching by Wenceslaus Hollar, 17th century, Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, Toronto. (public domain, Wikipedia)

After decades of anticipation, the Children of Israel are finally on the verge of entering the Promised Land. They’ve heard of its wonders, they’ve been severely punished for doubting its superiority, they’ve witnessed Moses lash out at the tribes of Reuben and Gad for asking to live adjacent to it instead of in its heart, and they’ve heard Moses’ own devastation over God’s decree that he wouldn’t live to enter it himself.

And suddenly, in the middle of Moses’ pep talk preparing them to cross the Jordan at long last and settle this fine specimen of geography, he offers a description that – on the face of it – could only serve to confirm their worst fears:

The land, to which you are coming to inherit it, is not like the land of Egypt, from which you left, where you would plant your seed and irrigate with your foot like a green garden. The land which you are crossing there to inherit it is a land of mountains and valleys; it drinks water as the rain of heaven. (Deut. 11:10-11)

So Egypt is “like a green garden,” while the Promised Land is mountainous, relies on rain (not nearly as predictable as the Nile’s overflow), and is apparently not like a green garden.

Is this description supposed to get the people excited? They are well aware of the lush provisions available in Egypt, having reminisced longingly about them (conveniently forgetting they’d been there as slaves) on several occasions while trudging through the desert. They left Egypt on the promise of something better – a land noted for its seven special species, decadent in its rivers of milk and honey – and now they find out it’s not so great after all?

Rashi is quick to clarify: “Can it be that Scripture is speaking disparagingly of [Canaan], saying, ‘It is not like Egypt, but worse than it’?” Of course not! Rashi goes on to offer (from midrash) an analysis somewhat reminiscent of high school geometry proofs, using a combination of prooftexts and logic to deduce the superior beauty of even the worst city in Canaan over even the nicest places in Egypt, and that ergo, Canaan is better than Egypt. Rashi further argues that Moses’ comment about “irrigating with your foot” is intended to highlight a downside of Egyptian agriculture: bringing water from the Nile to one’s field requires effort, while in Canaan, rain falls [if it falls] directly onto the fields, even while “you sleep in your bed.”

For Rashi, the superiority of Canaan is clear – a superiority measured in physical beauty and comforts.

Rashbam, Rashi’s grandson, both complicates and simplifies matters. With his dedication to only including peshat (the plain sense of the text) in his commentary, Rashbam’s approach sticks to the context – agricultural success and its relationship to mitzvah observance – and avoids the fancy footwork of Rashi’s midrashic analysis. At the same time, Moses’ description is more complicated in Rashbam’s view, because he’s saying Canaan could turn out to be either better or worse than Egypt: “This land is better than Egypt for those who observe His commandments, and worse than all the lands for those who do not observe.”

On a fundamental level, Rashbam’s approach to the text is actually similar to Rashi’s: both, along with other commentaries, assess the relative merits of Egypt and Canaan in terms of what they offer physically.

But what if we measure “better” and “worse” differently?

What if Moses’ point is not just about agriculture, or any kind of material comforts, but about a shift in perspective?

Thinking more fundamentally about the differences between Egypt and Canaan, we might note that the Torah has highlighted the same contrast before. Almost immediately after Abraham (or Abram, at that point) arrives in Canaan at God’s instruction (Gen. 12:1), he faces a famine and leaves for Egypt. One of Abram’s famous 10 trials (Avot 5:3; Maimonides counts this as the second), the famine illustrates the uncertainty of life in Canaan; Abram reacts by heading for Egypt, where, presumably, there is food – “a green garden.”

Commentaries dispute whether Abram’s decision to leave Canaan was misguided (Ramban) or not, but perhaps the real key to his passing the test is in what happens afterwards: After experiencing Egypt’s advantages over Canaan’s uncertain rains, Abram nonetheless returned to the land God had shown him and picked up right where he left off: “to the place of the altar which he had made there at first, and Abram called there in the name of God” (Gen. 13:4). Abraham had experienced firsthand that life in Canaan could be difficult, and experienced Egypt as a place of better food security, and he left unimpressed, to continue building a relationship with God in the land to which He had led him.

Abram’s perspective is highlighted further when he is forced to part with Lot, who had also gone to Egypt and who also returned with great wealth (ibid. 5). Significantly, it was the land of Canaan itself that “could not bear them to live together” (ibid. 6) – they had too much combined livestock to graze in one small area of this mountainous land where rain might be scarce – so Abram suggests splitting up.

At this point, we discover that unlike Abram, Lot was impressed by Egypt: With the entire land of Canaan before him (ibid. 9),

Lot lifted his eyes and saw the entire Jordan plain, that it was all irrigated… like the garden of God, like the land of Egypt… And Lot chose for himself the entire Jordan plain… Abram settled in the land of Canaan, and Lot settled in the cities of the plain and moved his tent until Sodom. And the people of Sodom were wicked and sinners to God very much. (ibid. 10-13)

Out of the entire land of Canaan, Lot chose Sodom – a culture devoid of moral worth – purely based on its agricultural similarity to Egypt. Apparently, Lot liked the idea of a lush, easily irrigated land like that he saw in Egypt.

Of course, the Torah generally describes the character of all Canaan’s inhabitants in less than flattering terms. However, the emphasis on Sodom’s culture in this context is noteworthy, as it contributes to a portrayal of the lands of Canaan and Egypt as symbols representing not only two different agricultural models, but two correspondingly contrasting models of religion/conduct.

And so, Lot went to Sodom while Abram “settled in the land of Canaan.” Whether or not Sodom was geographically located within Canaan’s borders, this verse clearly places “Sodom” and “Canaan” at two opposing poles: Lot chose Sodom, and in contrast, Abram lived in Canaan. Moreover, rather than simply implying that if Lot settled in Sodom, Abram must have been left passively in some other area of Canaan, the text emphasizes Abram’s location with an active verb – “settled” – suggesting he made a choice of his own to commit himself to Canaan. This verse represents a step in Abram’s growing connection to Canaan as a paradigm, as the antithesis of the reliable comforts represented by both Egypt and Sodom.

Why make a point of attaching oneself to a place known for uncertainty and difficulty, where rain is desperately needed but is never assured?

Maybe because the choice goes deeper than agriculture, and because some things carry more value than material comforts. The contrast between Egypt and Canaan is not only about the reliability of irrigation, but about what it means – how it affects a person – to live with certainty or uncertainty.

As Moses continues in Deut. 11:12, it is Canaan “that Hashem, your God, seeks; the eyes of God are on it constantly…” Doesn’t God watch all the lands, asks a midrash? One answer might be that He does, but it is in the Canaan paradigm that one might relate to that watchful eye most directly.

In a place like Egypt or Sodom, it would be easy to forget God’s involvement, to become “wicked and sinners to God.” Life in Canaan, on the other hand, is a life lived in constant awareness of one’s dependence on help from above.

Is it better to live with certainty and no God, or with uncertainty and awareness of God? Is it better to forget Him, or to always feel one’s reliance on Him?

In Rashbam’s comment on Deut. 11:10, he goes on to indicate that in both places, one gets out of the land what one puts in: in Egypt, agricultural success depends purely on irrigation efforts, regardless of moral worth, while in Canaan crops can go either way based on one’s efforts in mitzvot.

Which kind of effort is better? It depends what one is looking for. Lot preferred the predictability of Sodom, while Abram displays growing commitment to the physical uncertainty, and religious connection, symbolized by Canaan. We can see threads of this development throughout his life, including in the ill-fated attempt to build his legacy with Hagar, whose Egyptian origin is emphasized frequently, but here we will examine just one further scene.

At the end of Genesis chapter 14, after Abram has rescued Lot’s town and allies in an impressive battle against all odds, he is approached by two contrasting personalities with two contrasting messages:

And the king of Sodom went out to meet him…
And Malkitzedek, the king of Shalem, brought out bread and wine, and he was a priest of the High God. And he blessed him and he said, Blessed is Abram…and blessed is the High God, who delivered your enemies in your hand, and he gave him a tithe of all.
And the king of Sodom said to Abram, Give me the people, and take the wealth for yourself. And Abram said to the king of Sodom, I have raised my hand to Hashem, the High God… that I will not take from a thread to a shoelace or anything of yours, and you will not say ‘I made Abram rich.’ (Gen. 14:17-23)

The king of Sodom – representative of material wealth – wants to complete a business transaction, compensating Abram for his efforts in saving the people. Sodom does not come across as necessarily wicked in this scene, but certainly as having a material focus.

Malkitzedek, on the other hand – whose name suggests royalty too (malki, meaning “my kin”), but of righteousness (tzedek) – represents God and the acknowledgment of God’s role in physical success.

Faced with these two personalities and all they symbolize – the Egypt/Sodom model on one hand, and the Canaan model on the other – Abram declares unhesitatingly his loyalty to the Canaan model, to a life built on a relationship with God and not on the wealth of Sodom.

We might note that Abram does not object to wealth; the contrast isn’t really about material comforts per se, or the presence or lack of them. The point is rather that if he is to have wealth, it will be within a framework that recognizes God, not Egypt or Sodom or their rivers, as the source.

That framework, fundamentally, isn’t just about where one lives, or about what one has, but about how one thinks. It’s not about where Abram is at a given moment, but about the values to which he “raises his hand” and commits himself on a deeper level. It’s about building a relationship with God, come what may.

Moses, on the eve of the Jewish people’s entry into the Promised Land, isn’t just describing the physical superiority of the land. In fact, he doesn’t tell them which land is better – only how Canaan is different. Like their ancestor before them, the people of Israel have experienced the life of Egypt, and like him, they will have to decide for themselves. Moses invites them to consider the benefits of living in a place where they never feel so secure that they could forget to turn to God in supplication and thanks.

He invites them to raise their hands in commitment to appreciating that place as the choicest, come what may.

About the Author
Sarah Rudolph is a Jewish educator and freelance writer. She has been sharing her passion for Jewish texts of all kinds for over 15 years, with students of all ages. Sarah's essays have been published in a variety of internet and print media, including Times of Israel, Kveller, Jewish Action, OU Life, Lehrhaus, and more, and she serves as Editor-At-Large, Deracheha: womenandmitzvot.org. Sarah lives in Ohio with her husband and four children, but is privileged to learn online with students all over the world through WebYeshiva.org and TorahTutors.org.
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