(Here, Jacob’s family has arrived in Canaan, after their grueling flight out of Paddan-Aram, and they are camped outside the gates of the great city of Shechem in Northern Canaan.)
It was a good land…Figs were in it, and grapes. It had more wine than water. Plentiful was its honey, abundant its olives. Every fruit was on its trees. Barley was there and emmer. There was no limit to any cattle.
— Sinuhe, a refugee from Egypt, 2,000 BC
…your God is bringing you into a fine country, a land of streams and springs, of waters that well up from the deep in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines, of figs, of pomegranates, a land of olives, of oil, of honey, a land where you will eat bread without stint, a land where the stones are iron and the hills may be quarried for copper.”
— Deuteronomy 8
So yes, let us recall those first few days in the valley of Shechem when all still seemed so simple.
Waking to the throaty song of doves, and thinking, I’m home—with Ishtar and Tamuzi! Then hearing something else—a cart perhaps clattering along the road—and remembering I wasn’t.
And still, as I recall, I’d be glad—to feel how cool the air was.
For the hills around drew in the dew. And in the early hours the air was soft and moist even in that still-dry season. Yes, it was truly as if the Gods had come and freshened that bowl of earth by using it as Their bed—just as the Shechemites told of it.
And as I woke, I’d think of the little spring at the base of Ebal where we went each morning and drew our water. And the very thought would make my throat feel parched. And I’d rise and find my way through the dim light past the other camps and into the valley between the mountains, to where the water ran out of the stones. And fill my cup.
And I’d look up as I drank at the shadowy forms of the doves where they crooned in the branches above my head.
And I’d fill my jug and carry it back to our tent and squat at its edge and drink, savoring each swallow. And my eyes would soak in the sight of the hills against the lightening sky, and my gaze might catch on the flit of birds above the fields in that first light.
And I could hear behind me from the tent the rise and fall of my aunts’ breath, and all seemed so much like home that I could almost sense the same spirits lived here as had lived around our compound in Paddan-aram.
Then a hint of color would fill in the grey, and ghostly forms emerged moving along the highway—a cart and a driver, perhaps, or a whole caravan, or a company of walking men—and my eyes would follow these shadowy shapes as they made their slow way towards the great city walls now brightening in Shamash’s first rays.
And the air would be still.
And as Shamash rose, the basin would fill with such bright light, so crystalline that everything it touched looked fresh and clean.
Then after my chores were done, I’d squat again in the shade of our tent and let my gaze seek out whatever moved on the broad flat highway that passed to the south.
And it seemed, then, that as I gazed my eyes grew stronger. As if they were freed to travel farther out because they traveled on such brilliant light. And I was content to let them rest on some patch of color—as a butterfly will. And, at first, I didn’t care what my eyes chose, for after the blankness of the desert whatever they found was good.
And they’d light upon, say, a driver and his ox, and his cart loaded down with timber or stone. And I’d see the man’s arm lift, and this would come to my eyes slowed down by distance, so it appeared the man and his ox and the cart were all joined in some gentle dance. The arm would rise, the cart would speed, then slow, and soon I’d see the arm rise up again. And I knew of course that when the arm rose and the cart quickened, the whip I couldn’t see had hit the flesh. And yet I simply let my gaze fix on the sight until it distilled to only a patch of moving color which I’d follow up the road to where it would dissolve inside the swirl of colors of the milling throng at the gates.
Then my eyes might scale the city walls to some flick of movement—the guards’ tunics as they passed around the ramparts, scraps of dark as small as birds against the red. Or on the half-built palace, men crawling, climbing up to deposit a stone, whose ascent looked leisurely and safe as a fly’s along the ceiling—as seen from that long distance. Or my gaze might reach to the slopes of Gerizim inside the lower outer wall, where I could make out sheep grazing among the olive trees and the figs which now, I knew, were heavy with fruit. And then my eyes would rise to the green mountain behind.
Then, too, sounds seemed to travel further through that valley—the bleating of goats as they came in from the hills or the shouts of soldiers from where they were garrisoned to the south—all made serene by the distance over which they came on that bright air.
And out of the milling pool of color before the gates, sometimes chants would rise—of rage or plea or victory I didn’t care. For I let my ears simply soak in the sound as you would the hush and hiss of the sea.
And in the afternoon, a breeze would blow over the mountains, carrying smells from the city into our camp—of bread and burnt meat.
And the hides of our tent would shudder. And the wind would blow across my face. And sometimes a bee would fly inside the tent’s skin and angrily buzz until it escaped. And one of the dogs asleep in the shade would scrabble its legs in the dirt. And I too would grow drowsy, surfeited by all I’d absorbed.
And then suddenly the drum of horses’ hooves might rouse me, and I’d follow the glint of gold racing along the highway, and know that one of the royal entourage or an emissary from another city was passing by.
Then in the evening the air would grow still again. And Shechem’s vast red walls would glow as if on fire as Shamash slipped behind the mountains. And somehow, then, it seemed as if all I’d lost since I’d left home were housed within those glowing walls where I’d never been.
So, yes, there at the start I was glad to let my senses rove to whatever lay beyond our camp, distilled to simple color and sound and smell. For after such parched emptiness—this was the nourishment I craved.