Web Exclusive: In the Beginning

July 1, 2009
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The Bible has always been a reliable source for the history of the Jewish people. This historical account encompasses many esoteric and otherworldly encounters. But what’s often overlooked are the overwhelming accounts of the day-to-day life as well as the professions of the common people.

Land surveying is one of the world's oldest professions. The ancient Sumerians, Egyptians and many other cultures have utilized land surveying and surveying principles in their monolithic and massive building projects. Such projects could not be undertaken without the skill and precision of a knowledgeable land surveyor.

Maps have existed since the earliest times, but someone had to make those maps and do the field work associated with them. The Bible not only describes acts of land surveying but also includes descriptions of landmarks, laws concerning surveying and boundary markers, surveying technology, measurement units, and even a surveying request for services. It's pretty amazing, but not really surprising.

This is not to be confused with simple measurements such as those used by Noah in the building of the ark, which could be construed as a form of space measurement. That would fall more under the category of engineering, of which there are also many examples. For a completely accurate view, this article examines only passages that can be considered as land surveying or directly relating to land surveying.

Examples of Laws Concerning Property Boundary and Boundary Markers

Remove not the ancient landmark, which thy fathers have set. Proverbs 22:28

Thou shalt not remove thy neighbor's landmark, which they of old time have set in thine inheritance, which thou shalt inherit in the land that Jehovah thy God giveth thee to possess it. Deuteronomy 19:14

Cursed be he that removeth his neighbor's landmark. And all the people shall say, Amen. Deuteronomy 27:17

Some remove the landmarks; they seize and devour flocks. Job 24:2 (NASB)

Laws concerning many things were very strict in what is referred to as the Old Testament. Here are several examples of law and social conduct applied to the property boundaries and landmarks and boundary markers associated with them. Why was it so important to not remove the boundary markers? First of all, we can see from the Law of Moses that to entrench on another's rights is wrong and against the word of God.

Secondly, as evident in the passage from Job, we can see that dire consequences can arise from the removal of property markers. Aside from perturbing neighbors and defrauding them of their property, the maps and local areas would not match up in the legal descriptions set forth in records. In Job, we can see that removing landmarks caused flocks to be stolen from their rightful owners. This can lead to property disputes, and in the Job passage, even livestock that live on the property could be in dispute. This sort of unethical moving of boundaries will then lead to other problems both legally and morally.

Descriptions of Surveying Equipment and Technology

I lifted up mine eyes again, and looked, and behold a man with a measuring line in his hand. Then said I, Whither goest thou? And he said unto me, To measure Jerusalem, to see what is the breadth thereof, and what is the length thereof. Zechariah 2:1-2

He measured on the east side with the measuring reed five hundred reeds, with the measuring reed round about. He measured on the north side five hundred reeds with the measuring reed round about. He measured on the south side five hundred reeds with the measuring reed. He turned about to the west side, and measured five hundred reeds with the measuring reed. Ezekiel 42:16-19

While the Zechariah passages are often attributed to allegory regarding the building of God's church, we can also see that the metaphor is based on actual profession and the technology associated with it. In the next passage, we see that he is measuring for the building of temple. Using the standard of a measurement for a "reed," we can surmise that no such temple had been built according to such a massive scale, and while this again passes into allegorical or metaphor for God's church, we again see the use of socially accepted measuring devices -- in this case, the reed and the measuring line. This shows a high degree of skill and precision for the ancient surveyor to consistently utilize the same standard equipment over a substantial period of time.

The passage in Ezekiel also provides some insight into the surveying measurement units used. One long reed (biblical) equals 10.5 feet. As in the previous section, we see that the measuring unit of a "reed" is used again and again, not only in surveying and engineering but also in many construction and building projects. This shows that the professions associated with surveying, architecture, engineering and construction used the same measurement standards between all industries. Since these industries were and still are integral parts of one another, we can then tell that this is nothing new and is just a continuation of technology, standards, measurements and principles set forth by the ancients.

Descriptions of Surveying Boundaries and Landmarks

As for the western border, ye shall even have the great sea for a border; this shall be your west border. And this shall be your north border: from the great sea ye shall point out for you mount Hor. Numbers 34:6-7

And the border shall go down to the Jordan, and the goings out of it shall be at the salt sea: this shall be your land with the coasts thereof round about. Numbers 34:12

And this shall be the border of the land toward the north side, from the great sea, the way of Hethlon, as men go to Zedad. Ezekiel 47:15

In the book of Numbers, there are many instances of a border description for the Jewish people. These borders stretch from the universally accepted coastline of the Mediterranean, known as The Great Sea, to the borders of known maps of locations and nations. It is from this passage (of which coastlines along bodies of water are still universal in property and legal descriptions) that we see the beginning of the practice of using known physical landmarks as border descriptions and marker descriptions.

This is huge news in learning how ancient Israel and its surveyors connected and cross-referenced their maps and surveys with other known surveys and maps. What's more is that the description of known landmarks, both manmade and natural, is a great modern-day resource in retracing and recreating the ancient world.

Again, we see the same type of mapping and boundary denotations outlined in the book of Ezekiel. The use of known legal terms (e.g., Great Sea) of known boundary markers and also the use of city names and references to known maps and surveys is given to add to the credibility and accuracy of new maps and boundaries.

A Royal Request for Surveying Services

And the men arose, and went away: and Joshua charged them that went to describe the land, saying, Go and walk through the land, and describe it, and come again to me, that I may here cast lots for you before the LORD in Shiloh. And the men went and passed through the land, and described it by cities into seven parts in a book, and came again to Joshua to the host at Shiloh. Joshua 18:8-9

The Jewish historian Josephus relates that the surveying services provided by the Jewish people were of the highest quality and conducted by men who were experts in geometry. Even though many biblical instances are given in generalizations, we can be sure the borders were highly accurate and were mapped as such.

Joshua was a military leader. The notations of the lands he conquered and how that land was divided was not only of importance to tribal and familial boundary denotations, but it was also of the utmost importance to the continued military conquest and defense of the promised lands. Note that Joshua not only asks for them to map and denote boundaries, but he also requests physical descriptions of the landmarks.

Joshua also requested the surveyed land to be described and written down in what would be the ancient Judaic version of a legal property description. After everything was written down and described, the land was also divided. This biblical version of an ancient subdivision is of great importance as it shows that a whole area was surveyed, legally described, entered into records and then subdivided, and the property ownership was transferred accordingly.

In Closing

It can be ascertained from a study of both Hebrew and Egyptian history that the ancient Hebrews most likely learned surveying technology and principles from the Egyptians. Furthermore, it is apparent that the basic surveying principles have not changed that much since ancient times. Of course, the technology has changed, and accuracy has increased exponentially, but the basic tenets of surveying -- boundary law, demarcation, subdivision, legal descriptions, accurate measuring according to social standards of measurements and universally accepted methods -- have only changed according to the cultural standards of measurement and the social legal system.

The Bible continues to be a fascinating exploration of both human spirituality and human technological achievement. The scriptures show that land surveying and mapping played an essential role in the establishment of the Promised Land and its defense as well as the individual's right to own, buy and sell property according to an agreeable and legally binding standard.

In modern times, there is a tendency to think that those who came before us were inept and backward. This article demonstrates that not only did the chosen people have an immense amount of knowledge, but they also applied that knowledge in ways that we still use today.


Editor’s note: All verses cited in this article are from the King James Version except where noted.

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