In view of the shifting political sands in the current Middle East situation, this study builds a scriptural case for Israel’s land rights in the area. In the next study, the rights of others in the area will be addressed.
A. Foundational texts: These are texts which later texts rely upon or to which they refer regarding the question under consideration. In this instance there are at least eight Torah texts, all from Genesis/B’reishit, which state, confirm, and amplify the provisions of the Abrahamic Covenant that relate to the Land of Israel. All of them are founded upon the first of them, Gn 12:1-3.
- Gn 12:1-3 – The initial promise to Abraham. Note how the first thing mentioned in the giving of the promise is the Land. “Get you out of your country and leave your father’s house and go to the Land that I will show you. . .” As urban modern people, we do not feel as we should the foundational and irreplaceable role of having a land of one’s own and what that meant to ancient people groups and to most people in the world today. Look how many wars have been fought and are fought to this very day over territory. The promise of the Land is intrinsic and central to the Abrahamic Covenant.
- Gn 13:14-18- – At Bethel, Abram and his nephew Lot discover that they cannot dwell together in one encampment because the herdsmen of their respective herds and flocks were competing for adequate pasture lands and watering. Graciously, and out of faith in God, Abram gives Lot first choice of the land he would choose. He chooses the plains of the Jordan to the east and Abram “dwelt in the land of Canaan and Lot dwelt in the cities of the plain and pitched his tent as far as Sodom. In reward for his graciousness the LORD confirms and extends the promises he has made to Abram concerning land [Gn 13:14-18]: “14And the LORD said to Abram, after Lot had separated from him: “Lift your eyes now and look from the place where you are northward, southward, eastward, and westward; 15for all the land which you see I give to you and your descendants forever. 16And I will make your descendants as the dust of the earth; so that if a man could number the dust of the earth, then your descendants also could be numbered. 17Arise, walk in the land through its length and its width, for I give it to you.” 18Then Abram moved his tent, and went and dwelt by the terebinth trees of Mare, which are in Hebron, and built an altar there to the LORD.” Here he extends the extent of the Land of Promise, confirming that promise to Abram’s descendants. He also says that the promise is to Abram and his descendants “ad olam”–forever [see below under Jeremiah 7:7 for discussion of this term and its variants]
- Gn 15:1-21 – to be treated below under “Chair Text.”
- Gn 17:7-8 – Confirmation of the covenant. Specification of it as “all the land of Canaan.” Extension of the promise “to you are your descendants,” as in Gn 13.
- Gn 22:16-18 – “Your descendants will possess the gates of their enemies”—the Land will belong to Israel despite opposition and threat. [Indeed, centuries later the prophet Obadiah points out how Israel possessing the land and conquering her enemies round about is a form of vindication—there is a rightness to this, and a wrongness to Israel not being in possession of the Land and being besieged and conquered by surrounding enemies [see entire prophecy, especially vv. 15-17].
- Gn 26:3-5 – Confirmation of the covenant to Isaac. God tells him that the fulfillment of the covenant to Isaac and to his descendants is due to Abraham’s obedience. He also states that the covenant is a Divine oath [“the oath I swore to Abraham your father” – at the Binding of Isaac on Mount Moriah]., He specifically forbids Isaac to go down to Egypt, but says “dwell in this land.” Apparently God cares where the Jews take root. Finally, he indicates that the promise extends beyond the boundaries of Canaan, “to you and your descendants I will give all these lands.” This leaves room for the expansion of the boundaries of the Land of Promise which is indeed what happens later in Scripture.
- Gn 28:13, 14 – Confirmation and extension of the promise to Jacob again when he is on route from Beersheva to Haran in the vision of the ladder reaching toward heaven. He is promised the land upon which he is lying, to him and his descendants. He is promised territorial expansion—“you shall spread abroad to the west and the east, to the north and the south.” He is told that the LORD will bring him back to this land, and that he will not leave him until he has accomplished all of this.
- Gn 35:9-15 – God appears to Jacob again [see 35:1] at Bethel, and changes his name to Israel. He confirms the promise to him and his descendants: “The land which I gave to Abraham and Isaac I give to you; and to your descendants I give this land.” Here it is clear that God is not talking about Arabs and Jews, but about Jews—descendants of Jacob. The promise which is by oath to Abraham because of his obedience is extended through his son and grandson to succeeding generations—to the Jewish people.
B. Chair text – A text that “says it all, or at least most of it, and says it well.” Gn 15:1-21.
- Setting – Abraham has just rescued his nephew Lot and his family plus all the plunder and captives from Sodom who had been captured by a confederation of kings. Abram had declined the offer from the King of Sodom for Abram to take the plunder for himself and simply return the people, when he said “I have sworn to God Most High, the Possessor of heaven and earth, that I will not take anything that is yours,…lest you should say, ‘I have made Abram rich.’” In doing this, Abram had insulted the king of Sodom and also turned down a king’s ransom. Now he is wondering what good all this principled living is doing him, since he remains childless, with no biological heir and now he has antagonized a king to boot. God comes to him at this time of his needing comfort, reassuring him that he will have both heir and protection [“Fear not Abram, I am your shield. . .”]. God confirms and details the covenant he has made with Abram here. We restrict ourselves to the statements concerning the Land.
- v.7 – “I am the LORD, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to inherit it.” Again, notice how the promise of a Land is at the forefront of the Abrahamic Covenant.
- v. 13 “…Know certainly that your descendeants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs and will serve them, and they will afflict them four hundred years.” The mention of going down to a land not theirs [Egypt] reminds us that there is a land which is their—the Land of promise.
- v. 16 – “But in the fourth generation they shall return here, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not complete.” Canaan is the Land of Promise to which the descendants of Abram will return. This is something we see repeatedly in Scripture—that coming to the Land of Promise is always a matter of return for Jews—returning to their land from which God views them to have departed or been driven out. The Land of Promise is home base. Also, even though the land has previous dwellers [the Amorites, a general term for the people living in this region], these people are not treated as the owners of the land. Rather it is the LORD who is the “Possessor of heaven and of earth,” and these people are squatters or at best tenants who will be evicted when their iniquitous behavior has exhausted the patience and mercy of God. Similarly today, the entire state of the debate changes when and if we acnowledge God as the Possessor of the Land, and Israel as the one to whom he as given this land as a permanent stewardship.
- vv. 18-21 – Here God specifies partial boundaries, the West to East boundaries for the Land of Promise—from the Nile to the Euphrates and he acknowledges that the land he is giving is a land currently occupied by others: the Kenites, the Kennizites, the Kadomities, the Hittites, the Perizites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites. There is no embarrassment or apology here that the land which God is giving to the descendants of Abram, Isaac and Jacob is land occupied by others. Remember, from God’s point of view, occupation does not equal ownership. He is the Possessor of Heaven and Earth, everything belongs to him, and he gives it to whomever he chooses with no apologies made or necessary.
- It is most interesting that Rashi, the foundational Medieval Jewish commentator [1040-1105], picks up on this issue right at the inception of his commentary on the Torah. He asks why it is that the Torah does not begin with the first commandment given at Sinai, which, from a Jewish point of view, is ground zero of Jewish relationship with God, but rather begins with the creation of the heavens and the earth. His conclusion is most telling, he says this: “What is the reason the Torah began [with the Book of Genesis and the story of creation]? …So that if the nations of the world will say to Israel, ‘You are bandits for you conquered the lands of the seven nations who inhabited the Land of Canaan’ Israel will say to them, ‘The whole earth belongs to the Holy One, Blessed be He. He created it and He gave it to the one found proper in his eyes. By his wish he gave it to them and by his wish he took it from them and gave it to us’. ” If Rashi is not right then the United Nations and the Palestinians might indeed have a valid point that Israel is occupying land that rightfully belongs to others who have rightful ownership of the land through a kind of ‘squatters rights’. But it is clear that Rashi’s major point is what underlies the assumptions of the Torah concerning God’s gift of the Land to Israel. In fact, it is most significant that in this very chapter, Abram refers to the LORD as “God Most High, the Possessor [Owner] of heaven and earth.” God as Owner/Possessor of all is the assumption that underlies Israel’s right to the Land. And again, no apologies are made for this in Scripture.
C. Subsequent texts that show how the Jewish community theologized on these matters. A selection from many available.
- Deut 4:40 – In this verse is embodied the ongoing paradox of Israel’s relationship with the Land. On the one hand God says that it is a Land that he is giving to the children of Israel for all time. On the other hand, their enjoyment of the Land is dependent upon their obedience, as is their tenancy in the Land—if they are disobedient, they can be exiled without forfeiting or nullifying the fact that the land is their ongoing inheritance.
- 2 Chron 20:6-7 – At a time when Jehoshaphat and the people of Judah were under attack by the people of Moab and Amon [modern northern and southern Jordan], and from Syria, Jehoshaphat goes to God in prayer. He positions God as the God of the cosmos [as does Rashi and as does Abram] and speaks of how he dispossessed other nations to give this Land to the children of Israel. “O L-rd God of our fathers, are You not God in heaven, and do you not rule over all the kingdoms of the nations, and in Your hand is there not power and might, so that no one is able to withstand You? Are you not our God, who drove out the inhabitants of this land before Your people Israel, and gave it to the descendants of Abraham Your friend forever?” Note that many of our strands of thought are represented here. Clearly, the people of Israel theologized in such a manner as to predicate their expectations concerning the Land upon God’s covenant promises to Abraham and his descendants. Here the term “forever” is “olam,” which means something like “for the duration into time currently hidden from view.”
- Jer 7:7, 25:5 – In both of these passages, Israel is spoken of as having received the Land from God “forever and ever” [min olam v’ad olam]. This kind of “doubled” use of “olam,” [min olam v’ad olam, or mei’olam ad olam], and its Aramaic equivalent twice in Daniel is very instructive and crucial for our argument. This is a stronger phrase than simply l’olam. The doubled use of olam is found 11 times in Scripture
- Six times of the blessedness or praise of God [Ps 41:3; 106:48; Daniel 2:20; Neh 9:5; I Chron 16:36; 29:10],
- Once of God’s mercy over all who fear him [Ps 103:17];
- Once of God’s being, his everlasting existence before and after creation, as worthy of praise – “Before the mountains were brought forth or ever you had formed the earth and the world, Even from everlasting to everlasting you are God” [Ps 90:2] iv)
- Once of God’s holy ones possessing the kingdom forever and ever [Daniel 7:18], where this phrase [in its Aramaic equivalent] is clearly marked as an intensification or more likely a superlative beyond simply olam (almaya in Aramaic]. This is crucial for demonstrating that this doubled use of “olam” extends the meaning beyond the restrictions of that meaning normally connected with “olam” when used singly.
- And two times of the duration of Israel’s promised possession of the Land [Jer 7:7; 25:5]–enduring “min olam v’ad olam.”
Biblical Hebrew usage simply has no stronger way to say that the Land is given to Israel as a perpetual inheritance. This argument is very strong.
D. Brief position statement by way of answering the question with which we began.
The Land of Israel is part of the cosmos which in its entirety belongs to the Creator God. All inhabitants of any land do so as tenants by the sufferance of God who is the sole owner. This is true of course of the Land of Israel. Indeed, in Leviticus 25:23, the LORD tells Israel “The land shall not be sold permanently, for the land is mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with me.” In accordance with God’s promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and the repeated confirmations of this covenant throughout Scripture, especially our chair text, we conclude that the Land of Israel is given to the Patriarchs and their descendants through Jacob [the Jewish people] as a perpetual possession. While habitation of the Land is contingent upon obedience to Hashem, possession of the Land is based solely on patriarchal/matriarchal obedience and God’s irrevocable oath.