holy land woodcut - Feb 2012
The Holy Land as it would have appeared in biblical times, shown in a woodcut map from 1585. From "Itinerarium Sacrae Scripturae," by Heinrich Bunting.
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The sizable piece of Middle Eastern real estate that - God and other interested parties willing - is supposed to be shared in time by two states and two peoples is referred to by many as "the Promised Land." That sobriquet for the property in question (and that's some question, if you ask me ) derives from seven instances in the Book of Genesis, where God vows to the three patriarchs (Abraham, four times; Isaac, once; and Jacob, twice ) that "Unto thy seed will I give this land."

Those divine utterances are the basis of claims by some Israelis (especially those who see themselves as the direct descendants of the Israelites of yore ) to ownership of the land - despite the fact that Abraham was also the forefather of the Ishmaelites, while Isaac was the father not only of Jacob (aka Israel, who gave his name to all Israelites-to-be ), but also of Esau, progenitor of the Edomites.

"I'll take the Gospel whenever it's possible," sings Sportin' Life in "Porgy and Bess," "but with a grain of salt." Therefore, when talking about the so-called Promised Land, it may not be necessarily so, for even according to the Scriptures, the property in question was, at the time of the divine promise, already inhabited: "And the Canaanite was then in the land" (Genesis 12:6 ). Among the inhabitants were "the Kenite, and the Kenizzite, and the Kadmonite, and the Hittite, and the Perizzite, and the Rephaim, and the Amorite, and the Canaanite, and the Girgashite, and the Jebusite" (Gen. 15:19-21 ). Thus, for God's promise to be realized, the Israelis had and have to wage bloody wars. God may have promised the land, but he didn't promise his chosen people a rose garden.

Strictly speaking, the contemporary descendants of the aforementioned tribes, who did not trust in the Jewish god, may indeed insist that they have prior claims to what they see as the occupied territories.

Surprising as it may be, the word "promise" - either alone or in the context of the Land - is not found in any early Hebrew or Jewish sources. The first time "land" and "promise" are linked is in the Epistle to the Hebrews (11:8-9 ), in the New Testament: "By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed; and he went out, not knowing whither he went. By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a strange country, dwelling in tabernacles with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise."

The above text was apparently written in 63 or 64 C.E., probably in Greek, and its authorship is debated. For many years the assumption was that it was penned by Paul the Apostle, but there are at least five other possible contenders: Barnabas, Luke, Clement, Apollo or Priscilla. The Hebrews to whom it was addressed were likely Jewish Christians; indeed one point the epistle supposedly makes is that non-Jewish followers of Jesus need not convert to Judaism to enjoy all of God's promises to the Jews.

It took more than a millennium for the concept of the Promised Land to make its way into Hebrew discourse about the above-mentioned seed and inheritance of the land. One of its earliest mentions is in Midrash Sekhel Tov, a commentary on the Pentateuch, written in Hebrew by Menahem ben Solomon ben Isaac in 12th-century Rome. In the latter's interpretation of Genesis 48, Jacob notifies his sons and their offspring who will eventually settle in which part of the land of Canaan. As they are all still in Egypt at the time, Jacob explains to Joseph: "whereas the land was promised to my seed, [it is as if] it has been delivered to me, and [therefore] it is within my powers to pronounce on its division."

In so many (or few ) words, a promise is, as Merriam-Webster puts it: "a legally binding declaration that gives the person to whom it is made a right to expect or to claim the performance or forbearance of a specified act." The word derives from the Latin pro (forth) + mittere (send ).

A promise has a future: One expects it to be fulfilled. And it also has a past - mainly as a word not kept, a dream shattered, a hope disappointed. The problem with a promise, however, is that once it has been fulfilled, it becomes null and void, like a check that has been cashed. The promise's "lifespan" begins when it is declared, and lasts until the moment it is measured against reality.

It is generally accepted that promises should be kept, and surely one that is uttered by a divine mouth is something to be cherished. Furthermore, when we say of someone that he (or she ) is "a man (woman ) of his (her ) word" - i.e., keeps his/her promise - this is a high accolade indeed. It thus stands to reason (actually, this is more a matter of faith ) that the followers of God (in whose image man was created ) expect him to be a "god of his word" and to keep his promises.

To keep a promise alive, one has to claim it has not been fulfilled yet. True, as of 1948 we are indeed already inhabiting a part of the Promised Land, and since 1967 some of us live in territories that also were - as is sometimes proudly declared - "the land of our fathers." But our rule over some (there are people who say all ) parts of this land is in dispute. Furthermore, in the Bible there are several different definitions of the boundaries of this land, one of them mentioning the Nile in the south and Euphrates in the north. Therefore, some of us claim that the promise has not been delivered in full, and therefore it is not within our powers - and may even be contrary to God's wishes - to talk, for instance, about dividing it in return for peace.

Human beings discovered a long time ago that promises are easy to make, and much harder to keep. Politicians running for office were among the first to realize this. Great minds therefore have taken it upon themselves over the years to devise loopholes that allow them to miss the deadlines for keeping their own promises, and still be at peace with their own conscience.

Thus said Marcus Tullius Cicero, a Roman philosopher, statesman, lawyer, orator and political theorist (106 B.C.E.-43 B.C.E. ): "For a given promise or agreement may turn out in such a way that its performance will prove detrimental either to the one to whom the promise has been made or to the one who has made it ... Promises are, therefore, not to be kept, if the keeping of them is to prove harmful to those to whom you have made them; and, if the fulfillment of a promise should do more harm to you than good to him to whom you have made it, it is no violation of moral duty to give the greater good precedence over the lesser good."

When in Rome, do as the Romans do. But here is a simpler version, one of our own. It's attributed to Levi Eshkol (1895-1969 ), Israel's third prime minister. Eshkol also served as finance minister between 1952 and 1963, and 50 years ago, on February 9, 1962, he announced the devaluation of the Israeli pound against the U.S. dollar, the first of several that were to follow in the coming years.

After his declaration Eshkol was asked to comment on statements he had made earlier to the effect that the pound would not be devalued. He was unfazed, and retorted: "I did promise. But I did not promise to keep my promise."

As Dionne Warwick sang it (lyrics by Hal David, music by Burt Bacharach ): "Promises, promises / I'm all through with promises, promises now."