Israelis and Jews have it all wrong, apparently. The Promised Land is not where they think. It’s actually a few thousand kilometers to the northwest in the Netherlands and Belgium.
In fact, the Low Countries have the dual honor of being both paradise on Earth and the place where many of the Bible’s most prominent celebrities did their thing, at least according to Johannes Goropius Becanus (1519-1572).
This Renaissance polymath was not only a physician to the royals, he was also an amateur linguist. According to his bizarre theories, the Garden of Eden was actually located in Antwerp, and Adam and Eve spoke the Antwerp dialect of Dutch.
His proof? The etymology of their names. According to Becanus, Adam apparently derived from the Dutch compound Haat-Dam (Dam-Against-Hate) and Eve is Eeuw-Vat (The-Eternal-Barrel). He similarly “discovered” origins for Cane, Abel, Noah and other biblical figures. Becanus believed that these etymologies were self-evident; after all, he was convinced that Dutch was the oldest language in the world (Duits, i.e. De Oudst, or The Oldest).
He also theorized that Antwerp was founded by the descendants of Noah, though how they located this low-lying town – only 7.5 meters above sea level – after the reported deluge is unclear.
Though he did have admirers, Becanus and his theories were ridiculed even during his lifetime. His contemporary, Dutch religious leader and historian Joseph Scaliger (1540-1609) scoffed: “I have never read such nonsense.” He derided Becanus as the man who “was not ashamed to criticize Moses for drawing etymologies from Hebrew rather than Dutch.”
The Dutch, a lost tribe?
While creating his alternative mythology, Becanus is also credited with debunking the popular myth at the time that Hebrew was the mother of all languages.
He is also recognized as having taken the first steps on the road to discovering the Indo-European roots of many languages. “Both with respect to his methods and ideas … Becanus can be considered a pioneer of comparative language studies,” says Kees Dekker, a professor at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.
Besides, Becanus’ ideas didn’t sound as absurd back in his own time as they do today. Adriaan van der Schrieck (1560-1621), another Flemish language researcher, reportedly claimed that “the Netherlanders with the Gauls and Germans together in the earliest times were called Celts, who are come out of the Hebrews.”
Some outlying Dutch fundamentalists still believe this, as this video purports to prove.
The Bible as ‘handbook of national monomania’
Not to be outdone, across the North Sea the British soon developed their own variation, called British Israelism. The first to espouse a link between the British and the Israelites was an English Puritan by the name of John Sadler (1615-1674), Oliver Cromwell’s private secretary.
The ideas he set in motion proved amazingly enduring, enjoying their heyday in the late 19th and early 20th century, when the “sun never set” on the British empire. A sign of its cult popularity was the creation of the World Federation in 1919, whose members included royalty, nobility and leading politicians.
In the years between the two world wars, the jingoism that British-Israelism promoted set alarm bells ringing among advocates of a more peaceful world order. “It must be said quite clearly that British-Israel turns the Bible into a handbook of national megalomania,” wrote theologian and scholar C.T. Dimont in 1933, “and that it is a determined foe to the League of Nations and all efforts for world peace.”
It wasn’t just nationalism, but colonialism too. In both Britain and the Netherlands the rise of Israelism and the myth of descent from the lost tribes coincided with the construction of the two countries’ vast empires. This was no coincidence, some historians assert.
“This myth is a vital feature of colonial discourse throughout the long period of European overseas empires,” wrote the British historian Tudor Parfitt in “The Lost Tribes of Israel: The History of a Myth.”
This link is perhaps most apparent in the conquest and settlement of what became the United States. “From the first landing of the Pilgrim Fathers in Massachusetts, they called it the New Jerusalem and the City Upon the Hill,” says Arnon Gutfeld, professor of American history at Israel’s Max Stern Academic College. “So the theme of America being the world’s last and best hope was from the first settlement.”
The very imagery of these religious refugees and colonists as “pilgrims” is connected with the imagery of the New Testament, namely the Book of Hebrews’ reference to the “strangers and pilgrims on the Earth.”
Moreover, the Puritans may not have regarded themselves as a lost tribe, but they certainly saw themselves as the natural successors of the Israelites as “God’s chosen people,” some of whom were even carried off into captivity.
“For centuries, the American imagination has been steeped in the Hebrew scriptures,” wrote Walter Russell Mead, a professor of foreign affairs and a conservative commentator. “Colonial preachers and pamphleteers over and over again described the United States as a new Canaan.”
This also included prominent authors, such as Herman Melville, the author of “Moby Dick.” “We Americans are the peculiar, chosen people — the Israel of our time; we bear the ark of the liberties of the world,” he wrote in his fifth novel,“White-Jacket.”
And the Americas, in Melville’s view, were the Promised Land of the Anglo-Saxons. “We are the pioneers of the world; the advance-guard, sent on through the wilderness of untried things, to break a new path in the New World that is ours,” he wrote, reflecting the then-common sense of manifest destiny, translating into the mass displacement and slaughter of the native American population.