Opinion

The Promised Land: Where Is It?

It would behoove Israeli politicians to avoid a one-dimensional, mistaken and misleading interpretation of biblical literature, and to avoid subordinating this classic work to a limited and ephemeral party platform.

Map of the Land of Israel with a depiction of Jerusalem, showing the place of the Temple. After the "Vilna Gaon". Manuscript, 19th century.
The Eran Laor Cartographic Collection/ National Library of Israel

In the public debate in Israel on the status of the territories captured by the Israel Defense Forces in 1967, it is frequently claimed that the state’s claim to them is based on the biblical description of the connection of the Jews to these lands. I would like to examine what the Bible says regarding that famous divine promise, and see to what degree, if any, the text can establish a connection between the political entity called “the people of Israel” and the geographic region known as “the Land of Israel.”

The issue of the borders of the Promised Land and the essence of the divine promise is examined in depth by Nili Wazana in her book “All the Boundaries of the Land.” Her research shows that in the Bible there are various descriptions of these borders, which are unclear and sometimes contradictory. Wazana states that efforts to delineate the actual borders of the land run into unsolvable problems, and any attempt to draw a detailed map based on them reveals that they are not real border descriptions at all.

Wazana calls our attention to the various descriptions of the Promised Land that mention monumental geographical elements – seas, mountains, large rivers and deserts. These sites were not selected due to their specific locations like the border with Egypt, Lebanon or Mesopotamia. On the contrary, they are mentioned because in the ancient world these were perceived as “representing the cosmos and defining its boundaries,” beyond which lie untamed areas that are mysterious, chaotic and dangerous.

In other words, unlike Star Trek’s Captain Kirk, who sails among the stars and strives “to boldly go where no man has gone before,” the essence of the divine promise is to give certainty and assurance to people that they are safely within the boundaries of the known universe, which is familiar, orderly, civilized and protected.

Wazana shows that the expressions describing the Promised Land are no more than a reflection of the borders of the empire of the Assyrian kings. Ancient documents delineating these borders also mention seas, rivers, mountains and deserts, mostly the same sites noted in the biblical text, and their purpose is glorify the kings and confirm the claim that their domain is congruent to the borders of Terra Cognita – the known world – of ancient times.

The reason that the borders in the divine promise are mistakenly read as real borders is the distance between the language of the Bible and the language spoken today in Israel. In actuality, biblical Hebrew and Israeli Hebrew are two different languages. The demarcation of the borders of the Promised Land is a spatial merism, an expression that describes a whole by referring to its poles. When it is written, “In the beginning God created Heaven and Earth,” this doesn’t refer to the creation of the skies and the land alone, but to the entirety of the universe located between these two extremes.

Accordingly, the mention of liminal sites like mountains, seas and rivers in the borders of the divine promise means that the whole populated land was given to the people of Israel. Indeed, reading biblical language through the prism of Israeli Hebrew and in accordance with the contemporary reality blocks our understanding of the position expressed in the Bible regarding the fateful relationship between the people of Israel and the Land of Israel. In fact, the Bible recognizes the legitimate existence of the Jewish people outside the country’s borders. On the other hand, the Bible accepts the fact that the Land of Israel is populated by various peoples, and recognizes the rights of the Philistines, the Moabites, the Ammonites and others to live in the area alongside Israel and to maintain sovereign, independent regimes.

After a short and stormy visit to the Land of Israel, Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav would say, “Everywhere I go, I am going to the Land of Israel.” It was his poetic way of expressing the fact that the connection between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel isn’t dependent on being in any defined geographic location, and certainly not on applying Israeli sovereignty to it.

It would behoove our politicians, particularly those in charge of education, to avoid a one-dimensional, mistaken and misleading interpretation of biblical literature, and to avoid subordinating this classic work to a limited and ephemeral party platform. In her lovely poem “Antarctica,” Hana Goldberg sends everyone seeking absurd things, like Hebrew-speaking horses or eternal love – to search for them in Antarctica. In the poem, Antarctica represents a magical place, where the normal laws of nature do not apply.

That’s the role filled by the biblical borders of the divine promise – within them the regular order prevails, while outside them is a chaotic, strange and dangerous world. It’s nice to have fun with the unlimited worlds of the imagination, but daily life, society, education and politics have to operate within the rational world, and be based on profound education, morality, responsibility and wisdom.

Dr. Holtzman teaches at Levinsky College of Education.