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Drash God's Promised Land

God's Promised Land

Drash, November 2016 by Mark Berch

Zion, Israel, The Holy Land, this is what was promised to us by God. "God promised Abraham the land, and repeated that promise to Isaac and Jacob" says Rabbi Jonathan Sacks[1], and countless other rabbis. The State of Israel itself states on its website, "The State of Israel is the State of the Jews in the Land of Israel, promised to them by God."[2] Theodor Herzl used the term.[3] The concept of the Promised Land is the central tenet of religious Zionism.

     Of the 7 times this promise is said to have been made, 4 times it was to Abram, and these are all in today's parashah:


And the LORD appeared unto Abram, and said: 'Unto thy seed will I give this land'[4]

Arise, walk through the land in the length of it and in the breadth of it; for unto thee will I give it.'[5]

And He said unto him: 'I am the LORD that brought thee out of Ur of the Chaldees, to give thee this land to inherit it.'[6]

And I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land of thy sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession.[7]


     Later on, Isaac gets two such pronouncements, and Jacob, one.

     It seems simple --- God promised, and that's that.

     But there are a number of problems here. In all but the first of these, the Land will be given to Abram. And yet, it doesn't seem that Abram ever possessed the land, in any real sense of the word. He pays a handsome sum of money for a burial patch without ever mentioning that he supposedly owns the whole joint. Otherwise, he seems to live the life of a nomad.

     That leaves his offspring, his seed, mentioned in the first and last quotes.  And who are Abram's seed? There are the 12 tribes of course. But there's also his firstborn son Ishmael, progenitor of the Ishmaelites, generally taken to be the Semitic Arabs. And there is, via Isaac, also Esau, progenitor of the Edomites, much later called the Idumeans. 

     Now, when we Jews say, "the Promised Land", what we mean is promised-to-the-Jews, and that's the only beneficiary we mean. The Israeli quote I gave earlier, "State of the Jews ... promised to them by God"  --- it mentions just promised to Jews, period.  But our parasha's wording, on the face of it, is broader than that. And Muslims indeed do trace themselves through Abraham.  

     While the Jews have assembled various rationales to limit this promise to just us, we aren't the only ones to play that game.  Muslims conventionally understand the seed of Abraham as referring to Muslims. 

     In the Epistle to the Galatians, the Apostle Paul points to the singular "seed", rather than the plural "seeds" which would mean many people. It thus, to him, means just one person, namely Christ.[8]  A little later, this is expanded say that anyone who belongs to Christ qualifies as Abraham's seed, and thus is heir to the promise.[9]

And as for the Idumaeans, after the Jewish Wars with Rome, they disappear from history[10]. No one is left to make the case for them.

And there are also some things missing here. There is the much discussed question of --- why was this fabulous promise given to Abraham? The text is basically silent on why it was him.

And why was the promise that of land? Why not, say, many sons or much cattle?  After all, in a nomadic world, owning land on a very large scale is a somewhat dicey concept. And insofar as Abram himself is concerned, why does one man even need an entire land?

And third --- what land is this? The promises made to Isaac and Jacob don't say, but one of those four quotes to Abram specifies Canaan[11].

Canaan appears in the Bible as a person[12], a people[13], and a geographical area. But there is no consistency in how the area is defined. The descriptions of Canaan in Genesis[14] and in Numbers[15] appear quite different.  The one in Numbers is far more specific, but it's an odd description for a land, as it relies extensively on towns, rather than just natural features of the land to define it.

To confuse matters even further, there is also in this parashah, a Covenant.[16] Here, the land is assigned to Abram's offspring. Unlike the other verses I quoted, it's called a covenant. But, the area is not called Canaan. We get a brief description of its range, which extends to the Euphrates river, far north-east of what could possibly be considered biblical Canaan. That's Mesopotamia, modern day Iraq, and indeed, the river extends to Syria and Turkey. Ten peoples are listed here as inhabiting the land of this Covenant, including the Canaanites. Four of these ten appear on no other list of the people of Canaan, and the Hivites, which always appear on the Canaan lists, are missing. The land of this covenant cannot possibly be understood as being basically Canaan.  It is vastly larger.


And there's one last thing missing. If you look at these four verses, you will see that the word promise never appears, in noun, adjective or verb form. These verses are referred to as promises, but the word just isn't used here. In fact, the specific term, the 'Promised Land' itself, doesn't appear in our bible. It first appears in Epistle to the Hebrews[17], where it says Abraham "made his home in the promised land."[18]  And the specific idea of the Promised Land per se --- as opposed to the Holy Land ---  didn't find much use in Jewish thought until the rise of Zionism.

And maybe it's time to think about retiring the term.  After all, once what had been a promise has "been fulfilled, it becomes null and void, like a check that has been cashed." If you've got it, it's no longer merely promised. Indeed, promises, like an IOU, have a bit of an unsavory tinge, smacking of words in place of deeds. "Promises, promises / I'm all through with promises, promises now" go the lyrics by Hal David[19].

I'll close with a quote from an Israeli politician --- they're always a good source.  Levi Eshkol as finance minister announced the devaluation of the Israeli pound against the U.S. dollar. What about your promises made earlier, he was asked, that the pound would not be devalued. He retorted: "I did promise. But I did not promise to keep my promise."[20]

Perhaps it is just as well that these divine utterances not are sullied with the word, "promise".


Given by Mark L. Berch November11, 2016 Tifereth Israel, Washington DC


[1] "Israel: The Gateway of Hope" http://www.aish.com/h/iid/israel_the_gateway_of_hope.html

[2] "The Land of Promise: The State of Israel" http://mfa.gov.il/MFA/MFA-Archive/2003/Pages/The%20Land%20of%20Promise-%20The%20State%20of%20Israel.aspx

[3] "For we shall march into the Promised Land carrying the badge of honor." http://www.zionism-israel.com/js/Jewish_State_30.html

[4] Genesis 12:7; all Jewish bible translations OJPS

[5] Genesis 13:17

[6] Genesis 15:7

[7] Genesis 17:8

[8] Galatians 3:16

[9] Galatians 3:28-29

[10] Johanan Hyrcanus forced conversion of many Idumeans to Judaism, around 130 BCE

[11] In the retelling at 1 Chronicles 16:18, Asaph names Caanan, and it also appears at Psalm 105:11

[12] Son of Ham, Noah's son; see Gen 10:6

[13] Gen. 10:19-20

[14] At Gen. 10:19

[15] Numbers 34:3-12

[16] Genesis 15: 18-21

[17] Hebrews 11:9 First Century CE

[18] New International Version (NIV)

[19] From the 1968 Broadway show "Promises, Promises"

[20] Quotes in this paragraph from "Easy to make, hard to deliver" (by Michael Handelzalts, Haaretz,  Feb 10, 2012) http://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/easy-to-make-hard-to-deliver-1.412159