The Land Within and Without: The Cycle of Israel’s Life

Nili Wazana

Assyrian relief of first Israelites going into exile 733 BCE
Assyrian relief of first Israelites going into exile, 733 BCE. © Trustees of the British Museum.
The first eleven chapters of Genesis, describing the creation of the world and of humanity, set the historical stage on which the central hero in the Hebrew Bible, the people of Israel, emerges. According to the historian Johan Huizinga, "History is the intellectual form in which a civilization renders account to itself of its past." Thus, it is noteworthy that Abraham, Israel's forefather, enters world history virtually ex nihilo. The spotlight only shines on Abraham when he receives the divine command: "Go forth from your native land and from your father's house to the land that I will show you" (Genesis 12:1). His birth, childhood, and "occupation" before he began his journey lie buried in obscurity. Abraham's first appearance as an independent actor is bound up with the destiny of the land, pointing to the land as the other, no less important, protagonist of the book.

The central issue around which the Pentateuch and the Former and Latter Prophets revolve is the triadic relationship between God, the People, and the Promised Land. Biblical Israel is not identified with the land; the two were separate entities. In the majority of biblical texts they do not even share a common name. The people of Israel enter into and take possession of the land of Canaan, named after its former occupants (Numbers 34:2). This is contrary to many other national narratives, which depict their people as dwelling in their land since time immemorial. Some traditions even claim that their people originally sprouted, plant-like, out of the earth. In contrast, the right of Israel to their land is not a "natural" right; their history in the land is not based in primeval times. Their existence as a people in the land is set in historic, not mythic time. Accordingly, their right to the land hangs on a divine promise, itself conditional.

Whether emanating from the story of the individual Abraham coming from his native Ur in Mesopotamia or from the story of the people Israel coming from Egypt according to the Exodus tradition, the unequivocal image of Israel's beginnings is that of nonindigenous people, outsiders to their land. After the exile to Babylon, the return to Zion in the restoration period is depicted as another Exodus (see Isaiah 51:9-11). This pattern even affected modern portrayals of the Zionist movement. The history of the relationship of the people of Israel and its land is thus one of cyclic exoduses, settlements in the land and, regrettably, of exiles.

This self-depiction of external origins extended also to the site where Israel received its divine laws. The laws were not delivered in any of the holy sites in the land. Israel received its laws in totality in the Sinai desert, outside the boundaries of the Promised Land. The agent was Moses, himself prohibited from entering the Promised Land and buried outside of its boundaries (Deuteronomy 34:4-5). This notion was so strongly embedded within Israelite lore that revisions of the law codes and later editions had to be ascribed to Moses, declared lost and forgotten, only to be accidentally "found" in the temple during renovations, as in the days of Josiah (2 Kings 22-23). The law was thus also separated from the land of Canaan.

According to some traditions, God himself was not "born" in the perimeters of th land. His original abode was in the south: "God is coming from Teman, the Holy One from Mount Paran" (Habakuk 3:3). The land belongs to God, the first and foremost factor in the triad God-People-Land. He decides whether the people shall dwell in the land or not, based on their deeds. Since inheritance of the land is determined by the degree of fidelity of the people to God, the foundational period of the realization and fulfillment of the promise is depicted throughout the book of Joshua as a period of an ideal relationship between Israel and God. The behavior of the people during the period of conquest and settlement is unparalleled in that it lacks any act of forbidden worship.

The one sinner in this golden period, the antihero Achan, is not involved in idolatry, but violates the divine decree of the ban (herem, Joshua 7). The message, loud and clear, is that only when Israel abides by God's rules wholeheartedly can they be extremely successful, and settle in the land that God gives them. Only then "everything was fulfilled" (Joshua 21:43; 23:14). Israel's beginning in the land thus determines its end. When Israel is unfaithful to God, history is reversed. Israel loses the land and is taken into exile, even back to Egypt (Deuteronomy 28:63-68).

There is an important outcome to this dominant self-conception of the people of Israel as outsiders in their land. Despite the major role the land plays in the history of the people of Israel and despite the fact that the Promise of the Land unifies the traditions of the forefathers, dwelling in the land is not a prerequisite to Israel's national existence. This conception served as a powerful tool for a people bereft of its land, temple, and monarchy as were the Judean deportees after 586 BCE. It allowed them to retain their national identity in exile against all odds.

Some scholars have even suggested that this was the period when the external conception was invented, painting Israel's beginning in the colors of the Persian period. According to this view, Abraham was "planted" in Ur of the Chaldeans (or Haran) in Mesopotamia to provide a role model for the Babylonian returnees (see Isaiah 51:2-3). Yet, as noted by Peter Machinist, many of the texts reflecting the concept of Israel as outsiders are older. While this concept proved a valuable tool for life outside the land, its strength lay in the fact that it preexisted and was not invented in times of distress.

Israel's national existence depended foremost on adhering to the set of rules, the Torah, which was delivered to the people outside the land, so it too could be kept everywhere. True, many of the laws deal with life in the land, beginning with the condition: "When you enter the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a heritage . . ." (Deuteronomy 26:1). Dwelling in the land is accordingly the ideal, the destiny of Israel. Yet even those laws were perceived as delivered to Israel outside its land. Thus Israel received a full "instruction kit" supplying them with everything necessary for living as God's people in the land or for living elsewhere. This too was a pre-exilic concept that became the perfect tool for national existence based on the relationship of the people to God. Living outside the land did not abolish the concept of the Land altogether, but it did demote its status from that of an equal member of the triad to a somewhat secondary position. The exile gave birth to the first f ull-fledged book-based religion. Later book- based religions, which successfully adopted this concept, were initially free of all national identity. While Christianity and Islam definitely relate to holy sites in their traditions, they do not harbor an equal concept of a promised land. For Israel, however, the concept of the Promised Land turned into a still important, yet no longer crucial member of the triad. It remained within the realm of promise for centuries, even millennia, while the people existed outside it, dreaming and praying for a return to the land and for the renewal of its past position as promised by God. Just as in the days of the forefathers prior to the crossing of the Jordan River, for two millennia the Promised Land was an ideal for the future, to be realized one day again, when once more "everything will be fulfilled."