The Promise of the Promised Land

In the Bible, possession of the Land is tied to moral behavior.

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In addition to these commandments, there are ritual commandments specific to the Land of Israel and Jerusalem. God may be worshiped by bringing sacrifices only to the Temple, which is the symbol that God dwells among His people. God reigns over His people in His land and is their leader; therefore, when the Temple is destroyed and the nation is not in its land, God cannot be worshiped in full nor can there be Jewish kingship.

A fanatically exclusive attitude was shaped as a result: A legitimate Jewish kingdom is possible only in the Land of Israel and only when the Temple exists it Jerusalem, and only there and then is it possible to live a fully realized Jewish way of life in keeping with the Torah. For that reason it is said of a Jew who lives among the Gentiles that "he is like one who has no God" (Babylonian Talmud, Ketubot 110b).

Why This Land?

What is there about this land in particular for it to be made the homeland of the chosen people?

The Bible sings the praises of the land's abundance and its beauty, but there is nothing religious in that. A theological dimension appears in Deuteronomy, where a point is made about the difference between Egypt, which drinks river water, and the Land of Israel, which drinks rainwater. Rainfall is a symbol of divine providence. Furthermore, according to the biblical stories, in the great riverine countries a nation's sense of ownership of its land and mastery of its destiny is reinforced, lead­ing to the development of tyrannical regimes and slavery.

In lands that drink rainwater, on the other hand, man constantly senses his dependence on God, and for that reason such a land will sustain a regime of justice free of subjugation. Rainfall is perceived in the Bible as a means for the edifi­cation of the people. This is most pronounced in the early prophets, and above all in the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal. We learn from that story that the dependence on rain is a form of trial. There is a great temptation to use pagan magic to ensure that rain falls, but that defiles the land and it then vomits up its inhabitants; it was, in fact, the source of the Canaanites' sin. The people of Israel must learn that only by observing God's commandments can they dwell in their land and enjoy its bounty.

In the later prophets we find a somewhat different variant of this theme. The land is located between the great river powers (Egypt, Babylonia) and between the desert and the sea. It is a middle land. It attracts all nations and is a pawn in the hands of the powers who fight for world dominion.

Those who live in the land are tempted to take part in the struggle between the powers as a way to aggrandize power for themselves. But the only way to live in the Land peacefully and to bring a vision of peace to the world is by refraining from participation in those pagan power struggles and by liv­ing a life of justice and truth in accordance with the Torah. In a word, then, the nature and status of this land embodies the conditions of the covenant made between the nation and God as expressed in the Torah.

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Eliezer Schweid

Dr. Eliezer Schweid is a recipient of the Israel Prize and Professor of Jewish Thought at the Hebrew University.