Homeless At Home
In the book of Genesis, the patriarchs gained possession but not control of the Land of Israel.
Reprinted with permission from Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary (Jewish Publication Society).
Expulsion from territory is a dominant theme of the Torah's early world history (Genesis 1-11): Adam and Eve are expelled from Eden, Cain exiled from before the presence of the Lord, Noah's generation blotted out "from the earth" (6:7), and humanity scattered from (the tower of) Babel. With Abraham, God opts for a narrower channel of access to the world--through a people who will have a special relationship to Him and to a particular land.
Assigning the Land
Because this land exists in triangular relationship with the descendants of Abraham and with God, it forever straddles the transient and the eternal, the real and the ideal. It is both subject to human influence and unalterably divine; these diverse qualities form a grid on which the land is described in the Torah. The human and the divine seek to coexist in the land.
In tracing that relationship, one must note the nature of the Torah sources concerning the land. This home is not a subcategory of Israelite thought. It is axiomatic; a primary, defining category of the people's existence vis-à-vis its God. Observations are made from within, reflecting ultimate involvement and identification but lacking external perspective. References to the land should be understood as a nation's self-expression, not objective reflections on a subject of concern….
In what sense did the forefathers "own" the land? Time and again, the forefathers are "given" this land (Genesis 13:15,17, 35:12ff.), as part of the covenant. As we learn from ancient Near Eastern covenant terminology, the giving is more properly understood as "assignment": They are assigned the land of Israel.
In the forefathers' time, theirs was the promise, not the possession; the legal deed, not the control. Much later the Israelites would he told that they were to be only strangers in residence (Leviticus 25:23). The forefathers needed no such message, for they lived that reality. Understanding that full ownership was God's promise for the future, they faced the first challenge of the land: establishing personal bonds symbolizing their connection. They, the people, had to gain possession of the divine land.
Means of Ownership
The first response lay in traversing the land. God told Abraham: "Up, walk about the land, through its length and breadth, for I give it to you" (Genesis 13:17). Centuries later, Joshua would still recall this tour as a basic step in establishing ownership (Joshua 24:3). As in Joseph's trip through Egypt (Genesis 41:46), physical contact sealed legal rights.