Homeless At Home

In the book of Genesis, the patriarchs gained possession but not control of the Land of Israel.

Print this page Print this page

The second response reflected a religious attachment, accomplished by building altars throughout the land. In Shehem, Bethel, Mamre, and Beer-sheba, the forefathers erected places of worship (Genesis 12:6-7, 13:18, 26:25, 35:7).

Purchase was the third response. Refusing what seemed to be the gilt of a burial site, Abraham insisted on purchasing the cave of Mahpelah (Genesis 23), which would become the family burial ground. Jacob later bought territory in Shehem (33:19). The first small, legal possessions were attained.

Fourth, the predominant theme of the fore­fathers' relationship to the land is the determination to be buried there; the Mahpelah burial cave served all three generations. On his deathbed, Jacob insists that his body he re­turned to the land of Israel from Egypt (Genesis 49:29-32), and Joseph insists that his bones be reburied there (50:25).

Finally, one forefather established the prece­dent of residing there exclusively. When faced with a local famine, Isaac was told that he could not, like his father, Abraham, go to Egypt. Rather, he was to stay in the land (Genesis 26:2ff.) all his life. Therefore Jacob, his son, on leaving the land (for what would he the last time), prayed in fear specifically to "the God of his father, Isaac" (46:1), the model of permanent residence. Only God's reassurance that the connection would not be severed and that Jacob's progeny would return allowed him to depart with his mind at ease.

Ongoing Struggle

The story of the forefathers in the land is one of ongoing struggle. Except for Abraham's successful foray against the kings who abducted Lot and his family (Genesis 14), the forefathers are depicted as relatively weak. They remained in the mountains, away from the strong centers of settlement on the coast. They were subject to harassment by their neighbors and they wandered irons place to place, resorting to machinations to protect themselves and their households. Neither sovereign on the one hand nor powerless on the other, the fore­fathers struggled and maneuvered to establish ownership of their "home."

Genesis thus projects a striking aggregate picture, a depiction of the homeless at home. A young clan claims ownership, but not control, while forging nonpolitical ties to bind it­self to the territory. It is of some fascination that for millennia these patterns of burial, tra­versal, and purchase remained active models for the Jewish people in maintaining their ties to the Land.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Rabbi Benjamin J. Segal

Rabbi Benjamin J. Segal is president of Melitz, the Center for Zionist Jewish Education, Jerusalem.