Why the land of Israel has a border problem

The Bible may be used to justify West Bank settlement but it never clearly defines Israel’s boundaries

By Mordechai Beck, September 2, 2009
Israeli women prayer at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron — one of three sites in the land of Israel that the rabbis of the Midrash regarded as indisputably Jewish

Israeli women prayer at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron — one of three sites in the land of Israel that the rabbis of the Midrash regarded as indisputably Jewish

For most Israelis, and even more so for its politicians, it is axiomatic that the prime source for Israel’s existence in the land is the Bible. At a recent talk at Bar-Ilan University, for example, Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu observed: “The connection between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel has lasted for more than 3,500 years. Judea and Samaria –– the places where Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, David and Solomon, and Isaiah and Jeremiah lived –– are not alien to us. This is the land of our forefathers.”

He also quoted the words of David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister: “The Jewish people arose in the Land of Israel and it was here that its spiritual, religious and political character was shaped. Here they attained their sovereignty, and here they bequeathed to the world their national and cultural treasures, and the most eternal of books.”

As stirring and spiritually uplifting as these words might be, it misses an essential point. There is no one map of “the Land of Israel” in the Bible. While many reminders of God’s promise to the patriarchs of the Land of Canaan are given, it rarely comes with a definition of actual borders.

In the opening of the Book of Deuteronomy, for example, the text talks of “the plain, the hills, the vale, the south, the sea coast, the land of the Canaanites (and or up to) Lebanon, until the great river, the Euphrates”. (Deuteronomy 1:7). An area like this would seem to have been achieved, if at all, only in the reigns of David and Solomon. It is a maximilist map even greater than the one proposed by Ze’ev Jabotinsky in the early 20th century, with his famous cry for “both banks of the Jordan”.

On the other hand, the midrashic Bereshit Rabba avers that “there are only three places where the nations of the world cannot argue as to Israel’s ownership, since they were brought outright: the cave and field of Machpelah, the Temple Mount, and the grave of Joseph”. Yet currently, Muslims are responsible in large part for all three sites.

Somewhere between these two extremes lies the Land of Israel, but to say these borders are fixed would be to deny the evidence of the Tanach itself.

In a seminal essay written in the 1970s, Jacob Milgrom, then professor of Bible at Berkeley University, California, detailed some 16 different maps of the Land of Israel as they are defined within the Tanach, from the time of Abraham to Ezra. He did this, he now says (having long ago made aliyah), partly to counter the growing clamour for “Greater Eretz Israel;” a quasi-political trend that had grown in popularity since the Six-Day War.

It was clear to Professor Milgrom that it was impossible to base any clear map of the land today solely on the Bible, since the borders were constantly shifting according to the political conditions at any given time.

One example of such a situation can be found in the last books of the Tanach, chronologically at least, those of Ezra and Nehemiah. These books define the trials and tribulations of the returning exiles from Babylon from the 520s BCE to about one hundred years later, in a period when Babylon had been superseded by the Persian Empire under Cyrus.

Challenged militarily from the very beginning, the newly returned Jews (the first time they had been given this name) bring documentation from the Persian Empire giving them the legitimate right to be there and rebuild the Temple and its surroundings. The resistance to their return came mainly from peoples who had been placed there by the Babylonians (if not indeed by the Assyrians before them) and who now claimed that they had at least equal rights to the Jewish returnees. These groups included the Samaritans (Shomronim in Hebrew and Kutim in the Talmud).

Although much of the books deals with the internal religious struggles and developments of the Jewish community, there are also many details given of the struggle over the legal status of the new settlers and their right to build. (See Ezra 4: 6-24; and 6:1-22; Nehemiah 1:2-4; 2:7-9 and 19-20; 3:33-38 and 4:1-17)

Interestingly, in another echo of the present day struggles over settlements, the original territory given by Cyrus is given at the beginning of the Book of Ezra comprises a relatively small chunk of land that is focused in and around Jerusalem and its hinterland. To the north this territory reaches Bet El; its western boundary is Ono (today’s Kiryiat Ono) but not the coastline; the southern border stops well before Hebron and the East touches the north-west edge of the Dead Sea (Nehemiah 6). By the end of Nehemiah, these borders have expanded somewhat, particularly in the south and encompass Beersheba (Nehemiah 11: 20-36).

It is possible to speculate that these expansions went unnoticed by the Persians, too busy controlling a vast empire to be bothered by a few additions being made by Jewish settlers in their Fifth Satrapy (the name the Persians gave to the different areas of their empire). Or, perhaps, they really could not track every small move made by these expansionists into what may well have been fairly uninhabited, desert spaces.

No such luxuries exist for today’s settlers of the West Bank/Judea and Samaria. Recently, I was sent a photo of the front of our old house in London. It was clear in every detail. The photo was taken from a satellite for Google Earth.

My immediate thought was that if Google Earth can take such a picture, think what the Pentagon can and is doing. It can probably tell what the settlers are having for breakfast! So whatever the politicians say that they are and not doing in the territories, one thing is clear: they cannot hide settler expansion.

But what is perhaps more invidious than hiding a few extra caravans and cottages is declaring publicly that the Land of Israel is a fixed entity.

It never was and all indications suggest that it will not be so in the foreseeable future.

    Last updated: 3:00pm, October 19 2009