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Whose Land?

by Michael Rydelnik | | Connection Magazine , Guest Spot

Dr. Michael Rydelnik

Conflicts about land are not unusual. Just a glance at the daily newspaper shows that there are constant disputes about land all over the world—from the India/Pakistan conflict over Kashmir, to Russia’s struggle with Chechnyan separatists, to the Kurds who want to be liberated from Iraq, to whether Northern Ireland should be part of the United Kingdom or Ireland. So it is no surprise that the biblical land of promise also has a long history of dispute.

But when it comes to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict over the land, Bi­ble believers have a distinct advantage: the Scriptures declare to whom the land belongs. While it is important to understand both historical and politi­cal arguments also, this article will only examine the scriptural answer to the question, “To whom does the biblical land of promise truly belong?” Here are five biblical propositions drawn from the evidence.

PROPOSITION ONE:

God promised the land of Israel to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and their descendants. This proposition is de­rived from the covenant God made with Abraham. God made a promise to Abraham and then reiterated and ex­panded it several times.

The first record of God’s promise to Abraham is found in Genesis 12:1-7. There Abram is told to leave his native country, and when he finally arrives in the land of Canaan, the Lord tells him, “To your descendants I will give this land” (v. 7). This promise is repeated in the next chapter (see Genesis 13:14-15).

The land promise recurs in Genesis 15. The covenant that was established was unconditional, subject only to the will and power of the God of Abram, not Abram at all. God told Abram, “To your descendants I have given this land, from the river of Egypt as far as the great river, the river Euphrates” (Genesis 15:18).

Furthermore, God made it clear in Genesis 17 that the land would go to Abram’s descendants through Isaac, not Ishmael (Genesis 17:21). Additional­ly, the Lord repeated the land promise to Isaac (Genesis 26:3) and to Jacob (Genesis 28:13, 35:12).

In addition to the clear promises of Genesis, the first book of the Hebrew Bible, the land promise to all the people of Israel is restated in the last book of the Hebrew canon (1 Chronicles 16:16-18; 2 Chronicles 20:7). So the Hebrew Bible, from the beginning to the end (and many verses in between), rec­ognizes that God gave the promise of the land to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and their descendants.

PROPOSITION TWO:

God defined the boundaries of the land of Israel. In Genesis 15:18, God es­tablished the boundaries of the land given to Abraham “from the river of Egypt as far as the great river, the riv­er Euphrates.” Although there is a dis­pute regarding the identification of the southwestern boundary, the river of Egypt likely refers to the Wadi El-Arish, a dry riverbed in the northern part of the Sinai Peninsula.

In the north and east, the bound­ary is the Euphrates River, extending the land up to what is today’s Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. Obviously, Israel nev­er obtained their entire land grant in the past or today. Nevertheless, God’s promise is faithful, so there will certain­ly be a time in the future when this will be the boundary of Israel.

In addition to the clear promises of Genesis, the first book of the Hebrew Bible, the land promise to all the people of Israel is restated in the last book of the Hebrew canon (1 Chronicles 16:16-18; 2 Chronicles 20:7). So the Hebrew Bible, from the beginning to the end (and many verses in between), rec­ognizes that God gave the promise of the land to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and their descendants.

PROPOSITION TWO:

God defined the boundaries of the land of Israel. In Genesis 15:18, God es­tablished the boundaries of the land given to Abraham “from the river of Egypt as far as the great river, the riv­er Euphrates.” Although there is a dis­pute regarding the identification of the southwestern boundary, the river of Egypt likely refers to the Wadi El-Arish, a dry riverbed in the northern part of the Sinai Peninsula.

In the north and east, the bound­ary is the Euphrates River, extending the land up to what is today’s Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. Obviously, Israel nev­er obtained their entire land grant in the past or today. Nevertheless, God’s promise is faithful, so there will certain­ly be a time in the future when this will be the boundary of Israel.

PROPOSITION THREE:

God gave the land of Israel to the Jewish people as an eternal inheri­tance. Both Genesis 13:15 and 2 Chron­icles 20:7 state that God gave the land to Israel as an inheritance “forever.” It is possible that the Hebrew word used in these passages (olam) and translat­ed “forever” does not necessarily mean “for all eternity” but for the length of the promise.

There is another Hebrew phrase used to describe that which is eternal—min olam v’ad olam, commonly trans­lated “forever and ever,” or “from ever­lasting to everlasting.” For the most part, the phrase is used of matters pertaining to God alone and His eternal nature. God gave the land of Israel to the Jewish people as an eternal inheri­tance. Both Genesis 13:15 and 2 Chron­icles 20:7 state that God gave the land to Israel as an inheritance “forever.” It is possible that the Hebrew word used in these passages (olam) and translat­ed “forever” does not necessarily mean “for all eternity” but for the length of the promise.

There is another Hebrew phrase used to describe that which is eternal—min olam v’ad olam, commonly trans­lated “forever and ever,” or “from ever­lasting to everlasting.” For the most part, the phrase is used of matters pertaining to God alone and His eternal nature.

There are but two exceptional us­ages in which the phrase does not refer to God. In both cases, Jeremiah 7:7 and Jeremiah 25:5, it refers to the Israel’s eternal ownership of the land of Isra­el. Jeremiah’s words could not be any clearer. God has given the land of Israel to the people of Israel as a perpetual and eternal inheritance.

PROPOSITION FOUR:

God made total enjoyment and habitation of the land of Israel con­tingent on Israel’s faithfulness. God’s promise of the land as an eternal in­heritance to Israel did not preclude the possibility that Israel would be tempo­rarily removed from the promised land. In fact, God warned the nation that disobedience could and would lead to their exile and dispersion (see Leviticus 26:27-33).

Despite Israel’s disobedience to the Torah and the discipline of dispersion, God assured them He would not de­stroy them or break His covenant with them (see Leviticus 27:44-45). Clearly, the Jewish people can be exiled from the land without forfeiting or nullifying the gift of the land as an eternal inher­itance.

History confirms the accuracy of these warnings. After the failure of the Jewish revolts against Rome, the peo­ple of Israel gradually did go into ex­ile. Nevertheless, according to these passages, Israel’s ownership or title to the land is eternal and unconditional. It belongs to them for all time because the land grant was not dependent on Israel’s obedience but on God’s faithful­ness to His oath.

By virtue of the Lord’s uncondition­al and eternal land grant found in the Abrahamic Covenant, the Jewish peo­ple may indeed temporarily lose the enjoyment and habitation of the land of Israel but they never can lose the title to the land.

PROPOSITION FIVE:

God’s promises to the Jewish peo­ple are irrevocable regardless of their unbelief in Messiah Jesus. Some have argued that Israel’s unbelief in Jesus as the Messiah has caused God to trans­fer the nation’s promises to the Church, either permanently or temporarily. But this is a mistake. Describing the cur­rent unbelief of the Jewish people, Paul writes “From the standpoint of the gospel, they are enemies for your sake; but from the standpoint of God’s choice they are beloved for the sake of the fathers; for the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable” (Romans 11:28-29 NASB). Despite Israel’s opposition to the Gospel, the Jewish people remain chosen because of the covenant made with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. There­fore, God's gifts, including the gift of land, belong irrevocably to them.

Two conclusions must be drawn from these five propositions. The first is that the land of Israel is the inalienable and eternal possession of the Jewish people. While there are other political and historical factors that must be con­sidered when evaluating to whom the land belongs, the most essential factor is the biblical. The Bible is plain—God gave the land of Israel to the patriarchs and their descendants, the people of Israel.

The second conclusion is that the Palestinians do not have any biblical claim to the land of Israel. That is not to say that they cannot make histori­cal or political arguments. But as far as the Scriptures are concerned, the land does not belong to them. 


Michael Rydelnik

Dr. Michael Rydelnik is Professor of Jewish Studies at the Moody Bible Institute. The son of Holocaust survivors, he trusted in Jesus in high school. He is a biblical scholar specializing in the Hebrew Bible, the Jewish people, the land of Israel, and biblical prophecy.

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