The Promised Land

This chapter gives a general overview of the geography, history, and ideology of the land of Israel, the so-called Promised Land. The goal is both to introduce the physical setting of the biblical narratives and to provide a broad historical overview of the people of Israel.

Terminology

The chapter begins with a discussion of the important terminologies for referring to the biblical lands. The author points out that several of these terms can be confusing at times since some ancient place names are still used for modern states (such as Egypt and Syria). However, within the context of this book, all place names are used in the ancient sense unless otherwise specified. Furthermore, the term Israel can be particularly problematic because its meaning shifts over time and across genres.  Though it begins as a personal name for Jacob, the father of twelve sons, who become the twelve tribes (of Israel), it eventually refers to a political entity (a united kingdom of twelve tribes), and to the northern kingdom of Israel (ten tribes). After Assyria destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel, Judah claims the title “sons of Israel” or “Israelites.”  Thus, the author stresses the importance of considering the term Israel’s context carefully because of the shifting nature of the term.

            Israel is the primary setting for much of the Bible, as this is the “Promised Land” that God promised to give Abraham and his descendants forever. However, the lands outside of Israel’s geographical limits are also of great importance as they figure prominently in the biblical texts. Moreover, the myths, literary genres, and religious and legal traditions of the Near East all influenced the writers of the Bible.

The Land and Its Players

This section opens with a description of the boundaries of Israel. The traditional limits of Israel lie between the Mediterranean Sea to the west and the Great Rift Valley to the east, which features the Sea of Galilee, the Jordan River, and the Dead Sea. While this marks something of a standard, different boundaries for Israel are given in various biblical sources. Furthermore, the actual boundaries of Israel varied from time to time depending on the political situation. Occasionally the borders were larger, but more often they were smaller.

            Crucial to understanding the history of Israel is an understanding of the other people groups and kingdoms who inhabited the ancient Near East.  A brief sketch of the political entities surrounding Israel is provided in order to provide context for Israel’s place in history during the succession of empires. 

History

This section provides an overview of the people of Israel and the historical events that shaped the composition of literary legacy, the Hebrew Bible.  The Babylonian Exile, a period dating from 597 to 538 BCE, was a relatively brief but transformative period that motivated the people of Israel to preserve, edit, and compose many of the books that now comprise the Hebrew Bible.  Judeans in exile reflected on the history of their kingdom, from its origins as a united monarchy under King David to its tattered remnant that now endured as a vassal to the powerful Babylonian Empire.  The Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem challenged the Judean’s theological understanding of their God, Yahweh, and his relationship to his chosen people.  In an effort to reconcile their theology with the political crisis that they had endured, the Judeans produced a history of the people of Israel that attempted to explain their origins and place in the world.  They preserved and edited the stories of the ancestors in ways that highlighted shared experiences of exile and emphasized their special covenantal status with Yahweh.   They collected legal materials to preserve the proper method of worshipping Yahweh, whose Temple in Jerusalem now stood in ruins, so that someday they could resume worshipping their god in Jerusalem.

            Judeans also preserved the history of the northern kingdom of Israel, from its split from the united monarchy to its destruction by the Assyrians in 722 BCE.  The books of Joshua through 2 Kings were edited during the Babylonian exile in order to explain why the Israelites were conquered.  The answer is a theological one.  The Israelites fell to the Assyrians in 722 and the Judeans to the Babylonians in 587 because their kings had failed to keep the commandments of Yahweh.  The prophetic writings attempt to understand Israel and Judah’s military conquests by blaming not only their leaders, but also their people for failing to live in accordance with Yahweh’s law.  Their destruction was punishment for sin.

            Biblical writings from the late sixth and fifth centuries BCE reflect the challenges that those who returned from exile in Babylon to Judah faced in attempting to understand the trauma that had befallen their people and to worship Yahweh faithfully.

Archaeology and the Bible

The field of archaeology has made major contributions to biblical studies. The dating of pottery and the strata of major archaeological sites, and especially the discovery of ancient texts in Egypt and the Near East, are particularly helpful for establishing chronology and testing the historical veracity of biblical texts. Thus archaeology and nonbiblical texts are of critical importance both to this book and to the field of biblical studies as a whole since they can help demonstrate continuities between all of the cultures of the Levant, including Israel.

Implications for Our Study

This chapter on the Promised Land has two main purposes that are critical to our study. First, this chapter aims to establish a basic understanding of the physical limits of the biblical lands and the surrounding people groups in order to show the backdrop that influenced the formation of the Hebrew Bible. More importantly, this chapter provides an historical framework that highlights the centrality of the land in the biblical narrative and the ways that it is manifested in themes of exile and return throughout the Hebrew Bible. The experience of exile shaped how the Bible’s authors interpreted their own history.