Homeless At Home

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


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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….

israeli desertIn 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.

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

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