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In the Torah, the idea for a Land of Israel is born in tandem with the idea for a People of Israel. God’s covenant with Abraham includes a promise that Abraham’s descendants will inherit the area from the river of Egypt to the Euphrates. From the moment that God liberates these descendants from slavery and the People of Israel transform from an idea into a reality, the Torah’s narrative arc has one end: inhabiting this Promised Land.
Nonetheless, Israel’s tenancy in the Land is conditional. The Land is gifted to the Israelites with the provision that they live up to certain moral and religious standards (Leviticus 18:26). Exile is threatened if these conditions are not met (Leviticus 26:32).
The connection between behavior and residency rights extends to non-Jews as well. The indigenous peoples of Canaan lost their claim to the Land because of their ethical failings (Leviticus 18:24), and the Rabbis decreed that non-idolatrous gentiles (i.e. ethical ones) were permitted to reside in the Land, as long as they accepted the seven Noahide commandments, often considered a universal moral law.
Though the Israelites will reside in the Land, God retains ownership. This is highlighted in the many agricultural laws commanded to the Israelites in the Torah. The requirement to leave the corner of ones field for the poor (pe’ah), abstain from eating the fruits of a new tree (orlah), and let the land lie fallow every seventh year (shemitta)–among other similar laws–all stress God’s right to divvy out produce as God sees fit. Additionally, all sales and transfers of land were revoked in the Jubilee year, a rule that emphasized that only God has the power to bequeath the Land permanently.
The Land of Israel is most famously described as a place flowing with milk and honey (Exodus 3:8). Zechariah invokes another famous moniker, when he refers to the Land as admat ha-kodesh, holy land (2:16). Yet the nature of this holiness is ambiguous. Some traditions higlight the inherent sacredness of the Land; others suggest that the sanctity of the Land is dependent upon the commandments fulfilled there.
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