The following article discusses the role and significance of the Land of Israel in the Bible. Reprinted with permission of The Gale Group from Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought, edited by Arthur A. Cohen and Paul Mendes-Flohr.
The point of departure for an understanding of this matter is that the tribes were united as a nation, on the basis of the Torah’s covenant, prior to their arrival in the Land. In the Bible the land is less often called the Land of Israel than it is named after the Canaanites and the other peoples dispossessed by the Israelites.
Material & Moral Meaning
The Land of Israel is perceived as the promised land, the acquisition of which involves a moral and religious problem and to the possession of which a moral condition applies. The previous inhabitants of the Land lost their right to it because of their sins, and the Israelite tribes will continue to reside in the Land only if they will be just.
As a consequence of the problem and condition attached to the acquisition and possession of the Land, it acquired a special role and assumed a special character. Even as the basis of the nation’s material existence it symbolizes a religious destiny. It is the holy land, and only in it will the nation achieve a worthiness such that the Lord will dwell in its midst.
The Land of Israel is thus the land that was promised as a national homeland, the basis of the nation’s economic weal and state power, but at the same time it symbolize the Torah’s universal moral and religious meaning. These two faces of the Land were meant to he complementary, but in the course of the nation’s history they were often in contention.
Commandments of the Land
Among the main expressions of the dual character of the relationship to the Land are the commandments that “depend on the land,” that is, that can be observed only in the Land: the laws of the sabbatical and jubilee years, the tithes and offerings to the priests, and the laws of the harvest that guaranteed that shares be left over for the poor. These commandments depend on the Land not only in that they apply to the nation when the nation is in its land, but also because they are concrete applications of the moral and religious condition on which possession of the Land depends.