Homeless At Home

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

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.

Means of Ownership

The first response lay in traversing the land. God told Abraham: “Up, walk about the land, through its length and breadth, for I give it to you” (Genesis 13:17). Centuries later, Joshua would still recall this tour as a basic step in es­tablishing ownership (Joshua 24:3). As in Jo­seph’s trip through Egypt (Genesis 41:46), physical contact sealed legal rights.

The second response reflected a religious attachment, accomplished by building altars throughout the land. In Shehem, Bethel, Mamre, and Beer-sheba, the forefathers erected places of worship (Genesis 12:6-7, 13:18, 26:25, 35:7).

Purchase was the third response. Refusing what seemed to be the gilt of a burial site, Abraham insisted on purchasing the cave of Mahpelah (Genesis 23), which would become the family burial ground. Jacob later bought territory in Shehem (33:19). The first small, legal possessions were attained.

Fourth, the predominant theme of the fore­fathers’ relationship to the land is the determination to be buried there; the Mahpelah burial cave served all three generations. On his deathbed, Jacob insists that his body he re­turned to the land of Israel from Egypt (Genesis 49:29-32), and Joseph insists that his bones be reburied there (50:25).

Finally, one forefather established the prece­dent of residing there exclusively. When faced with a local famine, Isaac was told that he could not, like his father, Abraham, go to Egypt. Rather, he was to stay in the land (Genesis 26:2ff.) all his life. Therefore Jacob, his son, on leaving the land (for what would he the last time), prayed in fear specifically to “the God of his father, Isaac” (46:1), the model of permanent residence. Only God’s reassurance that the connection would not be severed and that Jacob’s progeny would return allowed him to depart with his mind at ease.

Ongoing Struggle

The story of the forefathers in the land is one of ongoing struggle. Except for Abraham’s successful foray against the kings who abducted Lot and his family (Genesis 14), the forefathers are depicted as relatively weak. They remained in the mountains, away from the strong centers of settlement on the coast. They were subject to harassment by their neighbors and they wandered irons place to place, resorting to machinations to protect themselves and their households. Neither sovereign on the one hand nor powerless on the other, the fore­fathers struggled and maneuvered to establish ownership of their “home.”

Genesis thus projects a striking aggregate picture, a depiction of the homeless at home. A young clan claims ownership, but not control, while forging nonpolitical ties to bind it­self to the territory. It is of some fascination that for millennia these patterns of burial, tra­versal, and purchase remained active models for the Jewish people in maintaining their ties to the Land.

Discover More

Modern Israel at a Glance

An overview of the Jewish state and its many accomplishments and challenges.

Black-Jewish Relations in America

Relations between African Americans and Jews have evolved through periods of indifference, partnership and estrangement.