Though it is never called by that name, the land where the modern state of Israel now sits is mentioned repeatedly throughout the Torah and later Jewish sacred texts. Indeed, it’s fair to say that the entire narrative arc of the Torah is built around it, from God’s promise early in Genesis that the land will be inherited by Abraham’s descendants, to the death of Moses in the closing chapters of Deuteronomy on the edge of the land he will never personally enter.
The first mention of this promised land is in the 12th chapter of Genesis, when God commands Abraham to leave the place of his birth and travel to a new land that God promises to show him. Five verses later, that land is given a name: Canaan. God then appears to Abraham and promises that land to his offspring. Though this promise appears unconditional, later sections of the Bible are clear that possession of the land depends on the Israelites’ behavior. Leviticus 18 is explicit that if God’s laws are not obeyed, the land will “spew you out for defiling it, as it spewed out the nation that came before you.” (Leviticus 18:28) This point is reiterated in multiple places in the Hebrew Bible.
In a similar vein, while Abraham’s descendants may possess the land, they do not own it. Leviticus 25:23 states: “But the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me.” This verse comes in the context of a whole host of agricultural laws that limit what the Israelites can do with the land, further underscoring the idea that the land is not truly theirs to do with as they please. This verse has been invoked in a contemporary setting to justify barring the sale of land in Israel to non-Jews, though not all rabbinic authorities understand it that way.
The Torah also has much to say about the particular qualities of the land. Among the most famous verses in this regard is Exodus 3:8, which describes the land as one “flowing with milk and honey.” Deuteronomy 8:8 describes the land as one teeming with “wheat and barley, of vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and [date] honey.” This verse is the source of the idea that Israel is renowned for seven species of food that have special significance in Jewish tradition. In Numbers, when Moses sends scouts to investigate the land, they find grape clusters so large they require two men to carry them.
The biblical account gives different versions of the borders of the promised land. In Genesis, God says the boundaries stretch from “the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.” Presuming the former is a reference to the Nile (at least one biblical commentator says it isn’t) that would mean its borders extend from central Egypt to Iraq, considerably larger than those of the modern state of Israel. In Numbers, we find a more detailed accounting of the borders, some of which are fairly clear. The western border is marked by the “great sea,” which is surely the Mediterranean, while the eastern border seems to roughly travel the north-south axis marked by the Jordan River, which marks the border between Israel and Jordan today. But other descriptions rely on places whose precise modern locations are in dispute. “Your southern sector shall extend from the wilderness of Zin alongside Edom. Your southern boundary shall start on the east from the tip of the Dead Sea. Your boundary shall then turn to pass south of the ascent of Akrabbim and continue to Zin, and its limits shall be south of Kadesh-barnea, reaching Hazar-addar and continuing to Azmon.” (Numbers 34:3-4) Many of the markers noted in this section are disputed by scholars, though it’s fairly clear this demarcation of boundaries results in a much smaller land area than the description in Genesis.
Among the agricultural laws pertaining only to the land of Israel is 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). All these 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 Mishnah (Kelim 1:6) states that the land of Israel is holier than all other lands because certain sacrificial produce — the omer, the first fruits, and the two loaves — are brought from it and not from other lands. In other words, the Israelites weren’t commanded to fulfill the agricultural commandments because Israel is holier than all other lands, rather the agricultural commandments themselves hallow the land.
Other rabbinic texts imply the opposite view. A midrash states that, “The Holy One, blessed be he, further took the measure of all lands and found no land but the Land of Israel that was truly worthy for the people Israel” (Leviticus Rabah 13:2).
Both these rabbinic traditions have their roots in the Bible, but the rabbis introduced new ideas about the land as well. Living in the land is said to atone for all sins (Sifrei Deuteronomy 333), and the importance of being buried in the land is emphasized. This latter custom harkens back to the forefathers; however, a new reason emerged in the rabbinic era: the idea that those buried in Israel would be the first to be resurrected in the End of Days (Jerusalem Talmud, Kilaim 9:3).
After the destruction of the Second Temple and the exile that followed, the center of Jewish life shifted to Babylonia, though a community remained in Palestine as well. Rabbinic texts about the land reveal traces of an ideological battle between these two communities.
Some traditions originating in Palestine are wildly condemnatory of those living outside the land. Thus it is written that one who “leaves the land in a time of peace it is as if he worships idols” (Tosefta Avodah Zarah 4:5). Meanwhile, Babylonian texts are, not surprisingly, more supportive of exilic existence. This position reaches its paradigmatic form in Rabbi Judah’s statement that, “He who resides in Babylonia, it is as if he resided in the Land of Israel” (Ketubot 111a).