Regarding Israel’s Borders: The Bible is neither a Land Registry nor a Legend

, September 3, 2018

Is the Bible a land registry that makes Jerusalem the “eternal capital” of the Jewish people and the state of Israel? This conception, shared by the current Israeli and U.S. administrations, underlies the decision of President Trump, heavily influenced by evangelical Christians, to transfer the U.S. embassy to the holy city. On the other hand, isn’t the Bible just a legend, used to justify the negation of the rights of the Palestinians to a city where they form 40 percent of the population? This conception, which the Muslim countries espouse, has inspired resolutions by international organizations denying any connection between the Jewish people and the Old City of Jerusalem from the moment that the veracity of the biblical texts became questionable. So is the Bible a land registry or a legend? The truth is very complex.

Most countries and nations have their unique foundational narratives and myths, which are somewhere between reality and legend. These are passed down from generation to generation until the work of historians uncovers what can be referred to as “historical truth.” For the past century Israel’s foundational narrative has been subjected, more than others, to the examination of historians, archaeologists, and exegetes. One of the most famous works is The Bible Unearthed, written by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman. It purports to be a synthesis of archaeological research with the events recounted in the Bible. This book is often used to invalidate the claim of the Jewish people’s historical right to establish a state in the Land of Israel. However, in general, historical-critical exegesis, when conducting thorough investigations of the history of what is written in the texts, has shown itself to be complex and to develop slowly. This in turn contributes to the removal of all doubt with regard to the veracity of this sacred history.

What a History!

What exactly is the biblical narrative, which is the direct tradition of the Jews and the Christians and indirectly found within Islam? The Bible begins with the book of Genesis, where in Chapter 12 Abraham leaves Ur of the Chaldees to settle in Canaan. Then it follows his descendants who, at the time of Jacob and his children, become refugees in Egypt because of the famine. That is where they stay until they need to leave, and in the book of Exodus God assigns Moses to take them out of Egypt.

The Children of Israel stay in the desert for 40 years, where they receive the Torah and get ready to enter the Land of Canaan. These episodes are related in the books of Leviticus and Numbers. Deuteronomy is Moses’s testament, in which he recounts the Exodus narrative and presents the laws while elaborating their theological meanings. Moses dies on Mount Nebo, on the border with Canaan, and it is his successor, Joshua, who leads the nation into the Promised Land. The books of Joshua and Judges recount, each in its own way, the settling of the tribes, means of combat, and conquests, but also occasionally agreements and compromises with the Canaanites and other peoples living in the country.

Next comes the book of Samuel, where the monarchy is established, first with Saul and then with David as king. David successfully unites the tribes and their territories, and he is followed by Solomon. King Solomon’s reign marks the country’s peak period, during which the First Temple is constructed in Jerusalem. However, when he dies in around 931 BCE, the Hebrews are divided into two kingdoms: Israel in the north, where Samaria is the capital, and Judea in the south, centered on Jerusalem. The books of Kings describe a slow decline of these kingdoms under the pressure of powerful neighbors: Egypt, Assyria, which seizes Samaria in 722 BCE, and the Babylonians, who, in 587 BCE, invade Jerusalem, destroy the Temple, and exile the elite members of the Jewish population to Babylon.

Thanks to the rise of Persia, a new power, and a decree from its King Cyrus, the exiles are able to return to Jerusalem and in 516 BCE the Temple is rebuilt there. Then Alexander the Great annexes Judea to his empire, and this status quo remains until the religious and political revolt of the Maccabees, leading to the establishment of a new Jewish state, which is then challenged by the Roman occupation in 63 BCE. Around a century later, in the year 70, Jerusalem and the Second Temple are destroyed when the Romans finally put down the large-scale revolt that began in 66. For the Jews this event marked the beginning of an exile that lasted 19 centuries, during which they lived with the constant hope of returning to their land.

The Mix of Religion and History

Since the development and popularization of biblical sciences, reading the chronological narrative of the Bible, from 1800 BCE until now, has been very complex. The period of the exile in Babylon is apparently a key moment for the writing of texts, and the discussions about the origin of earlier oral traditions surrounding written texts remain open. It is equally important to know that Judaism, beyond the midrashic literature and the Talmud, is not dependent merely on reading the texts and has developed countless interpretations.

Acceptance or rejection of critical claims is often determined by how one looks upon Israel. The fundamentalist approach regards the narrative in the texts as an article of faith and rejects the questions raised by the history of the writing of these texts. This attitude leads to confusing religion and politics. Certain religious Zionists in Israel justify the settling of Judea and Samaria on the basis of biblical geography. Another striking example is Christian Zionism, as referred to by current  Vice-President Mike Pence, who has a strong influence over the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Stemming from American evangelical, fundamentalist Christians, Christian Zionism interprets the rise of the state of Israel as the realization of biblical prophecies that will truly be fulfilled only when Greater Israel is established within biblical borders. According to their beliefs, when the end of days arrives, Jesus will return and be recognized by the Jews as the Messiah.

This mixture of religion and history, which is found among Christian Zionists or Messianic Jews, such as Jews for Jesus, is very ambiguous in its relationship to Judaism because Jesus is imperative as the keystone of history. It goes far beyond historical Zionism, which seeks to be secular and has not stopped adapting its objectives to reality and context. It eventually comes into conflict with any notion of creating a Palestinian state next to Israel.

Under Abraham’s Benevolent Eye

The Bible is not a land registry, and God is neither a surveyor nor the supreme guide to our human history. However, rejection of politico-religious fundamentalism does not have to lead to ignorance of biblical meanings and their interpretation because such ignorance leads to another form of belief. Its victims become easy prey to countless ideological attitudes toward Israel, from indiscriminate exaltation to – more often – systematic denigration. Historical and archaeological research conducted over the past century has confirmed the original connection between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel, notably from the archaeological remnants of the City of David, discovered under Jerusalem’s Old City. Each time there is a discovery, the question of original legitimacy, whether archeological or theological, should never dominate the discussion because it harbors great danger. Historical awareness should make us take into account the obscurity and complexity of our origins, but equally the passage of the centuries and the chain of events. The Zionist objectives never came to fruition in Uganda or Birobidzhan, but in the land inscribed within Jewish hopes throughout the centuries. The tragedy of the Holocaust precipitated the establishment of the state of Israel, which is Jewish and democratic, with freedom of expression and religious practice for all of its citizens. It is enough to look at Jerusalem, with its living remnants of the Temple, church steeples, and the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque to imagine that one day it will become possible to reconcile the memories and myths, based on mutual recognition under the benevolent eye of our father Abraham.

Florence Taubmann

Florence Taubmann is a pastor qualified in Protestant theology and honorary president of the Jewish and Christian Fellowship of France.