Reading Between The Lines

For Jews, happiness is land-based. Throughout the Bible, characters hope for, travel towards, are exiled from, or wish to return to some location or another. Adam and Eve lose their garden. Abraham is promised a land, but not just yet. Former Israelite slaves will mostly never see it. Exiles yearn to return there, and Jews still aspire for a messianic future there. But, paradoxically, for most of the past three millennia, Jews have lived elsewhere, suggesting that their primary habitat is actually exile.

The land looms largest in the story of the Exodus, when the Israelites are ordered to capture it and expel its inhabitants. Their descendants, in turn, were exiled around the sixth century BCE, but hoped their stay in Babylon would be short-lived. At first, the dreamed-of restoration was seen in political terms, but later it took messianic form, being seen as a miraculous age when wolves and lambs would play happily and swords be beaten into ploughshares (Isaiah 2:4, 11:6).

Two approaches to land can be detected here: on the one hand, it is seen as real—a matter of soil—but on the other hand, it is symbolic and unreal. Real land can be taken, provided God permits. Symbolic land is a state of mind, in which territoriality is replaced by peaceful existence without boundaries. These alternatives still lie at the heart of Jewish approaches to the land of Israel: some argue that Jews need and have a right to land, while others hope for land to cease being a source of conflict.

Biblical narratives about the conquest of the Promised Land confirm this divide. Initially, the Israelites were ordered to destroy the existing inhabitants to expunge the idolatrous practices for which they were expelled. But later, the Israelites were themselves judged unworthy and removed from the land. Jewish tenancy was always conditional, their people threatened with expulsion by enemies described as the instruments of God’s will, “chosen” to serve a divine purpose.

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