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Rachel Havrelock

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Where Exactly Is Biblical Israel?

Posted: 01/14/2012 5:07 pm

The phrase "Biblical Israel" often passes on the lips of Republican presidential contenders, representatives of the Netanyahu government, and Israeli settlers. But where exactly is this Israel of the Bible to be found?

Not in the Bible itself. The Hebrew Bible (known to Christians as the Old Testament and to Jews as the Torah or Tanakh) contains five different "maps." These "maps" aren't pictures, but lists of boundaries that define the Promised Land. None of them resemble the modern-day "Biblical Israel." One map -- surprisingly found in the book of Joshua, which describes an all-out holy war -- suggests a regional federation in which the tribes of Israel overlap and coexist with local inhabitants. Joshua chapter 15, verse 63 even states: "the Jebusites (local inhabitants of Jerusalem) and the People of Judah dwell together in Jerusalem until today." This not only sounds like contemporary Jerusalem -- a mixed city of Palestinians and Israelis -- but also like a prophecy of how the division of Jerusalem might give way to dwelling together.

The closest we get to "Biblical Israel" in the Bible is a map buried in the book of Numbers in which the land spans from the Mediterranean Sea in the west to the Jordan River in the east. The northern and southern boundaries don't correspond to "Biblical Israel" at all.

If not the Bible, then where does "Biblical Israel" come from? It results from a series of decisions made by the British when they asserted their power and later controlled the Middle East. With increasing awareness of the rich oil fields paralleling the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and dreams of transporting this oil to Europe via the Mediterranean Sea, the British War Office began funding the efforts of the biblically driven Palestine Exploration Fund (PEF). The PEF aimed to prove the legitimacy of the Bible through scientific endeavors like archeology and mapping. In 1879, the British War Office published maps that became widely available in 1880. The 26 sheets of hand-drawn maps present a Palestine conforming to the biblical formulae "from Dan to Beersheba" for the north-south axis and "from the Jordan to the Sea" for the east-west axis. Thus the Holy Land as a potential holding of a Protestant empire was born.

In 1922, the League of Nations approved the British map of Mandate Palestine that reintroduced the idea of the Jordan River as a border. 1922 marks the first time that Protestants ruled the Holy Land as well as the birthday of "Biblical Israel." The Jews and Arabs who wanted this land for their own countries adopted the British map. Where the British saw the birthplace of Jesus and an excellent port for the shipment of Iraqi oil to Europe, Jews envisioned Israel and Palestinians imagined an independent Palestine.

From 1922 on, most Jewish nationalists recognized the Jordan as the ancient border that would one day define their state. This aspiration found fulfillment when Israel conquered the West Bank and reached the Jordan River in the 1967 war. The British map had a parallel impact on Palestinian nationalists. Although the Palestinian Arab Congresses held in the early 1920s rejected the British Mandate as well as the 1922 map, striking and rioting against both, the borders of the desired Palestine were constituted by the Mandate. The 1968 Palestinian National Charter makes the case most clearly: "Palestine, with the boundaries it had during the British Mandate, is an indivisible territorial unit." The "biblical" land doubly claimed by Palestinians and Israelis results from the British administration of the Middle East.

Since the 1920s -- indeed since the 1960s -- there is much water under the bridge. In the symbolic lexicon of Israelis, the Jordan River, as in the Bible, represents the line between homeland and exile. In the very real experiences of Palestinians exiled across the Jordan as a result of the 1948 and 1967 wars, the Jordan River marks the difference between exile and homeland. Battles have been fought and, ultimately, a peace treaty signed between Israel and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan that recognizes a span of the river as the border between them.

Right-wing religious groups, whether Israeli or Palestinian, aspire to rule all of "Biblical Israel" or "Historic Palestine." In truth, these maps result from British colonialism and not from religious tradition. Religious ideas about this land are, in fact, more fluid, more flexible, and more accepting of the different peoples who live within its uncertain borders.