The Biblical Borders Showing What is the True Land of Israel
In recent times, the borders of the State of Israel seem to change every decade or so, but what were the precise Biblical borders of the Land of Israel? As we see in this week's Torah reading, the answer to this question is not so simple - for the story of Bnei Gad and Reuven in Parshat Matot (32:1-42) implies that Israel's borders are rather 'expandable,' while Parshat Masei (33:1-15) details what appears to be a rather fixed geographical border.
So what are the exact borders of the Land of Israel? This week's shiur examines the biblical roots of this complex issue.
Two clichés, both based on psukim in Tanach, are commonly used to describe the expanse of the borders of the Land of Israel:
A) 'From the Nile to the Euphrates';
B) 'From Dan to Be'er Sheva.'
The geographic discrepancy between these two boundary-lines is immense! According to (A), Eretz Yisrael encompasses almost the entire Middle East,
while according to (B), Israel is a tiny country not much bigger than the state of Rhode Island
So which cliché is correct?
The Borders in Parshat Masei
In Parshat Masei, the Torah presents the most precise delineation of the borders of the Land of Israel in Tanach:
"And God spoke to Moshe saying: Command Bnei Yisrael and tell them, when you enter Eretz Canaan, this is the land that shall become your inheritance - Eretz Canaan according ot its borders. Your southern border, from Midbar Tzin..." (see 34:1-13)
Over the centuries, many attempts have been made to identify each location mentioned in the parsha. With regard to the eastern and western borders, i.e. the Mediterranean Sea (34:6) and the Jordan River (34:11-12), there can be no question whatsoever as to their identity. With regard to the northern and southern borders, however, a variety of opinions exist.
The 'minimalist' approach identifies the northern border in the area of today's Southern Lebanon, i.e. along the Litani river until the Metulla area. The southern border, according to this view, runs along the Be'er Sheva - Gaza line in the northern Negev. On the other hand, the 'maximalist' opinion identifies the northern border somewhere up in Turkey and Northern Syria, while the southern border is said to be situated somewhere deep in the Sinai desert.
The Eastern Frontier
Although the eastern border in Parshat Masei is clearly the Jordan river, the story of "bnei Gad u'bnei Reuven" in Parshat Matot (31:1-54) indicates the possibility of expanding this border into present-day Jordan. Recall that Moshe Rabbeinu allows the tribes of Gad, Reuven, and Menashe to establish their permanent settlement of Eretz Yisrael on the 'eastern bank' of the Jordan River, provided that they fulfill their vow to help everyone else conquer the land located on the westerb bank. [See also Yehoshua chapters 13-14, and chapter 22.]
So why are the borders of Eretz Yisrael so ambiguous? Are they vast or small? Are they rigid and unchanging or expandable? Are certain parts of the 'Holy Land' holier than others?
To answer these questions, and to understand why this topic is so complicated, we must return to Sefer Breishit and God's promise to the Avot regarding the Land of Israel.
The Land Promised to Avraham Avinu
In Parshat Lech Lecha, when God first chooses Avraham Avinu, He promises him a special land. [See Breishit 12:7, 13:14-17, 15:18, 17:7-8. See also 22:17-18, 26:2-5, 28:3-4, 28:13-14, 35:11-12, 46:1-4, 48:4 and 21. (That should keep you busy.)]
In His first three promises to Avraham, God describes the land in very general terms:
1) In Ur Kasdim:
"Go forth from your native land and from your father's house to the land what I will show you." (12:1)
2) At Shchem:
"I will assign this land to your offspring." (12:7)
3) At Bet-El:
"Raise your eyes and look out from where you are... for I give all the land that you see..." (13:15)
Later in Parshat Lech Lecha, Avraham Avinu enters into two covenants with God concerning his future. Both covenants precisely define the Promised Land, but each covenant consists of an entirely different piece of land!
1) At Brit Bein HaB'tarim: "Ha'Aretz"
"On that day God made a covenant with Avraham, saying: to your offspring I assign this land, from the river of Egypt [the Nile] to the river, the river Euphrates, the Kenites, Knizites... (the ten nations)" (Breishit 15:18-21)
The land defined by these borders is enormous! To the northeast, the border extends to the Euphrates River, which flows from northern Syria to the Persian Gulf, and to the southwest, it runs from the sources of the Nile River in Ethiopia down to the port city of Alexandria! [Undoubtedly, this covenant is the source of the popular phrase "from the Nile to the Euphrates."]
2) At Brit Milah: "Eretz Canaan"
"I assign the land in which you sojourn to you and your offspring to come, all the land of Canaan..." (17:8)
In this covenant, the 'Promised Land' is much smaller. Even though the term "Eretz Canaan" appears here for the first time [see also Shmot 6:4, and compare with Breishit 17:7-8], the geographic definition of this area has already been mentioned in Parshat Noach. Let's take a careful look at that definition:
"And the border of the Canaani was from Sidon (the Litani valley in Lebanon) down the coastal plain to Grar and Gaza, [and from Sidon (down the Syrian-African Rift)] to Sdom, Amora... (the Dead Sea area)." (Breishit 10:19)
[Note that this is the only border detailed in the genealogical record of Breishit chapter 10. Most likely, this delineation is recorded as critical background information for Parshat Lech Lecha!]
This biblical definition of Eretz Canaan more or less coincides with the general region that the Avot inhabited - "eretz m'gurecha" (see 17:7-8). The Avot lived and sojourned in the area between Be'er Sheva and Grar to the south (see 28:10, 46:1), and the area of Shchem and Dotan (37:12-17) to the north. And during his battle against the Four Kings, Avraham chased his foes as far north as Dan (14:14)!
[Undoubtedly, these borders inspired the popular phrase: "from Dan to Be'er Sheva." This phrase is used several times later in Tanach to define the populace of the Land of Israel. For example:
"And all of Israel, from Dan to Be'er Sheva, knew that Shmuel was a trustworthy prophet..." (Shmuel I 3:20)
See also I Melachim 5:5.]
In summary, the source of the conflicting borders of Eretz Yisrael appears to be its different presentations in Brit Bein HaB'tarim and Brit Milah. Now, we must explain the relationship between each "brit" and its respective definition of the land.
Two Borders - Two Types of Kedusha
To understand the significance of these conflicting borders, we must determine the exact nature of each covenant.
In our shiurim on Sefer Breishit, we analyzed the significance of both covenants with the avot and the unique contribution of each (i.e., Bein HaB'tarim - b'shem Havaya and Brit Milah - b'shem Elokim). For our purposes here, we will briefly review our conclusions.
Brit Bein HaB'tarim
After Avraham's defeat of the Four Kings, God promises him that his offspring will one day conquer ("yerusha") the land, just as Avraham himself had just done. However, this conquest will take place only after several generations of bondage in a foreign land, after which they will gain their independence and their oppressor will be punished. The land in which they will establish their sovereignty is described as expanding from the Nile to the Euphrates [the land then occupied by the ten nations, see chapter 15, especially 18-21].
This covenant with Avaraham Avinu reflects the historical/national aspect of Am Yisrael's relationship with God, as it focuses on the long-term, historical process required for Avraham's offspring to achieve their sovereignty (better known as the process of Yetziat Mitzrayim). Notice that in this covenant, the Promised Land is consistently referred to as "ha'Aretz," and its conquest as "yerusha." (The significance of these terms will become clear a bit later in the shiur.)
In preparation for this covenant, God first changes Avram's name to Avraham, in anticipation of the birth of a child from Sarah [formerly Sarai]. God then promises Avraham that He will establish and maintain a special relationship between Himself and Avraham's descendants - "lihyot lachem l'Elokim" - He will be a close, intimate God for them. [See Breishit 17:3-9.]
This covenant reflects the religious/personal aspect of Am Yisrael's relationship with God, as it emphasizes a unique, intimate relationship with the Divine. In this covenant, the Promised Land is referred to as "Eretz Canaan." [Note that its inheritance (from father to son) is referred to as "achuza," as opposed to the use of the word "yerusha" in Brit Bein HaB'tarim, as noted earlier.]
Hence, there are two aspects latent in the "kedusha" (sanctity) of Eretz Yisrael:
A) The National Aspect - the "kedushat ha'Aretz" of Brit Bein HaB'tarim relates to the conquest of the land ("yerushat ha'Aretz") and the establishment of a national entity - a sovereign state. This "kedusha" is achieved once Bnei Yisrael gain sovereignty, upon Yehoshua's conquest of the land. For example, the obligation of tithing the land's produce (i.e. "trumot u'ma'asrot"), a requirement contingent upon this 'national sanctity' of the Land, begins only once the land is conquered. [See Rambam, Hilchot Trumot, chapter 1.]
B) The Personal Aspect - the "kedushat Eretz Canaan" of Brit Milah already existed in the time of the Avot and remains eternal. This kedusha reflects God's special Providence over this land (see Vayikra chapter 18), even while inhabited by other nations. This intrinsic "kedusha" is forever present regardless of who seizes control over the Land, be it Persians, Romans, Crusaders, Turks etc. [If you are a "n'turei karta'nik" you can add Zionists to the list.]
Board #3 summarizes our analysis thus far.
Yerusha and Achuza
Understanding these two key words, which describe our acquisition of Eretz Yisrael in each covenant (respectively), helps clarify this distinction:
A) In Brit Bein HaB'tarim - "yerusha" (Breishit 15:3,4,7,8);
B) In Brit Milah - "achuzah" (Breishit 17:8).
In Chumash, the word "ye-ru-sha" denotes conquest that leads to sovereignty, i.e. military control over a given territory. [This definition must not be confused with its popular usage, "ye-ru-she," usually referring to an inheritance received from a parent.]
Thereafter, the sovereign power can then either apportion or sell that land to its inhabitants. As the conqueror and ruler, the governing body may distribute the land in any manner he chooses. Usually, should the owner die, his land is automatically inherited by the closest heir. In Chumash, this type of ownership is known as "achuza."
[For example, when Sarah dies, Avraham must now acquire an "achuzat kever" - a family burial plot (see Breishit 23:4). He must first purchase the plot from the Hittites, the sovereign at that point in time.]
A) Brit Bein HaB'tarim, the national aspect, uses the word "yerusha," since it relates to Am Yisrael's conquest of the Land.
B) Brit Milah employs the word "achuza," as it emphasizes one's personal connection to the land.
At the Crossroads of the Middle East
Based on our understanding of these two covenants, their conflicting presentations of the land's borders can now be reconciled.
Avraham Avinu was chosen to father a nation that will "become a blessing" for all other nations (see Breishit 12:1-3). The special land set aside for that nation by that promise is called "ha'Aretz." In Brit Bein HaB'tarim, "ha'Aretz" is defined as the land between the Nile and Euphrates. These rivers are not borders; never in the history of mankind have these rivers marked the borders of a single country. Rather, these rivers mark the two centers of ancient civilization - Mesopotamia ("N'har Prat") and Egypt ("N'har Mitzrayim") [see 15:18-21].
Therefore, whereas Brit Bein HaB'tarim reflects the national aspect of our relationship with God, its borders of "ha'Aretz" reflect our destiny to become a blessing to all mankind. We are to become a nation 'declaring God's Name' at the crossroads of the two great centers of civilization.
The more precise geographic borders of this special land are defined in Brit Milah, as Eretz Canaan - the land in which our forefathers sojourned. Given its destiny to become the homeland for God's special nation, this land possesses intrinsic kedusha. This inherent sanctity sensitizes the land to the moral behavior of its inhabitants (see Vayikra 18:1-2,24-28).
The basic borders of Eretz Yisrael are those of "Eretz Canaan," i.e. 'from Dan to Be'er Sheva,' as promised in Brit Milah. These borders form a natural geographic area: Eretz Canaan is bordered by the Mediterranean Sea on the West, the Negev desert on the South, the Syrian-African Rift (Jordan River) to the East, and the Lebanon Mountain Range to the North.
Once this 'kernel' area is conquered, its borders can potentially (but do not have to) be extended. The potential limits of this expansion are established by Brit Bein HaB'tarim - from "N'har Mitzryaim" to "N'har Prat." This demarcation may be understood as a limit rather than a border, as each river represents a center of ancient civilization. After conquering Eretz Canaan, Am Yisrael can, when such is warranted, expand its borders through continuous settlement outward, until (but not including) the two ancient centers of civilization, Egypt and Mesopotamia.
This interpretation explains why Transjordan does not acquire "kedushat ha'aretz" until after "Eretz Canaan" is conquered. Bnei Gad and Reuven must first help conquer mainland "Eretz Canaan" before the kedusha can extend into Transjordan. [Note the use of "lifnei Hashem" in Bamidbar chapter 32, especially in 32:29-30.] When Bnei Gad and Reuven comply with these conditions, they not only help Bnei Yisrael conquer Eretz Canaan, but they also facilitate the inclusion of Transjordan as an integral part of Eretz Yisrael ("ha'Aretz").
'Land for Progress'
We have shown that our relationship to the Land of Israel, like our relationship with God, exists at both the national and individual levels. God chose this special land in order that we fulfill our destiny.
While "kedushat Eretz Yisrael" at the individual level may be considered a Divine gift, its kedusha at the national level is most definitely a Divine challenge. To achieve its fullest borders, we must rise to that challenge.
For Further Iyun
A. Mitzvat Kibush Eretz Canaan
This interpretation enhances our understanding of the Torah's presentation of the mitzva to conquer Eretz Yisrael in Parshat Masei (Bamidbar 33:50-56).
First, Bnei Yisrael are commanded to conquer the land = "yerusha":
"V'horashtem et kol yoshvei ha'aretz mipneichem...
V'horashtem et ha'aretz v'yshavtem bah, ki lachem na'tati et ha'aretz la'reshet otah."
Only once the land is conquered can it then be apportioned to each family according to the tribal households:
"V'hitnachaltem et ha'aretz b'goral l'mishp'choteichem... l'matot Avoteichem titnechalu..."
The conquest is referred to as "yerusha," while the subsequent distribution of the land is referred to as "nachala."
"Yerusha" is achieved by the joint military effort of all twelve tribes [Yehoshua chapters 1-12]. Afterwards, "nachalah" is accomplished when each tribe settles and establishes communities in its portion [Yehoshua chapters 13-19].
[Note that the word "nachala" is not necessarily synonymous with "achuza." "Achuza" is usually used in the context of real-estate dealings, such as Avraham's purchase of a burial plot and field from Efron (see Breishit 23:9,16-20). "Nachala" usually refers to family inheritance.]
B. The Rambam presents his halachik definition of Eretz Yisrael in the first chapter of Hilchot Trumot (in Yad Hachazaka).