Understanding the battle for the Promised Land
As war breaks out yet again in Israel, Christians of course, become concerned. Putting aside the inevitable propaganda and sensationalist imagery from media outlets, we still can’t get past images of Hamas (Muslim Islamic Resistance) soldiers spitting on the bodies of young slain Israeli girls and stomping on the heads of dead IDF soldiers. Wars in Israel are different. They are fueled with anger and venomous hatred towards the Jewish people. At its root, the conflicts are always about ownership of the land.
The Land of Milk and Honey is promised to Abraham
Our entire Old Testament is a story, not just about the Jewish people but their land – the Land of Milk and Honey. From the earliest chapters in Genesis to the fiery culmination in Revelations – the story is centered in Israel. It’s a tale about the land God gave to the Israelites, his people, who serve as foundation stones in the history of mankind.
In Genesis 12:1, God instructed the Israelites:
“Leave your country, your people, and your father’s household, and go to the land I will show you.”
The land was “promised” to the Israelites a few verses later:
“The Lord appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring, I will give this land.”
God reiterated this promise in Genesis 15:18:
“On that day, the Lord made a covenant with Abram and said, “To your descendants, I give this land, from the Wadi of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates – the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites and Jebusites.”
But do the promises made in our Old Testament “prove” the land belongs to Israel?
Israel’s borders in pre-historical times
Archaeological evidence suggests humans lived in the land of Israel for millions of years. The earliest evidence, a flint tool, dates back to 1.5 million years ago. Excavations in caves along the West Bank revealed artifacts dating to 10,8000 BC related to the Early Natifian period. At this early date, settlements in the area were sedentary – agriculture had not been discovered yet, so the people in the land traveled about for food. The movement of people throughout the land was not uncommon. Even Israel’s physical borders (and the borders of other countries in the region) have changed throughout history.
The earliest available records (dating back about 3,800 years) say the region was known as Canaan and was occupied by a group of people called the Canaanites (the same Canaanites mentioned in the Old Testament bible). Archaeological excavations of Canaanite sites suggest the occupants of the land were never politically united as a single kingdom but rather were made of different ethnic groups living nomadic lifestyles. We know this because burial sites, ancient structures, and religious artifacts differed throughout the region suggesting there were a variety of “cultures” living in the area. At this far back in time, we cannot definitively directly tie the land to any people.
Ironically, DNA evidence suggests modern-day populations of the region, both Israelites and Palestinians, are descendants of the ancient Canaanites.
As far back as the Bronze Age, the area’s boundaries morphed, sometimes expanding, sometimes contracting, as the occupants and ethnic groups of the area moved about. Egypt ruled the area for a time, as evidenced by Egyptian texts that recorded military expeditions into the area. At various times, occupants consisted of various groups such as the Moabites, Ammonites, and Edomites. It is at this point that the Bible narrative begins documenting the history of the land, of which all indications hint at a region that still hadn’t been “owned” for any significant period of time by any distinct group of people.
How the Bible defines the borders of Israel
The borders of Israel are defined in various Old Testament verses, albeit vaguely. Genesis 28:13 defines it simply as “the land on which you are laying.” Exodus expands the definition, describing the borders as the Red Sea (Southwest border), the Mediterranean (Western border), and the Euphrates (far East of Israel, in Iraq). However, even in Old Testament times, the Israelites commonly lived in a more constricted area east of the Jordan River, roughly abiding by the modern-day borders of Israel.
It is important to note that all participants in the Israeli/Arab conflict believe in the Old Testament narrative. However, Muslims consider parts of the Old Testament that they do not agree with to be untrustworthy. Those parts, of course, included narratives concerning Israel’s right to the land.
The kingdoms of Israel and Judah
The sister regions of the Kingdom of Israel (Samaria) and the Kingdom of Judah emerged in the region during the Iron Age, sometime around 1,300 BC. It was at this time that the 12 tribes of Israel, who had wandered in the desert for 40 years, crossed into Canaan under the command of Joshua. Nine of the twelve tribes settled in what is now roughly northern Israel, while the tribes of Judah, Benjamin, Simeon, and part of Levi, settled in southern Israel.
The Bible describes the two kingdoms as a “United Monarchy.” What would become the Kingdom of Israel consisted of northern Israel, while the Kingdom of Judah ran from Jerusalem southward (except for a small strip of land along the Mediterranean Sea occupied by the Philistines, who themselves were refugees from Greece). The Kingdom of Israel was much more prosperous, while archaeologists have found that the Kingdom of Judah was relatively unoccupied, consisting mostly of small settlements. Notably, the Jewish people obtained their name from “Judah.”
The Bible tells us that around 1,000 BC, Saul was the leader of the Kingdom of Israel, while King David ruled over Judah. After Saul died in a battle against the Philistines, David is believed to have unified the kingdom and ruled over all of Israel. Under his regime, Israel grew from a kingdom into an empire drawing in several vassal states from nearby countries. When David’s son, Solomon, assumed leadership of Israel, he built a great temple in Jerusalem (the capital of the Kingdom of Judah) around 950 BC – the First Temple.
The Kingdoms are destroyed
About 200 years after the construction of the First Temple, in 722 BC, the Neo-Assyrian Empire (at the peak of their history) conquered the Kingdom of Israel. The Assyrians brought in other people from foreign lands to help settle the area. Some Jews migrated southward into the Kingdom of Judah. A small portion stayed behind, becoming what we know today as Samaritans. About 20% of the Jewish population was forcefully deported and became known as the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.
The Conquest of Nebuchadnezzar II
150 years after the conquest of the Assyrians, the population of the Kingdom of Judah had grown much larger. Meanwhile, Egyptian influence in the region grew while Assyrian influence declined. According to Old Testament and confirmed by the Babylonian Chronicles, in 586 BC, the Neo-Babylonian Empire, led by Nebuchadnezzar II, took advantage of changing dynamics in the region and conquered the Kingdom of Judah, destroying the First Temple. The Neo-Babylonian Empire was massive, stretching from Saudia Arabia and Israel through Iraq and parts of Iran. Its reign however, would be short-lived.
Cyrus the Great restores Israel
In 549 BC, Cyrus the Great, the king of Persia (modern-day Iran), revolted and overran Babylonian forces with nary a battle. It is theorized that the people of Babylonia, including exiled Jews, may have seen Cyrus the Great as a liberator and assisted him in his efforts to conquer the land. Indeed, one of his first acts was to allow the Jewish exiles to return to their homelands with permission to rebuild the temple destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar.
The Jewish-Roman wars
Allowed to self-govern themselves, Israel grew in strength and numbers. The era is known as the Second Temple period. During this time, many of the symbols of Jewish Identity evolved. Dietary laws were established, observance of the Sabbath became more important, and synagogues popped up throughout the area. For hundreds of years, the area grew and prospered. But by the time Jesus arrived, the Romans had begun expanding their empire throughout the area.
The Roman Republic invaded Israel in 63 BC. In 6 AD, the area was annexed, and taking the name from the Kingdom of Judah, named the Roman province of Judaea. It was at this time that Jesus appeared on the scene. A series of wars between the Romans and the Jews continued until around 70 AD, when the Second Temple was destroyed by Roman soldiers, along with a sizeable portion of the Jewish population.
Jewish residents scattered, and skirmishes continued for many years. Jerusalem was rebuilt as a Roman colony, and Jews were expelled. The Jews that remained throughout the area allowed Galilee to grow into a significant religious center – both for Judaism and Christianity.
Medieval times brought massive conflict to Israel
Around 300 AD, the Roman Empire gradually transitioned into what became known as the Byzantine Empire (aka the Eastern Roman Empire), a continuation of the Roman Empire based out of Turkey rather than Rome. In the 4th century, Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and implemented laws to protect Christians from persecution. Many Jews fled the country. By the middle of the 5th century, the population of Israel was mainly Christian – and conflict continued to reign supreme.
For several hundred years, control of the region changed hands many times, with power transferring between the Umayyad (the second caliphate after Muhammad’s death), Abbasid (the third caliphate after Muhammad’s death), Fatimid caliphates, and Seljuks and Ayyubid dynasties. The Jewish population declined as Muslims began immigrating into the area and pressuring inhabitants to convert to Islam.
By the end of the 11th century, the Crusades began with Christian crusaders invading the land to wrest control of Jerusalem and the Holy Land from the Muslims. They largely succeeded until Muslim rule was restored by the Mamluk sultans of Egypt in 1291.
Israelites seek a home
A couple of hundred years of stability ended in 1516 when the Muslim-led Ottoman Empire conquered the entire region. Afterward, Muslims in the region fought each other for hundreds of years. In 1799 Napoleon attempted to conquer the area but was repelled. At various times, Egyptian power threatened the empire, civil war-like revolts ensued, and in 1840, the Brits got involved in helping the Ottomans protect the land from outside invaders.
Certainly, Jewish communities existed in Israel even then, especially in the cities of Jerusalem, Tiberias, Hebron, and Safed. Christian communities dotted the area too. But Jews, as a whole, aspired to return to “Zion,” their homeland. Throughout the 1800s, waves of Jews migrated to the Ottoman-ruled area now called Palestine.
Austro-Hungarian journalist Theodor Herzl is credited with founding political Zionism, a movement that sought to establish a Jewish state in the Land of Israel. The first wave began in 1881, known as the First Aliyah. It consisted of Jews mostly seeking to escape anti-Semitic policies in Europe.
The Second Aliyah began in 1904 and resulted in 20,000 Jews purchasing land and permanently settling in Palestine. Immigrants established their own city named Tel Aviv. As Palestinians began objecting to Jews returning to their homeland, Jewish settlers began arming themselves and forming protective militias to defend against anti-Semitic attacks.
World War I prompts Brits to restore the land to the Israelites
During World War I, Zionist volunteers helped the Brits seize Palestine. The territory was divided between British and French conquerors. The British-administered area included modern-day Israel.
Demoralized and angered, Arabs began to riot against British rule. Meanwhile, Jewish immigrants – during the Third (1919) and Fourth (1924) Aliyahs – continued arriving in waves. When Nazism arose in Germany, the Fifth Aliyah created an influx of a quarter of a million Jews.
Arabs grew angrier and launched the Arab revolt of 1936-1939. British security forces and Zionist militias suppressed the fighters, but many lives were lost. An estimated 10% of the Palestinian Arab population was killed or wounded. However, as a result, the British began restricting Jewish immigration into Palestine to help ease tensions. By this time, about a third of the worldwide Jewish population had returned to their homeland.
The land is split between Israelites and Palestinians
By 1947, the Brits decided it was not worth their efforts in the area. Negotiations between Palestinians and Jews were attempted to no avail. Ultimately, the British General Assembly adopted Resolution 181 – the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine. At the time, Jews owned almost 10% of the land. Palestinians owned about 20%. Oddly, the remaining 70% was owned by foreign landowners. A compromise to a near-impossible situation was reached. They partitioned Palestine into two states – one Arab and one Jewish.
The Arab League rejected Resolution 181 outright, refusing any plan involving sharing the land with Jews. They proclaimed a three-day strike which resulted in riots breaking out across Jerusalem. Two weeks after the UN implemented Resolution 181, civil war broke out in the region. On May 15, 1948, the British evacuated the region leaving Arab militias and Jewish regiments fighting each other.
A pause to examine who owned Israel first
This is a good point to stop and pause to think about who really occupied Israel first. From the Palestinian point of view, the land was theirs. It had recently been taken from them after hundreds of years of occupation. However, to the Jews, it was their land, having lived on it for thousands of years prior to the Palestinian conquest. Who owned the land before the Jews is impossible to ascertain – technically, the Jews owned the land first in ancient times, but Palestinians owned the land more recently. Thus, it’s impossible to answer the question of who owned the land of Israel first.
Israel is formed
As seen still today, when conflict arises regarding the Jews, the whole of the Middle East takes advantage of the situation. The chaos triggered by Resolution 181 drew the armies of other countries into the war. Egypt, Syria, Transjordan, Yemen, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Iraq entered the region launching the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Their primary goal was clear – to prevent the re-establishment of a Jewish state in the area. Thus began a war where most of the Middle East faced a tiny Israeli population to determine how the land should (or should not) be divided.
After a year of fighting, a ceasefire was declared. Temporary borders, called the Green Line, were established, giving Jordan the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and Egypt the Gaza Strip. About 700,000 Palestinians fled Israel leaving about 150,000 to become Arab citizens of the newly formed country. Arabs would call the event the Nakba (“the catastrophe”).
On May 11, 1949, Israel was admitted as a member of the UN by a majority vote. Throughout the next decade, Israelites would suffer continuous attacks from Arab countries, mostly from the Egyptian-occupied Gaza Strip.
The Six-Day War
In 1956, Egyptians nationalized the Suez Canal, prompting concern from the UK and France that the Straits of Tiran would be blocked to Israeli shipping. Together, the two countries overran the Sinai Peninsula, then withdrew in return for guarantees of Israeli shipping rights in the Red Sea via the Straits of Tiran and the Suez Canal.
Ten years later, amidst heightened tensions in the area, in May 1967, Egypt gathered its army near the Israel border, expelled UN peacekeepers, and blocked Israel’s access to the Red Sea. As usual for the region, other Arab states joined in and mobilized their forces toward the Israeli border. Israel announced that the movements were tantamount to a declaration of war. On June 5, they launched a pre-emptive strike against Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. In response, Iraq attacked Israel. In less than a week, Israel captured land all around its borders – the West Bank from Jordan, the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, and the Golan Heights from Syria. In less than a week, Israel gained territory four times its original size. The war came to be known as The Six-Day War. It remains a massive embarrassment for Arab states.
The Yom Kippur attack
On October 6, 1973, as Jews observed Yom Kippur (i.e., the Day of Atonement, the holiest day in Judaism), Egyptian and Syrian armies launched surprise attacks against Israeli forces in the Sinai Peninsula and Golan Heights. The Yom Kippur War ended in 19 days, with Israel successfully repelling both opposing armies from the land. Between 10k and 30k lives were lost during the three-week war, engraining more hatred on both sides.
The Israel-Egypt peace treaty
Egypt conceded in 1979 and became the first Arab country to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. The border with Egypt was defined, and Israel withdrew all forces and settlers from Sinai but continued to occupy the Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Golan Heights. They continue to occupy the areas today.
Neverending conflict in the Land of Milk and Honey
Should Israel belong to the Israelites or the Palestinians?
Most people, including most Christians, believe the land of Israel belongs to the Jews. They held the land first (at least as far back as we can tell), had it forcefully taken from them by Muslims, and then forcefully took it back. The argument, however, is mute.
Israel has agreed to create a Palestinian state with the condition that the attacks against them cease. Radical Palestinian groups, however, refuse the proposition because their religion calls for not just possession of the land but the elimination of all Jews worldwide.
It’s impossible to negotiate with demands like that.
• Destroyed Syrian T62 Tank after Yom-Kipur war near Ortal. In the background is Mount shifon via PikiWiki with usage type - Creative Commons License, Circa 1973
• Tanks arrive on the west bank of the Canal during Yom Kippur War via Israeli IDF with usage type - Public Domain, October 15, 1973
• Egyptian military trucks cross a bridge laid over the Suez Canal on October 7, 1973, during the Yom Kippur War/October War via Flickr by CIA with usage type - Public Domain, October 7, 1973
• Soldiers fighting near Jerusalem during the Six-Day War via Ammunition Hill Museum Exhibits with usage type - Public Domain
• Jordanian artillery shells Jerusalem during 1948 Arab-Israeli War via Wikimedia Commons by Yad Yitzhak Ben Zvi with usage type - Public Domain
• Palestine Distribution of Population 1947 via United Nations with usage type - Public Domain
• Palestine(1945) Land ownership by sub-district via United Nations with usage type - Public Domain
• February 1956 Map of UN Partition Plan for Palestine, adopted 29 Nov 1947 via United Nations with usage type - Public Domain
• Palestinians fighting in the 1935-1939 Arab revolt against the British via Hanini with usage type - Public Domain
• Remains of a burnt Jewish passenger bus at Balad Esh-Sheikh outside Haifa 1938 via PD-USGov with usage type - Public Domain, July 13, 1938
• The Palmach, Immigration to Israel 1947 via PikiWiki with usage type - Public Domain, July 18, 1947
• A Jewish Yemenite family walking through the desert to a reception camp near Aden via Zoltan Kluger with usage type - Public Domain, November 1, 1949
• Theodor Herzl via ONB Digital by Carl Pietzner with usage type - Public Domain, January 2, 1897
• Ottoman Empire in 1914 via Wikimedia Commons with usage type - GNU Free, March 26, 2021
• Emperor Constantine and the Council of Nicaea burning Arian books via Jean Hubert et al., Europe in the Dark Ages by James Steakley with usage type - Public Domain, circa 825
• Statue head of Constantine via Wikimedia Commons by Merulana with usage type - Creative Commons License, December 4, 2022
• Roman Empire in 555 AD via Wikimedia Commons by Tataryn with usage type - Creative Commons License, June 16, 2012
• Map of the Roman Empire in 125 (pink dashed line) via Wikimedia Commons with usage type - Creative Commons License, May 2013
• Tomb of Cyrus the Great in Iran via Wikimedia Commons with usage type - Creative Commons License, September 15, 2017
• Neo-Babylonian Empire at its greatest territorial extent 556 BC via Wikimedia Commons with usage type - Creative Commons License, May 10, 2021
• Neo-Assyrian Empire in the reign of Tiglath-Pileser III 859 BC via Wikimedia Commons with usage type - Creative Commons License, February 9, 2022
• Philistine cities mentioned in the Old Testament via Wikimedia Commons by Brian Haddock with usage type - Creative Commons License, March 15, 2011
• States around the Kingdom of Israel and Kingdom of Judah 1,000 BC via Wikimedia Commons with usage type - Creative Commons License, July 10, 2010
• Map of the Land of Palestin as defined in Numbers 34 and Ezekiel 47 via Wikimedia Commons by Emmanuelm with usage type - Creative Commons License
Featured Image Credit:
• God showing Moses the Promised Land via with usage type -