Biblical Evidence "Promised Land" Is Not Exclusively for Jews
The Jews often claim that God through Abraham promised them the land of Palestine some four thousand years ago. This Biblical claim has also profoundly affected quite a number of Christian organizations, particularly in America. The late Reverend Alfred Guillaume, Professor of Hebrew and Oriental Studies at several universities in England and the US carefully scrutinized these claims in the light of Old Testament texts that are familiar to all practicing Jews and their supporters. The Biblical account in the following is taken from his recently published study.
Who were promised?
The first explicit promise to Abraham was at Sichem described in Genesis, Chapter 12 and verse 7: "Unto thy seed will I give this land." Also Chapter 13, verse 15 when Abraham is standing on a hill near Bethel: "For all the land which thou seest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed for ever." The words in Chapter 15, verse 18, are clearer: " Unto thy seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates." The words used are "to thy seed" and this would inevitably include not only the Jews but also the Christians and Muslims who descended from Abraham. It cannot be argued from the words of Genesis 21, verses 10-12 that the promises made to Abraham's other seed were cancelled since it concludes in verse 13: "And also of the son of the bondwoman will I make a nation, because he is thy seed." Therefore despite Israelites calling themselves the 'seed of Abraham', the descendents of Ishmael have every right to call themselves his seed also. Moreover, at the covenant of circumcision made with Abraham (Genesis, Chapter 17), when Canaan was promised him, it was Ishmael who went through it: Isaac had not yet born.
Thus the Divine promise necessarily included all descendents of Ishmael and although narrowed down in the times of Isaac and Jacob, it did in no way exclude their Arab brethren. It is well known that many Arabs did accompany Joshua into Palestine. Also, success of Moses could be at least partly attributed to the kindness and hospitality of Jethre, the Midianite father-in-law of Moses, who was of course an Arab.
What was promised?
The extent of Promised Land is difficult to determine. It begins with a vague reference to 'this land' starting at Sichem (Nablus) and going on to include 'the river of Egypt' to the 'Euphrates' and to the passage that speaks of Abraham's descendents spreading out in all directions. Again, the promise of this dominion was made before the birth of Ishmael and Isaac and, therefore, could not be exclusively for Israelites. Furthermore, except for a short period of time, the area has always been in the possession of Arabs.
Furthermore, when Moses told his people that God has commanded that they should go and occupy the land from the Mediterranean to Euphrates and the Negeb to Lebanon: they did not, or could not carry out these instructions, according to the book of Deuteronomy. They could neither occupy the coastal land from Philistines nor the ports or hinterland from Phoenicians.
Was the promise irrevocable?
The English version of Genesis uses the words 'forever' and 'everlasting.' But the original Hebrew word is 'olam' which means 'a long time', 'antiquity', as we read of 'days of old', 'waste places of old', 'gates of old', etc. It is similar to the expression of a psalmist that says 'I will sing forever' which can hardly be taken at its literal meaning.
No Exclusivist promise.
Examining the above evidence one can only conclude that the land of Palestine was not promised exclusively to the Jews. We also notice that there never was an unconditional promise of an everlasting possession. The covenant relation between Israel and God demanded loyalty from the people and individual and corporate righteousness. Were the people to fail in these respects a terrible doom awaited them. The words of Moses recorded in Deuteronomy, Chapter 28 apply so clearly to the suffering of Jews that many saw in them a prophecy of our own times. Verse 15 reads: " But it shall come to pass, if you wilt not hearken unto the voice of the Lord thy God, to observe to do all His Commandments and His Statues which I command thee this day; that all these curses shall come upon thee, and overtake thee." And verses 64, 65: "And the Lord shall scatter thee among all people, from one end of the earth even unto the other; and there thou shall serve other gods which neither thou nor thy fathers have known, even wood and stone. And among these nations shalt thou find no ease neither shall the sole of thy foot have rest: but the Lord shall give thee a trembling heart, and failing of eyes, and sorrow of mind."
Thus it is clear that the Divine promises to the patriarchs have been annulled by the national apostasy of Jews. When the Assyrian captivity removed the population of Samaria and the Babylonian captivity that of the people of Judea, the prophets actually saw in these disasters a vindication of Divine justice on a disobedient and gainsaying people.
Furthermore, the promise was not in perpetuity. Despite a continued distortion of the Old Testament prophecies, the prophecies of return have been fulfilled. The Jews did return to Judea and rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem and the temple. And after their fluctuating fortunes, they secured political independence and expansion under the Maccabbees. Within the canonical literature of Old Testament there is no prophecy of a second return.
The Qur'an describes that God granted great honor and leadership of humankind on Abraham. The following verses are instructive. "Recall when Abraham's Lord tested him in certain matters and when he successfully stood the test He (God) said: 'Indeed I am going to appoint you a leader of all people.' When Abraham asked: 'And is this covenant also for my descendents?' The Lord responded: 'My covenant does not embrace the wrong-doers.' " (Al-Baqarah, Chapter 2: verse 124). The Qur'an also frequently mentions the favors that God bestowed on Israelites as also the frequent contraventions of their covenants with Him in order that humankind may learn from these in the conduct of life. The following verses are pertinent. "Remember when Moses said to his people: 'O my people! Remember God's favor upon you when He raised prophets amongst you and appointed you rulers, and granted to you what He had not granted to anyone else in the world. My people! Enter the Holy Land (Ard-al-Muqaddasa) that God has assigned you; and do not turn back ignominiously for then you will be overthrown, to your ruin." (5: 20-21). Then describing their excuses and hesitancy to proceed, their final response to Moses is recorded thus: "They said: 'O Moses! Never shall we enter it as long as they are there. Go forth, then, you and your Lord and fight, both of you, while we will sit here.' " (5:24). Islamic exegetes agree that these verses refer to the time when Israelites after their exodus from Egypt were encamped with Moses in the wilderness of Paran, a desert that lies in the Sinai peninsula adjacent to the north of Arabia and south of Palestine. Following this, with Joshua leading them, they were able to conquer Palestine. Subsequently, however, they lost it because of their transgressions against God, described in the Qur'an and Bible.
There is essential accord in the Biblical and Qur'anic description of favors of God on Abraham and Israelites. Whereas the Bible is descriptive, the Qur'an concentrates on the lessons that could be derived from such events. The favors bestowed on Israelites were in answer to the prayers of Abraham, and they deserved them as long as they remained faithful to God.
Indeed, Israelites through much of their history were the only people who upheld monotheistic purity of faith despite strong antagonistic pressures from the prevailing paganism of their time., But while ma,intaining purity of belief in one God, they came to regard themselves as 'God's Chosen People', to the exclusion of the rest of humankind. This is a grave violation, since equality of humankind is an integral component of the monotheistic principle. Likewise, it is inconceivable that a Just and Compassionate God would unconditionally give a so-called 'Promised Land' to appease a people (Israelites), while condoning their uprooting an entire population of another people who lawfully inherited this Holy Land (Palestinians). There is no moral ground for such an inhuman, exclusivist dogmatic belief or racist behavior.
Dr. Siraj Mufti currently serves Islamic consultant to the Correctional Corporation of America in Arizona and is a retired chaplain from the U.S. Department of Justice. Previously, he was a research professor at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
Topics: Oriental Studies, Palestine