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The Myth of the "Promise" : Promised Land or Conquered Land? - The Christian Exegesis

Albert de Pury, a professor of the Old Testament at the Protestant Faculty of Theology at Geneva, sums up his doctorate thesis in the following words: "Divine promise and cultural legend in the cycle of Jacob» (2 volumes,Gabalda Publishers, Paris 1975), in which he integrates, discusses and prolongs the research of the greatest contemporary historians of the Scriptures, including Albrech Alt and Martin Noth (see : "History of Israel" by M.Noth,French translation published by Payot, 1954; "Theology of the Old Testament", 1971,Labor et Fides publishers, Geneva, by Von Rad, "Ancient History of Israel" (2 volumes) by Father R. de Vaux, Paris 1971.

"The Biblical theme of the gift of the country has its origin in the 'patriarchal promise', in other words in the divine promise made, according to the tradition of Genesis, to the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The stories in Genesis relate several times and in different ways, that God promised the patriarchs and their descendents the ownership of the land in which they were in the process of settling. This promise was made at Sichem (Genesis 12/7), at Bethel (Genesis 13/14-16; 28/13-15; 35/11-12) and at Mamre, near Hebron (Genesis 15/18-21; 17/4-8), in other words at the principal sanctuaries of Samaria and Judea, and appears to apply above all to the region of present-day Cisjordania.

"Biblical narrators present us the history of Israel's origins as a succession of well-defined periods in time. All the memories,stories, legends, tales or poems in their possession, handed down by oral tradition, were inserted by them within a specific genealogical and chronological framework. This determination to put order in handed-down tradition and to classify it also left its mark on the compilation of the patriarchal tales.

"Each of the patriarchs was probably an eponymous hero or legendary figure of independent origins, but for the narrators of the Bible all the names must be united in the same family tree. Thus Abraham is presented as the father of Isaac and as Jacob's grandfather. The eponyms of the twelve tribes of Israel are regarded as the sons of Jacob, etc. It is these twelve sons of Jacob - the embryo of the "people of Israel" concept - who left Palestine for Egypt because of a famine. After an exile of 400 years, their descendents having become the "people of Israel" in the meantime, they left Egypt, wandered about in the desert and finally conquered the land which had been promised to their ancestors. As almost all contemporary exegets agree, this schema is mostly fictitious.

"The works of Albrecht Alt and Martin North have revealed especially that the division into successive periods (Patriarchs - bondage in Egypt - conquest of Canaa) is artificial."

lt is admitted today that most of the tribe and clans which, in the 12th or the 11th century B.C., joined up to become the "people of Israel" (perhaps in the form of a confederation) were originally groups of semi-nomads who had become sedentary in central Palestine, Transjordania, Galilee and the Neguev over the course of the previous centuries.

Most of these clans claimed to be descended from an eponymous ancestor about whom they had preserved a body of stories and legends. Thus one of these clans regarded itself as issued from the "patriarch" Abraham ; another was issued from Jacob, while others still were considered to be the descendents of Ruben, Simeon or Joseph.

It was only during the assimilation and unification of these different tribal groups that their "ancestors", who had no links originally between them, became integrated within a single geneological system. It is likely that the "Abraham" and "Isaac" became assimilated to the "proto-Israelite" tribes at a time when Jacob-Israel had already become the common ancestor of the twelve tribes. Thus Isaac had to make do with the status of Jacob's "father", while Abraham was enthroned at the root of the genealogy, thus becoming Isaac's "father".

To sum up, we can see that the Israelite "conquest" was not the "Blitzkrieg" it is made out to be in the book of Joshuah, but rather the outcome of a gradual "Landnahme" by nomadic groups. The few military skirmishes that may have occured only came in the final phase of a long process of infiltration and sedentarization.

Most exegetes have considered and continue to consider the promise of the patriarchs in its classic form (cf for example Genesis 13/14-17 or Genesis 15/18-21) as a post-eventum legitimization of the Israelites' conquest of Palestine under David's reign. In other words, the promise was introduced in the patriarchal tales to turn that "ancestral epic" into a prelude and an announcement of the golden age of David and Solomon.

It was the custom of the heads of the clans to consult the oracle of the god El at the local sanctuary frequented by the tribe at the time of year when they got ready to leave the fertile lands to go to their winter pastures. The priest of the sanctuary would then reveal to them an "oracle of salvation" which gave the clan the assurance of divine protection during the transhumance and of its safe and sound return to the summer pastures at the end of the rainy season. Furthermore, as the patriarchal tales show us, these oracles could carry a promise of sedentarization in fertile regions.

We can now summarily circumscribe the origins of the patriarchal promise :

1. The promise of land, understood as a promise of sedentarization, was first addressed to groups of nomads who were still submitted to the practice of transhumance and who aspired to settlement somewhere in inhabitable areas. In this form the promise may have been part of the religious and narrative heritage of several different tribal groups.

2. The goal of the nomadic promise was not the political and military conquest of a region or a whole country but sedentarization within a limited territory.

3. Originally, the patriarchal promise spoken about in Genesis was not granted by Yahveh (the god who had entered Palestine with the "Exodus group") but by the Canaanite god in one of his local hypostases. Only the local god, owner of the land, could offer nomads sedentarization on his lands.

4- Later, when the nomadic clans had become sedentary and had regrouped with other tribes to make up the "people of Israel", the ancient promises took on another dimension. The goal of sedentarization had been reached and the promise henceforth had political, military and "national" implications.

Thus reinterpreted, the promise was seen as the foreshadowing of the definitive conquest of Palestine, as the announcement and the legitimization of the Davidian empire. None of the promises reported in the book of Genesis have avoided this reinterpretation. The content of the patriarchal promise

"Whereas the "nomadic" promise aiming for the sedentarization of a clan ofshepherds probably goes back to an ante eventum origin, the same does not hold true of the promise that took on "national" dimensions. Given the fact that the "Israelite" tribes united only after their settlement in Palestine, the reinterpretation of the nomadic promise to a promise of political sovereignty must have been made post eventum. Thus the promise in Genesis 15/18-21, which envisages the sovereignty of the chosen people over all the regions located "between the Egyptian Torrent (Wadi 'Arish) and the Great River, the Euphrates", and over all the inhabitants of those lands, is clearly a vaticinium ex eventu inspired by the Davidian conquests. It must also be pointed out that other "goals" were added to the initial promise, notably that of countless descendents and the divine blessing. Each narrator has conferred his particular stamp upon the promise. The Yahvist insisted on the countless descendence, while Deuteronomy emphacized the possession of the lands of Canaa and the Sacerdotal on the alliance with Yahveh implied in the promise. Exegetic research has made it possible to establish that the broadening of the "nomadic" promise into a "national" promise must have happened before the first patriarchal tales were set in writing.

"The Yahvist can be regarded as the first great narrator (or rather as the editor of tales) of the Old Testament; he lived at the time of Solomon. Consequently, he was the contemporary and the witness of those few decades when the patriarchal promise, reinterpreted in the light of David, seemed to have been fulfilled beyond all hopes. A careful reading of the tales shows us that the aim of the Yahvist was to point out the permanent opposition between the indignity of the people to whom the promise was made and the incomprehensible grace of Yahveh. The Genesis 12/3b passage is one of the key texts for the understanding of the work of the Yahvist.

"According to this text, the blessing of Israel must have as its corollary the blessing of all the "clans on earth ('adamah)". The clans of the fertile land are, first and foremost, all the tribes which share Palestine and Transjordania with Israel.

"We are thus not in a position to assert that at such or such a time in history God revealed himself to a historical figure called Abraham and conferred upon him the legal deeds of possession to the land of Canaa. From the juridical point of view, we have no land-act signed "God" to show for, and we even have good reasons to believe that the scene in Genesis 12/1-8, 13/14-18 does not reflect a historical event. The promise in Genesis 15/18 does not allow us either to claim the Euphrates (or even the Jordan) as a frontier of Israel, any more than the visions of the Apocalypse enables us to anticipate the material unfolding of events at the end of time.

"Is it possible then to "actualize" the patriarchal promise ? If to actualize the promise means to use it as a deed of property or to put it at the service of a political claim, however legitimate it may be, then the answer is certainly not. No policy has the right to claim the guarantee of the promise for itself. One cannot rally in any way to those among the Christians who consider the Old Testament as a legitimization of the present territorial claims of that State."

Source : All these texts are taken from the conference given on February 10th 1975 at Cret-Berard (Switzerland) during a symposium on the theological interpretations of the Israeli-Arab conflict, published in the magazine : "Theological and religious studies" n° 3, 1976 (Montpellier).

Adopted from the book: "The Founding Myths of Israeli Politics" by: "Roger Garaudy"

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