Why the Bible doesn’t give Israel a claim to the West Bank

Israel was an anachronism from day one.

Nedal Shtieh APA images

Having a passport stamped with the names Judea and Samaria reminds me of a trip my family made to Disneyworld, where I got a passport stamped Neverland.  That day I met Peter Pan and Wendy. Getting my passport stamped for the West Bank these days, I can hope to stand before the graves of Biblical characters in Samaria and Judea. 

What actually can we glean about the area of Samaria from the Hebrew Scriptures? Samaria was a region in the land of Israel with geographical limits that were never clearly defined in the Bible. Originally it was the territory of the tribe of Ephraim and half tribe of Manasseh: its eastern boundary was the Jordan River, the western boundary was the Mediterranean coast. Not surprising since natural boundaries, such as mountains, rivers, deserts, or lakes formed boundaries long before they were hand-drawn by the winners of wars. 

After the campaign of Tiglath-Pileser III in 732 BC, Samaria became a province of the Assyrians. The Biblical authors understand this loss of the Northern Kingdom (Samaria) as God’s punishment of his people for worshipping other deities and breaking the Covenant that had bound them to God. “And the king of Assyria did carry away Israel [Samaria] unto Assyria and put them in Halah and in Habor by the river of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes” (II Kings 18:11).

The triumphant Assyrians settled some of their subject populations there and in Syria to mingle with the Palestinian people. The Hill Country of Samaria remained a province during the Persian period. Then, Samaria, along with Judea, became the property of the Babylonians, from 539 until 333 BC, and subsequently was ruled by the Hellenistic Greeks, and then the formidable Roman Empire. The land was never owned by the Jewish people, except in minds that were nourished by the Biblical narratives.

Israel’s history of salvation

Why am I providing such specific historical data for these vague geographical areas? Because there has always been an intertwined narrative between Israel’s religious history and a so-called objective history that must be maintained. To reject the historicity of Israel’s salvation history has been considered an attack on the faith itself. A fundamental basis of Biblical faith is that, unlike other ancient deities living in some faraway realm, the Israelite God acts within history, prodding and protecting his chosen people from the threats and attacks of its enemies. When Israel breaks its Covenant with God, the land and the power revert to their enemies, often for as long as 400 narrative years of repentance. Then God relents. What could reassure Israelis of the historicity of the biblical narratives, and their everlasting bond with God, more than actual physical proof that they earned every hectare of land from righteousness. Stepping right out of the pages of the Bible, today’s faithful can flash that Biblical truth in the form of a current passport stamp. Samaria and Judea.

What better way to prove the veracity of the events narrated in the Bible than by discovering tangible, visible proof embedded on shards, stele, inscriptions and other archeological treasures. So with the Bible in one hand and a shovel in the other, Western and Israeli archeologists began to dig up the Holy Land to prove the land holy. Official versions of a nation’s past are commonplace: think of Columbus discovering America. But what is different about the attempt to recover the history of ancient Israel is that this history has been shaped in the context of the modern European nation state. It has been translated and interpreted as the history of a united group of people, divided into tribes. There are no other people except for enemies, the generic “Canaanites.”

A different kind of salvation

In the past 25 years, scholars have begun to argue, following the lead of Niels Lemche of the University of Copenhagen, that the gap between the first written fixation of the Biblical texts, beginning some time after the Exile in 587 BC, and the occurrence of these events is too great to accept the tradition as a primary source for the reconstruction of the Israelite past. Why is this statement so central to our continuing study of this land today? Because it frees the Western scholarly “search for ancient Israel” to examine the history of the entire region, including the all-important search for a Palestinian history that has been overshadowed, intentionally erased, by those who ignored the social history of the indigenous people of Syro-Palestine.

In her important book Facts on the Ground (2002), anthropologist Nadia Abu El-Haj argues that the strong Zionist collective memory has been strengthened by the Eurocentric model that created the cultural construction of Orientalism, the Western depiction of Arab cultures with all its negativity. Since the first-generation of Israeli archeologists came from Europe, they saw through eyes trained by the last generation of scholars of the continental empires. Like all subject peoples, the hope of these Jewish archeologists was to create and privilege their national “ethnic” majority over the indigenous people of Palestine. To create a visible ancient Israel has resulted in dismissing the large Canaanite mounds. In searching for Judea and Samaria, these archeologists have shown little interest in the lowlands, understood to be Canaanite.

Thus, during the British Mandate period, these archeologists set out to create and preserve a solid historical link from the Biblical narratives to the world of the Zionists. A new nation set to work to revive the old Biblical history from every hillside and wadi. By the time of the 1967 War, the continuum between the past and the present, linking the modern state of Israel to the intentional creation of ancient Israelite history, had been forged. Even tourists visiting the State of Israel could visit Rachel’s tomb, breathe the air in the cave of Machpelach, which Abraham had purchased as a tomb for himself and Sarah. I have been shown the very well the Bible says Abraham dug to water his flocks. Not to be a spoil sport, but these Biblical characters survived in story form through a minimum of 800 years of oral transmission before their stories were ever written down. And one can still find a well dug by a mythic patriarch?

Finally the Zionists have their modern state, theirs by means of an ancient tradition superimposed on a Western nation-state model. And the West, lead by the United States, has displayed no inclination to question the eradication of Arabic place names, that the Zionists have replaced with Biblical names. Comfortable with the celebration of Biblical values ascribed to our own national cultures, how could we not have been Israel’s natural allies? Only recently have historians begun to argue in impressive numbers that the problem with the historical model of ancient Israel is that it denies validity to any attempt to produce a history of ancient Palestine. Zionist allies have allowed Israel to play the largest board game in the world. But the roll of the dice is getting more dangerous for Israel. 

As Tony Judt argued almost a decade ago, the idea of a Jewish state was already too late in 1948. “The very idea of a ‘Jewish state’ — a state in which Jews and the Jewish religion have exclusive privileges from which non-Jewish citizens are forever excluded — is rooted in another time and place. Israel, in short, is an anachronism.”




Hi Alice, you make a stronger point if you don't misrepresent Palestinian history.
To say "After the campaign of Tiglath-Pileser III in 732 BC, Samaria became a province of the Assyrians. The Biblical authors understand this loss of the Northern Kingdom (Samaria) as God’s punishment of his people for worshipping other deities and breaking the Covenant that had bound them to God. “And the king of Assyria did carry away Israel [Samaria] unto Assyria and put them in Halah and in Habor by the river of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes” (II Kings 18:11).

The triumphant Assyrians settled some of their subject populations there and in Syria to mingle with the Palestinian people. " is also inaccurate because 'Palestinian people' is not part of history at that time. It is an anachronistic read. The fact that these tribes were carried off means they had a heritage there. Nonetheless, Occupation is wrong, the claim to the land cannot be based on a narrative account from 2000 years ago and the violation of current day human rights needs to be confronted. A stronger point is within the tradition itself: one looses claim to land Biblically due to unethical behavior. I think the current history fits that description well. I agree that archeology should not be used politically and esp not to establish claims that justify occupation. Whether or not Jews have a historical relationship to the land, which we do, gives us no right to Occupation in all its manifestations. Nor did it give us the right to dispossess Palestinians. The prime expression of holyland should be to live in peace with others. Thanks for all your work, in solidarity Lynn


Thanks for your comment, Lynn. The reason most of us believe that "Palestinians were not part of history at this time," as you say, is that the biblical history is written by Israelites. In the same way that the European history most of us studied in school was about kings and wars, and not the life of the people on the ground, the Israelites were writing to show their relationship to their God. For that purpose they only mentioned "Canaanites," a generic term for the Syro-Palestinian people and other tribes that threatened the Israelites, when there was a war or land dispute involving them. In peace, Alice


To add to Lynn's excellent piece, you also contradict yourself. You first discuss how the land was "lost" because the people broke their covenant but in the next paragraph say the Jews never owned the land. Um, so who lost it? I continue to assert that bibilical interpretation to make political points belongs on ei no more than it does in Israeli politicians' hands.


I understood Alice's point to be that the loss of the land to a broken convenant was the point of view of biblical authors, not based on historical evidence.

For me, this is piece is not a biblical interpretation but a historiography -- necessary because history is often told by the point of view of the powerful, not necessarily closest to evidence or reality, even accepted scholarship.


Thank you for the clarification, Summer. Bekha, as I understand Covenant theology, when the people are unfaithful, break the Covenant, God punishes them hence the loss of the land. After a suitable period of repentance on the part of the Israelite people, God will relent, and help them through the next difficulty.


"Jews" like modern-day Western Jews have NOTHING to do with Palestine. They great-great-greatfathers were Jewish by faith, but modern-day Zionists often do not have even this sort of "relationship". In short, Jews have no more claims for Palestine if they were born in USA or Europe than USA-born Buddhists for India, or Europe-born Christians for Palestine.


True, we have no political claim to Palestine. I agree. But we do have a faith relationship. Israel has always been a holy land to some Jews and those with means or spiritual intention have made a pilgrimage generation after generation. But we have no political claim, no right to dispossession, no right to steal land, water or resources, no right to harm others. We do have a right to access to religious sites and holy places from a traditional framework. But we have certainly changed a right into an oppressive relationship. I deeply regret that transformation.


To say that there was 'a minimum of 800 years of oral transmission before their stories were ever written down', well after the death of Moses, is to call into question the testimonies of Jesus, Luke, and Paul, for all of them testify in the NT that Moses had written at least three of the books of the Pentateuch, if not all five. Jewish history and tradition also credits Moses as writing the Pentateuch, giving no support whatsoever to the 'documentary hypothesis' which you propose.


Andrew, I hate to burst yet another bubble on this rainy dark day here in Cleveland, but the Gospels were written by communities, not by the disciples Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John. They still thought the words of the Bible were accurate. i do not know any scholarly perspective that continues to uphold the concept of moses writing the Torah. There is always that troubling question about how he was able to write his own death.

I have no quarrel with believing in the texts, learning how one should live from reading and studying biblical writings. The claim of historicity is very different from the claim of righteousness.


It has been a joy to read these comments. Thank you. Sending love to all and may peace find it's rightful place in all lands.


@Alice: One often hears the claim, made frequently by skeptical 'scholars' and lay-people alike, that we have no grounds on which to think the four canonical gospels were actually written by the people to whom they are ascribed. There is no good reason to doubt the traditional authorship of the four gospels, and there are various internal and external indicators to suggest that the traditional authorship is correct. There is positive indication that the gospels were written by the persons to whom they were attributed by the early church (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John). One example would be the fact that two of the gospels are ascribed to such minor characters as Mark and Luke- neither of whom, by any accounts, were themselves eyewitnesses. Had a forger or 'community' wanted to acquire credibility for their writing they would undoubtedly have attributed it to someone like Peter, Thomas or James (as the later second and third century fraudulent Gnostic gospels did).
While there are some verses in the Pentateuch that would appear to have been added by someone later than Moses, for example Deuteronomy 34:5-8 which describes the death and burial of Moses, most if not all Biblical scholars attribute the majority of these books to Moses.


Andrew, sorry to tell you that most biblical scholars do not ascribe the writing of the Pentateuch to Moses. William Albright (from the Stone Age to Christianity) said that there wouldn't be a Pentateuch without Moses but people traversing the desert didn't have the wherewithal to write. A very many scholars speak of multiple entries into " Palestine". For example some think there were two Jacob's a north and one further south. The Pentateuch has a long oral history of stories told and retold over campfires, "borrowed" stories from other groups, tribal stories, laws about ritual, and conduct and commemorative days stemming from their "history" and occupations. There were periods of editing at key times. Northern priests brought down many traditions south to escape the Assyrians. The Babylonian Exile had a profound effect on the formation of the Pentateuch as well. These are only scant notes of a very complex process. Check out Bright's History of Israel or that of Martin Noth. The field is replete with scholars of all faiths who will not ascribe the writing of the Pentateuch exclusively to Moses. I don't even want to begin to talk about the writing of the Gospels!


@David: But Romans 11: 1 says 'God has not rejected His people, has He? May it never be! For I too am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin' and 11: 26 says 'all Israel will be saved; just as it is written, “ THE DELIVERER WILL COME FROM ZION, HE WILL REMOVE UNGODLINESS FROM JACOB"', so what you say is not true.


Andrew, It is not only I, but the Holy Bible, that is denying Jewish claims of rights to invade and occupy palestine. The relevant references to Holy Scripture are provided in the links I posted, but it is obvious that you haven't bothered to read them.


I've been reading the Bible to a 96 year old for a year now.
I started in the Old Testament (King James) but it was filled with such violence it actually made me sick. My dear Ca'anite friend told me about the horror of Joshua's (?) invasion of The Land of Milk and Honey after Moses' death. Screaming God made me do it the whole time, he and his army slaughtered every man, women and child of either 31 or 13 city states then divided up the lands.
"Samaria ... was the territory of the tribe of Ephraim and half tribe of Manasseh." That was one of the divisions. Going back to that slaughter and just who was massacred is informative, i.e., these people were already established.
What I got out of it was there was nothing heavenly about these slaughters. They were just one more land grab by war.
And I'm sure that "God gave me the right to massacre you" has exerted too much influence on too many modern day Zionists.

Alice Bach

Alice Bach's picture

My past careers have been as a book editor, a journalist, and a writer of children’s books.  Then I joined the Catholic Worker, learned to make soup for hundreds of homeless folks, and went to graduate school.  I have taught religious studies at both Stanford University and Case Western Reserve University.  Being unsuccessful at tearing down the Ivory Tower of academia, I decided to concentrate on writing about Palestine.  My goal is to tear down the Apartheid Wall with words.