Israel’s Declaration of Independence and the Biblical Right to the Land
At 4 PM in the Tel Aviv Museum, on the 5th of Iyyar 5708 (May 14, 1948), David Ben-Gurion, the Executive Head of the World Zionist Organization and Chairman of the Jewish Agency for Palestine, stood up and solemnly read aloud the Israeli declaration of Independence (מגילת העצמאות), announcing the establishment of the State of Israel.
The actual declaration is found only halfway through the statement and is preceded by a ten-paragraph long historical prologue justifying the claim of the Jewish people to an independent state in the land of Israel. This justification differs from the major biblical presentation in a number of key respects.
1. Immigrants or Natives
The Bible presents Israel as a people whose origins lay outside the land, whose connection to the land does not stem from times immemorial. The Bible even calls the land “Canaan” after its original population (the name “land of Israel,” common in rabbinic literature, is relatively rare in the Bible).The Hexateuch (i.e., the Torah and the book of Joshua) describes the entry of the people into the land twice, first in the time of the patriarchs and again in the time of Joshua, after the exodus from Egypt and the wandering in the wilderness.
In contrast, the Declaration ignores the biblical idea of Israel as immigrants. Instead, its opening words present a clear case of autochthonous origins of Israel:
בארץ-ישראל קם העם היהודי, בה עוצבה דמותו הרוחנית, הדתית והמדינית, בה חי חיי קוממיות ממלכתית, בה יצר נכסי תרבות לאומיים וכלל-אנושיים והוריש לעולם כולו את ספר הספרים הנצחי.
The land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious, and political identity was shaped. Here they first attained to statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance and gave to the world the eternal Book of Books.
This disagrees with the stories of Abraham’s migration or the exodus and conquest.
2. God’s Place in the History of the People
In the Bible, the Israelites do not merely migrate to the land; they are brought to the land by their deity, YHWH. The opening of the Decalogue even makes God’s very identity rest upon his having brought Israel out of Egypt (Exod 20:2; Deut 5:6):
אָנֹכִי יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִיךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים…
I YHWH am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage.
The trilateral relationship – God-People-Land – is the major theme of the Bible, and its basic contours are that God chose the people (or the people’s progenitor) and brought them into the land.
In contrast, in Israel’s Declaration of Independence the land is not “God’s land” at all, but Israel’s land. Moreover, the declaration never mentions God explicitly and merely acknowledges the bilateral relationship of the land of Israel and Israelites/Jews. God’s only possible appearance is concealed in the heavily pregnant phrase opening the final paragraph: “with trust in the rock of Israel” (מתוך בטחון בצור ישראל).
3. Special or Just Like All Other Nations?
In the mainstream traditions of the Bible, the Israelites inhabit the land because God chose them from among all the nations to be his people:
דברים ז:א כִּי יְבִיאֲךָ יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה בָא שָׁמָּה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ וְנָשַׁל גּוֹיִם רַבִּים מִפָּנֶיךָ… ז:ו כִּי עַם קָדוֹשׁ אַתָּה לַי-הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בְּךָ בָּחַר יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לִהְיוֹת לוֹ לְעַם סְגֻלָּה מִכֹּל הָעַמִּים אֲשֶׁר עַל פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה.
Deut 7:1 When YHWH your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and occupy, and he clears away many nations before you… 7:6 For you are a people consecrated to YHWH your God: of all the peoples on earth YHWH your God chose you to be His treasured people.
ז:ז לֹא מֵרֻבְּכֶם מִכָּל הָעַמִּים חָשַׁק יְ-הוָה בָּכֶם וַיִּבְחַר בָּכֶם כִּי אַתֶּם הַמְעַט מִכָּל הָעַמִּים. ז:חכִּי מֵאַהֲבַת יְ-הוָה אֶתְכֶם וּמִשָּׁמְרוֹ אֶת הַשְּׁבֻעָה אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע לַאֲבֹתֵיכֶם הוֹצִיא יְ-הוָה אֶתְכֶם בְּיָד חֲזָקָה וַיִּפְדְּךָ מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים מִיַּד פַּרְעֹה מֶלֶךְ מִצְרָיִם.
7:7 It is not because you are the most numerous of peoples that YHWH set His heart on you and chose you — indeed, you are the smallest of peoples;7:8 but it was because YHWH favored you and kept the oath He made to your fathers that YHWH freed you with a mighty hand and rescued you from the house of bondage, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt.
It is Israel’s special status as YHWH’s favored people that gives them the right to live in God’s land.
Israel’s Declaration says the exact opposite. Israel does not merit the land because they are special and distinct from all other peoples; their right stems from their shared national entitlement to self-government, just like all other nations:
זוהי זכותו הטבעית של העם היהודי להיות ככל עם ועם עומד ברשות עצמו במדינתו הריבונית.
This right is the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their sovereign State.
The Jews here are a nation like every other nation and should be allowed to govern themselves.
4. Israel’s Right to the Land: Contingent or Irrevocable?
In the Bible, Israel’s right to the land is also reversible. God promises Abraham the land, assists his descendants in violently wresting it from its former Canaanite inhabitants, but eventually exiles them when they are sinful by the hands of the Assyrians (722 BCE) and the Babylonians (586 BCE). This exile is “predicted” in the Torah, which more than once warns Israel explicitly of the dire consequences that will befall them if they do not heed God’s commandments:
ויקרא כ:כב וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם אֶת כָּל חֻקֹּתַי וְאֶת כָּל מִשְׁפָּטַי וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֹתָם וְלֹא תָקִיא אֶתְכֶם הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי מֵבִיא אֶתְכֶם שָׁמָּה לָשֶׁבֶת בָּהּ.
Lev 20:22 You shall faithfully observe all My laws and all My regulations, lest the land to which I bring you to settle in spew you out.
In short, Israel’s right to the land is contingent upon keeping their covenant with God.
In contrast, the declaration presents the natural right of the people to the land as recognized by a human, international authority – the United Nations – maintaining that their recognition is irrevocable:
הכרה זו של האומות המאוחדות בזכות העם היהודי להקים את מדינתו אינה ניתנת להפקעה.
This recognition by the United Nations of the right of the Jewish people to establish their State is irrevocable.
Secular Zionism and the Bible
The four differences outlined above fit together into a pattern. Ben-Gurion, the driving force behind the Declaration, was a secular Zionist and his reluctance to rely on the biblical notion of divine promise stems from his secular worldview.
Nevertheless, Ben-Gurion was unwilling to ignore the Bible altogether. In fact, Ben-Gurion and other first and second-generation Zionists revived the study of the Bible and improved its status, advancing it as the primary national text designated to replace rabbinic literature, which dominated yeshiva study and which they saw as diaspora literature.
Members of the Zionist movement felt that elevating the Bible was essential in order to cut the bonds of the Jewish people to the diaspora and to re-create an independent national entity in the land. After all, unlike the Talmud, which was written in Babylonia, much of the Bible reflects a period when the people of Israel lived freely under their own governance in the land of Israel.
In a paper delivered at a biblical conference, Ben-Gurion declares:
ההתרחבות המתמדת של חוגי לומדי התנ”ך בארץ היא אחד הגילויים המרנינים והבולטים ביותר של שיבתנו אל עצמנו, הנובעת משיבתנו לציון וקשורה בה ובעצמאות שכבשנו במולדת.
The constant expansion of the circles of students of the Bible in the land is one of the joyous and prominent phenomena of our return to ourselves, stemming from the return to Zion and connected to the land and the independence we had achieved (literally: conquered) in the homeland.
Ben-Gurion later created a Bible study group which met in his home on a biweekly basis, and ventured to write essays on biblical subjects that interested him. Their first publication was a volume of collected essays on the book of Joshua, the book that details the conquest and settlement of the land of Israel.
Ben-Gurion’s commitment to the Bible on one hand and to a secular outlook on the other put him in a bind. The Declaration hearkens back to Israel’s connection to the land in biblical times, but without mentioning God, the major biblical protagonist. Excising God left a glaring void for Ben-Gurion to fill, requiring him to create a different origin narrative than the biblical one. Thus was born Ben-Gurion’s theory of the native Hebrews.
Abraham and the Hebrews: Ben-Gurion’s New Historiography
In most of his biblical musings, Ben-Gurion tried to reconcile over and over again his idea of indigenous origin with the biblical conception of external origin. He asks what prompted Abraham, a native of Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization and one of the two greatest cultural centers of his era, to leave his homeland and move to a peripheral land, Canaan. In line with his veneration of the Bible, he could not simply declare the story of Abraham a myth. Conversely, in line with his secularization of biblical traditions, he could not accept the straightforward biblical answer – because God told him to do so.
To square this circle, Ben-Gurion postulates the existence of a pre-Abrahamic monotheistic people of Hebrews living in Canaan:
עם ישראל או עם העברים נולד בארץ וגדל בארץ, עוד לפני ימי אברהם, כאחד בקרב עמי כנען.
The people of Israel or the Hebrews were born in the land and grew in it, even before the days of Abraham, as one among the Canaanites.
Abraham, who independently came to the same monotheistic conviction, wanted to unite with those indigenous Hebrews who shared his theological belief. This, he suggested, is “the key to all the history of the people of Israel” (המפתח לכל ההיסטוריה של עם ישראל). Ben-Gurion deals with the exodus in a similar manner. When Jacob and his family go down to Egypt, the Hebrews do not join them but remain in the land. Thus, Ben-Gurion does not deny the exodus altogether, but claims that only a small fraction of the people left for Egypt and came back, while the majority remained rooted in the land. Hence the Declaration’s opening claim, “The land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people.”
A Biblical View of Indigenous Origin?
Remarkably, David Ben-Gurion was not the first historiographer to offer an indigenous origin version of Israel’s history as an alternative to the one presented in the Hexateuch. Although Ben-Gurion never noted this, twenty-three hundred years earlier, the book of Chronicles subtly pushed the same idea.
The first nine chapters of Chronicles consist of genealogical lists reflecting the Chronicler’s view of the origin and national development of Israel. The lists skip over any mention of immigration or emigration, even when mentioning important people from the exodus story such as Moses and Aaron (5:29-30), or from the wilderness-wandering and conquest stories, such as Bezalel (2:20), Caleb (2:18-19, 24, 42-53; 4:15), and Joshua (7:27).
In fact, Chronicles contains a handful of anecdotes about minor events that occurred in the land, such as Yaabetz’s request of land from God (4:9-10) or the Reubenites’ battle against the Hagarites in the days of Saul (5:10). These betray the author’s strong interest in the land of Israel.
The most poignant of these anecdotes describes how Ephraim’s sons are killed in a raid by the men of Gath:
דברי הימים א ז:כ וּבְנֵי אֶפְרַיִם… ז:כא … וַהֲרָגוּם אַנְשֵׁי גַת הַנּוֹלָדִים בָּאָרֶץ כִּי יָרְדוּ לָקַחַת אֶת מִקְנֵיהֶם. ז:כבוַיִּתְאַבֵּל אֶפְרַיִם אֲבִיהֶם יָמִים רַבִּים וַיָּבֹאוּ אֶחָיו לְנַחֲמוֹ.
1 Chron 7:20 The sons of Ephraim…7:21 …The men of Gath, born in the land, killed them because they had gone down to take their cattle. 7:22 And Ephraim their father mourned many days, and his brothers came to comfort him.
This intriguing anecdote describes a local skirmish between the sons of Ephraim and the men of Gath “born in the land.” It features Ephraim himself mourning and his brothers consoling him; all this occurs in the land. This anecdote contradicts the central Pentateuchal premise, that Ephraim was born to Joseph in Egypt (Gen 41:50-52) and never stepped foot on the land of Israel.
Chronicles elsewhere describes the settlement of the land as a natural process of expansion by indigenous people who either conquer other locals, such as the Shimonites who conquer the Hamites and Amalekites (4:39-43), or establish new sites, such as Ephraim’s daughter She’era, who founds Lower and Upper Beth-horon and Uzzen-she’erah (7:24).
Joshua son of Nun culminates Ephraim’s genealogical list in a non-descript manner, ignoring the Hexateuch’s story of him as a leader of the conquest (v. 27):
דברי הימים א ז:כה וְרֶפַח בְּנוֹ וְרֶשֶׁף וְתֶלַח בְּנוֹ וְתַחַן בְּנוֹ. ז:כו לַעְדָּן בְּנוֹ עַמִּיהוּד בְּנוֹ אֱלִישָׁמָע בְּנוֹ. ז:כז נוֹן בְּנוֹ יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בְּנוֹ.
1 Chron 7:25 His son Rephah, his son Resheph, his son Telah, his son Tahan, 7:26 his son Ladan, his son Ammihud, his son Elishama, 7:27 his son Non, his son Joshua.
This genealogy and the accompanying account of the killing of Ephraim’s sons by the Gathites implies that Joshua, like Ephraim’s other descendants, was born and raised in the land itself.
Chronicles and the Declaration of Independence
The opening of Chronicles offers an alternative conception of Israel’s origins as an indigenous people. Whether this conception or the dominant biblical conception of Israel’s origins outside the land reflect historical reality is a different question, requiring archaeological and historical evidence, and is outside the scope of this paper.
Whatever the case, reliance on biblical ideology or historiography is a double-edged sword since the Bible often includes conflicting conceptions. In this case, the notion of Israel’s indigenous origins championed in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which contradicts the Bible’s major account, finds precedent in the late biblical Book of Chronicles.
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April 15, 2018
July 16, 2020
Prof. Nili Wazana is a professor at the departments of Bible and the History of the Jewish People and contemporary Judaism at the Bar-Ilan University, where she received her Ph.D. She is also the academic head of their Rothberg School’s graduate program “The Bible and the Ancient Near East” and the former editor of Shnaton: An Annual for Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern Studies. Wazana is the author of All the Boundaries of the Land: The Promised Land in Biblical Thought in Light of the Ancient Near East.
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