The Good Land of Israel
1. A Well-Watered Good Land (Deut 8)
The land of Israel is famously depicted as fertile and filled with water, grains, fruit, and even metals (Deut 8:7-10; note the poetic presentation):
כִּי יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ מְבִיאֲךָ אֶל אֶרֶץ טוֹבָה
For YHWH your God is bringing you into a good land,
אֶרֶץ נַחֲלֵי מָיִם עֲיָנֹת וּתְהֹמֹת יֹצְאִים בַּבִּקְעָה וּבָהָר.
A land of flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills,
אֶרֶץ חִטָּה וּשְׂעֹרָה וְגֶפֶן וּתְאֵנָה וְרִמּוֹן
A land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates,
אֶרֶץ זֵית שֶׁמֶן וּדְבָשׁ.
A land of olive trees and honey,
אֶרֶץ אֲשֶׁר לֹא בְמִסְכֵּנֻת תֹּאכַל בָּהּ לֶחֶם לֹא תֶחְסַר כֹּל בָּהּ
A land where you may eat food without poverty, where you will lack nothing,
אֶרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אֲבָנֶיהָ בַרְזֶל וּמֵהֲרָרֶיהָ תַּחְצֹב נְחֹשֶׁת.
A land whose stones are iron and from whose hills you may mine copper.
וְאָכַלְתָּ וְשָׂבָעְתָּ וּבֵרַכְתָּ אֶת יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ עַל הָאָרֶץ הַטֹּבָה אֲשֶׁר נָתַן לָךְ.
You will eat your fill and thank YHWH your God for the good land that he has given you. (NRSV, adjusted)
The goodness of the ארץ טובה “a good land” appears to inhere in its essence, similar to the goodness of the יטבתה (“Yotvata”) oasis of the wilderness journey in Deut 10:7 (note the same root, “good,” in the place name), which, as here (v. 7), is described as ארץ נחלי מים, a “land of flowing streams.” And when one eats from the land’s goodness in fullness and satiety one can only respond in one way: “You will thank the Lord your God for the good land that he has given you” (see appendix below).
Described as a Garden of Eden
The description of the land as a fertile and self-sustaining oasis with water and food aplenty, blessed with iron and copper is reminiscent of the Garden of Eden in Gen 2. Eden is irrigated by underground waters and flowing rivers (Gen 2:5-6, 10), is associated with precious stones (Gen 2:11-12; Ezek 28:13) and is full of fruit trees (Gen 2:9).
Notably, the Garden of Eden was continuously watered from below by an underground stream and was not dependent on rain (Gen 2:6, 10):
בראשית ב:ו וְאֵד יַעֲלֶה מִן הָאָרֶץ וְהִשְׁקָה אֶת כָּל פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה.
Gen 2:6 A stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground–
ב:י וְנָהָר יֹצֵא מֵעֵדֶן לְהַשְׁקוֹת אֶת הַגָּן
2:10 A river flows out of Eden to water the garden…
Eden was thus a kind of oasis of fertility that produced plenty of fruits on a continuous basis and required much less labor than field agriculture (Gen 3:17-19).
Egypt versus Canaan in Genesis
Surprisingly, however, in Genesis, it is Egypt that is pictured as a well-watered “Garden of Eden,” not Israel. The area of Sodom before its devastation is described as:
בראשית יג:י …כֻלָּהּ מַשְׁקֶה… כְּגַן יְ־הוָה כְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם
Gen 13:10 …well-watered everywhere… like the garden of YHWH, like the land of Egypt….
Repeatedly throughout Genesis, Egypt has water and food, whereas Canaan does not:
- Abraham went down to Egypt because of a drought (Gen 12).
- Isaac, too, had to leave because of drought, though God thwarted his intention to go down to Egypt (Gen 26).
- The story of Joseph and his brothers relates how the entire clan of Jacob left the land of Canaan and settled in Egypt because of drought.
In fact, none of the land promises in Genesis mention anything particularly positive about the quality of the land. The land is never said, for example, to be a “good land,” or one that “flows with milk and honey.”
Genesis does not idealize the land in any way; Deuteronomy, in contrast, pictures the land as being a well-watered place with streams and springs, like Egypt, Sodom (before the destruction), and the Garden of Eden.
2. A Land Watered by Rain (Deut 11)
A different description of the land, less hyperbolic but still positive, is offered in Deut 11, where the land is contrasted with the land of Egypt:
דברים יא:י כִּי הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה בָא שָׁמָּה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ לֹא כְאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם הִוא אֲשֶׁר יְצָאתֶם מִשָּׁם אֲשֶׁר תִּזְרַע אֶת זַרְעֲךָ וְהִשְׁקִיתָ בְרַגְלְךָ כְּגַן הַיָּרָק.
Deut 11:10 For the land that you are about to enter to occupy is not like the land of Egypt, from which you have come, where you sow your seed and irrigate by foot like a vegetable garden.
יא:יא וְהָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם עֹבְרִים שָׁמָּה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ אֶרֶץ הָרִים וּבְקָעֹת לִמְטַר הַשָּׁמַיִם תִּשְׁתֶּה מָּיִם.
11:11 But the land that you are crossing over to occupy is a land of hills and valleys, watered by rain from the sky.
Whereas the land of Egypt is flat and irrigated by the Nile, Israel’s land is hilly and dependent upon the rains. Thus, at Deut 11:10-12, the author concedes the contrast between the land of Israel, with its dependence on rainfall, and Egypt’s ready water supply.
This contrast might be seen as portraying the land in a relatively unfavorable light: A land of hills and valleys would be harder to work with than a flat land that is regularly irrigated by the Nile, and does not depend on upon rainfall.
However, this text depicts Israel’s land in a superior position. Although it is not entirely clear what the phrase והשקית ברגלך “irrigate by foot” refers to, the general point of the text seems clear enough. Agriculture in Egypt demands extensive human labor in terms of irrigation, since water has to be transported from one place to another. This type of labor is not needed in Israel since God does the irrigation work by sending his rains, and the waters flow by themselves from the mountains to the valleys, where the food is grown.
God’s Eyes Are on the Land
What is more, the text continues by saying that God has a special relationship to this land. His eyes are continuously fixated on it:
יא:יב אֶרֶץ אֲשֶׁר יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ דֹּרֵשׁ אֹתָהּ תָּמִיד עֵינֵי יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בָּהּ מֵרֵשִׁית הַשָּׁנָה וְעַד אַחֲרִית שָׁנָה.
11:12 a land that YHWH your God looks after. The eyes of YHWH your God are always on it, from the beginning of the year to the end of the year.
The straightforward meaning of “a land which YHWH your God is doresh tamid” refers to God’s unending caring for and attending to the needs of the land. This meaning of ד.ר.ש appears in a number of places in the Bible, such as:
…כִּי נִדָּחָה קָרְאוּ לָךְ
צִיּוֹן הִיא דֹּרֵשׁ אֵין לָהּ.
…Because they have called you an outcast:
“It is Zion; no one cares for her!”
הַבֵּיט יָמִין וּרְאֵה
וְאֵין לִי מַכִּיר
אָבַד מָנוֹס מִמֶּנִּי
אֵין דּוֹרֵשׁ לְנַפְשִׁי
Look on my right hand and see—
there is no one who takes notice of me;
no refuge remains to me;
no one cares for me.
הַיּוֹם הַהוּא יְהִי חֹשֶׁךְ
אַל יִדְרְשֵׁהוּ אֱלוֹהַּ מִמָּעַל
וְאַל תּוֹפַע עָלָיו נְהָרָה.
Let that day be darkness!
May God above not attend to it,
or light shine on it.
Similarly, that the reference to YHWH’s eyes being on the land can mean watching over or taking care of the land fits with the use of this phrase in some other biblical passages, such as:
הִנֵּה עֵין יְ־הוָה אֶל יְרֵאָיו
Truly the eye of YHWH is on those who fear him,
On those who hope in his steadfast love.
עֵינֵי יְ־הוָה אֶל צַדִּיקִים
וְאָזְנָיו אֶל שַׁוְעָתָם
The eyes of YHWH are on the righteous,
And his ears are open to their cry.
In sum, the land of Israel, because it is dependent on rainfall, is superior and preferable to the land of Egypt both because there is no need to bring water over from rivers, and because God perpetually watches over the land to make sure it prospers.
Contrasting Positive Pictures
Deuteronomy presents two poetic descriptions of the land at some tension with each other. Deut 8:7-10 depicts the land as well-watered, as if it were another Egypt or Eden, and makes no mention of dependence on rain; Deut 11:10-11 describes Israel as watered by rain, in contrast to Egypt, and makes no mention of rivers or springs.
Perhaps these texts present two Israelite strategies for dealing with their “inferiority complex” with regard to their land: one approach denies that the land is any different than the Nile Delta and the other admits the difference but presents it as an advantage. In any event, both texts clearly reflect the common concern of their authors to present the land in a uniquely positive, indeed idyllic light.
Deuteronomy’s Use of Old Sources
Why would the author of Deuteronomy offer these two different images of the land? Most likely, he is incorporating various preexisting materials into his text. Scholars have long noted that these two descriptions of the land have a more poetic feel than the surrounding verses and were likely well-known poetic descriptions of the land. The great German biblical scholar, Gerhard Von Rad (1901-1971) writes concerning Deut 8:
If we do not want to suppose that the Deuteronomic preacher has passed of his own accord into the style of a hymn, we may conjecture that there really were such hymn-like poems about the land which the preacher took as his model, or even quoted.
Understanding these passages as reworkings of originally independent texts that were incorporated into Deuteronomy helps explain another odd feature of these passages, namely that these unambiguously positive descriptions of the land are imbedded in texts whose main point is to threaten the Israelites with punishment if they do not obey YHWH’s commands.
The Land as a Source of Temptation and the Threat of Exile (Deut 8)
The description of the good land in Deut 8 is followed by a warning:
דברים ח:יב פֶּן תֹּאכַל וְשָׂבָעְתָּ וּבָתִּים טוֹבִים תִּבְנֶה וְיָשָׁבְתָּ. ח:יג וּבְקָרְךָ וְצֹאנְךָ יִרְבְּיֻן וְכֶסֶף וְזָהָב יִרְבֶּה לָּךְ וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר לְךָ יִרְבֶּה.ח:יד וְרָם לְבָבֶךָ וְשָׁכַחְתָּ אֶת יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ… ח:יזוְאָמַרְתָּ בִּלְבָבֶךָ כֹּחִי וְעֹצֶם יָדִי עָשָׂה לִי אֶת הַחַיִל הַזֶּה. ח:יח וְזָכַרְתָּ אֶת יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ כִּי הוּא הַנֹּתֵן לְךָ כֹּחַ לַעֲשׂוֹת חָיִל לְמַעַן הָקִים אֶת בְּרִיתוֹ אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע לַאֲבֹתֶיךָ כַּיּוֹם הַזֶּה.
Deut 8:12 When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, 8:13 and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, 8:14 then do not exalt yourself, forgetting YHWH your God …8:17 Do not say to yourself, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.” 8:18 But remember YHWH your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as he is doing today.
In other words, while the land of promise is a blessing of bounty, it is now, for this very reason, a source of temptation as well. The passage then ends with a clear threat:
דברים ח:יט וְהָיָה אִם שָׁכֹחַ תִּשְׁכַּח אֶת יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ וְהָלַכְתָּ אַחֲרֵי אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים וַעֲבַדְתָּם וְהִשְׁתַּחֲוִיתָ לָהֶם הַעִדֹתִי בָכֶם הַיּוֹם כִּי אָבֹד תֹּאבֵדוּן.
Deut 8:19 If you do forget YHWH your God and follow other gods to serve them or bow down to them, I warn you this day that you shall certainly perish.
This same constellation of concepts, i.e., bounty leading to temptation, sin, and ultimately punishment, appears as well in Haazinu (Deut 32) and in Hosea 13 (see appendix).
Reinterpreting God’s Relationship to the Land (Deut 11)
Similarly Deut 11, well-known as the second paragraph of the Shema, continues and warns Israel:
דברים יא:יג וְהָיָה אִם שָׁמֹעַ תִּשְׁמְעוּ אֶל מִצְוֹתַי אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם הַיּוֹם לְאַהֲבָה אֶת יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם וּלְעָבְדוֹ בְּכָל לְבַבְכֶם וּבְכָל נַפְשְׁכֶם.יא:יד וְנָתַתִּי מְטַר אַרְצְכֶם בְּעִתּוֹ יוֹרֶה וּמַלְקוֹשׁ וְאָסַפְתָּ דְגָנֶךָ וְתִירֹשְׁךָ וְיִצְהָרֶךָ. יא:טו וְנָתַתִּי עֵשֶׂב בְּשָׂדְךָ לִבְהֶמְתֶּךָ וְאָכַלְתָּ וְשָׂבָעְתָּ.
Deut 11:13 If you will heed his every commandment that I am commanding you today—loving YHWH your God, and serving him with all your heart and with all your soul—11:14 then he will give the rain for your land in its season, the early rain and the later rain, and you will gather in your grain, your wine, and your oil; 11:15 and he will give grass in your fields for your livestock, and you will eat your fill.
Read together with this text, when Deut 11:12 states that God unceasingly fixes his attention on the land, it refers not to the land itself as much as to its inhabitants. And the word דרש is interpreted not in the sense of “care for” (as above) but in the sense of “investigate,” as often in Deuteronomy (13:15; 17:4, 9; 19:18). Thus, the land of hills and valleys is indeed “watered by rain from the sky” (v. 11), but only when God’s investigation shows that the land’s inhabitants obey God’s laws. When they do not, God turns off the heavenly faucet:
יא:טז הִשָּׁמְרוּ לָכֶם פֶּן יִפְתֶּה לְבַבְכֶם וְסַרְתֶּם וַעֲבַדְתֶּם אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים וְהִשְׁתַּחֲוִיתֶם לָהֶם. יא:יז וְחָרָה אַף יְ־הוָה בָּכֶם וְעָצַר אֶת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְלֹא יִהְיֶה מָטָר וְהָאֲדָמָה לֹא תִתֵּן אֶת יְבוּלָהּ וַאֲבַדְתֶּם מְהֵרָה מֵעַל הָאָרֶץ הַטֹּבָה אֲשֶׁר יְ־הוָה נֹתֵן לָכֶם
11:16 Take care, or you will be seduced into turning away, serving other gods and worshiping them, 11:17 for then the anger of YHWH will be kindled against you and he will shut up the heavens, so that there will be no rain and the land will yield no fruit; then you will perish quickly off the good land that YHWH is giving you.
This reinterpretation suggests that the land does not offer, unconditionally, an unceasing bounty, but that it stands directly underneath God’s magnifying glass. Since God’s investigation is conducted at every moment, Israel must be extremely diligent with its loyalty to God if it wants to enjoy the land’s fertility.
In this way, the author of Deut 11:13-17 converted the earlier implicitly unconditional promise of bounty and fertility into an expression of God’s conditional commitment to the fertility of the land and to Israel’s presence in that land; indeed, Israel could, if it disobeyed, “perish quickly off the good land that YHWH is giving you” (verse 17).
Explaining the Exile
This reinterpretation of God’s relationship with the land may have been spurred by the destruction of the Northern Kingdom in the late eighth century, approximately a century before the main section of Deuteronomy was probably composed. Such optimistic poems describing the unending bounty of the land and God’s eternal watch over it would have rang as painfully untrue to the remnants of Israel and their Judahite brothers who lived for almost a century under Assyrian domination. The reinterpretation of the promises as conditional tempered optimism with historical reality.
Eventually, this idea helped exiled Judeans explain the loss of their own land as a result of their religious failings. Poems that began as simple encomiums to the well-watered or rain-filled land of bounty granted to Israel by their God became didactic texts in Deuteronomy, explaining why the Israelites lost their land and how they might get it back, namely by keeping God’s commandments and remembering that bounty is never unconditional, but comes from good behavior.
Is Satiety a Temptation or Unambiguously Positive
As noted above, the idea that Israel’s satiety leads to forgetting God, and ultimately to punishment is found in other biblical texts. The song of Haazinu (Deut 32) tells how YHWH brought Israel into the land. It then continues:
דברים לב:יג יַרְכִּבֵהוּ עַל בָּמֳתֵי אָרֶץ
וַיֹּאכַל תְּנוּבֹת שָׂדָי
וַיֵּנִקֵהוּ דְבַשׁ מִסֶּלַע
וְשֶׁמֶן מֵחַלְמִישׁ צוּר.
לב:יד חֶמְאַת בָּקָר וַחֲלֵב צֹאן
עִם חֵלֶב כָּרִים
וְאֵילִים בְּנֵי בָשָׁן וְעַתּוּדִים
עִם חֵלֶב כִּלְיוֹת חִטָּה
וְדַם עֵנָב תִּשְׁתֶּה חָמֶר.
לב:טו וַיִּשְׁמַן יְשֻׁרוּן וַיִּבְעָט
שָׁמַנְתָּ עָבִיתָ כָּשִׂיתָ
וַיִּטֹּשׁ אֱלוֹהַ עָשָׂהוּ
וַיְנַבֵּל צוּר יְשֻׁעָתוֹ.
Deut 32:13 He set him atop the highlands,
To feast on the yield of the earth;
He fed him honey from the crag,
And oil from the flinty rock,
32:14 Curd of kine and milk of flocks;
With the best of lambs,
And rams of Bashan, and he-goats;
With the very finest wheat –
And foaming grape-blood was your drink.
32:15 So Jeshurun grew fat and kicked –
You grew fat and gross and coarse –
He forsook the God who made him
And spurned the Rock of his support.
This forgetting of YHWH brings about Israel’s punishment:
דברים לב:כג אַסְפֶּה עָלֵימוֹ רָעוֹת
חִצַּי אֲכַלֶּה בָּם.
לב:כד מְזֵי רָעָב וּלְחֻמֵי רֶשֶׁף
וְקֶטֶב מְרִירִי וְשֶׁן בְּהֵמוֹת
עִם חֲמַת זֹחֲלֵי עָפָר.
Deut 32:23 I will sweep misfortunes on them,
Use up My arrows on them:
32:24 Wasting famine, ravaging plague,
Deadly pestilence, and fanged beasts
Will I let loose against them,
With venomous creepers in dust.
A similar constellation appears in Hosea: 13:
הושע יג:ה אֲנִי יְדַעְתִּיךָ בַּמִּדְבָּר
יג:ו כְּמַרְעִיתָם וַיִּשְׂבָּעו
שָׂבְעוּ וַיָּרָם לִבָּם
עַל כֵּן שְׁכֵחוּנִי.
Hos 13:5 It was I who looked after you in the wilderness,
in the land of drought.
13:6 When I fed them, they were satisfied;
they were satisfied, and their heart was proud;
therefore they forgot me.
The Israelites are in a land of drought when God finds them. He looks after them and satisfies Israel’s thirst and hunger, only to have them forget him. This leads, inevitably, to God’s vengeance:
יג:ז וָאֱהִי לָהֶם כְּמוֹ שָׁחַל
כְּנָמֵר עַל דֶּרֶךְ אָשׁוּר.
יג:ח אֶפְגְּשֵׁם כְּדֹב שַׁכּוּל
וְאֶקְרַע סְגוֹר לִבָּם
וְאֹכְלֵם שָׁם כְּלָבִיא
חַיַּת הַשָּׂדֶה תְּבַקְּעֵם.
13:7 So I am become like a lion to them,
Like a leopard I lurk on the way;
13:8 Like a bear robbed of her young I attack them
And rip open the casing of their hearts;
I will devour them there like a lion,
The beasts of the field shall mangle them.
These sources, like those in Deut 8 and 11 in their final form, emphasize the dangers of satiety. When Israel has all they need, the forget God, and then God punishes them.
Blessing as the Reaction to Bounty
The idea that Israel’s reaction to bounty will be to forget God contrasts sharply with the original form of Deut 8:10 that Israel will eat to satiety and turn to God in thanksgiving. In other words, in this conception, riches, plenty, and satiety are a straightforward and unambiguous blessing from God, which either supports religious piety, or, at the very least, in no way undermines it.
This concept is implicit in many biblical texts. For example, in Joel 2:24-26 we read,
יואל ב:כד וּמָלְאוּ הַגֳּרָנוֹת בָּר וְהֵשִׁיקוּ הַיְקָבִים תִּירוֹשׁ וְיִצְהָר… ב:כווַאֲכַלְתֶּם אָכוֹל וְשָׂבוֹעַ וְהִלַּלְתֶּם אֶת שֵׁם יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם…
Joel 2:24 The threshing floors shall be full of grain, the vats shall overflow with wine and oil… 2:26 You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of YHWH your God…
It may also be noted that one never finds the idea that God tests Israel or individuals by giving them abundance and fullness. It is only through hardship that God tests loyalty in the Hebrew Bible. It is only in Ben Sirah 31:7-13 and later Jewish biblical exegesis that one finds the idea that God tests through abundance.
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Prof. Rabbi David Frankel is Associate Professor of Bible at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, where he teaches M.A. and rabbinical students. He did his Ph.D. at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem under the direction of Prof. Moshe Weinfeld, and is the author or The Murmuring Stories of the Priestly School (VTSupp 89) and The Land of Canaan and the Destiny of Israel (Eisenbrauns).
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