Bible Basics

Land of Israel by Benjamin D. Gordon

The "land of Israel" is a biblical term for the small territory of the Near East between the Mediterranean coast and the Jordan Rift Valley. The land is also referred to as Palestine, the southern Levant, southern Syria, the holy land, the promised land, or the land of Canaan. In modern Hebrew, this geographic area can be referred to simply as ha-aretz, “the Land.” A key link in trade routes connecting Near Eastern and Mediterranean civilizations, the region has served as an important gateway between East and West. Its prominence in biblical thought as the traditional homeland of the Jews can obscure the fact that it has been home to a strikingly diverse array of cultures over time.

What geographical features are prominent in the land of Israel?

The land is marked by several geographical niches. Its fertile coastal plain and main transversal valley, the Jezreel, have supported wealthy urban economies in the past. Its highlands have tended to be less prosperous. They consist of Galilee in the north and the West Bank in the center, also known as Samaria and Judea. The central highlands were the traditional area of Israelite settlement in the Iron Age, with the more southerly Judean hills anchored by the city of Jerusalem. In the east is the deep depression called the Jordan Rift Valley, which contains the region’s two large bodies of water—the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea—and its main river, the Jordan. In the south are the Negev and Arabah Deserts and to the east are the Transjordanian highlands. The Judean Desert lies between the central highlands and the Dead Sea.

The earliest archaeological evidence of a people called Israel living in this territory comes from the central highlands in the Iron Age I (1200–1000 BCE). Their very name, Israel, can be translated “El fights for” and suggests a collective oriented around the worship of the Canaanite deity El. By the Iron Age II (1000–586 BCE), two Israelite kingdoms had formed in the highlands: the kingdom of Israel in the north and the kingdom of Judah in the south. The northern kingdom, with its capital at Samaria, would at points reach west to the Carmel coast, north beyond the Jezreel Valley and the Sea of Galilee, and east into Transjordan. The southern kingdom, with its capital at Jerusalem, was smaller and possibly always landlocked. Scholars debate whether the two kingdoms were initially united in the tenth century BCE by a royal house ruling from Jerusalem under David and Solomon, as told in the Deuteronomistic History (e.g., 2Sam 5:5, 2Sam 24:1-9; 1Kgs 4:7-20).

How does the Bible portray the connection between the people and the land of Israel?

The various books of the Hebrew Bible imagine settlement on this particular land as intrinsic to its people’s covenant with God. In Gen 15, God promises Abraham and his descendants a vast territory stretching west of the Euphrates River. Other writings of the Bible reflect idealized visions of the land’s borders too. The Deuteronomistic tradition, for instance, seeks to glorify the past by propagating a mythology of territorial greatness and tribal unity. In Josh 13-19, the text has the early tribes of Israel conquering a vast area, including the Phoenician and Philistine coastal plain and the Transjordan. This tradition also views the occupation of the land as a conditional grant. In other words, God is seen as having given this territory to Israel, as a king might grant land to liberated slaves, on the condition that they observe his law while residing on the land.

The boundaries of the land of Israel in priestly traditions, such as in Num 34:1-12 and Ezek 47:13-20, are similarly idealistic and may have been important for ritual observance. The Holiness Code of Lev 17-26, for example, calls for inhabitants of the land to protect its purity by worshipping God alone, tithing harvests, and giving the land a sabbatical, among other things. The code goes so far as to assert that the land is literally God’s territory (Lev 25:23), an image that recalls the divinely owned land of Near Eastern temple estates. This rhetoric may have encouraged new settlement during the early period of Persian colonial rule over the southern Levant in the late sixth–fifth century BCE. An otherwise relatively impoverished and scarcely populated land might seem more attractive if it were God’s land.

How have later traditions understood the importance of the land of Israel?

The theological importance of the land of Israel persisted in ancient Judaism, though by the late Second Temple period special emphasis was placed on the holiness of Jerusalem and its temple. The description of the holy war against the Greeks in 1 Maccabees, for example, focuses on the cleansing and rededication of the temple as the vital first step in the purification of the land. Efforts were made during this era to expand the borders of the land. For instance, the Hasmonean priest-kings, heirs to the Maccabees, expanded Judean territory southward into Idumea and northward into the heartland of the old kingdom of Israel, capturing Samaria, Jezreel, and Galilee in the late second century BCE. Herod would expand the kingdom of Judea further in the late first century BCE, adding substantial areas in the Transjordan and ruling over the largest territory ever governed by a Jewish regime in antiquity.

The total loss of that territory after the wars with Rome in the first and second centuries CE ushered in a new era of theological discourse on the land of Israel. The rabbis revitalized interest in the borders of the land by calling upon Jews to protect its sanctity through various religious customs. Many of these customs derive from biblical agricultural laws, such as tithing and the sabbatical, and are understood by the rabbis to be applicable only to those living within the land of Israel. Meanwhile, Christians revered the holy land because of its centrality to Old Testament stories and because it was where God was thought to have revealed himself to the world in human form. In the modern era, the Jewish return to the traditional land of Israel provided a means for national survival and self-determination in the face of European atrocities. Visions of a greater land of Israel, inspired by biblical writings, have characterized more radical expressions of Zionism, while belief in the possession of the central highlands as a Jewish birthright lives on in the Israeli settler movement. The concept of the land of Israel thus continues to play a central role in modern international politics.

Benjamin D. Gordon, "Land of Israel", n.p. [cited 27 Jun 2022]. Online:



Benjamin D. Gordon
assistant professor in Religious Studies and Rosenberg-Perlow Fellow in Classical Judaism, University of Pittsburgh

Benjamin D. Gordon is assistant professor in Religious Studies and Rosenberg-Perlow Fellow in Classical Judaism at the University of Pittsburgh. He is the author of Land and Temple: Field Sacralization and the Agrarian Priesthood of Second Temple Judaism (2020) and coeditor of the Architecture, Stratigraphy, and Artifacts of the Western Summit of Sepphoris (2018).

The historical period from the beginning of Western civilization to the start of the Middle Ages.

Related to the religious beliefs connected to Deuteronomy, which emphasized monotheism, the Jerusalem temple, observance of the Law, and the destruction of idolatry.

Together with the Tigris, the Euphrates is one of the two defining rivers of Mesopotamia.

Relating to the dynasty established by Simon Maccabeus that ruled Israel independently from 140-37 B.C.E.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

separate from the ordinary or profane.

Associated with a deity; exhibiting religious importance; set apart from ordinary (i.e. "profane") things.

The stage of development during which humans used iron weapons; in the ancient Near East, approx. 1200 to 500 B.C.E.

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the northern kingdom of Israel during the divided monarchy, or more broadly describing the biblical descendants of Jacob.

The deep valley, with modern Israel and the West Bank on one side and Jordan on the other, through which the Jordan River flows. The valley contains the Dead Sea, the surface of which is the lowest elevation on earth. The Jordan Rift Valley is a continuation of the Great Rift Valley of Africa.

The religion and culture of Jews. It emerged as the descendant of ancient Israelite Religion, and is characterized by monotheism and an adherence to the laws present in the Written Torah (the Bible) and the Oral Torah (Talmudic/Rabbinic tradition).

the southern kingdom of Judah during the divided monarchy or what later became the larger province under imperial control

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the southern kingdom of Judah during the divided monarchy, or what later became the larger province of Judah under imperial control. According to the Bible, the area originally received its name as the tribal territory allotted to Judah, the fourth son of Jacob.

The countries bordering the eastern Mediterranean sea, from the Sinai in Egypt to Aleppo in Syria.

Also called the Hebrew Bible, those parts of the canon that are common to both Jews and Christians. The designation "Old Testament" places this part of the canon in relation to the New Testament, the part of the Bible canonical only to Christians. Because the term "Old Testament" assumes a distinctly Christian perspective, many scholars prefer to use the more neutral "Hebrew Bible," which derives from the fact that the texts of this part of the canon are written almost entirely in Hebrew.

Another name often used for the area of Israel and Judah, derived from the Latin term for the Roman province of Palaestina; ultimately, the name derives from the name of the Philistine people.

Relating to the priests, the people responsible for overseeing the system of religious observance, especially temple sacrifice, depicted in the Hebrew Bible.

The land that Yahweh promised to Abraham in Genesis, also called Canaan.

The means of cleansing oneself of any ritual impurity that would prevent participation in religious observance such as sacrifice at the temple.

religious authorities of Judaism in the period after the destruction of the second temple in 70 C.E.

(rhetorical) The art of persuasion in writing and speech.

Collective ceremonies having a common focus on a god or gods.

The structure built in Jerusalem in 516 B.C.E. on the site of the Temple of Solomon, destroyed by the Babylonians seventy years prior. The Second Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E. by the Romans responding to Jewish rebellion.

The kingdom of Judah, according to the Hebrew Bible ruled by a king in the line of David from the 10th century B.C.E. until its destruction by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E.

Relating to thought about the nature and behavior of God.

Literally "across the Jordan," generally used to refer to the land lying immediately to the east of the Jordan River, which according to the Hebrew Bible includes some Israelite tribal territory, along with the territory of neighboring nations such as Ammon and Moab.

The Transjordan is the region east of the Jordan River in the Southern Levant, described in Numbers 34:15 as home to the tribes of Gad, Reuben, and half of Manasseh. The Transjordan was also home to the Ammonites and the Moabites.

Related to tribes, especially the so-called ten tribes of Israel.

The third division of the Jewish canon, also called by the Hebrew name Ketuvim. The other two divisions are the Torah (Pentateuch) and Nevi'im (Prophets); together the three divisions create the acronym Tanakh, the Jewish term for the Hebrew Bible.

2Sam 5:5

5At Hebron he reigned over Judah seven years and six months; and at Jerusalem he reigned over all Israel and Judah thirty-three years.

2Sam 24:1-9

David's Census of Israel and Judah
1Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go, count the people of ... View more

1Kgs 4:7-20

7 Solomon had twelve officials over all Israel who provided food for the king and his household; each one had to make provision for one month in the year. 8 The ... View more

Gen 15

God's Covenant with Abram
1After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be v ... View more

Josh 13-19

The Parts of Canaan Still Unconquered
1Now Joshua was old and advanced in years; and the Lord said to him, “You are old and advanced in years, and very much of ... View more

Num 34:1-12

34 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 2 “Command the Israelites, and say to them: When you enter the land of Canaan (this is the land that shall fall to you for a ... View more

Ezek 47:13-20

The New Boundaries of the Land
13 Thus says the Lord God: These are the boundaries by which you shall divide the land for inheritance among the twelve tribes of ... View more

Lev 17-26

The Slaughtering of Animals
1The Lord spoke to Moses:2Speak to Aaron and his sons and to all the people of Israel and say to them: This is what the Lord has com ... View more

Lev 25:23

23The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants.

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