Is it right to divide the Promised Land?

I write as someone who believes God, in his love, has brought Israel back to her ancient homeland and has a purpose for her, and all Jewish people, in Jesus the Messiah. (I also believe God loves the Palestinian people, cares about their welfare and longs for them too to follow Jesus).

Some Christians believe that after the Cross and Resurrection God now deals with the whole world and has no more special purpose for the Jewish people or any physical land, particularly the land of Israel. They say the church has replaced the Jewish people (hence ‘replacement theology’). This is a very neat and tidy view but I do not believe it is in harmony with the New Testament.

Jesus says of the Jewish people in Luke 21:24 “They will fall by the sword and will be taken as prisoners to all the nations [this happened from AD 70 onwards]. Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.” In harmony with the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) he was predicting an End Times return to the land.

When the disciples asked Jesus after the resurrection “‘Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’ (Acts 1:6) he didn’t say: ‘You’ve totally misunderstood. I’ve finished with a physical land and kingdom, I’m only interested in a spiritual kingdom throughout the whole world.” No, he said: “‘It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority.” The direct implication of this reply is that he would restore Israel but they were not to speculate on when he would do it. Rather they were to get on with world evangelism in the power of the Spirit.

(Later Paul taught that God had not forsaken the Jewish people but that there would be a future massive turning of the Jewish people to Jesus – Rom 11:11-31 – but this does not refer to the land).

Someone may say that the Luke 21 and Acts 6 passages are very short and isolated but we must not drive a wedge between the Old and New Testaments. The Old Testament prophesies an End Times return to the land.

However, some Christians believe that because God promised the land to Abraham for the Jewish people it is wrong to support any division of the land to achieve the two-state solution with the Palestinians. There are various issues to be considered;

1. The “Promised Land” included much of what is now Syria, Jordan and Lebanon.

In the original promise to Abraham God said: “To your descendants I give this land, from the Wadi of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates” (Gen 15:18). This is thought to mean between the Wadi al-Arish on the Egyptian border in Northern Sinai to the Euphrates in Northern Syria, fairly near Aleppo. The only time Israel has controlled virtually the whole of this territory is in the time of Solomon (although some dispute that Solomon controlled the whole territory since, for example, the Philistines seemed to retain their independence and Damascus was controlled by Rezon).[i]

So Israel has had the whole of the Promised Land for only some 40 years during the last 4000 years, i.e. 1% of the time. There are several implications:

It has not seemed too important in God’s purposes for Israel over the last few thousand years for it to possess the whole of the Promised Land.

It is difficult to imagine Israel controlling much of what is now Syria, Jordan and Lebanon (which is not to say God could not fulfil the original promise again if it is ultimately important to his purposes – even if the two state solution is worked out).

During the 1900 years when the Jewish people had no homeland God worked out his purposes of preserving them, despite much persecution, and of ultimately providing a very necessary relatively safe homeland for them at the end of that period, especially after the Holocaust.

So it seems clear that God’s purposes for Israel are not frustrated by their not possessing the whole of the Promised Land.

(We should note in passing that God made it clear that possession of the land was conditional on obedience, Num 14:24-36; Deut 4:25-27; 11:16-17; Josh 23:15-16; 1 Kings 9:6-9; Neh 1:8; Jer 7:3-7. It is interesting that Jer 7:6-7 states: “ If you do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, ….. 7then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave to your ancestors for ever and ever.” See also Jer 9:13-16; Ezk 33:23-26).

2. Israel is not obeying the law which is a condition of possessing the promised land

In Leviticus 25 the Lord commands Israel to observe a “Sabbath year” for the land every seventh year. There should be no sowing or pruning but people may eat what grows by itself. He also commands that every 50th year should be a “Year of Jubilee” when everyone is to return to their own property. Land is to be returned to its original owner (which means land “sold” is actually conveyed on an up to 50-year lease arrangement. Also debts are to be cancelled. The penalties for not obeying these (and other) laws are severe and include exile among the nations (Lev 26:33). Those who argue that the divine promise of the whole land to Israel must be strictly observed must surely argue that the accompanying divine commands must also be strictly observed. But Israel does not follow the Jubilee year law. The rabbis argue that it is impossible in modern Israel to know who the original owners are, but surely, on the analogy of ancient Israel when they first took over the land from the Canaanites, they could call the Jewish owners in 1948, when Israel took over from the Palestinians, the original owners. Since Israel is not observing this divine commandment because they are in a new situation since 1948 it does not seem unreasonable to argue that only having part of the promised land (and allowing the two-state solution) is also acceptable in the new situation since 1948, especially as the penalty for not obeying the commandment includes exile. Only having part of the promised land is far preferable to exile.

3. Israel has a God-given responsibility towards the Palestinians

Some Christians concentrate almost exclusively on God saying to the Jewish people that he has promised them the land. But that is not the only thing he has said to the Jewish people. Equally important is what he has said about justice and loving one’s neighbour.

God commands us all to love foreigners, people from another tribe, race, social or religious background as ourselves, to treat them as our native-born and help them where necessary: “When foreigners reside among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigners residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God” (Lev 19.33-34). “Cursed is the man who withholds justice from the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow” (Deut 27: 17, 19).

God’s law applies to everyone, including Palestinians, but we are thinking here of the welfare of Israel so we must stress Israel’s responsibility to God. God rules out unjustified and indiscriminate violence, such as Palestinian suicide attacks or irresponsible Israeli attacks which can be expected to injure or kill innocent civilians. It also calls for honesty and reliability in political and economic co-operation or negotiation. Justice also requires the two people groups to respect the national concerns of each other – the Israeli need of a secure homeland and the Palestinian yearning for their own state.

Zionists need to realize that the same Scriptures which they believe foretell the final return of the Jewish people to the land also strongly call Israel to justice. By the nature of the situation, Israel has much greater power and influence than the Palestinians. Consequently it has greater moral responsibility.

The Jewish (Hebrew) Scriptures show that God requires Israel, in its relationship with the Palestinians, to:

  • Regard Palestinians (and Israeli Arabs) as loved by God as much as they themselves are.
  •  Care for the welfare of the Palestinian people
  •  Treat Palestinians as they would fellow-Israelis, as far as practically possible.
  •  Use only justified violence against legitimate Palestinian targets.
  •  Act justly in all financial matters to do with the Palestinians.
  •  Respect Palestinian land rights.
  •  Protect the livelihood of Palestinians.
  •  Be generous towards the poor and needy.
  •  Uphold justice for Palestinians in the court system.
  •  Provide compensation where Palestinians have been treated unjustly.
  •  Avoid humiliating Palestinians.
  •  Avoid maltreating and humiliating Palestinian prisoners.

If Zionists (Jewish and Christian) love Israel they should, where possible, urge Israel to fulfil these biblical obligations. If God has brought the Jewish people back to the land it is partly so that they can practice justice and righteousness. So Israel has to take seriously the yearning of the Palestinians for their own state.

4. The single-state solution is not really viable for Jewish Israelis

It might seem ideal to those who feel strongly about Israel possessing the whole of the Promised Land. But the Jewish people are, understandably, very concerned about their security. They have suffered centuries of persecution, culminating in the Holocaust. Anti-Semitism is, sadly, alive and well in the world today. Some nations and political groups are dedicated to the destruction of Israel. So the Israelis see it as vital that they are in control of their own country and its security systems. However there are already some 1.5 million Arab Israelis (20% of the Israeli population). If Israel were to incorporate the 3.76 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, and give them citizenship, that would mean an Arab population of over 5 million which is almost equal to the Jewish population. Given that the Arab birthrate is higher than the Jewish birthrate, very soon, if Israel remained a democracy, the majority of the population would be Arab. That would be the end of a Jewish (controlled) state, a fearful prospect for Jewish Israelis. Christians could hardly support Israel becoming undemocratic, let alone an apartheid society with Palestinians as second-class citizens, as this would be against God’s law.

5. If Israel does not make peace with the Palestinians the world will turn against her

This is already beginning to happen because of the peace process being frozen in the last two years. It has to be a concern for genuine friends of Israel. Israel is becoming isolated at a time when the Arab Spring in the surrounding countries seems to be turning into an Arab winter with hard-line Islamists taking power. Some Christians might say that Scripture foretells such a turning against Israel. But it is important for Israel not to bring unnecessary or premature trouble on herself just because of some ‘prophetic’ resignation or fatalism. Rather she should act in the right way, in obedience to God.

But what about Joel 3:1-3? Doesn’t that show God’s condemnation on those who divide the Promised Land? God says through Joel: “In those days and at that time, when I restore the fortunes of Judah and Jerusalem, I will gather all nations and bring them down to the Valley of Jehoshaphat.There I will put them on trial for what they did to my inheritance, my people Israel, because they scattered my people among the nations and divided up my land. They cast lots for my people and traded boys for prostitutes; they sold girls for wine to drink.”

Verse 2 needs to be seen in context. It is referring to a time when the nations scatter the people of Israel among the nations and abuse them like slaves, then divide up the land. What happened in the 20th century is the opposite of this. The world, through the UN, provided a homeland for the scattered people of Israel and facilitated their return to that land, or at least to part of the Promised Land, which they had not possessed for 2000 years. The Joel passage cannot therefore be applied to the present situation and to the prospect of Israel (not the nations) giving land to the Palestinians who already live in that land.


It seems clear to me that, in view of God’s faithfulness to Israel despite her not having the whole of the Promised Land throughout most of history and not having a land at all for many centuries, we need to take the way of faith in our thinking. God has shown with abundant clarity that he can fulfill his promises to Israel despite all the anti-Semitism and persecution and, one might add, her rejection of God’s Messiah. The way of faith includes obeying what Scripture teaches about justice and loving one’s neighbor, which must be applied to foreigners and those from another people group. It means trusting God to protect Israel (although this does not, of course, rule out taking proper precautions). The two-state solution seems the best for Israel as well as the Palestinians, although I don’t think it will mean an end to all danger and strife. But Israel will regain support from powerful allies against those seeking to destroy her. If it is God’s purpose for her ultimately to have more of the Promised Land, God is not limited by Israel agreeing in the near future to the Palestinians having their own state. One thing is certain, he would reward her obedience.

© Tony Higton

[i] 1 Kings 4:21 “Solomon ruled over all the kingdoms from the River Euphrates to the land of the Philistines, as far as the border of Egypt. These countries brought tribute and were Solomon’s subjects all his life.” 2 Chron 9:26 “He ruled over all the kings from the River Euphrates to the land of the Philistines, as far as the border of Egypt.” Some interpret this as meaning Solomon did not control the Philistine territories and that the Philistines kept their independence.

See also 1 Kings 11:23f “God raised up against Solomon another adversary, Rezon son of Eliada, who had fled from his master, Hadadezer king of Zobah. When David destroyed Zobah’s army, Rezon gathered a band of men around him and became their leader; they went to Damascus, where they settled and took control. Rezon was Israel’s adversary as long as Solomon lived, adding to the trouble caused by Hadad. So Rezon ruled in Aram and was hostile towards Israel.” Damascus was within the territory ruled by Solomon.