Notes on Genesis (xx)

‘Then Joseph said to his brethren, “I am about to die; but God will surely visit you, and bring you out of this land to the land God swore to our fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”’ (Gen 50:24)

The promise of a land has been a theme for most of Genesis. An initial promise that Abraham would be given the land of Canaan (12:7, 13:15) is followed by one that his seed would be multiplied (16:10; 17:2); for his descendants, the land of Canaan will be an everlasting possession (17:8) and they will inherit the cities of their enemies (22:17f); Jacob and his descendants will inherit the land God have to Abraham (28:4). This is the land famously described as flowing with milk and honey (Ex 3:8, 17). But, no less than the relationship of Isaac and Ishmael (see Notes on Genesis (ix)), the notion of the promised land is a point of difference between the three monotheistic religions. For many Jews, the promises in Genesis underwrite in the clearest possible manner the establishment of the State of Israel. For Muslims, the silence of the Qur’an on such a land, despite the attention it pays to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph, makes such territorial claims hard to understand. For Christians, the literal sense of the promised land is, as usual, secondary to what it stands for, and the anticipation of this by the Church:

The River Jordan is chilly and cold

Numbs the body but not the soul

The River Jordan is deep and wide

Milk and honey on the other side.

‘Blessed be the kingdom.’


  • Hi John – questions of land are always fraught, and presumably the promises in Genesis were reported retrospectively. But in Genesis, the Hebrews acquire land both by conquest AND by purchase – Abraham’s purchase at Hebron to bury his wife – and I find this rather curious, almost a tautology. It seems almost like the difference between a shared land title, with other peoples (who we know WERE living in Canaan, and continued to do so) and an exclusive title over Hebron – which still has a particular place in Israeli settler politics, too.

  • Thank you, Marion. At the moment I’m removed from the resources I’d like to look into, but you’re right, it’s almost as if purchases are made that other parts of the Pentateuch suggest were not necessary, and it would be interesting to speculate just what lies behind such tensions in the narrative.

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