God’s Failed Land Promise

In the early chapters of Genesis, Yahweh makes a sweeping promise to Abraham, forefather of the Jewish people:

“In the same day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, Unto thy seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates.”

—Genesis 15:18

As I’ve mentioned in the past, this was no small matter: the land that God promised to Abraham would encompass most or all of the modern nations of Israel, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. If the Jewish people had ever controlled this much territory, they would have had an empire to rival the mightiest powers of the Ancient Near East. But now I have an inconvenient question: Did the Jewish people ever control this much territory? Did they ever get what God promised they would have?

The archaeological evidence shows clearly that the answer is no. Although the monarchy of David – described by the Bible as the most glorious era of ancient Israel – apparently did exist, it was a relatively small and insignificant kingdom even by the standards of the day. It never controlled all the land from the Nile to the Euphrates. We have abundant evidence of the great empires that did exist in this region, whether Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian or Roman: the cities they built, the monuments they erected, the inscriptions they left behind. An Israelite empire would be equally easy to find in the archaeological record if it had ever existed, and the total lack of historical evidence can only imply that it never did.

And after David and Solomon’s reign, even the Bible says that things went rapidly downhill. Solomon’s son was an incompetent ruler who caused the kingdom to split apart, and the divided Israelite tribes were conquered by larger powers and scattered across the face of the earth. The modern state of Israel wasn’t established until the 20th century, and it still comes nowhere close to controlling all the land that God promised to Abraham.

For almost four thousand years, then, God’s land promise has been unfulfilled. Considering that the land he promised is now occupied by millions of other people with a decidedly hostile outlook toward the Jews, it seems unlikely that Israel will be able to control it any time soon. (The biblical solution – military invasion and genocide – doesn’t seem to be a prospect today, due to several millennia of progress in humanity’s moral sentiments.) And if you believe the evangelical Christians who insist that the Rapture is due to occur very soon and the end of the world shortly thereafter, the time when this prophecy could be fulfilled is rapidly dwindling. And even if Israel did come to own all this land through some bizarre chain of circumstances, would it really count as “fulfilling” a promise if that which was promised is withheld for hundreds of generations and thousands of years? Wouldn’t it, in fact, be more accurate to say that this is a failed biblical promise?

The most common Christian apologist explanation for this prophetic failure is that God’s covenant with Abraham was conditional, and when the Israelites disobeyed his laws, he took away the land he had promised them as punishment. Unfortunately for them, the Bible itself forecloses this explanation. It states clearly that even though the Israelites were wicked, God still intended to give them the land, in order to keep the promise he made to Abraham:

“Not for thy righteousness, or for the uprightness of thine heart, dost thou go to possess their land: but for the wickedness of these nations the Lord thy God doth drive them out from before thee, and that he may perform the word which the Lord sware unto thy fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”

—Deuteronomy 9:5

The only rational conclusion is that God has not “performed the word which he swore”, because there is no God who shows special favor to the Israelites. This land claim, allegedly a divinely given promise, was in reality just a piece of pious self-congratulation by ancient Israelite scribes who sought to write a self-fulfilling prophecy. They thought that if they could convince their countrymen that victory was guaranteed, that would give them the determination to turn that belief into reality. But their gambit didn’t succeed, and millennia later, the Bible’s failed land promise stands as proof of the very human and fallible origins of that book.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • CzarGarrett

    One might think that a omniscient deity would have foreseen the whole Jewish vs Palestinian State issue and told the Jews that their Promised Land was somewhere else, like Wyoming.

  • Ritchie

    “Wouldn’t it, in fact, be more accurate to say that this is a failed biblical promise?”

    Surely if it was, it would merely be one of many?

    Do I sense another essay for ebonmusings coming on…? :)

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    This reminds me of a post I did in which I pointed out that it would have been better for the Jews if God had given them Egypt. After all, it has a fertile river to sustain agriculture to support a large population, and it is surrounded on both sides by desert, which offers natural barriers to invasion. And besides, if God allegedly killed the first born sons of every Egyptian, it wouldn’t be that much more of a stretch to simply smite all the Egyptians and leave the Israelites in control of the land. My other alternative was the island of Cyprus, which would again offer the Israelites protection from invasion and allowed them to worship their god without foreign interference.

    Instead, what does this supposedly omniscient being do? He puts them in a place vulnerable to invasion from either Egypt or whatever ascendant power existed in Mesopotamia. The Biblical God gets an F in geography.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Don’t Muslims claim to also be the “seed of Abraham,” through his first-born son Ismail?

  • http://1939to1945.blogspot.com NoAstronomer

    #4 Reginald Selkirk has it right. It’s not a failed promise, just a (badly) misinterpreted one.

  • http://www.dvorkin.com David Dvorkin

    Old Jewish joke: God loved his chosen people so much that he gave the only part of the Middle East that doesn’t have any oil.

    Apparently, there’s no sell-by date for Biblical prophecies. Or Koranic prophecies, for that matter. Fundies of all stripes keep expecting those prophecies to come true in the very near future. We’re always living in the end times.

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    The minute you think it’s a failed promise shows you don’t have the correct amount of faith and god is no longer obligated to fulfill his promise….obviously…

  • Polly

    The Earth could be blown to smitherenes by a massive comet, so that there isn’t even a land mass left to be promised, and they’d still look on (from a space ark) and claim this means that the New Earth mentioned in Revelation is on its way, ANY DAY NOW. Nothing will ever deter true believers.

  • Brock

    Not all Muslims are able to claim to be descendants of Ishmael. Ishmael is actually the father of the Arabs, so one has to have at least some Arabic blood . Not that that interferes with the validity of Reginald Selkirk’s post, as the inhabitants of the land in question, so far as I know, are overwhelmingly of Arabic descent.

  • jane hay

    Even at the height of the archaeologically verifiable kingdoms of Israel and Judah they never controlled more than a small portion of the Abrahamic promise. (See map, p.102 of David and Solomon – Finkelstein & Silbermann). On top of that, at the estimated time of the “conquest” by Joshua, all of Canaan was under Egyptian control, with garrisons in many of the existing cities. So much for that.
    Unfortunately for us, this myth informs much of the Jewish fundamentalist drive to take over as much territory as possible today, since, obviously, it was “promised”. This conflict will never go away.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    One might think that a omniscient deity would have foreseen the whole Jewish vs Palestinian State issue and told the Jews that their Promised Land was somewhere else, like Wyoming.

    Arguably, that’s just what Joseph Smith did. ;)

  • Caiphen

    There’s still time for this to be fulfilled. Look at Israel’s nuclear weaponry, she is poised to dominate and possess the region after a devastating strike. God’s prophecy will be fulfilled. Mmmm a problem, I never thought this through. Yeah, that’s right, the land will no longer be inhabitable! Damn, I have to work out another way for this prophecy to be fulfilled, then another, then another and since I’m a completely rational believer- then another. Cool eh? I’m so smart. I’m a learning from dem ejamacated fundies.

  • Jonathan

    A very interesting article.

    Just a couple of points that would need to be addressed here…
    1. Not all Bible defenders would agree that “river of Egypt” is necessarily the Nile. It could be speaking of the river Sichor which was on the border of Egypt. Even today, many countries’ borders are rivers or mountains. It was even more common in the ancient world.

    2. That land was indeed possessed by the Israelites under the reign of Solomon, who extended his kingdom further than his father David.
    In 2 Samuel 8:3 David extended the borders of his kingdom to the Euphrates.
    In 2 Chronicles 9:26 Solomon possessed the land to the border of Egypt (the river Sichor mentioned above)

    3. That Israel possessed that land for a time and then lost it does not, again, necessarily mean that it was a failed promise. For example if a parent promised to give his son a motorbike, with the proviso that he uses it only in the prescribed way, under certain conditions – off-road only, etc., and the child fails to do so, perhaps even injuring someone due to his disobedience, is it a failed promise if the parent then takes it back?

    4. You didn’t mention that in that promise of the land, God did say it wouldn’t be for over 400 years and that they (Israel) would serve as slaves in Egypt in the intervening years. And we know that part of the ‘promise’ didn’t fail.

    These are my thoughts. I’ll look forward to your response.

  • http://uncyclopedia.wikia.com/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    Jonathan “1. Not all Bible defenders would agree that “river of Egypt” is necessarily the Nile.”
    Ooo! My turn*! Not all Bible defenders would agree that babies must be baptised.
    Your turn!

    “It could be speaking of the river Sichor which was on the border of Egypt.”
    Well, considering that a googling of Good Christian Sites® and multiple translations of the Bible and analyses of passages like Isaiah 23:3 in those translations shows that they can’t even agree if the “Sihor” was or was not the Nile…

    “2. That land was indeed possessed by the Israelites under the reign of Solomon, who extended his kingdom further than his father David.
    In 2 Samuel 8:3 David extended the borders of his kingdom to the Euphrates.
    In 2 Chronicles 9:26 Solomon possessed the land to the border of Egypt (the river Sichor mentioned above)”

    {citation needed}
    I should also note that this conquering up to the Euphrates must’ve come as quite a shock to the Babylonians and Assyrians in the tail end of the Middle Assyrian period who were there and never noticed (although my memory of highschool history class is, admittedly, muddy).

    “3. That Israel possessed that land for a time…”
    {citation needed}

    “…and then lost it…”
    {citation needed}

    “God did say it wouldn’t be for over 400 years and that they (Israel) would serve as slaves in Egypt in the intervening years. And we know that part of the ‘promise’ didn’t fail.”
    {citation needed}

    *I should note that I agree it was probably not the Nile. More likely, it was somewhere on the east side of the Sinai. This interpretation, no doubt, conflicts with other passages, other translations and other interpretations, but it at least puts it near the probable border of the tiny dump of ancient Israel (seriously, what kind of a God puts His favourites on a patch of not particularly good land right smack dab on the crossroads of other, much more powerful, empires? It was the land of milk and honey, but without the milk and honey, surrounded by nations that, frankly, didn’t give a damn how much dear Yahweh loved them)

  • paradoctor

    He didn’t say how long it would take. Ten thousand years, a hundred thousand, a million, what’s the rush? A thousand years is as a day to him, right?

    Of course that means that none of his promises have the slightest human use…

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    4. You didn’t mention that in that promise of the land, God did say it wouldn’t be for over 400 years and that they (Israel) would serve as slaves in Egypt in the intervening years. And we know that part of the ‘promise’ didn’t fail.

    Which part, them serving as slaves in Egypt? Actually, we don’t know that promise didn’t fail, as we don’t seem to have evidence of Israeli presence in Egypt during the time periods in question.

  • nfpendleton

    Using the Bible to prove the Bible correct = fail.

  • AVT

    I find it interesting when people say the ‘promised land’ wasn’t that great yet everyone seems to want it. Look at all the conflicts throughout history over that same ‘crappy’ land. I have never been to that area of the world, but it seems like if it were as bad as people are making it out to be no one would want it.

  • http://steve.mikexstudios.com themann1086

    AVT,

    Religion makes people do crazy (and/or stupid) things.

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    “It could be speaking of the river Sichor which was on the border of Egypt.”

    Well, if you interpret “the river of Egypt” as “THE river of Egypt”, it would have to be the Nile. To allege that it is a smaller river in Sinai would be like interpreting “the river of New York” as the Harlem River (which really is a channel rather than a river) instead of the Hudson.

    I used to watch this crazy right-wing Jewish guy on Queens public access years ago, and he condemned Israel’s return of the Sinai to Egypt and spoke of God given the Jews the land from the Nile to the Euphrates.

    In 2 Samuel 8:3 David extended the borders of his kingdom to the Euphrates.

    And that means what, exactly? It could be fanciful exaggeration. Maybe David sent a small expeditionary force that made it to, or nearly to, the Euphrates. Then they declared it part of David’s kingdom, turned around and returned back home, with no further Israelite presence in the area. Or, alternatively, a non-Israelite king whose territory extended to the Euphrates made a token show of fealty to David. That’s not exactly extending one’s borders to the Euphrates. To extend one’s borders means that there was a sustained military presence to garrison the frontier and an administrative apparatus in place to govern the territory. To my knowledge, the archeological evidence does not support this.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Jonathan wrote:

    2. That land was indeed possessed by the Israelites under the reign of Solomon, who extended his kingdom further than his father David.
    In 2 Samuel 8:3 David extended the borders of his kingdom to the Euphrates.
    In 2 Chronicles 9:26 Solomon possessed the land to the border of Egypt (the river Sichor mentioned above)

    I think the point of the OP is that these Biblical claims are not borne out by physical evidence. Trotting out more verse as support hardly undercuts this argument.

    AVT wrote:

    I find it interesting when people say the ‘promised land’ wasn’t that great yet everyone seems to want it. Look at all the conflicts throughout history over that same ‘crappy’ land. I have never been to that area of the world, but it seems like if it were as bad as people are making it out to be no one would want it.

    It is not the quality of the land itself, but the fact that it sits astride the best invasion route between the Nile delta and Upper Mesopotamia, the two richest areas in the Near East and the natural centers of power. This fact puts Israel pretty much in the same spot as Poland, with simliar results.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    Hello Jonathan,

    That land was indeed possessed by the Israelites under the reign of Solomon, who extended his kingdom further than his father David.

    As I said in my post, large empires leave numerous traces. What archaeological evidence do you have for this statement?

  • Polly

    Look at all the conflicts throughout history over that same ‘crappy’ land. I have never been to that area of the world, but it seems like if it were as bad as people are making it out to be no one would want it.

    Armenia has been conquered by virtually every major empire going back 3,000 years with the (possible) exception of the Incas. Yes, what vast tract of fertile land flowing with milk and honey it must be to be so coveted by so many great powers.
    It has all that oil…no wait, that’s Iran immediately to the south.
    It has lots of Uranium…no, that’s Russia.
    natural gas? Iran and Russia.

    Bauxite? Yes, Bauxite! And pig iron, too! What valuable reserves of base metal!

    Or, it could be that, like Israel, Armenia sits at the intersection of 2 continents and is a major crossroads of various major civilizations.

  • other scott

    As an archaeologist it seriously boggles my mind how people can still believe the tripe that is written in the bible. There is barely any evidence that David and his descendants were kings, there is NO evidence that Solomons temple was ever built, there is no evidence that the jews even had any significant portion of the region under their control at the height of their power.

    Any bible-beater or Zionist need only read any one of Israel Finkelsteins many books and see the mountains of evidence that begin to pile up against the Israelites even living prosperously in the region.

    Yes, absense of evidence does not equal evidence of absense but there comes a time when you’ve been digging for half a century and you just have to come to the conclusion you are never going to find anything. Israel and Temple Mount in particular are some of the most excavated regions on the planet and we are still yet to find evidence for any type of absolute jewish ascendancy in the area.


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