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.

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