The land and state of Israel are intricately related, one cannot examine the covenant of Israel with God, if no account is taken of the place of land. The basic idea is that the land is Yahweh’s land (Ps. 24:1).

The Land belongs to God

In Genesis chapters 1-2 we see how a relationship between God, people and the earth develops. He is the creator who made everything from nothing and has ownership rights over everything he created. We can observe that;

  • Creation is seen to be good.
  • Humans were created from the dust of the earth, in the image of God and were given the responsibility to rule over the rest of creation.
  • Israel’s place in the plan of God

Throughout the book of Joshua chapters 13-19, land is first and foremost an inheritance given to Israel by Yahweh, a gift to be passed on from generation to generation. The idea that God owns the land has not only theological significance but also sociological meaning. Land in Israel was not conceived of as private property; instead it was a trust or “loan” administered by Israel on behalf of Yahweh. Land was the inheritance of the tribe, and the tribe apportioned the land to the families. The plot each family received was their participation in the tribal inheritance.

  • Each family enjoyed lasting rights to the use of the land, but never a

commodity that could be bought or sold for private gain. Their portion was family property and they managed it on behalf of the entire tribe.

  • The land was an inheritance and was required to be used in ways faithful to

Yahweh. This meant that the laws of the Old Testament accounted to the administering of social justice in the community.

  • Thus in Psalms 16:5-6 & 142:5 “portion” is equated with Yahweh ‘Gods’


  • Leviticus: 25, family land that had been lost was to be returned to its original

owner in the year of Jubilee.

  • The Law also required that debts be pardoned (Deut. 15:1-3) and that Hebrew

slaves and bonded servants be set free in the year of Jubilee.

  • Deuteronomy 24: 19-22 stated emphatically that a part of the harvest be left

for the poor.

Managing the land involved social justice so that ancient Israel could stay united. The land and promise

Understanding Israel’s taking of the land as the fulfilment of God’s promise is important throughout the book of Deuteronomy. From the first mention in 1:8 through to the last words of Moses in 34:4 God states “This is the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; I will give it to your descendents”. Brueggeman (1978:48) asserts that “Deuteronomy reflects early that Israel cannot and does not need to secure its own existence, for it is done by the same “One” who gave manna, quail, and water.

The land as a gift

Wright (1990) develops the theme of the land being a gift and draws out several important implications for Israel.

  • Firstly the land being a gift was a declaration that Israel depended upon God and that therefore God was dependable (2004:85-86). There was no sense of righteousness on Israel’s part.

“It is not because of your righteousness or your integrity that you are going to take possession of the land; but on account of the wickedness of these nations” (Deut.9:5).

  • For Israel the land is the means by which other promises are also to be fulfilled, every aspect of material and economic life is attached to this (Deut.8:17-18).
  • The land gift reflects Israel’s unique relationship with God as his treasured possession (Deut.7:6-7).
  • Wright (2004:88) denotes that as a consequence of God fulfilling his promises, “Israel knew that they were the people of Yahweh because he had given them the land. This theme or relationship or more particularly a covenant relationship is central to understanding the significance of this gift.

The land and covenant

Wright (2004:85-86) is of the view that entering into the land is not “entry into a safe space but into a context of covenant”. Davies (1989:364) is in agreement and states that “it was clearly an integral part of the relationship established between Yahweh and his people”. Deuteronomy 28 confirms the terms of this covenant relationship. Clement (1968:57-58) summarises;

“Because the God who gave the land is the God of the covenant with its laws, there is a relationship between the land and the moral demands of God. It is not surprising; therefore, that the threat of losing possession of the land and its fruits is the fundamental punishment that is envisaged should Israel disobey. Possession of the land is the sign of Israel’s nationhood and the continuing evidence of the goodness of God. A breach of the covenant is naturally seen to have it’s consequences in expulsion from the land, which is gods special gift”.

He develops this theme further and argues that the moral behaviour of Israel not only affects their continuing possession of the land, but could lead to the ‘desecration’ of the land itself. Mayes (1979:78) suggest that the land is the place which “Israel cannot possess unless she obeys the law”. von Rad agrees and asserts that “Israel is to observe the commandments in order that they may enter the good land”. In Deuteronomy from the Ten Commandments (5:1-21) to the various social laws, the link between being “careful to obey so that it may go well with you and that you may greatly increase in a land flowing with milk and honey” is affirmed further in chapter 28, where God declares “obedience leads to blessing and disobedience to cursing”

Land and families

Our knowledge of the Israelite system of land tenure is dependant entirely on the historical account of Joshua and Judges. Aharoni (1967:231) is of the view that “the biblical account clearly describes the exact delineation of the tribal boundaries in earliest times”. Wright (1947:49) in agreement with von Rad (1996:86) accepts that the land in Israel was divided and owned on a tribal basis. He further introducers the word “kin group” as a semantically appropriate name for these groups who played a key role in the system of land distribution in Israel.

  • The “kin group” function was primary economic, it existed to protect and preserve the viability of its own extended families through mechanisms such as the redemption of both land and persons that were in danger of passing – or those that had already passed.
  • This function can be found in Lev.25, it did not own land collectively in its own name, nor did it usurp coercive power over its family units but acted as a restorative and protective organism.
  • The “kin group” however consisted of smaller family units called “fathers – houses”, Judges 11 appears to denote an area of land which had its place in the larger “kin group”.
  • Sociologically the “father’s house” was an important small unit in Israel, it was also the primary group in which individuals found identity and status. Judges 6-11 and following explain how Gideon a married man with children lived and worked on his father’s land that was Gideon’s “father’s house”, 6:15.

The Old Testament law clearly protects the family and its land and defines Israel’s understanding of their relationship with Yahweh. Whenever Israel slumped into anarchy and greed, God would raise up a prophet to warn and denounce their actions to safeguard the basic socio-economic pillars in which Israel’s relationship with Yahweh rested – the family and its land.

Social laws and social systems of the Pentateuch

There are laws in place which warn individuals about the consequences they could face should they disobey the social laws which govern them.

  • Hence the right to the land of Israel and the future prosperity of the inhabitants depend on the social laws and social system of the Pentateuch.
  • The Pentateuch teaches that all are equal and that one may neither exploit nor be exploited.
  • The social systems in place guarantee everyone’s personal and material independence within the community, supporting those who are in need.

God and Jewish property rights

The occupation of the land of Canaan forms the Jewish land theology. The scripture is clear that the earth is the Lord (Ps.24:1), but man has been given dominion to rule over God’s work (Ps.8:6). There are nevertheless clear limitations on an individual’s exercise of those rights with regard to his relationship to God, his family and other people (Lev.25:23-28).

  • The year of Jubilee is paramount in Israel’s dealing with the sale of property by an impoverish Israelite.
  • This also includes the recovery of the property by a kinsman redeemer. God is clearly concerned about the land of individual households as well as their welfare.
  • Should an individual fail in supporting his household after using the land as security for loans, he and his family is in danger of being sold into the service of his kinsman, not to be treated like a slave, but as a dependent labourer (Lev.25:28).

Land, God and women

In the case of women, one find that wives were simply property in the absolute sense

– chattels of their husbands. Wives were commonly bought…………………… a bondservant and

a wife were of much the same value; they had no right to own land.

  • Bennet (1900:847-849) depicts wives as a man’s property and was absolute subjected to his authority. However in Numbers (27:1-11) in the case of Zelophehad’s daughters (36:1-12) where daughters inherited land (in the absence of sons) they were instructed to marry men within the “kin group” of their father. In this way tribal territory would not be diminished.
  • Brichto (1973:44) emphasises this point and the importance for the sake of the ancestors, of the convenience of the family on its own land. The evidence he presents makes it possible to imagine a regular redistribution of the ancestral land, with its burial places.
  • In Ruth (4:10) states Boaz’s intention to “perpetuate the name of the dead in his inheritance
  • There is also the prominent fact that the mother was to be held in high esteem and honour. Her position within the household had its clearest expression in this respect. However in widowhood her position changes and her only recourse were directly to Yahweh himself (Ex.22:23-24).
  • Any women who by her own action and design has repudiated her own marriage relationship and thereby set herself “outside” or “beyond” the bounds of her family is left destitute Snijder (1954).

She literally turns her back on the “covenant” of her God and becomes an alien in the sense of one “outside” the community of those eligible to claim and enjoy the relationship with Yahweh – which was undoubtedly a kind of “death” Wright (1990:94).

Men are warned against having an affair with “out – of – family” women. If he does he will be cut off from the privilege of sharing in the land with the rest of God’s people. In short he “has no sense”, he destroys himself (Prov.6:23) Brichto (1973:1-54). Roberson Smith further explores the concept of marriage and is of the view that the husband does not own the wife as a piece of property, but owns her sexuality. His analogy fits the land issue, as an Israelite did not strictly own the land but its fruitfulness; the land itself belonged to Yahweh. Similarly, in marriage the husband have exclusive rights to her sexuality and fertility and certainly children born in wedlock, these were regarded as his property. It denotes the exclusiveness of the marriage bond in respect of the husband’s sole claim to his wife’s sexuality and fertility (1885).


Modern rural communities are less rooted in the land. This is the case because there are fewer farming jobs and ownership does not always imply working the land. There
has been a shift in the rural population profile, with more suburban people and more double home owners in the countryside. There are huge “Naboth” (1Kings:21) issues for farming families. They are often sitting on a fortune in land, but can’t make a living out of it. Farmer’s children often do not want to farm, but there are emotional implications in selling up – a duty to distant ancestors.

  • How do we reconnect with the land in a realistic way for our modern communities?
  • How do urban people respond to the theology of the land in their urban communities?
  • How do you build communities who lose local services and new rural people who have a privatised concept of rural life?