The Republicans and fundamentalists are furious with Barack Obama for mentioning the 1967 borders (as if they were a sudden departure from previous negotiations) Gordon Klingenschmitt, a far-right Christian fundamentalist and a former Navy chaplain discharged for misconduct, does the “Oh yeah!” routine and says, “I”ll take your 1967 and raise you 1500 B.C.!
He demands that Israel’s borders be set as they were “in 1500 BC when God gave the nation of Israel and all of the land west of the Jordan River to Moses, to Joshua, and to the people that God gave that land to.” He added that God would put America on trial for failing to stand with Israel, a song and dance we are all by now well familiar with. Blah blah blah, yada yada yada. Let’s move on to facts.
For the record, this is what the Bible says of YHWH’s original land grant to Abraham:
On that day Yahweh made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates. (Genesis15:18)
This is an area that would include much of Egypt east of the Nile, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and a sizeable chunk of Iraq, as well as northwest Saudi Arabia. A modern-day observer can, I think, see the problems with such a claim. I guess we should be happy Klingenschmitt didn’t insist on this original deal.
In Numbers 34:1-13 YHWH’s land grant (to Moses this time, not Abram) is given a bit differently, a far more modest grant that would include Israel, Jordan, and Lebanon.
But these are not the only two divine land grants; there is Deuteronomy 11:24, to Moses after he had received the Ten Commandments. This one adds part of Iraq to the picture:
“Every place on which you set your foot shall be yours; your territory shall extend from the wilderness to the Lebanon, and from the river, the river Euphrates, to the western sea.”
There is also Ezekiel 47:15-20. We now come to another version of God’s land grant to Joshua. God’s command to Joshua was simple:
“Now proceed to cross the Jordan, you and all this people, into the land that I am giving them, to the Israelites. Every place that the sole of your foot shall tread upon I have given to you, as I promised to Moses. From the wilderness and the Lebanon as far as the great river, the river Euphrates, all the land of the Hittites, to the Great Sea in the west shall be your territory (Joshua 1:2-4).”
No Hittites in Deuteronomy but now we suddenly have Hittites to deal with! The plot thickens. And at the conclusion of Joshua’s campaign of ethnic cleansing:
Thus the LORD gave to Israel all the land that he swore to their ancestors that he would give them; and having taken possession of it, they settled there (Joshua 21:43).
Presumably, this includes some or all of the land grants noted above. It’s quite a muddle and one has to wonder if Klingenschmitt is aware of how much of a problem these conflicting biblical tales are for modern-day international politics. The situation if further complicated when you consider the actual historical landscape of the 15th century B.C.E. At that time, the land of Hatti (the Hittites) occupied central Turkey.
It makes no sense God would give Israel land in central Turkey, on the other side of the Taurus Mountains that separate the highlands from the coastal plain (an area later known as Cilicia), especially with Hurrians and others in the way. The Hittite royal annals certainly never mention the Israelites! Worse, we know that Pharaoh Ahmose, having thrown the Hyksos out of Egypt, pursued them into Palestine and made Palestine a province of the Egyptian empire. Ahmose did not apparently find Joshua or any conquering armies of Israelites there when he arrived.
In fact, nobody found any Israelites in Palestine until the 13th century B.C.E.
We do know this much because Pharaoh Merneptah, who reigned three centuries after Ahmose (c. 1224-1214), the son of Ramesses II, raised a stele at the end of the 13th century which speaks of a campaign he undertook in the lands of Canaan. Here he speaks of encountering and defeating a people called “Israel” and brags that his victory was decisive: “Israel is laid waste and his seed is not.” This is the first mention of Israel in history. Unfortunately, Merneptah gives us no information about the makeup or character of the country, its people, or its government.
So we have an Israel in the 13th century, evidently a minor and unimportant group of people and Pharaoh says he vanquished them along with all his other enemies. But even when the first Jewish states arose, Israel in the north and Judah in the south, they were not what the Bible claims they were.
The kingdoms of Judah and Israel were intimately part of the late Bronze and early Iron Age world of economics, religion, and geopolitics. Their economies were tied to one degree or another to the “world” economy centered on the Superpowers of their time, Hatti, Babylon, Assyria, and Egypt. Their religion was no different than that of their neighbors, being polytheistic, and their government was indistinguishable from that of the other Middle Eastern Bronze Age monarchies.
The covenant wasn’t even anything special. It was written in a form common to all Near Eastern kingdoms of the time known as a vassal treaty. The Assyrians had one of those too, as we see from a plaque from Arslan Tash in Syria, an eternal covenant made not with YHWH but with Asshur: “An eternal covenant was made with us, Asshur made it with us, as did all the gods and the mighty of the circle of all the holy ones.” Israel and Judah can now be seen for what they were; just two of those states, sharing what all shared as their common property.
There was no early united kingdom, no golden age of David and Solomon, no superpower stretching from Egypt to Mesopotamia on equal footing with the true superpowers of the day (1 Kings 4.21). There were two states, not one, and they evolved independently though related in culture and language. The north developed statehood earlier, was more populous, richer in natural resources and had a more powerful economy and more economic and political ties to the wider world. If any power there was, Israel held it as a regional power, not a world power.
And Judah? The facts make the Old Testament accounts laughable. Comparison of the biblical with the archaeological record reveals the lie. The Jerusalem of David and Solomon as portrayed in the Bible did not exist. Archaeologists Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman assert that “[W]e have no hard archaeological evidence – despite the unparalleled biblical descriptions of its grandeur – that Jerusalem was anything more than a modest highland village in the time of David, Solomon, and Rehoboam.”
Archaeologist Gideon Avni admits to problems with the traditional dating in Jerusalem, noting that “We have very minimal remains from both the 10th and the 9th centuries BC.” David may have been little more than a tribal highland chief who had perhaps, with his band of outlaw Apiru seized control of Urusalim (Bronze Age Jerusalem), a highland stronghold ruled in the late Bronze Age by a king named Abdi-Hebra, who appears in the Amarna letters dated to the fourteenth century. The facts as revealed by archaeology are striking, as Finkelstein and Silberman observe:
In Israel, regional administrative centers developed in the early ninth century. They were fortified and provided with elaborate palaces built of ashlar blocks and decorated with stone capitals. The best examples are found at Megiddo, Jezreel, and Samaria. Yet in the south, ashlar masonry and stone capitals appear only in the seventh century BCE, in smaller sizes, showing less foreign influence, and with lesser quality of construction. There is also a great difference in the layout and development of the capital cities. Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom, was established as a large palatial government center as early as the ninth century. Jerusalem was fully urbanized only in the late eight century.
Israel then, was the regional power. By way of comparison, Judah was “little more than Israel’s rural hinterland.”
And the land of Hatti spoken of to Joshua? By the time it makes any sense to speak of Hittites in relationship to Israel, the great Hittite Empire had collapse and refugees occupied the coastal plain of Cilicia and are known to history as “Neo-Hittites” – but that too is not until the 12th century, because we know from Hittite palace archives that their western border did not even come under threat until then and it wasn’t until the end of the 13th century that they were swept away by the invaders.
The trouble with letting religion substitute for history in the world of international politics is that religion represents belief; history represents facts as we can know and understand them. These might change as new discoveries are made but holy writ is eternal and unchanging, not subject to the facts on the ground. The Bible presents one version of the past – an idealized version of history looking backward from a much later period. The Bible is not a history book. It contains history but it is history with what we today would call “a spin”. That is, as Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman note, “history as it should have been.” Indeed, many Christians might be surprised to learn that there was in fact no “Old Testament” or Hebrew Bible during the so-called Old Testament period. It simply did not exist.
In fact there was no single version enshrined as canon, as the finds at Qumram have shown. Frank M. Cross has observed that the Dead Sea Scrolls date from “an era when local texts prevailed.” This “local” era extends far into Israel’s past, and it was not until the second century of this era that it came to an end and there came to be an authoritative recension of the Hebrew Bible, a development that coincided with the establishment also of a Christian canon.
History can look backward, free of the constraints and requirements of belief, and see history not as it should have been, for no such thing exists outside of the requirements of ideology and religion, but history as it was.
It is all well and fine for Jewish and Christian conservatives to insist upon the biblical version of events but their claims are not backed up by history. We know from a variety of sources that no Israeli state occupied the stated territories in 1500 B.C.E. We know this from archaeology, from epigraphy, and from the Jewish author Josephus, writing the history of his people in the first century of the Common Era. There is simply no evidence for it.
We could do as Klingenschmitt demands and return to Israel her borders as of 1500 B.C.E., but I don’t think any Jews or any fundamentalist Christians would be happy with the result, because they’d end up with little more than a few scattered settlements in the highlands.
Greater Israel Map: Biblical Witness for Israel
Merneptah Stele Image from BibleProbe.com
 George Mendenhall “Covenant Forms in Israelite Tradition” The Biblical Archaeologist 17 (1954), 58-60.
 John Day, “Asherah in the Hebrew Bible and Northwest Semitic Literature”, JBL 105 (1986), 395.
 Finkelstein and Silberman, The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of its Sacred Texts (2001), 158. cf. idem, David and Solomon (NY: Free Press, 2006), 126. Israel Finkelstein is Professor of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University and director of the Sonia and Marco Nadler Institute of Archaeology. He is also co-director of the archaelogical dig at Megiddo. Neil Asher Silberman is director of the Ename Center for Public Archaeology and Heritage Presentation in Belgium.
 Michael Balter, “The Two Tels: Armageddon for Biblical Archaeology?” Science 287 (2000), 32. Gideon Avni is Head of Excavations and Surveys of the Israel Antiquities Authority.
 Finkelstein and Silberman (2001), 159.
 Finkelstein and Silberman (2001), 249.
 Frank M. Cross, Jr. “The History of the Biblical Text in the Light of Discoveries in the Judaean Desert,” HTR 57 (1964), 286.
 Ben-Zion Rosenfeld, “Flavius Josephus and His Portrayal of the Coast (Paralia) of Contemporary Roman Palestine: Geography and Ideology,” The Jewish Quarterly Review (2000), 143-183.