Where Exactly Is Biblical Israel?

By Rachel Havrelock
(Author -  River Jordan: The Mythology of a Dividing Line)

In her book, Rachel Havrelock discusses how a map can effectively erase an entire population.  A map is looked at as a scientific instrument.  Havrelock attended a Jewish School in a Detroit Suburb.  In her Fourth-Grade class, the map of Biblical Israel hung on the wall and was the central object of study for the class. She was fascinated by the map because of the green and brown colors that designated biblical studies with historical geography. The map, as her teacher explained, “Validated Biblical miracles and events that transpired throughout history and instrumental in explaining the books of Joshua, Judges, and Samuel ending at the Jordan River.” She further stated, “The Old Testament books told about the conquest and settlement of the Promise Land.”  As a student, she gazed at the map enchanted by its miracles. She longed to visit the ancient lands talked about by the teacher and authenticated by the map.

As a college student, Havrelock attended the International Students Program at Bit Zeit University in the Palestinian West Bank.  One day at the school, there was a protest by students because of an increase in tuition, so the class had to vacate their classroom and go to another building.  When they got to their destination, inside the professor’s office, there it was—an identical map like the one that hung in her Fourth-Grade classroom with the same shades of green and brown ending at the Jordan River.  To her surprise, the map did not illustrate Israel.  This was a map of Palestine--her Fourth-Grade map in reverse with no diagrammatic representation of Israel. 

Her first thought, had this company produced both maps in her Fourth-Grade classroom and now in Palestine and turned a profit by issuing identical maps in different places? In this case, maps and myths interact.  Maps embedded in myths—maps of the vocal bible?

Israel in the Bible cannot be found in the Bible itself because Israel was not created until 1948 by the US and Britain. The Hebrew Bible (known to Christians as the Old Testament and to Jews as the Torah or Tanakh) contains five different “maps.” These “maps” are not pictures, but lists of boundaries defining the Promised Land. None of the maps resemble the modern-day “Biblical Israel.” One map found in the book of Joshua, describing an all-out holy war suggests a regional federation in which the tribes of Israel overlap and coexist with local inhabitants. Joshua, Chapter 15, verse 63 states: “The Jebusites (local inhabitants of Jerusalem) and the People of Judah dwell together in Jerusalem until today.”

The closest thing to “Biblical Israel” in the Bible is a map buried in the Book of Numbers in which the land spans from the Mediterranean Sea in the west to the Jordan River in the east. The northern and southern boundaries do not correspond to “Biblical Israel” at all.

If not the Bible, then where does “Biblical Israel” come from? It results from a series of decisions made by the British when they asserted their power and later controlled the Middle East. With increasing awareness of the rich oil fields paralleling the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and dreams of transporting this oil to Europe via the Mediterranean Sea, the British War Office began funding the efforts of the biblically driven Palestine Exploration Fund (PEF). The PEF aimed to prove the legitimacy of the Bible through scientific endeavors like archeology and mapping. In 1879, the British War Office published maps that became widely available in 1880. The 26 sheets of hand-drawn maps present a Palestine conforming to the biblical formularies “from Dan to Beersheba” for the north-south axis and “from the Jordan to the Sea” for the east-west axis. Thus, making the Holy Land a potential holding of a Protestant Empire.

In 1922, the League of Nations approved the British map of Mandate Palestine that reintroduced the idea of the Jordan River as a border. The year 1922 marks the first time that Protestants ruled the Holy Land as well as the birthday of “Biblical Israel.” The Jews and Arabs who wanted this land for their own countries adopted the British map. The British saw the birthplace of Jesus as an excellent port for the shipment of Iraqi oil to Europe. Jews envisioned Israel and Palestinians imagined an independent Palestine.

From 1922, most Jewish nationalists recognized Jordan as the ancient border that would one day define their state. This aspiration found fulfillment when Israel conquered the West Bank and reached the Jordan River in the 1967 War. The British map had a parallel impact on Palestinian nationalists. Although the Palestinian Arab Congresses held in the early 1920s rejected the British Mandate as well as the 1922 map, Striking, and rioting against borders of the desired Palestine was constituted by the Mandate. The 1968 Palestinian National Charter makes the case most clearly: “Palestine, with the boundaries it had during the British Mandate, is an indivisible territorial unit.” The “biblical” land doubly claimed by Palestinians and Israelis results from the British administration of the Middle East. Ancient maps result from British colonialism and not from religious tradition.