I have been to Israel three times. My visit to Israel was a life-changing experience. Any person who visits Israel today must be acquainted with the history of the territory that has served as the land where God’s people lived. From a geographic perspective, the name given to the area of the Jordan valley that was the home of biblical and modern Israel was Canaan. In the Old Testament, Canaan was used as a geographical term to designate the land of the Canaanites.
The word “Canaan” also appears in the Old Testament as an ethnic appellation to designate the original inhabitants of the land. According to the book of Genesis (Genesis 9:18; 10:15-18), Canaan was the son of Ham, one of the three sons of Noah, and the father of the Sidonians, the Hittites, the Jebusites, the Amorites, the Girgashites, the Hivites, the Arkites, the Sinites, the Arvadites, the Zemarites, and the Hamathites.
These names appear in Exodus 3:17, Deuteronomy 7:1 and Joshua 3:10 designating the nations that occupied the land prior to the conquest in the days of Joshua. Thus, the Old Testament indicates that the Canaanites were composed of several nations. The word “Canaanites” then, was used to designate all of the original inhabitants of the land that eventually became known as Israel.
The land where Israel lived was also known as Palestine. The name Palestine derives from the name Philistines (Hebrew pelishtim). The Philistines were one of the Peoples of the Sea, a group of people whose country of origin is still unknown, probably from the Aegean Islands. The Philistines invaded Egypt in the eighth year of Ramses III, king of Egypt (ca. 1188 B.C.). Although the Philistines were unsuccessful in their attempt to conquer Egypt, by common agreement with the Egyptians, the Philistines settled on the Mediterranean coast in the area called “the land of the Philistines” (Genesis 21: 32, 34; Exodus 13:17) or “Philistia” (Exodus 15:14).
The Philistine pentapolis (five cities) was along the southern coastal plain. These five major centers of Philistine culture were: Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron, and Gath (Joshua 12:3). The name Palestine was first applied to the land of Canaan by the Greek historian Herodotus. By the time of Josephus, the Jewish historian, the use of the name Palestine to designate the land of Israel was already common. It was the Roman emperor Hadrian who officially called the Roman province of Judea Provincia Palestina. By the end of the 4th century A.D. Palestine had become the official designation for the land that once belonged to Israel.
When the Hebrew people left Egypt in the days of Moses, they marched toward Canaan. After the death of Moses, Joshua, his successor, conquered the land of Canaan and made it the home of the twelve tribes of Israel. Many years after the conquest, in the days of Samuel, the land of Canaan was already known as “the land of Israel” (1 Samuel 13:19). After the death of Solomon in 922 B.C., the united kingdom that David had forged by his political savvy, was divided into two independent nations.
The name Israel was used to designate the Northern Kingdom. The Northern Kingdom was composed of the ten tribes. Judah became the southern kingdom. In reality, the Southern Kingdom was composed of two tribes, Judah and Simeon, since Judah had assimilated the tribe of Simeon many years before the reign of David. Only the Southern kingdom maintained a descendant of David on the throne.
The Davidic dynasty remained in Judah until the end of the Southern Kingdom in 587 B.C., when the nation was destroyed, and the people taken into exile in Babylon. The northern tribes kept the old charismatic idea of leadership. For this reason, the Northern Kingdom had an unstable form of government that changed leadership every few years. This division of Israel into two kingdoms lasted until 722 B.C., when the Northern Kingdom and its capital Samaria were conquered by Sargon II, king of Assyria. Samaria became an Assyrian province, but Judah remained independent. It was with the fall of Samaria and the destruction of the Northern Kingdom that the name Israel was once again used to describe the whole people of God, although the name Judah continued to be used to designate the Southern kingdom.
The people of Israel believed that Yahweh their God had given them a special land. According to Exodus 3:8, when God called Moses and sent him to Egypt to deliver his people from Egyptian bondage, he said to Moses: “So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey–the home of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites.”
The expression “Promised Land” derives from the promise of Yahweh to give Abraham and his descendants the land where the Canaanites lived (Genesis 12:4-7; Deuteronomy 9:28). Only twice in the Old Testament is the land of Canaan designated “The Holy Land.” In Psalm 78:54 the Psalmist says, “Thus he brought them to the border of his holy land, to the hill country his right hand had taken.” In Zechariah 2:12 the prophet says: “The Lord will inherit Judah as his portion in the holy land and will again choose Jerusalem.”
The name Palestine does not convey the diversity of the people who inhabited the land where biblical Israel lived, since the name referred only to the land of the Philistines. The fathers of the Church followed the practice of the Romans and called the land Palestine. In the Middle Ages it became very common once again to designate Palestine “the Promised Land.” With the conquest of the land by Islamic forces in 633, the land of Palestine was in Arab control for many years.
In 1517 the Turkish forces took control of Palestine and subjugated it until 1917 when the British forces occupied Palestine. After the British conquered the land from the Turks following World War I, they called the land Palestine and it was known by that name until recently. The British and the Americans were instrumental in the formation of the modern state of Israel. On May 15, 1948, under the leadership of Ben Gurion, the modern state of Israel was born. At that time, the old city of Jerusalem, as well as the areas of Judea and Samaria were under Jordanian and Syrian control and they remained so until 1967, when during the seven days war, Israel took control of most of the areas dominated by Syria and Jordan. Today the land is known as Eretz Yisrael or The Land of Israel.
Until a few years ago, the name Palestine was used to designate two major areas. West Palestine designated the areas between the river Jordan and the Mediterranean. East Palestine designated Transjordan, the area from the Jordan river to the Arabian desert. In biblical times, the land that was allotted to the twelve tribes of Israel was from Cadesh-barnea in the south to Mt. Hermon in the north and from east to west the land went from the Jordan river to the Mediterranean sea. At various periods in its history, Israel had control of the lands east of the Jordan, that is, Ammon, Edom, and Moab. The Old Testament expresses the extension of the promised land by the expression “from Dan to Beersheba” (Judges 20:1; 1 Samuel 3:20).
When Christians today talk about Palestine, the Land of Israel, or the Holy Land, they talk about the place where Jesus lived and exercised his ministry. The life and person of Jesus are the crowning glory and the special distinction of the land of Israel and are what makes the land a special place. The land has been the focus of the three major monotheistic religions of the world: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
As people travel to Israel and visit its sacred places, their experience varies from person to person. Some see in the land the potential of unfulfilled promises, others see the racial strife between Jews and Arabs, others are moved by the historical remains of old ruins and places of worship, however, anyone who travels to Israel and experiences the mystique of the Holy Land, will be touched by the inscrutable events of the past and will be inspired by the deep religious experience of visiting the places that are so meaningful to faith and religion.
As one travels through the land of Israel, it is easy to be awed by its dry deserts, or to wonder at the stark ruggedness of its valleys, the barrenness of its hills, or the harshness of the land. However, to the ancient Israelites, those who had come out of the oppression of Egypt, the land of Canaan was God’s gift. They saw the land from a different perspective. To them the land was “a good land–a land with streams and pools of water, with springs flowing in the valleys and hills; a land with wheat and barley, vines and fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil and honey; a land where bread will not be scarce and you will lack nothing; a land where the rocks are iron and you can dig copper out of the hills” (Deuteronomy 8:7-9).
I believe everyone should visit Israel and relieve its history through its monuments and its archaeological sites.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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