Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

Shavuot and Gaza: What are the historical borders of Israel?

With the war in Gaza still raging, Israel’s (extreme) right-wing camp is calling for the resettlement of (parts of) Gaza. Thus, an old question moves to the fore once again: what are the “true” borders of the Land of Israel? Whereas this question has focused over the past several decades on Judea & Samaria (the West Bank/Administered Territories), it now shifts again to Israel’s southern border.

Beyond the geo-strategic (in)sanity of such a policy, it is worth delving into the biblical and historical narrative regarding this question. In other words, let’s take the traditional approach of the religious Right-wing and look at the biblical sources of such an expansionist perspective on the borders issue. It turns out that the Shavuot reading, Megillat Ruth (Book of Ruth), indirectly relates to the matter.

But first, let’s start at the beginning of the Jewish People i.e., God’s covenant with Abraham. In Genesis 13: 14-15, we read: And the LORD said unto Abram, after he separated from his cousin Lot: “Raise your eyes and look out from where you are, to the north and south, to the east and west. For all the land which you see, to you will I give it, and to your seed forever.”
We should note something important: no exact borders are described here! Indeed, if one takes God’s promise literally (“as far as Abraham can see”), then the size of the Promised Land is pretty small. One cannot stand somewhere in the middle of the country and see Mount Hermon in the north and Beersheva in the south (forget about Eilat!).

To be sure, when the Israelites left Egypt and eventually conquered the land of Canaan, the borders expanded – even granting two tribes some land east of the Jordan river. However, it is worth pointing out that when leaving Egypt, the Children of Israel crossed the desert near (what is today the region surrounding) Eilat. (They crossed Yam Suf: the Sea of Reeds – not the “Red Sea”.) And that southern region was not considered to be part of the Promised Land, as they kept on marching for forty years until crossing into the Holy Land from the east.
Jumping ahead to David, we find that after escaping King Saul’s clutches he spent several years in Philistine country – precisely where Gaza (and the southwestern Negev) is located today. So that here too we have clear evidence of Gaza not being part of the Land of Israel.
To be sure, upon becoming king, David significantly expanded the borders of the country. However, even then, after defeating the Philistines (several times), the Israelites did not inhabit that land. Indeed, the Philistines continued to live in their traditional territory for a few more centuries, ultimately conquered not by the Judeans but rather by the Assyrians (8th century BCE) who also exiled ten of the twelve Israelite tribes. Not until a few centuries later, during the eras of Babylonian and Persian dominance, did “Philistia” disappear as a national-cultural entity – precisely when Judea was at its own lowest ebb.

Based on linguistic and other evidence, the Book of Ruth was also written during this later period (between 550-330 BCE) – after the Babylonian exile ended and some of the Jews (who were exiled) were returning to the Holy Land. This was the main theme of the Book of Ruth: returning to the land. That’s why the entire Ruth narrative (purportedly occurring many centuries earlier) ends with a genealogy leading to King David (Ruth’s great-grandson).

The operative word here is “returning,” because there is one other important piece of the territorial puzzle that must be mentioned. In Exodus 23:31, God promises the Israelites the following: “And I will set your border from the Red Sea even unto the sea of the Philistines, and from the wilderness unto the River; for I will deliver the inhabitants of the land into your hand; and you shall drive them out before thee.”

Based on the Bible’s own historical narrative (as outlined here above), clearly this promise was never carried out. The Hebrews/Israelites/Judeans never had sovereign control of Philistine country, nor did they ever finally “drive them out” (other empires did that). Indeed, the Book of Ruth goes further: the Moabites (Ruth’s people) are an independent nation living in their own land – but based on the Exodus quote above, that land too is part of Greater Israel (the “River” being the Euphrates in today’s Iraq). Clearly, the biblical author of Ruth didn’t think much of (or didn’t even know about) that earlier promise.

For the biblically-minded, therefore, the current debate in Israel revolves around a promise unfulfilled. But if it wasn’t realized during the very long biblical (and post-biblical) era, should it be carried out over 3,000 years later? Even if we don’t take into account other broad, geo-political considerations (as well as severe, internal Israeli disagreement on the issue), the question seems to answer itself: if God didn’t carry out his “promise” for such a very long time, obviously it was not meant to be.

And there is one further point to contemplate. If Israel wishes to expand its national territorial boundary into Gaza (where it never held sovereign sway), isn’t that a mirror image justification for Moslem claims to once again expand Islamic authority over other lands (including Israel)?

Taken as a whole, the Torah does not set up any inviolable territorial claim for the Jewish nation. Thus, for the present Gazan situation one should heed common wisdom that I’m paraphrasing here: “a little bit less – is a lot more.”

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) presently serves as Academic Head of the Communications Department at the Peres Academic Center (Rehovot). Previously, he taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published five books and 69 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. His new book (in Hebrew, with Tali Friedman): RELIGIOUS ZIONISTS RABBIS' FREEDOM OF SPEECH: Between Halakha, Israeli Law, and Communications in Israel's Democracy (Niv Publishing, 2024). For more information about Prof. Lehman-Wilzig's publications (academic and popular), see: