The Land of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob

One of the principles of Biblical study that I like to use can be summed up as follows: every word matters. This may seem obvious, but it isn’t. Think of how many details we overlook as we read the Bible because we don’t stop and ask ourselves whether a particular word or phrase is necessary for the simple meaning of the text. But if we pay attention to every word, we will discover layers of meaning that we would never have seen had we not read carefully.

Why mention the forefathers by name?

I mention this because of a phrase in our verse that is so common that most of us would never think to explore it. After describing the promised land as “the land which the Lord swore to give to your fathers,” what is added by naming the fathers, “to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob”? Don’t we know who the fathers were?

The Jewish sages of the first-century address this issue in our verse:

“Which the Lord swore to give to your fathers.” What is to be learned from naming Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? Abraham was worthy of the land on his own. Isaac was worthy of the land on his own. And Jacob was worthy of the land on his own. – Sifre Devarim 8

The sages suggest that each of the three patriarchs is mentioned to draw our attention to their independent merit. Each of the three patriarchs alone was worthy of the promise of land.

Let’s explore this comment by the Jewish sages. Besides the simple message that all three of the patriarchs were great enough that each one would have merited the promise of land independently, what deeper understanding may we derive from this teaching?

Three different relationships to the land

Although Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob each received the land promise from God, their respective relationships to the land were not the same.

Abraham was not native to the promised land. As we know, God called on Abraham to uproot himself from his birthplace and relocate to the land of Canaan. Abraham was an immigrant. His connection to the land was based solely on the call of God, telling him to go there. And God’s promise of the land to Abraham occurred shortly after he arrived by God’s command.

Isaac, in contrast, was not only born in the land, but he also lived there his entire life. Never once did Isaac leave. But Isaac’s relationship with the land goes beyond the fact that he was born there. After his father Abraham signed a treaty with Abimelech, ceding ownership of parts of the promised land to the Philistines, Isaac arrived and reasserted his ownership over these areas. In fact, God promised the land to Isaac upon Isaac’s arrival in this Philistine-controlled territory. After the Philistines stopped up the wells Abraham had dug, Isaac re-dug them and gave them their original names. Isaac was also the only one of the patriarchs who was a farmer, making him far more connected to the land than his herdsman father and son. Isaac’s primary mission in life was the assertion of ownership over the land of Israel. He was born in the land. He lived in the land. He died in the land.

Although Jacob was born in the land of Israel, he lived much of his life outside of it. Jacob was the first of the patriarchs to go into exile. Interestingly, God’s promise of the land to Jacob was made just as Jacob was on his way out of the land for the first time. 

He had a dream, and behold, a ladder was set on the earth with its top reaching to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And behold, the Lord stood atop it and said, “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie, I will give it to you and to your descendants.”Genesis 28:12-13

Jacob returned 22 years later only to go into exile again, spending the final 17 years of his life in Egypt. On his deathbed, Jacob insisted that his body be buried in the promised land (Gen. 47:29).

I’d like to suggest that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, represent three different relationships to the land of Israel by the people of Israel. 

Three lessons about the land

Abraham represents the call of God to go to the land. Abraham was the first to uproot himself from his birthplace and homeland and relocate to a new land, heeding the call of God. Abraham’s journey to the land because of God’s call is the first pilgrimage journey recorded in the Bible. We might suggest that every pilgrimage to seek the God of Israel in the land of Israel is an extension of that first journey. In the tradition of Abraham, almost all the millions of Jews who live in Israel today either uprooted themselves from the lands of their births or are the children or grandchildren of those who did. To put it simply, Abraham represents pilgrimage to the land.

Isaac represents Jewish sovereignty in the land. As I mentioned, Isaac never left the land. He was a native. He spent much of his life asserting ownership over lands that were in dispute with his neighbors. He planted. He dug wells. He made his sovereignty over the land clear to all. Isaac represents the fact that the Jewish people are natives of the land, that it is our national home.

Finally, Jacob spent much of his life in exile, including his final years. This may not seem like a good example of a relationship with the land. Ironically, the opposite is true. Allow me to explain. So long as someone lives in the land in which they were born, we might assume that their connection to the land is contingent on their living there. Perhaps if they left the land, whether by force or by choice, their commitment to their native land would fade into the past. With many immigrants, this is exactly what happens.

But Jacob never lost his commitment to the land. He kept his vow to God to return to the land. Later, even as he realized that he would die in Egypt, he insisted that he be buried in the land. Jacob’s persistent commitment and identification with God’s promised land is the Jewish experience for most of our history. Wherever Jews have been scattered, and no matter how long the exile lasted, Jews everywhere never gave up the hope and dream of returning to our homeland. This commitment to the land of Israel despite thousands of years of exile is the extension of Jacob’s relationship to the land.

Each of the patriarchs set an example of a specific relationship to God’s promised land. And as the verse concludes, all these relationships have simultaneously continued through “their descendants after them.”

The Jewish people’s relationship to the land of Israel is threefold. God told us to go there to build our nation. It is our homeland where we are sovereign. And we never lost our identification with the land, despite thousands of years in exile. This is the legacy of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

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Rabbi Pesach Wolicki

Rabbi Pesach Wolicki is the Executive Director of Israel365 Action and the author of Verses for Zion and Cup of Salvation: A Powerful Journey Through King David's Psalms of Praise. He is a frequent guest on Erick Stakelbeck's The Watchman and a regular contributor to Israel365news.com and The Jerusalem Post.

Rabbi Pesach Wolicki

Rabbi Pesach Wolicki is the Executive Director of Israel365 Action and the author of Verses for Zion and Cup of Salvation: A Powerful Journey Through King David's Psalms of Praise. He is a frequent guest on Erick Stakelbeck's The Watchman and a regular contributor to Israel365news.com and The Jerusalem Post.

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