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The Borders of Israel Promised to Abraham

What exactly is the extent of the land promised to Abraham in Genesis 15:18-21? It doesn’t seem to be identical to the Land of Israel God later promised to Israel and outlined in Numbers 34.

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

Thank you for your perceptive observation. In fact, in Genesis God promised Abraham the land which was then inhabited by ten nations, spanning from the Euphrates River to the “River of Egypt,” which most commentators understand to be Wadi el-Arish, a wadi in the north-eastern Sinai Peninsula. Yet to the Children of Israel God many times mentions the land of the seven nations of Canaan (e.g. Deut. 7:1), not ten. Is this a smaller promise then the one originally made to Abraham?

The Midrash explains that lands of the first three of the original ten nations were given to other members of Abraham’s family. Specifically, the land of the Keinites was given to Esau’s descendants (the nation of Edom), the Kenizzites to Lot’s son Moab, and the Kadmonites to his son Ammon. (Those two nations were granted some of Abraham’s land in the merit that their father Lot did not betray Abraham to the king of Egypt when Abraham claimed Sarah was his sister (Genesis 12).) (Source: Bereishit Rabbah 44:23, 51:6. See Rashi to Genesis 15:19 and Deuteronomy 2:5.)

The Land of Edom roughly corresponds to the southern parts of modern Israel and Jordan, south of the Dead Sea. The lands of Ammon and Moab were to the east of the Jordan River, spanning across much of western Jordan, across from the Dead Sea (Moab) and further north.

As a result, the land promised to Israel later was smaller, corresponding to the borders described in Numbers 34. In fact, God specifically warned the Children of Israel not to touch the lands of those nations which were promised to them (Deut. 2:5,9,19).

This gift to the other nations, however, was temporary. In the Messianic Era Israel will be granted the entire ten lands. This is as Isaiah 11:14 states, “Edom and Moab will be the reach of their hands, and the Children of Ammon shall obey them.” See also Deut. 12:20, which refers to a much larger Land of Israel in the future, which the Midrash explains will occur when Israel will inherit the lands of the three nations (Sifri there).

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