Bas Krins
Being a Biblically faithful Christian today.

The borders of the promised land

God promises Abraham the land of Canaan. This promise is later repeated to Moses and Joshua. In this article we want to explore the boundaries of the land that God promised to Abraham and his descendants.
After God promised Abraham a son[i], He also promises Abraham that his descendants will return to the area where Abraham was staying after a period of 400 years of oppression:

In that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, Unto your seed will I give this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates: the Kenite, the Kenizzite, the Kadmonite, the Hittite, the Perizzite, the Rephaim, the Amorite, the Canaanite, the Girgasite, and the Jebusite[ii].

This text raises several questions. What is meant by the river of Egypt? And is the Euphrates the northeastern border or also the eastern border of the country? And where should we locate the ten nations? Various interpreters think of the river of Egypt as the Wadi-el-Arish, a stream 150 km. east of the Nile. However, ancient Aramaic translations (the so-called Targums) and ancient Jewish commentaries indicate that the Nile is meant here. This probably refers to an eastern branch of the Nile, the so-called Pelusian Nile, which no longer exists. Egyptian inscriptions from the 19th dynasty (approx. 1300 - 1200 BC) indicate that this eastern branch was indeed considered the border of Egypt. Near this branch of the Nile used to be the town of El-Arish, 100 km. further west than the current place of that name and the Wadi-el-Arish. The Israelites set out for the Promised Land from Succoth[iii], which means “palm huts,” and in Arabic is El-Arish. That would mean that they crossed the border into Egypt almost immediately.

The second question is what we should imagine the Euphrates as a border. We must realize that Abraham is in Haran when God calls Him:

And the LORD said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father's house, unto the land that I will shew thee[iv].

Haran is located in the southeast of modern-day Turkey. To go from Haran to the land of Canaan, the Euphrates must be crossed. It is very possible that when God mentions the Euphrates as a border, He is referring to this and therefore means the Euphrates as a border in the northeast of the country. It is not clear whether the Euphrates is also intended as an eastern border, and therefore a large part of present-day Syria and Iraq also belong to the promised land. We can get a better idea of ​​the size of the promised land by looking at the list of nations. Based on the data from the Bible we can locate the ten nations as follows:

  • Moses' father-in-law is called both a Kenite [v] and a Midianite [vi], which means that these names correspond. They lived south and southeast of Canaan [vii].
  • The Kenizzites are most likely descendants of Kenaz, grandson of Esau[viii]. Then they were Edomites [ix], who lived south of the Dead Sea.
  • We do not know where the Kadmonites - the name means 'those from the east' - lived.
  • The Hittites are mentioned frequently in the Old Testament. For example, Abraham bought a grave from the Hittites to bury Sarah, so we know that this people must have lived near Hebron [x].
  • The Perizzites lived in the mountains [xi], in the region of Ephraim and the half-tribe of Manasseh [xii], so in the north.
  • The Rephaim were giants [xiii] who lived mainly east of the Jordan.
  • The Amorites lived both east and west of the Jordan [xiv].
  • Canaanite is a general term for an inhabitant of the land of Canaan, but in all likelihood it referred specifically to the peoples of the coastal region [xv].
  • The Girgasites probably lived in the region where the Gergesenes or Gadarenes later lived, near the Lake of Gennesaret east of the Sea of ​​Galilee.
  • Jebus is the original name for Jerusalem, and the Jebusites must therefore be looked for in that area [xvi].

If we put all the data together, we get the impression that the area promised to Abraham is bordered in the south by the desert - the Sinai desert is still part of the country - in the west by the Mediterranean Sea, in the northeast by the Euphrates and to the east extends as far as the area was inhabited at that time. That's not all the way to the Euphrates. In between was a large desert that was uninhabited.
In Genesis 17 the land promise is repeated. To the descendants of Abram, who from now on will be called Abraham [xvii], the entire land of Canaan is promised [xviii]. That seems like a curtailment of the original land promise. The reason for this may lie in the sequel. In what follows we read how God makes a covenant with Abraham and institutes circumcision as a sign thereof. Three times it is indicated that Ishmael is the first to be circumcised [xix]. But that does not alter the fact that God places the son of Sarah, who from this moment on is called Sarai [xx], in a special place. Although Ishmael will be blessed, be fruitful and father twelve princes [xxi], God's covenant will be established with Isaac as stated twice by God [xxii]. And it seems that the land of Canaan is promised to the descendants of Isaac. And the rest of the territory between the Nile and the Euphrates to the descendants of Ishmael, the Arabs. This corresponds reasonably well with the area where, according to Genesis, the sons of Ishmael lived, namely from Havilah to Shur, which is east of Egypt, towards Assyria [xxiii]. It is striking that this situation closely resembles current reality [xxiv]. Abraham later had six more children by another woman, Ketura. We read that Abraham sends this woman and children away to the east. It is not clear what else became of these children. We must realize that the land promise to Abraham and his descendants is unconditional, and therefore not dependent on the faith of his descendants. This means that this promise now applies to both Jews and Arabs, despite the fact that most of them do not believe in Jesus the Messiah.
There are theologians who argue that God's Covenant with Abraham runs through the line of Isaac and Jacob, and that this also applies to the land promise. This means that the descendants of Ishmael and the descendants of Esau would not be able to rely on the land promise that God made to their (grand)father. The question is whether this is correct.
When Moses addresses the people before the people enter the promised land, Moses looks back on the nations that have already been conquered. And then it is noticeable that the people first pass through the territory of Esau's descendants without being allowed to take it – 'I will not give you even a foot's breadth of their land, because I have given Mount Seir to Esau for a possession' [xxv ] - and then they compassed Moab [xxvi] and Amon [xxvii], and the people conquered Sihon king of Heshbon [xxviii] and Og king of Bashan [xxix] and gave the territory to Reuben, Gad, and give the half tribe of Manasseh [xxx]. The Moabites and the Amonites were descendants of Lot and his daughters [xxxi]. This means that in the conquests of territory one had to take into account the area where Esau's descendants had settled and even the living area of ​​Lot's descendants, who were not strictly speaking descendants of Abraham since Lot was Abraham's cousin [xxxii ].
When God calls Moses, He promises to bring the people out of Egypt to the land of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites [xxxiii]. In other lists the Girgasites are mentioned [xxxiv], which brings us to seven peoples. Paul also talks about seven nations that God had exterminated [xxxv]. It is striking that this list is shorter than the list promised to Abraham, and that six of the seven also appear in Abraham's list. Only the Hivites are not in Abraham's list. The Hivites were descendants of Canaan the son of Ham. Considering their places of residence [xxxvi] they lived in the area north of Jerusalem. Later we read how God promises Moses to destroy the Amorite, the Hittite, the Perizzite, the Canaanite, the Hivite and the Jebusite [xxxvii]. The area is then described as follows up to the Euphrates:

And I will give you the territory from the Red Sea [or: Reed Sea] to the Sea of ​​the Philistines, and from the wilderness to the River Euphrates, for I will bring the inhabitants of the land into your hand. so that you may drive them out from before you [xxxviii].

Although the precise location of the Reed Sea is not known, it is generally thought to be at the northern tip of the Gulf of Aqaba, where reeds grew because the water there was fresh. In that case, the borders are the Gulf of Aqaba in the southeast, the Mediterranean Sea in the west, the Sinai desert in the south and the Euphrates in the north. In Deuteronomy Moses talks about the area described as follows:

Every place that the sole of your foot treads will be yours; from the wilderness unto Lebanon, from the river Euphrates unto the western sea[xxxix].

Moses himself is here in the OverJordanian region, and before the people are about to cross the Jordan, the eastern border, he describes the southern, northern and western borders.
A point of attention is the settlement of 2½ tribes in Overjordan. Before the people cross the Jordan, the tribes of Gad and Reuben ask Moses for permission to settle in the land east of the Jordan [xl]. Moses reacts indignantly and only after these tribes have agreed to fight to conquer the promised land does Moses give permission. Later in the description of the division of the land we read that half the tribe of Manasseh also settled on the eastern side of the Jordan [xli]. Yet the question remains whether these areas belonged to the promised land. When the borders of the country are described a little later, the Jordan turns out to be the border [xlii]. And when the promised land has been conquered and the warriors of the 2½ tribe are finally allowed to go to their own area, it becomes clear again from the description that this area does not belong to the actual promised land [xliiii].
After Moses dies, God speaks to Joshua as He is about to cross the Jordan. The territory that God promises to give to the Israelites is described as follows:

Every place that the sole of your foot shall tread, I will give it to you, as I spoke to Moses. From the wilderness and Lebanon yonder even to the great river, the river Euphrates, all the land of the Hittites, and even to the Great Sea on the west shall be your territory [xliv].

This description is very similar to the description from Deuteronomy. Joshua speaks to the people, shortly before crossing the Jordan, about driving out the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Hivites, the Perizzites, the Girgashites, the Amorites and the Jebusites [xlv]. This is the aforementioned list of seven nations.
In Numbers and Joshua we find a description of the territory that the twelve tribes were ultimately assigned. Two and a half tribes were located on the eastern side of the Jordan [xlvi], the remaining nine and a half tribes were located between the Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea [xlvii]. A different term is used for the southern border of the area than in Genesis in the promise to Abraham. Abraham spoke of the river of Egypt, here we speak of the brook (NBG) or wadi (NBV) of Egypt. This probably refers to the Wadi-el-Arish. We know from Judges, among others, that large parts of the assigned area were not initially taken possession [xlviii]. Only centuries later, in the time of King Solomon, did Israel actually reach this size. It is notable that David also conquered Moab, Ammon and Edom [xlix], areas that God had instructed Moses to leave alone [l].
Noteworthy is the description of the borders of the land of Israel in Ezekiel's vision [li]. Ezekiel places all the tribes on the western side of the Jordan. The area where all the tribes are located is virtually the same as the area described in Numbers as territory for the 9½ tribe, i.e. excluding the 2½ tribes that were housed in the Overjordan and excluding the Sinai Desert.
How are we to understand the different descriptions of the territory promised to Abraham and Moses? The descendants of Abraham, the people of Israel and the Arabs, are promised an area that is larger than the area promised to Moses. From the descriptions we get the impression that the area promised to Moses and Joshua reasonably corresponds to the area that the people ultimately had under the reign of Solomon. The areas that are promised to the descendants of Abraham and not to Moses seem to be located mainly to the east and south of this area.
As mentioned earlier, the land promise to Abraham is unconditional. However, the promise to Moses is linked to the loyalty of the people of Israel to the covenant. If Israel does not keep the covenant, the land will spit out the people [lii].
Joshua's assignment to conquer the land must be seen as a one-time assignment. God wanted - once - to drive out the unclean nations to sanctify the land [liiii]. What is striking is the great value that the law of Moses attaches to reverence and respect for the stranger. Strangers were not to be oppressed [liv] but were to be loved as oneself [lv]. This is the general rule for the nation of Israel; expelling the pagan peoples was a one-time assignment.
The land promise has been fulfilled. The people have taken possession of the promised land. Centuries later, first the ten-tribe kingdom and later the two-tribe kingdom are taken into exile because of the sins of the people. But then the prophets indicate that both empires will return from exile to the land of Israel. The fulfillment of the promise of return from the Assyrian captivity is still largely open. In addition, we may wonder whether the fulfillment of the return from the Babylonian captivity was fully fulfilled in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, or whether this also contains a promise for the present time. For a return to the land of Israel it is necessary that there is a land of Israel. There have been theologians who, long before 1948, for this reason anticipated that a state of Israel would be established again. In that sense, it is clear that the founding of the state of Israel fits into God's plan. However, it should be noted that most Jews are not religious, and only a very small number of Jews believe in the Messiah. Can we rely on God's promises to Abraham, Moses and Joshua when establishing the legitimate boundaries of the land of Israel? Or should we wait until many of the Jews convert to the Messiah before the land can be claimed?
Clearly, there are many questions to be asked about the contemporary political consequences of the Biblical land promise. After all, if we compare the contemporary map of the Middle East with the promised land, we see that the latter includes the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, Lebanon and part of Syria. This raises many curious questions about the future, but these cannot be answered from the Bible.


Bas Krins



[i] Gen. 15:1-6

[ii] Gen. 15:18

[iii] Ex. 13:18-20

[iv] Gen. 12:1. In Hand. 7:2-4 Stephen talks about a calling in Ur. See also Gen. 15:7.

[v] Richt. 1:16

[vi] Num. 10:29

[vii] See f.i. Num. 24:20-21 and 1 Sam. 15:6

[viii] Gen. 36:11

[ix] Edomites is the name we give to the descendants of Esau. In Gen. 25:30 we read: 'Quick, give me some of that red food you are cooking there, I am exhausted,' Esau said to Jacob. That is why it is also called Edom. (Based on word play between 'red' and Edom).

[x] Gen. 23:10; Num. 13:29

[xi] Joz. 11:3

[xii] Joz. 17:15

[xiii] Deut. 2:10

[xiv] Deut. 1:4,7; 2:24; 3:3; 4:47; 31:4; Num. 13:29; 21:21-35; Joz. 2:10; 9:10; etc.

[xv] Joz. 5:1

[xvi] Richt. 1:12; 2 Sam. 5:6

[xvii] Gen. 17:5

[xviii] Gen. 17:8

[xix] Gen. 17:23,25,26

[xx] Gen. 17:15

[xxi] Gen. 17:20; strikingly parallel to the 12 tribes of his half-brother Isaac. In Gen. 25:12-15 we read that Ishmael has 12 sons.

[xxii] Gen. 17:19,21

[xxiii] Gen. 25:18

[xxiv] Thanks to Jaap Bönker who notes this in his book “De God van Abraham, Isaak én Ishmaël”.

[xxv] Deut. 2:5

[xxvi] Deut. 2:9

[xxvii] Deut. 2:19

[xxviii] Deut. 2:24-36

[xxix] Deut. 3:1-7

[xxx] Deut. 3:12-17

[xxxi] Gen. 19:30-36

[xxxii] Gen. 12:5

[xxxiii] Ex. 3:8,17. See also: Ex. 23:23; Deut. 20:17; Joz. 12:8; Richt. 3:5

[xxxiv] Deut. 7:1; Joz. 3:10; 24:11,12,18

[xxxv] Hand. 13:19

[xxxvi] Gen. 34:2; Joz. 9:7; 11:3

[xxxvii] Ex. 23:23

[xxxviii] Ex. 23:31. Moses refers to it in Deut. 1:7.

[xxxix] Deut. 11:24

[xl] Num. 32:1-5

[xli] Num. 32:33

[xlii] Num. 34 e.v.; see also Num. 35:10

[xliii] Joz. 22

[xliv] Joz. 1:3-4

[xlv] Joz. 3:10; see also Deut. 7:1

[xlvi] Num. 32:33-42; Joz. 13:8-33

[xlvii] Num. 34; Joz. 13:1-7; 14-19

[xlviii] Richt. 1:1-3:6

[xlix] 2 Sam. 8:1-14

[l] Deut. 2

[li] Ez. 48:1-29

[lii] Lev. 18:25-28

[liii] Lev. 18:24

[liv] Ex. 22:21, 23:9; Lev. 19:33-34

[lv] Lev. 19:34