Jubilees and Sacred Geography

holy-landJust as the writer of Jubilees sought to insert the Law into primeval history, so to the boundaries of the Land. Jubilees begins with the recognition that the Land is a gift from God rooted in the covenant.  Chapter 1:7-14 summarizes Israel’s history as being given the Land, and being removed from the Land.  Verse 13 especially emphasizes the connection between covenant obedience and continued presence in the Land.  In 1:15-18 the Lord tells Moses that after the people repent, he will replant them in the Land and the sanctuary will be rebuilt.

The allocation of the land of Israel to the descendants of Shem is made in documents written by Noah himself (8:10-11).

And it came to pass at the beginning of the thirty-third jubilee, that they divided the land (in) three parts, for Shem, Ham, and Japheth, according to the inheritance of each, in the first year in the first week, while one of us who were sent was dwelling with them. 11 And he called his children, and they came to him, they and their children. And he divided by lot the land which his three sons would possess. And they stretched out their hands and took the document from the bosom of Noah, their father. OTP 2:72.

Noah rejoiced that his son Shem should receive this land, and blessed his son saying “may the Lord dwell in the dwelling place of Shem” (8:18).  In this territory are the three most holy places on earth: Eden, Sinai and Zion (8:19-21).  Of the territories assigned to the three sons of Noah, only Shem’s is described as “very good,” an echo of the text of the creation story itself (8:21, cf Gen 1:31).  When Canaan sees this good land he seizes it from his brother, incurring a curse (10:30).

After the flood, Noah makes a sacrifice to atone for the defilement of the land (6:2). The description of this sacrifice in Jubilees 7:30-33 is greatly expanded from the text in Genesis 9 and is a careful interweaving of texts from the Law on the defilement of the land (Halpurn-Amaru, Rewriting the Bible, 27).  In 7:34, Noah’s sons will be like plants in the land (medr) if they are righteous.  This may echo the prophets (Jer 11:17, Amos 9:15) as well as 1 Enoch (10:16, 93:5, 10).

When Abraham is taking possession of the land for the first time, the Lord promises to give the land to Abraham’s descendants forever (15:10).  In Abraham’s farewell to his children in chapter 20 he implores his children to not worship false gods so that they will remain in the land, blessed with the good things of the land (20:6-10). This section is an echo of the blessings found in Deut 27:15; it is perhaps significant that the writer does not include an equal place to the curses of the covenant.

The emphasis on God’s gift of land to the descendants of Israel is important because many Jewish readers of this book were living outside of Judea. Perhaps the author of Jubilees places the promise of land to the time of Noah in order to assure readers of God’s promise restore the people of Israel to the land in the future, or even to encourage a return to the land at the present time.

How does this idea of land play into the Maccabean revolt? Does the view of Jubilees reflect the same sort of land-theology as 1 Maccabees or 2 Maccabees? It is even possible the idea of the land as a sacred gift of God impacts later Christian writing (and perhaps contemporary theology).


Bibliography: Betsy Halpern-Amaru, Rewriting the Bible: Land and Covenant in Post-Biblical Jewish Literature. (Valley Forge, Penn.: Trinity Press, 1994), 26.

12 thoughts on “Jubilees and Sacred Geography

  1. I’ve not read your other Jubilees posts, nor the Jubilees themselves (sadly). But your last q/statement seems to be clearly correct…. If not on the basis of Jubilees and their influence, the Heb. Bible alone seems sufficient for modern Christians AND most Israeli Jews (not sure how non-Israeli ones split) to make property rights claims. However, I’m not clear at all on how “fixed” or definite anything in the Bible (or apocrypha) is about exact boundaries.

    I don’t presume anything in international law or widely recognized among nations ever leans on ancient literature, especially that far back, to establish valid claims to national boundaries. Can you or someone enlighten me further? Especially as to how current Israelis may be using the Bible as basis for land claims? And re. the international law issue also.

    • Some modern Israelis might cite international law to support annexing territory, especially after the Six-day War. More religious Jews would cite scripture, and I am sure modern dispensationalists would agree with them on that. Many dispensationalists are extremely Zionist.

      This series has quite a bit more to go, the “land hopes” are lurking in the background of the two Jewish rebellions against Rome, and in my view, are downplayed entirely by the time the Mishnah was written (AD 250). The eschatological motivations of the two Jewish wars led to the intentional downplay of eschatology after A.D. 250, but there is always some hope for the messiah and kingdom (call it a “righteous remnant”?)

      • Glad your series will deal further with “land hopes” (and claims). I hope you also touch on the complex issue of what were potentially applicable (currently) claims re. boundaries. While I’ve not re-read most of the OT for a long time, I don’t recall that much of any definite boundary is clearly stated other than perhaps the Jordan River… But there’s “Samaria”, with its racial/ethnic mix, regions to the north and south, etc. And I’m very dubious how well even the Jordan can be substantiated AND connected to a clear genealogical line or to legally-agreed boundaries at any given historical point. I won’t go into the complications, as you probably know them much better than I do.

        You’re hitting on other important things around apocalyptic expectations, little recognized or factored-in by most Christians in terms of interpretation of the Gospels and the rest of the NT. I hope you’ll go into that in some depth also. That issue is heavily interwoven with the rebellions, with Christian origins and the development of Paul’s (and the Gospel writers’, etc., theology).

        A great source, though over 60 years old now, remains a lesser-read work of world-class scholar (who is hard to pigeon-hole), Albert Schweitzer…. “The Kingdom of God and Primitive Christianity”. Oh… also, whatever one may differ with in his conclusions, “Zealot”, by Reza Aslan, offers one of the most readable accounts of much of the intrigue, Jewish in-fighting, cultural/political/economic conditions of Jesus’ time that I know to be available. (And I’ve reviewed it on my blog, a long while back, along with Schweitzer’s book.)

      • I wonder if the Jews even knew what territory was their family line’s in the time period of the Maccabean time period? One might suspect such family records would have been lost when they were brought into exile.

  2. It is perhaps significant that the Jubilees account of Abraham’s last words do not contain an equivalent curse to the blessing given if they keep the covenant. The reason may have been due to the fact that those reading Jubilees already had a very acute understanding of what would happen if they don’t abide by the covenant. All they had to do was look at their national history in exile and their present sufferings at the hands of foreigners.
    Also, is it possible that the land-theology of Jubilees played a role in the medieval Crusades of the Holy Land?

  3. Despite having lived under other empires for many generations it is clear that Israel, in the years leading up to the Maccabean revolt, had a desire for a change of circumstance. This is based on their previous revolt attempt under the rule of the Ptolemies though this was only put down with the deposing of the high priest of the time. The only thing missing was a reason to revolt against the current empire. A reason greater than simply we want to be an independent nation. If this small desire was enough then there would be many more civil wars in our world with smaller groups vying for independence. Oppression was a significant enough of a catalyst to begin a full revolt.

  4. It is interesting to think that Canaan takes the land away from his brother, but then later on, God has promised the land of Canaan to the Israelites. Then later on, they get that land taken away from them because they anger God once again. The Israelite people seem to continuously anger God, then they cry out for him to save them from their oppression. I cannot help but wonder if they cried out to God more than we hear about when they were being persecuted by Hitler and his Nazis.

  5. The idea of the land played into the Maccabean revolt in a big way. The same land that Isreal was given by God was the land in which started the Maccabean revolt in a big way, meaning that they were attempting to get said land back due to the fact that they believed that this land was theirs from God. The view of Jubilees is almost identical to that of 1st and 2nd Maccabees. Both believed the land to be sacred.

  6. I think that an ancient allotment of the land gives support for the Maccabean revolt. Not only did the revolt restore Judah to worship God in a way that the Greeks were hindering, but it also restored the land that belonged to Judah since Noah (even long before Abraham). I also think that you make a good point that the author of Jubilees could have written this to encourage the scattered Jews to return to Palestine. Pushing back the promise of the land to Shem could make it more inspiring and convince Jews to return to the new Jewish nation.

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