Promised land and land theft

Roy H. May Jr.

June 3, 2003

Joshua and the Promised Land

A historical look at how various societies have used the concept of “promised land” to justify the taking and keeping of land, and how moral authority is manipulated to exploit, oppress, and even wipe out populations. 


We can begin with the Crusades. During the Middle Ages, European Christians launched military campaigns to take the Holy Land from the Muslims. Early on the Crusaders took Jericho. Following the example of Joshua 6, they marched around the city led by clergy carrying sacred banners and pictures of Christian saints. When the walls did not fall down as expected, they attacked and overran the city. Then they massacred the inhabitants. Jews were locked in their synagogue and burned alive. Even some of the Crusaders were horrified by the slaughter. (10)

The Crusaders could have argued that the Bible was on their side. After all, Joshua commanded that “the city and all that is in it shall be devoted to the Lord for destruction” (6:17). The writer reports that they did just that — killing “by the edge of the sword all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkey” (6:21). “They burned down the city, and everything in it” (6:24). For the Crusaders, the Book of Joshua was a blueprint for their military campaigns.

The Crusades occurred a long time ago [read more about the crusades]. We can find stories closer to our own times: the colonial enterprise in the Americas, the establishment of apartheid in South Africa, and the creation of modern Israel.

America, the New Israel
“We shall be as a City upon a Hill, they eyes of all people are upon us…,” the Puritan John Winthrop wrote. The Puritans who disembarked in Massachusetts in 1620 believed they were establishing the New Israel. Indeed, the whole colonial enterprise was believed to have been guided by God. “God has opened this passage unto us,” Alexander Whitaker preached from Virginia in 1613, “and led us by the hand unto this work.”

Promised Land imagery figured prominently in shaping English colonial thought. The Pilgrims identified themselves with the ancient Hebrews. They viewed the New World and the New Canaan. They were God’s chosen people headed for the Promised Land. Other colonists believed they, too, had been divinely called. The settlers in Virginia were, John Rolf said, “a peculiar people, marked and chosen by the finger of God.”

This self-image of being God’s Chosen People called to establish the New Israel became an integral theme in America’s self-interpretation. During the revolutionary period, it emerged with new force. “We cannot but acknowledge that God hath graciously patronized our cause and taken us under his special care, as he did his ancient covenant people,” Samuel Langdon preached at Concord, New Hampshire in 1788. George Washington was the &American Joshua,” and “Never was the possession of arms used with more glory, or in a better cause, since the days of Joshua and the son of Nun,” Ezra Stiles urged in Connecticut in 1783. In 1776, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson wanted Promised Land images for the new nation’s Great Seal. Franklin proposed Moses dividing the Red (Reed) Sea with Pharaoh’s army being overwhelmed by the closing waters. Jefferson urged a representation of the Israelites being led in the wilderness by the pillar of fire by night and the cloud by day. Later, in his second inaugural address (1805), Jefferson again recalled the Promised Land. “I shall need…the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our fathers, as Israel of old, from their native land and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessities and comforts of life.” (11)

The sense of divine election and the identification of the Americas with ancient Canaan were used to justify expelling America’s Indigenous Peoples from their land. The colonists saw themselves as confronting “satanic forces” in the Native Americans. They were Canaanites to be destroyed or thrown out.

Since the Europeans arrived in North America, Indigenous Peoples have lost millions of acres of land. Theft, murder and warfare, forced removal, deception, and official government land programs have deprived them of their territories. Land rights of Native Americans were never taken seriously. Rather, they were seen as obstacles to the colonists’ need for land. The Puritans did not respect the farms of Native Americans. They sought “legal” ways to get their land. If a Native American broke one of the rigid Puritan religious laws, the fine was paid by giving up land. In this manner, some Puritans were able to amass large landholdings through the Massachusetts courts. John Winthrop, for example, obtained some 1,260 acres along the Concord River. (12)

Native Americans had a very different idea about land. “Originally there were no lands owned by individual Indians. All land was held in tribal status, and its tribal governing body, the council, or headmen would allot pieces of land for each family to use,” two Native-American scholars explain. (13) The Pilgrim idea of land was based on individual, private holdings. How ironic for a people who modeled themselves on ancient Israel! As we saw in chapter 3, ancient Israel’s understanding of the land and its distribution was more like the Native-American idea of land than their own. That was overlooked by the Pilgrims!

Most land was taken violently. First of all, Europeans brought diseases that killed several million Native Americans within a few years. These great killings left land “vacant” and “available” to the colonists. Then there was war. When the 1600s ended, most Native Americans in New England had been killed or driven away.

In England,John Wesley, Methodism’s founder, was appalled by the atrocities Europeans committed against Native Americans. He poured out his moral outrage on European Christians, including the English colonists. In his sermon “A Caution Against Bigotry,” Wesley doesn’t gloss over anything:

Even in cruelty and bloodshed, how little have the Christians come behind them! And not the Spaniards or the Portuguese alone, butchering thousands in South America; not the Dutch only in the East Indies, or the French in North America, following the Spaniards step by step: our own countrymen, too, have wantoned in blood, and exterminated whole nations; plainly proving thereby what spirit it is that dwells and works in the children of disobedience.(14)

Tragically few listened to Wesley.

Warfare against Native Americans continued until the end of the nineteenth century as the United States moved westward. This expansion was inspired by the nation’s “manifest destiny.” Manifest destiny was the belief that the United States was destined or chosen to occupy all the geographical territory between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. This idea was very popular in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Native Americans were viewed as obstacles to “manifest destiny.”

The wars removed Native Americans from their homelands. For example, from the 1820s until the 1840s the Cherokees, Choctaws and other members of the Five Civilized Tribes were expelled from the Deep South to Oklahoma. These forced marches to Oklahoma are known as the “Trail of Tears” because of the disease, suffering, and massive number of deaths the tribes experienced, and the grief they felt in leaving their homes. Some years later (1864) in the far southwest, 8,500 citizens of the Navajo Nation were forced out of their homelands. Their removal to a confinement camp in New Mexico is remembered bitterly as “The Long Walk.” Throughout the nineteenth century there were countless military clashes between Native Americans and the United States Army supporting white settlers.

After 1854, the United States government adopted a general policy that undermined Native-American culture by replacing traditional forms of land ownership. Now land was allotted or given to individual Native Americans. Land not parceled out to Native Americans became government property. This land was then passed on to European Americans for railroads, homesteading, mining, and other purposes. The General Allotment Act passed in 1887 pushed this policy even harder. Native Americans were forced to conform to white culture. This Act was finally rescinded in 1934. The result was that through allotment, Native Americans lost millions of acres of their original territories. (15)

Access to land, water, minerals, and timber are still key issues. During the 1970s and 1980s, a bitter conflict over these rights exploded on the Hopi and Navajo Reservation at Four Corners, where Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico meet. This is the land the Navajo Nation received when released from the confinement camp following “The Long Walk.” Rich deposits of coal, uranium and other valuable minerals were located in the Black Mesa and Big Mountain area. These lands, however, are sacred to the Navajo people. They are integral to their religious traditions. Strip mining for coal had already been allowed by the United States government. Uranium mines were operating in nearby areas.

Beginning early in the twentieth century, non-Native Americans and mining and energy companies wanted access to this vast mineral wealth. The Navajo resisted. Pressure intensified by the 1970s. However, not only was the land sacred, but the area was also disputed between Hopi and Navajo Nations because the reservations assigned them included overlapping lands. There was also conflict between Navajo who wished to conserve their traditional religion and way of life, and others who wanted modern development to occur. Mineral developers and the United States government manipulated and exploited the conflict to their own benefit.

Congress, backing the private U.S. companies, passed the Hopi-Navajo Land Settlement Act in 1974. It divided 1.8 million jointly-owned acres between the Hopi and Navajo Nations. For nearly a hundred years the two people had shared the land. The Act also required the relocation of between 10-15,000 Navajo and about 100 Hopi.

The cost to the Hopi and Navajo peoples has been high. It has left divisions between the two nations, conflict over the meaning of the land, severe hardship for those forced to move, and serious environmental contamination. Above all, it has meant the loss of sacred sites that cannot be replaced. (16)

Even when mineral rights are not the issue, Whites have access to Native American lands. By 1985, for instance, over half of the Pine Ridge Sioux Reservation in South Dakota was being used by non-Native Americans. (17) As noted in chapter 2, disputes with Whites continue through lawsuits brought by Native Americans to recover or defend traditional lands. Today Native Americans are the most poverty-stricken of all United States citizens. (18). Land continues to be a critical issue.

While the English were building the New Israel in North America, Spain and Portugal were conquering Central and South America. The conquest of Canaan was the model for their invasion of America. Mexican biblical scholar Elsa Támez explains:

The story of the conquest of Canaan is the most often used biblical foundation for the conquest of this continent. Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda [a prominent and influential Spanish philosopher of the 16th century] used this biblical theme to legitimate the war against its inhabitants…He justified the conquest in order to punish blasphemy, but also because the continent was a special donation by God, as the promised land (The Pope as Christ’s vicar had the authority to give the lands). God chose the Spanish to carry out this divine judgment against the infidels, and to conquer their lands. From this Sepúlveda affirmed that such a war besides being licit, was necessary because of the gravity of the people’s concerns. (19)

There were voices to the contrary. The loudest belonged to Bartolomé de las Casas (1474-1566). For many years he bravely defended Indigenous Peoples against the conquistadores. Most Spaniards, however, believed in the righteousness of their cause. They also believed that Native Americans were “naturally wicked.” “God condemned the whole race of Indians to perish, for the horrible sins committed in their paganism,” a priest declared. A popular saying said it: “Just as Joshua was willed by God to destroy the people of Canaan because they were idolaters, thus God willed Spain to destroy the Indians.” (20)

No wonder some Native Americans reject Promised Land theology! As pointed out in the introduction, Robert Allen Warrior reads the Exodus and Promised Land stories “with Canaanite eyes.” A member of the Osage Nation, he says:

Thus, the narrative tells us that the Canaanites have status only as the people of Yahweh removes from the land in order to bring the chosen people in. They are not to be trusted, nor are they to be allowed to enter into social relationships with the people of Israel. They are wicked, and their religion is to be avoided at all costs. The laws put forth regarding strangers and sojourners may have stopped the people of Yahweh from wanton oppression, but presumably only after the land was safely in the hands of Israel. The covenant of Yahweh depends on this.” (21)

From this viewpoint, the biblical texts are hardly saving messages! Rather, they are excuses for conquest and genocide.

Afrikaners and the “Great Trek”
When Nelson Mandela was elected President of South Africa in 1994, nearly fifty years of official rigid racial segregation called apartheid ended. Apartheid became official policy following the 1948 electoral victory by the National Party. That party’s ideological roots were in the historical experience of the Dutch-origin “Afrikaners.” Especially important was their sense of divine election. They too understood themselves as God’s Chosen People. South Africa was their Promised Land. Indeed, through the years the Chaplain’s Services of the South African Defense Forces appealed to Holy War to justify military enforcement of the country’s rigid racial segregation. (22)

The Dutch arrived on the tip of Africa in 1652 when the Dutch East India Company set up an outpost. Soon after, the company began bringing settlers from Holland. They became known as the “Boers” or “farmers.” However in 1814, the Netherlands ceded its south African territory to the British. Six years later the first English colonists arrived. From then on, the two European groups were in constant conflict over land, minerals, culture and language, and government power.

The Afrikaners believed the British persecuted Dutch settlers. Finally in 1836, the Afrikaners abandoned the Cape area. They set out for the Transvaal region in the north to establish their own republic. This movement north became known as the “Great Trek.” Is their minds it “forms the national epic — formal proof of God’s election of the Afrikaner people and His special destiny for them.” (23) As they set out in covered wagons, according to their viewpoint:

They were followed by the British army, like that of Pharaoh, and everywhere were beset by the unbelieving black “Canaanites.” Yet because God’s people acted according His will, He delivered them out of the hands of their enemies and gave them their freedom in the promised land. (24)

Many Afrikaners died during the trek. Others were killed in battles with Africans. The decisive battle was at Blood River on December 16, 1838. Some 10,000 Zulu warriors attacked the trekkers. Over 3,000 Zulus were killed. No Afrikaners died. The Afrikaners attributed their victory to God’s intervention. They said it was a covenant God made with them. They established their own republic, but continued to be in conflict with the British over land and minerals. The Afrikaners defeated the British in 1880-1881 in the first Anglo-Boer War. The second Anglo-Boer War ended with the Afrikaners’ decisive defeat in 1902.

This bitter historical experience was perceived as the “sacred saga of Afrikanerdom.” (25) Old Testament stories, especially from the Exodus and Promised Land traditions, were prominent. They were guiding images for their self-understanding. An Afrikaner poet put it this way:

But see! the world becomes wilder;
the fierce vermin worsen,
stark naked black hordes,
following tyrants.
How the handful of trekkers suffer,
the freedom seekers, creators of a People.
Just like another Israel,
by enemies surrounded, lost in the veld,
but for another Canaan elected,
led forward by God’s plan. (26)

The Afrikaners were the Covenant People. Land was central to this self-image. An historian explains, “The very spine of Afrikaner history (no less than the historical sense of the Hebrew scriptures upon which it is based) involves the winning of the ‘the Land’ from alien, and indeed evil forces.” (27) The land had to be redeemed. These alien and evil forces included the British, but especially the indigenous Africans. They were viewed as inferior. They were Canaanites destined to be the servants of the Afrikaners. (28) Over the years black Africans were thrown off their farms and grazing land so that extremely few continued to live in the rural areas as landholders.

This saga, viewed as sacred by the Afrikaners, crystallized their cultural identity. It found its political expression and program in the National Party. This program was based on racial separateness and the belief that Afrikaners were set apart for a special mission in God’s designs for political organization. Apartheid and Promised Land went hand in hand.

It’s not surprising that some black South African Christians reject the biblical texts on Exodus and Promised Land. Itumeleng J. Mosala argues that, since these texts have been used to justify oppression of black Africans, they have lost their moral authority.


Protestations to the effect that white people are misusing the Bible have neither empowered black people to deliver themselves from this white slavery nor successfully explained to anybody, except the beneficiaries of apartheid, why such a tradition of conquest exists in the Bible in the first place. My contention is that the only adequate and honest explanation is that not all the Bible is on the side of human rights or of oppressed and exploited people.


From his perspective, the stories are “codes” to justify domination. (29)

Israel in Palestine
Today’s Jews are quickly associated with the Promised Land of Joshua’s time. However, the establishment of the State of Israel by the United Nations in 1948 raises many questions about that relationship. Palestine already was populated by over a half million people. Most were poor Arab farmers and artisans living in villages. Jewish settlers had been arriving for many years. They had purchased large sections of the land (usually from the few, big Palestinian landowners). By 1948, Palestine was a patchwork of Jews and Palestinians, most of whom were Arabs. That changed dramatically after Israel became a nation state.

War broke out immediately between the new country and surrounding Arab nations. Over 725,000 Palestinians sought refuge in nearby lands, mainly in Lebanon. Following the war, the Israeli government began forcibly removing Palestinians from their lands. It also severely restricted Palestinian civil liberties and participation in the national economy. Between 1948 and 1967, nearly 400 Palestinian villages were completely razed. Almost all farmland owned by Palestinians was confiscated. Palestinian farmers were left with only small parcels of poor land. By the 1970s, more than half of it was in the Negeb desert region. (30)

Religious beliefs about the Promised Land were not the bases of the Zionist movements that called for Israel’s creation. What moved early Zionists were concerns for the political and cultural security of Jews. Most of the leading voices and founders of Israel, such as David Ben-Gurion, were secular Jews. Still, an historian points out that most Jewish settlers undoubtedly believed “that they had in some way been chosen to ‘redeem the Land’ and to displace the modern equivalent of the Philistines and Canaanites.” (31) For that reason, secular political leaders drew on Promised Land imagery to justify their politics.

Following the “Six Day War” in 1967, religious arguments for Israel’s occupation of the land were central. Israel’s quick, military victory stimulated a series of highly visible and influential religious movements aimed at “redeeming the land.” (32) For Israel, the question of land was a matter neither of economics nor of national security. The reason for taking and keeping the “occupied territories” was religious obligation. These territories rightfully belonged to the Jews and should not be returned, as one leader said, “because wars of conquest were mandatory in Jewish tradition in order to redeem the Holy Land.” (33) An historian explains what happened when religion and politics were joined:

By going back to the earliest scriptural texts, the parts of the Bible that defined the Promised Land and told the people to conquer it, the religious purpose of the Israeli people was declared to be the same as the purpose of the state, so long as it kept and colonized the “occupied territories.” Thus, twentieth-century Israeli nationalism and some of the most ancient parts of the original Hebrew covenant were joined. (34)

The old stories of Exodus and Promised Land became justifications for expelling thousands of Palestinians who had lived in the land for generations. As might be expected, many Palestinian Christians find little value in these biblical accounts. Naim S. Ateek, an Anglican priest in Jerusalem, explains:

The God of the Bible, hitherto the God who saves and liberates, has come to be viewed by Palestinians as partial and discriminating. Before the creation of the State [of Israel], the Old Testament was considered to be an essential part of Christian Scripture, pointing and witnessing to Jesus. Since the creation of the State, some Jewish and Christian interpreters have read the Old Testament largely as a Zionist text to such an extent that it has become almost repugnant to Palestinian Christians… The fundamental question of many Christians, whether uttered or not, is: How can the Old Testament be the Word of God in light of the Palestinian Christians’ experience with its use to support Zionism? (35)


10.. Robert C. Boling, Joshua: A New Translation with Notes and Commentary, The Anchor Bible (Garden City: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1982), p. 211. (return to text)

11. Conrad Cherry (ed.), God’s New Israel: Religious Interpretations of American Destiny (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1971). The quotations are from this book: Winthrop p. 43; Whitaker p. 33; Rolf p. 26; Landon p. 99; Stiles p. 88; and Jefferson p. 65. The information about the Great Seal is found on p. 65. Se also, Joseph Gaer and Ben Siegal, The Puritan Heritage: American Roots in the Bible (New York: A Mentor Book/The New American Library; 1964). (return to text)

12. Hans Koning, The Conquest of America: How the Indian Nations Lost Their Continent (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1993), p. 14. (return to text)

13. Kirke Kickingbird and Karen Ducheneaux, One Hundred Million Acres (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1973), pg. 14. (return to text)

14. John Wesley, Sermon XXXIII, “A Caution Against Bigotry.” Sermons on Several Occasions by John Wesley (1746) (London: The Epworth Press, 1944), p. 432. There are various editions of Wesley’s sermons. Abingdon Press has published the complete works of Wesley, including his sermons. (return to text)

15. Kirke Kickingbird and Karen Ducheneaux, One Hundred Million Acres, pp. 14-31. (return to text)

16. This information is based on Peter Metthiessen, “Forced Relocation at Big Mountain,” and Deborah Lacerenza, “An Historical Overview of the Navajo Relocation,” in Cultural Survival Quarterly 3 (1988), pp. 2-6. (return to text)

17. Koning, The Conquest of America, p. 107. (return to text)

18. M. Annette Jaimes with Theresa Halsey, “American Indian Women, At the Center of Indigenous Resistance in Contemporary North America,” in Annette Jaimes, The State of Native America: Genocide, Colonization, and Resistance (Boston: South End Press, 1992), p. 324. (return to text)

19. Elsa Támez, “Biblia y 500 años,” in Revista de interpretación biblica latinoamericana 16 (1993), p. 12. Used by permission of Editorial DEI. (return to text)

20. Koning, The Conquest of America, pp. 53, 27. (return to text)

21. Robert Allen Warrior, “A Native American Perspective: Canaanites, Cowboys, and Indians,” in R.S. Sugitharajah, ed., Voices from the Margin: Interpreting the Bible in the Third World (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1991), pp. 289, 291-92. (return to text)

22. Gordon Mitchell, Together in the Land: A Reading of the Book of Joshua, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, Supplement Series 134 (Sheffield: Shefield Academic Press, 1993), Preface. (return to text)

23. T. Dunbar Moodie, The Rise of Afrikanerdom: Power, Apartheid, and the Afrikaner Civil Religion (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975), p. 3. (return to text)

24. Ibid., p. 5. (return to text)

25. Ibid., p. 1. (return to text)

26. By the Reverend J.D. du Toit and quoted in Donald Harman Akenson, God’s People: Covenant and Land in South Africa, Israel, and Ulster (Ithica: Cornell University Press, 1992), p. 74. (return to text)

27. Ibid., p. 74. (return to text)

28. Ibid., p. 75, 95. (return to text)

29. Itumeleng J. Mosala, Biblical Hermeneutics and Black Theology in South Africa (Grand Rapids” Eerdmans, 1989), pp. 29-30, 10. (return to text)

30. Akenson, God’s People, pg. 236. (return to text)

31. Ibid., p. 243 (return to text)

32. Ibid., p. 319 (return to text)

33. Ibid., p. 321 (return to text)

34. Ibid., p. 322 (return to text)

35. Naim Stifan Ateek, Justice, and Only Justice: A Palestinian Theology of Liberation (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1989), pp. 77-78. Used by permission of Orbis Books. (return to text)


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