The Exodus:5 Project
So, when the LORD has brought you into the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, which He swore to your fathers to give you, a land flowing with milk and honey, you shall observe in this month the following practice Exodus 13:5
In Woody Allen’s movie “Love and Death,” the family patriarch owns a valuable piece of land. It was, as the film illustrates, small enough to carry with him wherever he went. It’s a great sight gag, very much in keeping with the intersection of cerebral and slapstick humor in Allen’s earlier films, when we could still watch them without feeling a little creeped out.
This whole notion of who owns land and what that means is one of the great conundrums of human existence. For example, I live in a house built on a piece of land that my wife and I (and Quicken Loans) allegedly own. We bought it from the previous owner, who bought it from the developer who bought it from the private owner who bought it from the city which acquired it from the Commonwealth which, presumably, seized it from the native tribes that claimed it by virtue of being the first humans to do so. There yet remain a few trees in the neighborhood that are, if not original residents, are the grandchildren of the towering oaks that shared the land with the Indians.
Something legal and mystical both ties us to subdivided portions of land. We call it real estate, understood as immovable property, as opposed to movable property like apparel, transportation and household goods, usually known as personal property. A thief can make off with your car, but not the land it is parked upon, the aforementioned patriarch notwithstanding.
Although, the theft of land is an accusation that is made often enough. Refugees and victims of government actions may find that their immovable property has been confiscated – stolen out from under them. The losing side in a war almost always forfeits real estate to the conquering army. The entire United States is under the dominion of the descendants of immigrants who displaced the people who were here before them.
I don’t mean to reduce real estate law to fiction or fantasy. However, except in the Bible, there really is no such thing as an original owner with rights over immovable property. And in the Bible, that original owner is God, as in “the earth is the Lord’s” (Psalm 24:1). It is God’s to distribute and to promise, also according to the Bible. But promise and distribution is not without consequence, and the long history of land squabbles, large and small, ought to remind us of that.
The Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites were tribes that were long-time residents of the Holy Land before the Israelites came to claim it. Like the native tribes in America, they were in place before anyone else came along to claim the land as their own. If it were a simple matter of redistributing ownership, even by God, there would be no instruction to the Israelites later in Torah to take the land by force.
I am not a believer in the notion of might making right. The forcible wresting of control by physical means or financial from the previous owner/occupant is not necessarily determinative or even just. I don’t know how many hundreds or thousands of years Bob Hittite or Edna Jebusite could trace their families on their land. My ancestor rabbis were uncomfortable enough with the stories of the conquest of the Land that they declared the ethnic cleansing unique and not precedent. Middle East custom to the contrary, physical position is not nine-tenths of the law.
So we all need to be very careful when claiming ownership of real estate, especially in a part of the world where the question of authority – tribal, governmental and theological – is settled mostly in favor of whomever is doing the claiming. There is justification for everything and rationalization for even more, though justification is not always just and rationalization is not always rational.
You are reading this and wondering what the point is. In terms of the verse above, it is to demonstrate that at least five tribes believed themselves to be the owners of real property before the Israelites showed up. Even God seems to acknowledge it.
In terms of the contemporary iteration of the Land, there remain competing claims and we can’t simply wish them away. People live there, and they can’t pick up a clump of dirt, stick it in their pocket and walk away. You fill in the blanks.