What is the “Holy Land”?
Reflection – The answer seems obvious, yet the term “Holy Land” alone calls to mind millennia of history: the stories of different people and different countries. From a geographical, biblical and spiritual perspective without dismissing political or apolitical considerations, the question “What is the Holy Land” is placed in a context of perhaps not having an answer but an invitation to reflection.
A Biblical Geography
“Pilgrimage to the Holy Land,” a phrase repeated many times everywhere. Yet the historical and geographical definition may change depending on one’s point of view.
For Christians, it is the name given to the place where Jesus was born and where he lived, with particular emphasis on Jerusalem, where He died and resurrected. What today would correspond to the borders of Israel, Syrian territory and the annexed Golan Heights (near the area of Banias and Caesarea Philippi), Palestine (West Bank and Gaza Strip), including the southern coast of Lebanon (with Tyre and Sidon), part of Jordan (Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan) and Egypt where the story of the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt is recalled.
The name Palestine was invented by the Romans two centuries after Jesus and does not appear in the Bible. In the Gospels, the terms used are Galilee, Samaria, Judea, Roman provinces. The term “Holy Land” appears only twice in the Bible, in the Old Testament: first in the book of Exodus (Ex 3.5), when the Lord manifested his presence to Moses through the burning bush. This is where God said to Moses: “Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place that you tread is holy ground.” Then in the Book of Zechariah (2:16): “The Lord will inherit Judah as his portion of the holy land..” So the Holy Land would host events of the Bible, not just the Gospels.
The land of Ur from where Abraham departed, Egypt from where Moses fled, Syria, Lebanon, etc … God promised Abraham a land that extends “from the river of Egypt unto the great river Euphrates” (Genesis 15:18) which includes Egypt and Mesopotamia. But later, God promised the land of Canaan, which today is Israel and Palestine.
The name Israel meanwhile, appears for the first time in the Bible to refer to the new name of Jacob, son of Isaac, son of Abraham (Genesis 32, 22-29), when he wrestles with an angel who tells him: ” You shall no longer be named Jacob, but Israel, because you have contended with divine and human beings and have prevailed.”
Israel therefore means “one who struggles with God is strong.” After returning from Egypt, Solomon brings the kingdom of Israel to its best, bringing together the twelve tribes of Judah. The kingdom disappeared after Nebuchadnezzar took possession of the region and exiled the Jewish population to Babylon in 721 BC. Only later in 1948 in the Declaration of Independence that the new State of Israel was named.
But back to the Scriptures, the Holy Land is the land that God revealed to the Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob), the prophets, the people of Israel. It is also the land where the Church was born, and where the Gospel began to be proclaimed. It would then also include places trodden by the Apostles who were the first to proclaim the Gospel: Rome, Cyprus, Turkey, Greece … which would make “holy” part of the world! The Crusaders for example, have not envisioned the vastness of the region: for them the “Holy Land” meant nothing less than the entire area between the Jordan River to the east, the Mediterranean Sea to the west, the Euphrates to the north and the Gulf of Aqaba to the south. In particular, they established the Latin States along the roads leading to the earthly realm of Jerusalem: Kingdom of Edessa, Tripoli, Antioch and later in Cyprus, a geography that includes the places traveled by the Apostles, especially by St. Paul.
Could it be that the Holy Land, whose spiritual character transcends any other point of view, cannot be defined only by land borders?
Beyond divisions and boundaries, “pilgrimages in the Holy Land”
This would be a way to move beyond partisan differences to talk about ‘the Holy Land’? It would avoid confinement to a geographical point of view or to call only one reality and to deny the other. This is also the term used by the Holy See when speaking about the visit of Pope Francis in May 2014, when he met with officials from three countries: Jordan, Palestine and Israel. The Holy Land would therefore be a spiritual vocation beyond human capabilities and boundaries and beyond human capacity to be a home of peace and light to the world.
Today the Holy Land is a place of pilgrimage. Between January and May 2014, 1.4 million Christian pilgrims entered the Holy Sepulchre. The recent conflict in Gaza and the instability of the region in general have greatly reduced the number of pilgrimages, but the pilgrims keep coming anyway. If Christians come in numbers, they reap the benefits of a tangible experience in the land of the Bible or the “Fifth Gospel”, many atheists who are searching, arriving as tourists cannot remain indifferent to the unique beauty of this region.
Eva Maurer Morio