Promised Land, Diaspora, Zionism

Promised Land

The Jewish people look to the Patriarch Abraham as the father of their race. (See Big ideas: Patriarchs.) His story, as told in the Book of Genesis begins with God's call, ‘Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to the land I will show you' (Genesis 12:1). This land was known as Canaan, named after the tribe which lived there. However, when Abraham settled there, God is said to have promised Abraham, ‘To your offspring I will give this land' (Genesis 12:7). This was the Promised Land.

Three generations later, the family of Jacob, Abraham's grandson, went to settle in Egypt at a time of famine (Genesis 45:16-20). These Israelites were initially welcomed and given land there, because Joseph (son of Jacob) was an advisor to the Pharaoh. However, as they multiplied, the Israelites were seen as a threat and the Egyptians enslaved them (Exodus 1:8-11). (See Big ideas: Slavery.)

Pillar of cloudGod called Moses ‘to rescue them … and to bring them … into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey, the home of the Canaanites … (and a list of other tribes)' (Exodus 3:8). God told Moses to say to the Israelites, ‘I will bring you to the land I swore with uplifted hand to give to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob' (Exodus 6:8). Thus, the promise of this land is seen as God's solemn oath or covenant to his people. (See Big ideas: Jews, Hebrews, Children of Israel.)

Moreover, God is described as accompanying them on their journey to the Promised Land, guiding and protecting them with a pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night (Exodus 13:20-22; Exodus 14:19).

Before his death, Moses prepared his people for life in the Promised Land.

‘When the Lord your God brings you into the land he swore to your fathers … a land with large, flourishing cities you did not build, houses filled with all kinds of good things you did not provide, wells you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant - then when you eat and are satisfied, be careful that you do not forget the LORD, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. Fear the LORD your God, serve him only and … do not follow … the gods of the peoples around you' (Deuteronomy 6:10-14).

The image of entering the Promised Land resonated with twentieth-century black Americans in their struggle for equal rights, just as the story of rescue from slavery had with their forefathers. After forty years of nomadic wandering, Moses viewed the Promised Land from a mountain, but knew he himself would not lead the people over the River Jordan to possess it. Referring back to this story, in a visionary speech on the day before his assassination, the Civil Rights leader Rev Martin Luther King said, ‘I have seen the Promised Land.'


Moses warned the people that if they compromised the way they lived, by mixing the way God had told them he wanted them to live with the lifestyles and religions of other peoples, they would lose God's blessing and favour. This warning was repeated time and again over the next 1000 years, until eventually, in what was seen as a judgement from God on their behaviour, they were captured and carried off into exile in Babylon (2 Chronicles 36:15-20). (See Big ideas: Judgement.)

The subsequent grief of the exiles is poignantly portrayed in Psalms 137:1-6,

‘By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows ... For they that carried us away captive, required of us a song … How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning … if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.'

Zion, or Jerusalem, the city established by their forefather King David, was by that time the focus of Jewish religious and political allegiance.

King Cyrus of Persia eventually enabled the exiles to return to their land (2 Chronicles 36:22-23). However, the Jews continued to be threatened by foreign powers and to be dispersed among other nations.


The ‘diaspora' is the name given to the dispersion of the Jewish people, first in Babylonia, later in the Roman Empire. In the course of time, Jews spread throughout the world, either by migration (both forced and voluntary) or through people of other religions adopting the Jewish faith.


The modern Jewish state of Israel was established in 1948. Zionism is the movement to bring Jews back to live in Israel, where, it is claimed, they would be free from persecution and genocide. This is seen as ‘the ingathering of the exiles'. The consequent displacement of the Palestinian peoples as a consequence of the creation of Israel, means that this area remains a cauldron of conflict and controversy today.

Related topics

Big ideas: Jews, Hebrews, Children of Israel; Judgement; Patriarchs; Slavery

Other cultural references

Links with the twentieth-century black American Civil Rights' Movement and its leader, the Reverend Martin Luther King.

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