Genesis 13:14-17 - "All the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring ..."

"Lift up your eyes from where you are and look north and south, east and west. All the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring forever. I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth, so that if anyone could count the dust, then your offspring could be counted. Go, walk through the length and breadth of the land, for I am giving it to you." (Genesis 13:14-17)

How much land did God supposedly give Abraham?

The text says, "... look north and south, east and west. All the land that you see..." How much land is that?

Assuming the land that Abraham was looking at was flat, the curvature of the earth would only permit him to see about 3.1 miles in any direction. That would make the maximum land that Abraham was supposedly given by God a mere 3.1 square miles.

Now if Abraham was standing on a hill or mountain, that tract would be a bit larger. But if he were standing in a valley, it would be constrained by the amount of land contoured by the surrounding hills, and possibly even smaller.

The bottom line is that the text doesn't define the amount of land God supposedly is giving Abraham. And it was likely much smaller than has been interpreted by those who have quoted the text as though it means that a certain people - the family of Abraham - own a bunch of land.

It is quite nonsensical that God would give a small tract of land to Abraham and leave the boundaries undefined, leaving Abraham and his family to squabble and fight over its boundaries.

Did God really give Abraham land?

The events being portrayed originate from stories that were told and retold orally over many generations through the centuries, among different teaching lineages. Until they were combined and recorded during the Sixth Century BCE. By then the events were portrayed from person to person and adapted to the society, time and circumstances.

This means that these events cannot be accepted as specific, accurate historical records. While presenting the basic elements of the events, they also took on mythical, allegorical aspects as they were retold through the generations.

This should also be understood with respect to the discussions of land ownership. During the centuries these events were retold orally, there were many feudal tribes fighting over the control of territorial lands in the Middle East. Therefore, being given the authority over some of these territories was critically important to the tribal leaders and their soldiers and citizens.

For this reason, some of the discussions of land became the subject of allegorical fable. Especially with respect to God granting Abraham and his descendants' control over certain lands.

This does not accurately portray the history. But it does accurately portray a more allegorical lesson: That God does ultimately control all land. And if anyone gains control over lands, that control was essentially authorized by the Supreme Being - since He controls all land.

So it isn't that God gave specific land to Abraham as though God is a land-grant office. The message is that God owns all land and for those who gained control over certain territories - they accepted that ultimately it was God that allowed that to happen.

The specifics of granting that authority are left to allegory.

The Supreme Being perpetually owns all land. No one else truly owns and land, and any temporary control over any territory is ultimately provided by God.

The question this bears: Does God grant land to people as though He were some sort of land-grant office? And if God - the Supreme Being - did indeed grant this unspecified land (as far as the eye can see?) to Abraham's descendants, then why have much of these lands since been taken away from the Israelites over the centuries?

Or does God lack control over the lands He supposedly gave to Abraham's descendants? Or does God go back on His word and then take the land back? Does God give land and then take it back and then give it again and take it back again?

What kind of gift is that? Note also that most of this land was and has been barren and drought-stricken. Why would God give Abraham and his descendants such crappy land? Why didn't he give him some lush island paradise?

All of these questions and more illustrate the ridiculousness of such a claim that God gave land to Abraham's descendants "forever." The reality is that a human simply cannot own land anyway. The human body is a temporary vehicle. It lasts for a few decades and then it dies (when the spirit - the person - leaves) and decomposes. How can a human body own land "forever" if that human body only lasts a few decades?

What about Abraham's family?

Some might say that the land can be owned by a family of humans as it is passed on from one generation to another. But this is also false ownership, because not only is the human body temporary, but the supposed "seed" - or genetic traits - that connect one generation to another depletes with each generation to the point where over thousands of years there is so much mixing of the genes that descendants of Abraham are now spread throughout the world - and living in many different places.

Some of those with traces of Abraham's genes are likely to be Arabs today - some of whom oppose Israelite claims to certain lands by virtue of these texts. (Note: there are no sides or political positions being taken here with regard to disputes between Israelis and Arabic peoples). Once again, the events have been allegorically adapted to the time and circumstance over centuries of being retold.

Is that really land ownership?

Humans cannot own any land, because we are only here temporarily. God does not give out land to people. The Supreme Being owns everything. We own nothing. We are each the subjects of the Supreme Being. As such, we have no real rights of ownership that we can pass on to our next generation. We might claim such rights - or purchase the rights to utilize a parcel of land for a while. But this is not ownership. This is like a lease: The right to use and caretake a piece of property.

The fact that God did not give land to Abraham's descendants in this verse is confirmed as we see its context with the verses around it:
Abram lived in the land of Canaan, while Lot lived among the cities of the plain and pitched his tents near Sodom. Now the men of Sodom were wicked and were sinning greatly against the LORD. The LORD said to Abram after Lot had parted from him, "[God's statement-mistranslated]" So Abram moved his tents and went to live near the great trees of Mamre at Hebron, where he built an altar to the LORD. (Genesis 13:13-17)

What do the key words mean?

The crux of the mistranslation lies in the Hebrew words נתן (nathan), זרע (zera`) and ארץ ('erets). These words are being translated to "give", "descendants" and "land", respectively.

To understand the context of God's statement, we must notice what Abraham did when he got to the subject region. He built an altar to God. What is an altar? It is a place of worship. It is a place where the Supreme Being is honored, offered gifts, prayed to, praised and celebrated.

So why, if Abraham was "given land" by God, does the text not document that Abraham went to the land, staked out its boundaries and marked his territory out? Is this not what people do when they purchase or are given land? Do they not stake it out and announce or document to others that their land now belongs to them?

Abraham didn't. He did not announce to others or otherwise document his ownership of the land. He built an altar on it. He actually gave up any concept of ownership as he used the land to worship God.

Using land to build an altar to God is actually the opposite of receiving land. Building an altar is the act of offering that land to God. It is offering up any thought of possession to that land to the Supreme Being. The very act of building an altar on the land is saying that Abraham did not accept any ownership of the land. He was using the land to worship God and offer others a place to worship God.

And this reveals the true meaning of God's statement. He did not appear to Abraham to give his descendants land. He appeared to Abraham to instruct Abraham to go out into that region and preach to others about God. He is instructing Abraham to teach others about the dedication and love that Abraham had for the Supreme Being. And God was talking about Abraham creating followers (incorrectly translated to "descendants") who would continue to pass on those truths.

The true translation of God's statement to Abraham would thus be more appropriately something to the effect of:
"Look around you north, south, east and west. Go throughout this land you see and give eternal life to your followers. You will have many followers in future generations - uncountable, like grains of sand. Go and walk through this land, giving others what I have given you."

What does God give us?

God gives us eternal life. Giving eternal life means teaching them love for God. It means passing on to others the love that Abraham had for the Supreme Being (a gift from God) and thus saving them.

This last phrase, "giving to others what I have given you" replaces the mistranslated phrase, "for I will give it to you." This entire phrase comes from one Hebrew word: נתן (nathan).

How could one word - which means to "give" or "bestow upon" and so on from the lexicon - be translated into such a long phrase?

There is, in fact, no basis for the word נתן (nathan) to be translated to "for I will give it to you." There is, however a solid basis for the word being translated to "giving others what I have given you."

Consider an analogy. Let's say that a charitable group was to go to a poor village in a third-world country, and deliver to the village leader a truckload of food. The charity group representative would likely say to the village leader something to the effect of, "go throughout your village and give this food to everyone." But because both parties understand that the food is for the villagers and is to be given out, all the charity representative would have to say was "go throughout the village giving this out" or even "give this throughout the village." All parties would assume that what was being given was the food.

This fact might also be confirmed, say if this were a written story, should the next part of the story say that the village leader was giving out the food to everyone. Then the context of the "giving" would certainly be the food.

In the same way, by the context of the verses around this statement, we know that the Supreme Being did not appear before Abraham to give land to Abraham's descendants. By the fact that Abraham followed up by immediately building an altar of worship in the land confirms that the Supreme Being's request was related to Abraham's spreading the worship and love for God throughout the land.

What about Abraham's descendants?

As for "descendants," this use of the word זרע (zera`) is allegorical. It is an ancient tradition that followers considered their teacher their "father." This custom has continued even through today, as Catholic priests are typically addressed as "father." This use of a teacher being referred to as a father and followers being referred to as the teachers' children or sons is repeated throughout the texts of both the Old and the New Testaments. Thus we can document that זרע (zera`) is being utilized to describe followers of Abraham rather than descendants of Abraham's physical body.

We can also take this symbolism further, should one insist utilizing זרע (zera`) to mean "seed." When a man passes on his "seed" to a woman, a baby is conceived. But "seeds" of wisdom or knowledge can also be passed on in an allegorical context - e.g., a seed of knowledge or a kernel of wisdom. So whether we consider זרע (zera`) to be "followers" or "seeds of knowledge," we can understand that God was not interested in Abraham's physical family, or about land ownership.

God wanted Abraham to pass on the teachings of love for God to others, so that others - and their successive generations - could understand that we, like Abraham, can learn to love the Supreme Being and have an intimate relationship with God - thereby giving us eternal life.

This is the also sum and substance of the teachings of all scripture, as confirmed directly by Jesus, Moses and all the other teachers throughout the Biblical scriptures.