THE PEOPLE & THE BOOK: Israel and the Bible

At 70 years, scholars look at what the Tanakh says about the Jewish people’s return to their land.

Rabbi Tuly Weisz, editor of ‘The Israel Bible’ (photo credit: Courtesy)
Rabbi Tuly Weisz, editor of ‘The Israel Bible’
(photo credit: Courtesy)
WHEN DAVID Ben-Gurion settled the land of Israel, he was an atheist. Yet, Ben-Gurion understood “the Bible’s power and importance as the central document and the Jewish people’s deed to our land,” says Yaakov Beasley, who has been lecturing on Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) for 20 years.
Beasley wrote the commentary on Prophets for “The Israel Bible,” released this year on Israel Independence Day, and the world’s first Tanakh centered around the land of Israel, its people, and the dynamic relationship between them. Beasley explains that 70 years since the Jewish state’s founding, the Bible has assumed an even more central place in the Israeli narrative.
“Tanakh can and should serve as a guidebook” for how to maintain the land for the next seven decades, Beasley says.
The Jews’ return to the land of Israel is not considered the final stage to receive the Temple and redemption, Beasley explains.
Rather, “the people of Israel return to the land to do something: to be good people, kind, generous and compassionate people.”
Beasley says that in his interpretation, the return of the Jews to Israel in the time of the second Temple, as described in the books of the prophets Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi, parallels events happening today. Then, like now, there were idealists, driven by hope that when the Jewish people returned to Israel, redemption would come.
“While these prophets maintained some level of idealism, they taught that unless the Jewish people understood why they lost the Temple the first time, they would not be destined to keep it the second time,” says Beasley. “The Bible teaches us that you have to keep working [at being good Jews], that you have to keep going.”
Beasley says he does not want to believe that the Jewish people would “fail so deeply” as to lose the land of Israel once again, but he cautions that “it is most important to work toward redemption by staying focused on the lessons of Haggai and Zechariah, on what it means to be good.”
Are there other lessons that Jews living in the land of Israel can glean from the Bible? According to Tuly Weisz, editor of “The Israel Bible,” there are thousands of lessons – and that is partially why he published “The Israel Bible.” This latest version of the Tanakh, published by Israel365 – Weisz’s company – and Menorah Books, an imprint of Koren Publishers Jerusalem, will be available in June in stores in the US.
Weisz worked on the book for a decade, but he says the story of “The Israel Bible” began more than 120 years ago, in 1897, when Chicago Pastor William Eugene Blackstone learned that Zionist leader Theodor Herzl was considering the British government’s offer of an interim Jewish state in Uganda. Blackstone sent Herzl a personal Bible outlined with the specific biblical references to Jewish restoration to Israel only. That Bible was said to have been prominently displayed on Herzl’s desk.
When Weisz heard about Blackstone’s efforts, he wondered just how many references to Israel there are in the Bible. Several highlighters and a rainbow of sticky tabs later, Weisz had marked hundreds of references to Israel on nearly every page of the Tanakh.
That exercise led him to move his family to Israel. Six years ago, he started a company that focuses on building a biblical bridge between Jews living in Israel and the nations of the world. For most of that time, Weisz was working on “The Israel Bible” and its more than 1,000 study notes.
“The Israel Bible” attempts to show the connection between the land of Israel and the Jewish people.
One of the first comments is the “First Rashi” in the Torah, in which the medieval scholar and commentator asks why, if the Torah is first and foremost a book of laws for the Jewish people, does it begin with the history of creation and the lives of our Jewish forefathers? Rashi’s answer is there will be a time when the world’s nations will claim Israel “stole the Land of Israel.” Rashi explains that God tells the story of creation first to establish that all the land in the world belongs to God, and only He has the right to apportion it. And that, as we can see clearly in the stories of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses, the Land of Israel was promised by God to the nation of Israel.
This comment by Rashi is well known among religious Zionists, but it is less known by people outside those circles. In “The Israel Bible,” Weisz brings the comment to the forefront.
Similarly, Weisz connects a verse in 1 Samuel 15, “the glory of God does not deceive” with events that happened in 1914. “The Israel Bible” describes how when World War I broke out, many Zionists perceived the crisis as an opportunity through which Palestine’s political landscape could be transformed to advance the dream of Jewish self-determination in their homeland. Sarah Aaronsohn and a group of Zionist idealists formed a clandestine organization they called NILI, which was a Hebrew acronym based on this phrase in 1 Samuel.
NILI conducted espionage against the Ottoman authorities on behalf of the Allies until the group was discovered in 1917 by the Turks. Aaronsohn was tortured by police but refused to disclose any information about her group’s efforts. She ultimately took her own life, sacrificing herself for the millennia-old dream of Jewish independence.
Each book of the Bible is introduced with supplemental material, such as a chart, timeline, or map to help readers understand the Tanakh’s connection to the modern state. For example, a map introducing the Book of Psalms plots out the modern Israeli cities mentioned in the book, connecting modern Israel to the Israel of King David.
Every Israeli prime minister is quoted in the volume.
Rabbi Avi Baumol, who authored the commentaries on the Book of Psalms, says that working on the Bible led him to realize that “without understanding the land of Israel, you cannot fully appreciate the message of Psalms.”
For example, in Psalm 126 it says, “Restore our fortunes, Hashem, like watercourses in the Negev.”
“On the surface, we don’t know what that means,” says Baumol. “But go down to the desert when it is raining up north. You’ll see there is no water. Then, suddenly, a rush of water comes through. This is the prayer, that the Jews’ return to the land of Israel should be like the rushing waters that come through the channels of the desert.”
Weisz says when he started “The Israel Bible” project, he assumed something like it already existed. But in his research, Weisz discovered the last original Orthodox Tanakh with an English translation was published in 1996 by the Brooklyn-based ArtScroll. And according to Koren’s publisher, Matthew Miller, this is the first English translated Tanakh published by Koren since it did its own original translation in 1971.
Miller, who has been in the industry for two decades, says publishing a Bible is complicated and takes the equivalent of “five people years” to proofread and print.
“You have to make sure it is 110% accurate,” Miller says, noting that the Bible must be published on “special paper,” and a version like the 2,000-page Israel Bible requires special binding.
However, Miller says it is all worth it.
The Bible is the most popular book in the US and perhaps the world. The Tanakh has been translated into more than 2,100 languages, and there are around 20 million copies sold each year in the US alone.
Christians account for a large part of those sales, and Weisz says he hopes “The Israel Bible” will be studied by both Jews and Christians.
Jews teaching the world Tanakh is a core Jewish concept in Isaiah, chapter 2, according to Weisz. Isaiah describes that in the end of days, the nations will stream up to Jerusalem for Torah “shall come forth from Zion, the word of Hashem from Yerushalayim [Jerusalem].” (Isaiah 2:3) But David Parsons, vice president of the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, says from what Bible one studies scriptures is “very important – translation and all.”
Parsons says certain mistranslations are what led Christians to misinterpret the Bible hundreds of years ago, essentially replacing Israel with Christians and the Church in God’s plan.
“Most established churches ‘spiritualized’ the land that God promised to Israel and tried to explain it away, as many Christians still do,” Parsons says. “Today, most evangelical Christians believe in a real world interpretation of all the verses, which connects the Jewish people to the land and the promise to bring them back to it. We see the fulfillment of these promises with the founding of the State of Israel.”
Parsons says Christianity has less of a territorial dimension than Judaism, in that Jesus spoke of his kingdom as not in this world – “we are in the world, but not of it,” Parsons says. But he believes when the Bible talks about Jerusalem, these references refer to an “earthly Jerusalem.”
“There is a land of Israel still here, a piece of real estate,” says Parsons. “When one emphasizes this, it strengthens one’s faith.”
Baumol argues that “The Israel Bible” is of great importance in this generation, when “Jews are being awakened to Torah and returning to Israel as the beginning of redemption, and the nations of the world are beginning to see this spark, and to come, support and pray for the ultimate return of the land of Israel to its glory.”