Terra Nullius / ארץ לא־איש
Terra Nullius ("nobody's land") was a legal doctrine understood in the Australian context as having provided justification for the British to settle the land (first arriving Botany Bay, Sydney in 1770) without the need to pursue a treaty with the local inhabitants (i.e., the Aboriginal peoples in New South Wales). The doctrine was famously overturned in the 1992 Mabo decision. This sheet explores related Jewish sources on the theme of uninhabited land.

Select Types of Uninhabited Land (Tanakh)

Uninhabited land in Tanakh appear as:
  • Remote places where no people live (see Lev. 16:22; Jer. 17:5-6)
  • Formerly inhabited places that have been destroyed (see Jer. 6:8)
  • Natural sites unspoiled by human contact (see Job 38:25-27)
Translations below are from Robert Alter's (2018) The Hebrew Bible.
(כב) וְנָשָׂ֨א הַשָּׂעִ֥יר עָלָ֛יו אֶת־כׇּל־עֲוֺנֹתָ֖ם אֶל־אֶ֣רֶץ גְּזֵרָ֑ה וְשִׁלַּ֥ח אֶת־הַשָּׂעִ֖יר בַּמִּדְבָּֽר׃
(22) And the goat shall bear upon it all their transgressions to a remote region,
and he shall send off the goat to the wilderness.
(ה) כֹּ֣ה ׀ אָמַ֣ר יהוה אָר֤וּר הַגֶּ֙בֶר֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר יִבְטַ֣ח בָּאָדָ֔ם וְשָׂ֥ם בָּשָׂ֖ר זְרֹע֑וֹ וּמִן־יהוה יָס֥וּר לִבּֽוֹ׃ (ו) וְהָיָה֙ כְּעַרְעָ֣ר בָּעֲרָבָ֔ה וְלֹ֥א יִרְאֶ֖ה כִּֽי־יָ֣בוֹא ט֑וֹב וְשָׁכַ֤ן חֲרֵרִים֙ בַּמִּדְבָּ֔ר אֶ֥רֶץ מְלֵחָ֖ה וְלֹ֥א תֵשֵֽׁב׃ {ס}
(5) Thus said the LORD:
Cursed be the man who trusts in humans,
and makes mortal flesh his strong arm.
(6) And he shall be like an arid shrub in the desert,
and he shall not see when good things come.
And he shall dwell in scorched places in the wilderness,
a barren land that cannot be settled.
הִוָּֽסְרִי֙ יְר֣וּשָׁלַ֔͏ִם פֶּן־תֵּקַ֥ע נַפְשִׁ֖י מִמֵּ֑ךְ פֶּן־אֲשִׂימֵ֣ךְ שְׁמָמָ֔ה אֶ֖רֶץ ל֥וֹא נוֹשָֽׁבָה׃ {פ}
Accept reproof, O Jerusalem,
lest I loathe you,
lest I make you a desolation,
an uninhabitable land.
(כה) מִֽי־פִלַּ֣ג לַשֶּׁ֣טֶף תְּעָלָ֑ה וְ֝דֶ֗רֶךְ לַחֲזִ֥יז קֹלֽוֹת׃ (כו) לְ֭הַמְטִיר עַל־אֶ֣רֶץ לֹא־אִ֑ישׁ מִ֝דְבָּ֗ר לֹא־אָדָ֥ם בּֽוֹ׃ (כז) לְהַשְׂבִּ֣יעַ שֹׁ֭אָה וּמְשֹׁאָ֑ה וּ֝לְהַצְמִ֗יחַ מֹ֣צָא דֶֽשֶׁא׃
(25) Who split a channel for the torrent, and a way for the thunderstorm,
(26) to rain on a land without man,
wilderness bare of humankind,
(27) to sate the desolate dunes
and make the grass sprout there?

Reflection on Sources

The divergance in the descriptions of uninhabited point to an unstable concept. In the context of the Azazel ritual, the harsh climate of the desert is described as 'nobody's land' in the sense that human habitation is not possible. And such a place invites only death. Whereas a formerly inhabited place (such as Jerusalem after the destruction) is marked as temporarily uninhabited, with the hope that the People of Israel will one day return. These two references seem to bear little similarity to the concept of Terra Nullius in colonial Australia, which is more aligned with the description found in Job. However, even in Job, the view is of the process by which uninhabitable places eventually become inhabitable (e.g., through rain and the growth of vegetation).