A Story of the Promised Land

Robert D. Brinsmead

Australian poet, Andrew Barton (Banjo) Patterson, tells the story of the old pioneer who says to his kids,

“There is one Bible story I fully understand.
It’s how those ancient patriarchs lived upon the land.”

Just so, I venture to say,

There is a Bible story I fully understand,
It’s how the early Hebrews found the Promised Land.

Here’s my real-life story about finding the Promised Land. It has given me an insight into the greatest human story ever told – the story of the Hebrews’ flight from Egypt (the Exodus) and their subsequent settlement in the Promised Land of Palestine.

The Second War War was coming to a close and the new era for my family was about to begin.

There were eight children in my parent’s family. Four had already grown up and left home, leaving four remaining boys from 18 to 11 years of age.  I was the 11-year old, and had just started high school.  We lived on a beautiful little farm in the Dandenong Ranges an hour or so out of the Melbourne CBD. My family grew potatoes, peas, beans and raised flowers.  We had a comfortable enough home with running water, an inside toilet, sealed roads and proximity to good schools.

But my father was a dreamer who dreamed of taking his remaining family of  four dangerously energtic boys (too much developing testosterone) to a better environment well away from the influence of any large city. He got on a train with son-in-law Lionel who was married to my eldest sister (then 30 years of age) and headed north for the region of the New South Wales/Queensland border. This was then “the banana capital” of Australia. Being more than a 1,000 miles north, it was like another world away in those pre-modern days. It was as if the Old Man (as we affectionately called him) had heard the same voice that said to Abraham: “Get thee out of thy country and away from your father’s house unto a land that I will show you.”

The NSW rail line ended in Murwillumbah (Aboriginal for land of many possums), a little town of about 5,000 people. The town was nestled in the crater of the largest, land-based extinct volcano in the world. The town was surrounded by lush river valley land of  dairy farms and sugar fields. Abraham-like, my father, did not (as the Bible story puts it) lift up his eyes to lust after this prime river land, but he headed for the great mountain escarpment which surrounded the valley.  He followed along a winding road until it became a gravel track, and eventually he found an abandoned old dairy farm – over 200 acres – that had one little banana patch on the hillside facing the rising sun.(In sub-tropical regions, all bananas are grown on hillsides above the frost level)  This farm ran right up the mountain side until it reached the Queensland border. The farm was overgrown with a noxious weed called Catspaw that was also poisonous to horses. It was also infested with lantana and regrowth trees. My father decided this was the ideal place to settled his family for a new beginning. When he went to the local branch of his bank, the bank manager was appalled that he contemplated buying this old farm, and tried to talk him out of it.  CJ (short for Cedric John) would not listen, and against a lot of advices, he put a down-payment on this bit of unpromising looking real estate and returned home to sell up everything.

The two spies of the Bible story who returned from the Promised Land with fantastic stories of giant produce and more had nothing on my father.   He returned home and regaled us with stories and images of the land flowing with pineapples and bananas –  of bunches so big you could not carry them, of mangoes and papaws growing outside your window, of all kinds of citrus fruit and other things in abundance. He kept saying this land was so productive it “could feed a nation.” We were captivated and wildly excited about getting there.

The two eldest boys (18 and 17) had both received training in the Burnley Horticultural College and were used to hard work on a farm. They were sent on ahead to take charge of the existing banana patch and to occupy the site. We searched around until we found a 1938 model 4-ton Bedford truck and a big old trailer to haul our valuable stuff up north. Those possessions included 3 Fox Terrier dogs and one cat.

At last everything was packed and it was time to be off in a flurry of great excitement. We were headed to our Promised Land. My mother and one of us two boys (11 and 13) took it in turns to ride in the front with a hired driver who had no idea about driving a truck with a double clutch(but my father knew less), and my father and one of us boys rode in a little cubbie hole in the back of the truck along with the animals. The trip was marred by blow-out tires and engine troubles. Time out at the side of the road was just a chance for John and I to play some cricket or footy. The journey took a whole two weeks, and for us kids, this was the most exciting venture of our lives. When we got to the NSW town of Mittagong just south of Sydney, John and I were amazed to find that the kids up in NSW played a different kind of football – not Aussie Rules as we all did in Victoria, but a primitive looking game called Rugby. It would have been less amazing to us if those kids had ears like donkeys.

The further we headed north, the worse the roads became.  Even the Pacific Highway turned to gravel half-way between Sydney and Murwillumbah. Laurence, the eldest of the boys, met us in Murwillumbah to escort us to our much anticipated farm on his newly acquired motor bike. The farm was over an hour’s drive from the town. My mother became progressively alarmed as the road progressively deteriorated. These were not the kind of sealed roads that we were used to in Victoria. This was a gravel track. After we had negotiated a level crossing of a second creek, my mother was so exasperated that she learned out of the window, shook her first as she cried out to our father, “Where are you taking us, you brute?”  My father just laughed as if it was all a huge joke.

At last we arrived at the farm where a two-roomed, unsealed cabin stood on a little knoll behind which the farm rose up steep inclines all the way to the Queensland border.  There was no electricity out here. There was no running water – nothing but a crude water trough for stock from which to fetch water in a bucket.  And of course, an outside country dunny at its glorious worst. This was all too much for my poor mother. She sat down and wept, although not for long.  Somehow CJ’s vision of this Promised Land, although greatly assailed by doubt at this point, was not altogether rejected. If this was our Promised Land, it was clear by now that it was the Promised Land only potentially. Somehow the Old Man’s vision prevailed even though it was mightily shaken by rude reality. That vision did wonders. It unleashed our amazing energies. Without any machinery, without even horse power (the hills were too steep for horses and bulldozers were not yet a reality), we set about clearing the catspaw and lantana with brush hooks and the regrowth trees with axes. More and more  bananas were planted in the freshly burnt ashes of clearing fires. The place was full of the world’s most poisonous snakes – death adders, eastern browns, tiger snakes and more. They came inside. Noel found a night tiger snake under his pillow. They hid in banana bunches. If ever there was a snake heaven, this was it. I could write a book about scarey snake stories – and all true. As a slight editing of Patterson puts it, “Down along the old Tweed River,

where the sugar cutters camp,
there the serpents are in millions,
all of the most deadly stamp;
where the cutters’ cook in terror,
nearly every time he bakes,
mixes up among the doughboys,
half a dozen poisonous snakes…”

Higher up the mountain side there was a rocky ledge from which flowed a constant water spring. Using hundreds of meters of galvanized pipe we brought water pressurized by gravity to the dwelling.  Up in the city of Brisbane – three hours away – the government was auctioning off  army barracks and sheds of a military base as well as army trucks.  We bought some buildings, tore them down for building material and bought an ex-army truck to carry it all back to the farm in successive trips. So we not only tamed the weed-infested hills of this old dairy farm, but we built a large and comfortable farm house which had running water and and a flushing toilet. In the first years, there was no retriculated electricity. We powered our lights with a little little petrol-driven generator.  When the engine stopped, so did the lights!  Laurence and Noel rigged up a petrol driven washing machine for our mother. We wound copper wire around the inside of an old 44 gallon drum which we fired up with wood to make hot water – lots of it.

After a few years, our rugged mountain-side property was producing more bananas than any farm in this banana growing region.. Our father allowed each boy to select pieces of the farm to grow his own patch of bananas which were then worked together co-operatively. I continued on to finish High School. In the early years my grades suffered for lack of a light when the generator stopped, and frequently we worked through the entire night packing bananas for the city markets in the south. Little if any room for homework.  In my senior years, things had become more congenial, and I became a Straight A/Honours student.

My mother surrounded the comfortable big farm house with a gorgeous garden and a large lawn which I cut once a week with an old fashioned push mover. Motorized mowers were unheard of.  We had our own house cows and a large vegetable garden. The years spent at this Numinbah property were some of the best years of our family life. The older members of the family gathered at the farm quite frequently in the holiday seasons.

Eventually we outgrew the property.  Two of us – Laurence and myself – began our own exodus to a new far-away land in North Queensland where we pioneered the growing of bananas on great level fields in the tropics. Others joined in, and as soon as modern roads were built to transport the produce efficiently, the Murwillumbah banana industry was virtually relocated to the north of Queensland where 90% of Australia’s bananas are now grown.

I finally left the land (on a temporary basis) to study theology. I found that the greatest Old Testament story is not the Creation (Garden of Eden) story in the first book of the Bible.  As far as the OT prophets are concerned, the meaning of Israel’s existence and its destiny was entirely founded on the story of Israel’s flight from Egypt to the land promised to Abraham. There are, of course, mythical and legendary features in both the Creation and the Exodus stories, and both have lived on to exert an enormous influence on the thought of the Christian West.  But it is the Exodus story that is profoundly more in tune with the story of amazing human progress since mankind’s early beginnings and subsequent exodus out of Africa.

The architypal story of the Exodus to the Promised Land starts from the most unpromising and inauspicious beginnings ( akin to the story of mankind’s unpromising beginnings in Africa).  Abraham and Moses’ vision of the Promised Land was about a potential and certainly not a ready-made reality. Compared to the two great cradles of civilization situated on the Tigris/Euphrates to the north of Palestine and the Nile to the South, Palestine was for the most part hilly, rocky, prone to unrealiable rainfall and not in the same league as the great river lands to the north of Palestine or to the south.  The Promised Land of the Bible was more like CJ’s tall story about that rugged old farm at Numinbah. The Promised Land of Palestine was full of hazzards and problems from the beginning. It was no ready-made Garden of Eden.  Abraham and Moses vouchsafed a vision to the little Hebrew nation. Their task was to turn Palestine into the Promised Land where no one would be oppressed, no one would be hungry, no one would be sick, and no one who would not live to a ripe old age. It was to be a light on the hill to bless all nations, leading to a world order where implements of war would be turned into plough shears and pruning hooks, where Jeruslam “would be full of boys and girls playing in the streets.”  Some dream!

When this dream of a Promised Land appeared to fail about 200 B.C., Israel turned to another way of thinking about their future. It was called Apocalyptic. It has been rightly called “a theology of despair” because it shifted the focus from making our present world, our present land and our present life all that it is capable of becoming, to a new kind of world to be created beyond our present historical process.  That is another story, and not a good one. I call it the cuckoo story because it supplanted optimism with pessimism, evolution with revolution, and a moving forward in a trajectory of human progress with a regressive view of human history. No more talk about creating a Land that gets better all the time, meaning that the best is yet to come – only talk of  everything in the now coming to a cataclysmic end in order to make the new world of tomorrow. No more faith in humanity and in the historical process.