Where is the Promised Land?
Kristin Davis, star of Sex in the City is, "the new face of Ahava" the Israeli cosmetic company which specialises in natural skin care products made from Dead Sea minerals. "I'm honoured to be a part of a beauty legend that dates back to Cleopatra," she said. Unfortunately, Ahava cosmetic products are made in Mitzpe Shalem, an illegal Jewish settlement built in the Palestinian West Bank. Ahava’s extraction of Palestinian natural resources from the Dead Sea is, according to the Fourth Geneva Convention, illegal use by an occupying power of stolen resources for its own profit. To add insult to injury, Ahava’s labels claim Israel to be the country of origin, something decried by Oxfam and other human rights groups as blatantly misleading. Ironically, Kristin Davis is a spokeswoman for Oxfam – or rather was until this week when they suspended her (see here for details). Hopefully, Kristin will now sever her relationship with the cosmetics-maker, regain her platform with Oxfam, and campaign for the human rights of all who have been dispossessed.
Not surprisingly the subject of ‘the Land’ is deeply controversial and highly politicised. Even its name - Canaan, Israel, Palestine, the Promised Land - says as much about our presuppositions as our knowledge of Middle East geography: Promised Land? Promised to whom? Under what terms? For what purpose?
Last week we began this short summer series of five questions on Israel and the Church. Last week the question was “Who are the Chosen People? Today, “Where is the Promised Land?” We will consider the significance and purposes of the Promised Land as well its geographical extent. Then we will look at whether the land was ever intended as an ‘everlasting possession’. Then we will examine whether the Kingdom was understood as exclusive or inclusive or intended to be nationalistic. Finally we must consider what Jesus and the apostles have to say about the kingdom. Now this can only be a taster, but I hope you will use the notes for further Bible study – and if you want to explore this and the other questions further I commend my book Zion’s Christian Soldiers which is available from Amazon.
The Significance and Purposes of the Promised Land
In God’s redemptive plan, he chose a Gentile Abram, from what is today, Iraq, and called him to leave his home in Ur by the Euphrates and go to the land of Canaan.
I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God... The whole land of Canaan, where you are now an alien, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God. (Genesis 17:7-8)
There is no doubt that the vision of a ‘Promised Land’ was central to the aspirations of God’s people as they languished in slavery in Egypt and during their long wilderness wanderings. The promise of land with specific boundaries demonstrated the trustworthiness of God and his faithfulness in caring for those who called upon his name (See Genesis 26:3-5; Exodus 6:1-8; Joshua 24:11-27).
God’s faithfulness in the land promises was celebrated throughout the history of Israel, notably in Psalm 105.
O descendants of Abraham his servant, O sons of Jacob, his chosen ones. He is the LORD our God; his judgments are in all the earth. He remembers his covenant forever, the word he commanded, for a thousand generations, the covenant he made with Abraham, the oath he swore to Isaac. He confirmed it to Jacob as a decree, to Israel as an everlasting covenant: “To you I will give the land of Canaan as the portion you will inherit.” (Psalm 105:6-11)
Clearly, the covenants were intended to instill trust in God and faithful obedience from his people. Yet, the present ambiguous borders of Israel are only a fraction of those God apparently intended for the Jewish people.
What then are the Boundaries of Israel?
The boundaries of the land God promised to Abraham and his descendents are mentioned in Genesis 15.
On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram and said, ‘To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates.’ (Genesis 15:18)
The ‘river of Egypt’ most likely refers to one of the tributaries of the Nile.
The Euphrates begins in Turkey and flows through Syria and Iraq before entering the Persian Gulf. If these boundaries were applied today, parts of Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Palestine, Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia would be incorporated.
While most secular Israeli’s today would not insist on these ‘biblical’ borders, the founders of Zionism, including Theodore Herzl and David Ben-Gurion, certainly did.
Perhaps that is why, after more than 60 years since the foundation of their State, successive Israeli governments have failed to acknowledge their territorial borders. This is also a significant reason for the failure of the Arab-Israeli peace process. Under King Solomon, the boundaries of Israel did indeed extend from Egypt to the Euphrates. 1 Kings uses the metaphor of sand on the seashore from Genesis 22:17 to show that he understood the boundaries of Solomon’s kingdom to be a fulfilment of the promises made to Abraham (1 Kings 4:20-21, 24). The question is, was the promise really everlasting as in eternal?
Everlasting Possession or Conditional Residence?
The land of Canaan was given to the Israelites as part of God’s redemptive plan for the world, not because of their size or significance (Deuteronomy 7:7). Nor was the land a reward for their righteousness or integrity. In fact, God describes them in rather less than complimentary terms as a ‘stiff-necked people’ (Deuteronomy 9:5-6). Moses and the Hebrew Prophets repeatedly state that the land belongs to God and residence there is always conditional. For example, in Leviticus 25:
‘The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you are but aliens and my tenants’ (Leviticus 25:23).
In Jeremiah 2, God says, ‘I brought you into a fertile land to eat its fruit and rich produce. But you came and defiled my land and made my inheritance detestable.’ (Jeremiah 2:7). It is God’s land not theirs. Because the Land belongs to God, it cannot be permanently bought or sold. The Land is never at the disposal of Israel for its purposes. Instead it is Israel who is at God's disposal. The Jews remain aliens and tenants in God's Land, just as we are here today. “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.” (Psalm 24:1).
The Scriptures are very clear: residence in the land was always conditional. Notice the “if” and “because” in Deuteronomy 19:
If the LORD your God enlarges your territory, as he promised on oath to your ancestors, and gives you the whole land he promised them, because you carefully follow all these laws I command you today—to love the LORD your God and to walk always in obedience to him. (Deuteronomy 19:8-9)
The unconditional promises concerning the land were always clarified or supplemented by conditional clauses. Near the end of Joshua’s final speech he warns:
If you violate the covenant of the LORD your God, which he commanded you, and go and serve other gods and bow down to them, the LORD'S anger will burn against you, and you will quickly perish from the good land he has given you. (Joshua 23:16)
The prophets reinforce this message. Jeremiah warns
Through your own fault you will lose the inheritance I gave you. I will enslave you to your enemies in a land you do not know, for you have kindled my anger, and it will burn forever. (Jeremiah 7:4)
Thankfully God’s anger did not literally ‘burn forever’ against the Jewish people because he sent Jesus to take their punishment and ours upon himself (Isaiah 53:4-6). While the boundaries of the land given to Abraham in Genesis 15 are clear as are the conditions for residence, the question remains as to whom they were intended for.
Who are God’s Chosen People?
The myth of racial purity is nothing new, nor is the desire to limit or exclude those deemed inferior. This is particularly so today when defining Israel since national identity tends to be equated with race. Surprisingly perhaps, the Old Testament knows nothing of this contemporary form of nationalism. Instead, as we shall see, Israel as a nation was never narrowly restricted to those who were the physical descendants of the twelve sons of Jacob. Israel as a nation always incorporated people of other races and this extended not just to their identity and right of residence but also to their inheritance of the land and right to worship God in the Temple.
Moses, for example, warned against a racial exclusivity:
Do not abhor an Edomite, for he is your brother. Do not abhor an Egyptian, because you lived as an alien in his country. The third generation of children born to them may enter the assembly of the LORD. (Deuteronomy 23:7-8)
The Edomites, descended from Esau, lived in what is today the Negev and Southern Jordan. King David, similarly, looked forward to the day when other races - Egyptian (Rahab) Persian (Babylon), Palestinian (Philitia), Lebanese (Tyre) and African (Cush) would have the same identity and privileges as the Israelites: “I will record Rahab and Babylon among those who acknowledge me— Philistia too, and Tyre , along with Cush…” (Psalm 87:4). The only criterion for citizenship is faith. God welcomes all ‘those who acknowledge me’.
As if to emphasize that ‘citizenship’ means much more than a new passport, God instructs the Israelites to share the Land and give an inheritance to all who trust in him.
You are to allot it as an inheritance for yourselves and for the aliens who have settled among you and who have children. You are to consider them as native-born Israelites; along with you they are to be allotted an inheritance among the tribes of Israel. In whatever tribe the alien settles, there you are to give him his inheritance,” declares the Sovereign LORD. (Ezekiel 47:22-23)
Those of other races, therefore, had the same rights as ‘native Israelites’. God’s people have always been inclusive – never based on race. The ‘Promised Land’ under the Old Covenant was intended by God to be shared. This is the biblical model shared by many who favour the One State solution, with Israeli’s and Palestinians living side by side in peace.
What does the New Testament say about the Land?
Under Persian, then Greek and then finally Roman occupation, the Jewish people longed for a Messiah to liberate them from the humiliation of foreign domination (Luke 1:68-79; John 6:14-15). This is probably why, after the resurrection of Jesus, but before they came to recognise him, the disciples lamented his failure to restore political sovereignty to the Jews. This is reflected in their conversation on the road to Emmaus, ‘we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.’ (Luke 24:21)
Is Jesus going to restore the Kingdom to Israel?
After recognising him as Lord and King, they then ask, ‘Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’ (Acts 1:6) It is interesting that in this question, the Apostles at least, see ‘Israel’ as having a separate existence as a people without sovereignty in the land. In his commentary, John Calvin writes, ‘There are as many mistakes in this question as there are words.’ John Stott succinctly appraises the errors made:
The mistake they made was to misunderstand both the nature of the kingdom and the relation between the kingdom and the Spirit. Their question must have filled Jesus with dismay. Were they still so lacking in perception?... The verb, the noun and the adverb of their sentence all betray doctrinal confusion about the kingdom. For the verb restore shows they were expecting a political and territorial kingdom; the noun Israel that they were expecting a national kingdom; and the adverbial clause at this time that they were expecting its immediate establishment. In his reply (7-8) Jesus corrected their mistaken notions of the kingdom’s nature, extent and arrival.
Since the Holy Spirit had not been given, the disciples may be forgiven for still holding to an Old Covenant understanding of the Kingdom with the reestablishment of the monarchy and liberation from Rome. Jesus repudiated the notion of an earthly and nationalistic kingdom on more than one occasion (see John 6:15, 18:36).
This is why Jesus says that he has another agenda for them:
It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. (Acts 1:8)
The kingdom which Jesus inaugurated would, in contrast to their narrow expectations, be spiritual in character, international in membership and gradual in expansion. The expansion of this kingdom throughout the world would specifically require their exile from the land. They must turn their backs on Jerusalem and their hopes of ruling there with Jesus in order to fulfil their new role as ambassadors of his kingdom (Matthew 20:20-28; 2 Corinthians 5:20-21).
Where then is the Kingdom?
The New Testament knows nothing of this preoccupation with an earthly kingdom, land or territory. As John Stott says, ‘Christ’s kingdom, while not incompatible with patriotism, tolerates no narrow nationalisms.’ Instead, Jesus redefines the boundaries of the kingdom of God to embrace the entire world.
For example, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus takes a promise made to the Jewish people concerning the Land from Psalm 37, and applies it to his own followers living anywhere in the world.
But the meek will inherit the land and enjoy great peace.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Subsequent to Pentecost, under the illumination of the Holy Spirit, the Apostles begin to use Old Covenant language concerning the Land in new ways. Shortly after the Day of Pentecost, Peter explains how the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus had been predicted inaugurating an expanded kingdom embracing all who would trust in Jesus.
Indeed, all the prophets from Samuel on, as many as have spoken, have foretold these days. And you are heirs of the prophets and of the covenant God made with your fathers. He said to Abraham, ‘Through your offspring all peoples on earth will be blessed. (Acts 3:24-25)
Here Peter claims that the promise made to Abraham (Genesis 12:3; 22:18) were being fulfilled among Christ’s followers.
In his letter to Christians dispersed through the Roman Empire, Peter writes in terms evoking memories of Abraham’s journeying (Genesis 23:4) and the Jewish exiles in Babylon (Psalm 137:4). They are, he says, ‘God’s elect, strangers in the world, scattered…’ (1 Peter 1:1). He assures them, nevertheless, that their inheritance, unlike the Land, ‘...can never perish, spoil or fade.’ (1 Peter 1:4). Paul similarly asserts, ‘If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.’ (Galatians 3:29).
How then is the Kingdom Identified?
Paul visualised a more glorious future for the Jewish people – but not back in their land, rather in a covenant relationship with their Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 9-11).
It was not through law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith. (Romans 4:13)
The children of Abraham therefore are those Jews and Gentiles who through faith in Christ have been made righteous. Together they have been made ‘heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ.’ (Romans 8:17). The Kingdom which Jesus heralded is therefore now internal not territorial. It is universal not tribal. When the Pharisees asked Jesus when the Kingdom of God would appear, he replied,
The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you. (Luke 17:20-21).
Jesus shatters the racial straight jacket of the Pharisees and liberates the real meaning of the covenant made with Abraham. The inheritance of the saints was ultimately never an ‘everlasting’ share of territory in Palestine but an eternal place in heaven. Hebrews shows that even Abraham, the Patriarchs and later Hebrew saints looked beyond Canaan to ‘another’ country where the covenant promises of God would be fulfilled.
“For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God… And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore. All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one… These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.” (Hebrews 11:10-16, 39-40).
The land had served its purpose – it provided a temporary residence for the ancestors of the Messiah, David’s greater Son, to host the incarnation, to provide a home for the Lord Jesus Christ, and so be made for ever holy through the shedding of his innocent blood upon it. Like an airport runway, the Land provided a base, a strategic launch pad for God’s rescue mission, from which the apostles would take the good news of Jesus Christ to the world. In the New Testament, the Land, like an old wineskin, has served its purpose. It was and remains irrelevant to God’s ongoing redemptive purposes for the world. To summarise:
1. The covenant promises made to the Patriarchs concerning the Land were understood as having been fulfilled in the Old Testament.
2. The Land, like the earth itself, belongs to God and his people were at best aliens and tenants with temporary residence.
3. Residence in the Land was always conditional and inclusive.
4. Jesus repudiated a narrow nationalistic kingdom.
5. His kingdom is spiritual, heavenly and eternal.
6. This is the inheritance of all who trust in Jesus Christ.
So where then is the Promised Land? It is being prepared for you in heaven!