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The following is the first part of an article by Anthony Buzzard.  It first appeared in Journal from the Radical Reformation, Vol. 2, No. 4, and can now be viewed on his web site.

In one of the most solemn declarations of all time the Almighty God promised to give to Abraham an entire country. On a mountain top somewhere between Bethel and Ai, in the land of Canaan, God commanded “the Father of the faithful” (Rom. 4:16) to “look from the place where you are, northward, southward, eastward and westward: For the entire land you are looking at I will give to you and to your descendants for ever” (Gen. 13:14, 15). As an additional assurance of God’s gift to him, God then instructed Abraham to “arise, walk through the length and breadth of the land, for I will give it to you” (v. 17).

Abraham’s conception of the ultimate reward of faith was firmly linked to the earth. As he looked northward Abraham would have seen the hills of Judea marking the border with Samaria. Towards the south the view extended to Hebron where later the Patriarchs were to be buried in the only piece of the land ever owned by Abraham. To the east lay the mountains of Moab and to the west the Mediterranean sea. The divine oath guaranteed to Abraham perpetual ownership of a large portion of the earth. Later the promise was repeated and made the basis of a solemn covenant. “And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your descendants after you in their generations as an everlasting covenant…and I will give to you and your descendants after you, the land in which you now reside as a foreigner-all the land of Canaan-as an everlasting possession” (Gen. 17:7,8 ).

It would not seem possible that the terms of God’s promise could be misunderstood. And yet, by a miracle of misinterpretation, “theology” has handled these innocent passages in a way which deprives Abraham of his inheritance and makes God a liar. Traditional Christian theology has almost no interest in the land promised to Abraham, as can be seen by inspecting the indexes of standard systematic theologies, Bible dictionaries and commentaries. And yet, as Gerhard von Rad says, in the first six books of the Bible “there is probably no more important idea than that expressed in terms of the land promised and later granted by Yahweh.”[1] The promise is unique. “Among all the traditions of the world this is the only one that tells of a promise of land to a people.”[2] Because the land is promised on oath Davies suggests that it might more properly be called “The sworn Land.”[3] So compelling was the promise of land to Abraham that it became “a living power in the life of Israel.”[4] “The promise to Abraham becomes a ground for ultimate hope…. There is a gospel for Israel in the Abrahamic covenant.”[5] (Cp. Paul’s statement that “the [Christian] gospel was preached in advance to Abraham,” Gal. 3:8) W.D. Davies points out that large sections of the law make “the divine promise to Abraham the bedrock on which all the subsequent history rests.”[6] Von Rad maintains that “the whole of the Hexateuch [Genesis to Joshua] in all its vast complexity was governed by the theme of the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham in the settlement in Canaan.”[7] We might add that the Abrahamic covenant permeates the whole of Scripture.

That the patriarchs expected to inherit a portion of this planet is obvious not only from the divine promises made to them but also from their zeal to be buried in the land of Israel (Gen. 50:5). The land promise to Abraham and his offspring runs like a golden thread throughout the book of Genesis. The key words in the following passages are “land” “give,” “possess,” “heir,” “covenant.” (It is interesting to note the frequency of the word “land” in Bible indexes (concordances) and then to see how the same word is absent from the indexes of books claiming to explain the Bible.)

The Promise to Abraham

“Go to the land I will show you (Gen. 12:1). All the land which you see I will give to you and your offspring forever (Gen. 13:17). A son coming from your own body will be your heir (Gen. 15:4). I am the Lord who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldees to give you this land to take possession of it (Gen. 15:7). On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram and said, to your descendants I give this land (Gen. 15:18). I will make nations of you and kings will come from you. I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. 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 (Gen. 17:6-8). Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him. For I have chosen him… (Gen. 18:18, 19). Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies (Gen. 22:17). God promised me on oath, saying, ‘to your offspring I will give this land’ (Gen. 24:7). [Abraham] is a prophet” (Gen. 20:7).

Isaac

“I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him…. My covenant I will establish with Isaac (Gen. 17:19, 21). Through Isaac your offspring will be reckoned (Gen. 21:12). To you and your descendants I will give all these lands and will confirm the oath which I swore to your father Abraham (Gen. 26:3).

Jacob

“May God give you and your descendants the blessing given to Abraham, so that you may take possession of the land where you now live as an alien, the land God gave to Abraham (Gen. 28:4). I will give you the land on which you are lying…. I will bring you back to this land (Gen. 28:13, 15). …the land I gave to Abraham and Isaac I also give to you, and I will give this land to your descendants after you” (Gen. 35:12).

The Twelve Tribes

“God will surely come to your aid and take you up out of this land to the land He promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” (Gen. 50:24).

The promise to the nation of Israel received a primary fulfillment under Joshua’s leadership (Josh. 21:45). Long after the death of the patriarchs, both the Law and the writings of the prophets of Israel express the conviction that Israel’s settlement of the land under Joshua was only an incomplete fulfillment of the covenant made with Abraham. It was clear that the patriarchs had never gained possession of the land. A further and final fulfillment was to be expected. The point is a simple one with momentous implications for New Testament Christians who become heirs to the Abrahamic covenant. Von Rad points out that
“Promises which have been fulfilled in history are not thereby exhausted of their content, but remain as promises on a different level….”[8] “The tradition, however changed, continued to contain the hope of life in the land. Deuteronomy makes it clear that there is still a future to look forward to: the land has to achieve rest and peace…. The land looks forward to a future blessing.”[9]

Thus in the Old Testament the hope of an ultimate and permanent settlement in the land, accompanied by peace, remains in view:

“My people shall live in peaceful dwelling places, in secure homes, in undisturbed places of rest” (Isa. 32:18).

“…descendants from Jacob and Judah…will possess My mountains [i.e., the land]; My chosen people will inherit them and there will My servants live” (Isa. 65:9).

“Then all your people will be righteous and they will inherit the land forever” (Isa. 60:21).

“[Israel] will possess a double portion in their land; everlasting joy will be theirs” (Isa. 61:7).

“Thus they shall inherit the land a second time, and everlasting joy shall be upon their heads” (Isa. 61:7, LXX).

“But the man who makes Me his refuge will inherit the land and possess My holy mountain” (Isa. 57:13).

“The righteous shall never be removed: but the wicked will not inherit the land” (Prov. 10:30).

“Dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture…. The meek will inherit the land and enjoy great peace…. The inheritance of the blameless will endure forever…. Those the Lord blesses will inherit the land…. Turn from evil and do good, then you will dwell in the land forever…. The righteous will inherit the land and dwell in it forever…. God will exalt you to inherit the land; when the wicked are cut off you will see it…. [Note carefully that the righteous should not expect to inherit the land before the wicked are cut off. There is a caution for dominion and reconstructionist theologies here!] There is a future for the man of peace” (Ps. 37:3, 11, 18, 22, 27, 29, 34, 37).

“The days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will bring my people Israel and Judah back from captivity and restore them to the land I gave their forefathers to possess” (Jer. 30:3).

The integrity of God’s word is at stake in this question of the future of the promised land. It was obvious to all that Abraham had never received the fulfillment of the covenant promise that he would possess the land. Moses was not allowed to enter the promised land and Israel was eventually expelled from her homeland. Based on the Abrahamic covenant, however, the faithful in Israel clung with passionate tenacity to the expectation that the land of Israel would indeed become the scene of ultimate salvation. That hope remained as the beacon light not only of the prophets but also of the original Christian faith as preached by Jesus and the Apostles -until it was extinguished by the intrusion of a non-territorial hope-“heaven when you die.” A non-biblical view of the future, divorced from the land and the earth, was promoted by Gentiles unsympathetic to the heritage of Israel, for whom the promise of the land to Abraham was the foundation of the nations deepest aspirations. In direct contradiction of Jesus, Gentilized Christianity has substituted “heaven at death” for the biblical promise of life in the Land. The message of Jesus’ famous beatitude, “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the land” (Mat. 5:5) can no longer be heard above the din of endless funeral sermons announcing that the dead have gone to heaven! Gentile antipathy to the covenant made with Abraham has rendered large parts of the Old Testament meaningless to churchgoers. Worse still, it has put the New Testament under a fog of confusion, since the New relies for its basic understanding of the Christian faith on the promises of God given to Israel through Abraham. All the major doctrines of the faith are adversely affected when the Abrahamic Covenant is disregarded or misinterpreted.

The “murder of the [Old Testament biblical] text”[10] by critical scholarship was later equally responsible for the suppression of the biblical hope of “life in the land” based on the promise made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, promises which according to Paul, Jesus came to “confirm” or “guarantee” (Rom. 15:7).[11] Fragmenting the Old Testament text in the interests of a theory of composition, scholarship lost sight of what James Dunn calls the Pauline presupposition about the authority of Scripture, “that a single mind and purpose (God’s) inspired the several writings [the Scriptures].”[12] After nearly two thousand years of uncomprehending Gentile commentary, the promise to Abraham of progeny, blessing and land must be reinstated as the coherent and unifying theme of New Testament faith in God and Christ and the essential core of the Christian Gospel of the Kingdom of God. The Gospel rests on the promise to Abraham that in Christ all the faithful will possess the land forever (Mat. 5:5, Rev. 5:10). Not only will they possess the land but that “future inhabited earth” will be under the authority of the Messiah and the saints (Heb. 2:5). This concept is what the writer to the Hebrews calls the “greatness” or “importance” of salvation which we ought not to neglect:

“How shall we escape if we disregard so great a salvation…. For God did not put the coming society on earth under the authority of angels but the Son of Man” (Heb. 2:5ff.)

The results of the inexorable process of dismantling the divine Revelation to Abraham can be seen in the comments of the Pulpit Commentary on Gen. 13:14, 15. The problem for the commentator (who sees no relevance in the land promises for Christians) is to reconcile God’s declaration, “I will give the land to you [Abraham]” with the assertion made by Stephen some two thousand years later that God “did not give Abraham any inheritance [in the land of Palestine]- not even a square foot of land, but he promised to give it to him as a possession [kataschesis; cp. LXX Gen. 17:8, ‘everlasting possession’] and to his descendants with him.”

How is the apparent contradiction to be resolved? The Pulpit Commentary offers two solutions. Firstly a retranslation so that the promise of Gen. 13:15 reads: “To you I will give the land, that is to say, to your descendants.” In this way the failure of Abraham to receive the land personally will be explained: God promised it only to his descendants and they received it under Joshua. But this is no solution at all. Throughout God’s dealings with Abraham the promise of land to the Patriarch himself is repeatedly made. Gen. 13:17 reads: “Walk through the length and breadth of the land; to you I will give it.” Abraham would have every right to complain, if this were to mean that he personally should not expect to inherit the promised land!

The commentary offers a second way round the difficulty. It maintains that the land did in fact belong to Abraham during his lifetime. “The land was really given to Abram as a nomadic chief, in the sense that he peacefully lived for many years, grew old, and died within its borders.”[13] However, this is to contradict the emphatic biblical assertions that Abraham definitely did not possess the land. Gen. 17:8 specifically reports that God said to Abraham:

“And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your descendants after you in their generations to be a God to you and your seed after you. And I will give to you and to your seed after you the land in which you are a stranger-all the land of Canaan for an everlasting possession” (Gen. 17: 7, 8 ).

These, then, are the biblical premises: Abraham is to possess the land forever. He lived out his life as a stranger owning none of the land (except for a small piece of property bought from the Hittites as a burial site for Sarah, Gen. 23:3-20). Abraham himself confessed to the Hittite inhabitants of Canaan: “I am an alien and a stranger among you” (Gen. 23:4). As the New Testament witnesses: “God gave Abraham no inheritance here [in Palestine], not even a foot of ground. But God promised him that he and his descendants after him would possess the land” (Acts 7:5, NIV).

How then is the covenant grant of land to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to be fulfilled? The answer to the problem throws a flood of light on the Christianity of the New Testament. There is only one way in which the Covenant can be realized-by the future resurrection of Abraham, enabling him to inherit the promised land for ever. To Abraham and his descendants the land belongs for ever by covenant-oath. Abraham died. Abraham must therefore rise from the dead to receive the “land of the promise,” which is Canaan, the land to which he ventured forth from Babylon and in which he lived as a foreigner. The promise to Abraham will be fulfilled, as Jesus said, when “…many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the Kingdom of God” (Mat. 8:11 and Luke 13:28, 29).

The absolute necessity for resurrection in the divine plan was the point of Jesus’ important interchange with the Sadducees, who did not believe in any resurrection and thus denied the covenant hope of life in the land for the Patriarchs and all the faithful. Jesus’ response to their inadequate understanding of eschatology and consequent failure to believe in the future resurrection of the faithful to inherit the land involved a stern rebuke that they had departed from God’s revelation:

“You are in error because you do not know the Scripture or the power of God. At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. But about the resurrection of the dead-have you not read what God said to you: ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. He is not the God of the dead but of the living” (Mat. 22:29-32).

The logic of Jesus’ argument was simply that, since Abraham and Isaac and Jacob were then dead, they must live again through resurrection in the future so that their relationship with the living God could be restored and they could receive what the covenant had guaranteed them.

To Be Continued…

________________________

Footnotes:

1The Problem of the Hexateuch and Other Essays, 1966, p. 79, cited in W.D. Davies, The Gospel and the Land, U of C Press, 1974, p. 15.

2M. Buber, Israel and Palestine, London, 1952, p. 19.

3The Gospel and the Land, p. 15.

4Ibid., p. 18.

5Ibid., p. 21.

6Ibid.

7Ibid., p. 23.

8The Problem of the Hexateuch, pp. 92ff.

9The Gospel and the Land, p. 36.

10Ibid., p. 48.

11“Jesus Christ was a minister to the Jews on behalf of God’s truth [the Gospel] to confirm the promises made to the Patriarchs, so that the Gentiles may glorify God for His mercy.”

12Commentary on Romans, Word Books, 1988, p. 202.

13Pulpit Commentary, Eerdmans, 1950, Vol. I, p. 200.

3 Responses to “The Christian Hope: Life in the Land of the Promise Made to Abraham (Part 1)”

  1. on 18 Jul 2010 at 9:26 amRay

    Not only did Abraham search the land that God showed him, but he also looked for a city that had foundations, one built by God. It was this heavenly realm that Abraham longed for, for an earthly one would have no value to him if God’s ways were not found there.

  2. on 18 Jul 2010 at 5:54 pmMark C.

    Ray,

    You are correct that an earthly kingdom would have no value if God’s ways were not found there. But this doesn’t mean that God’s desire and plan is not to have such a godly kingdom on earth. Here’s a preview of part two of Anthony’s article:

    The important truth about the land promise has been rescued by George Wesley Buchanan:

    “This promise-rest-inheritance was inextricably tied to the land of Canaan, which is the place where the Patriarchs wandered as sojourners (11:13). It was called the land of the promise (11:9) and the heavenly country (11:16)…. This does not mean that it is not on earth any more than the sharers in the heavenly calling (3:1) who had tasted the heavenly gift (6:4) were not those who lived on earth. Indeed, it was the very land on which the patriarchs dwelt as ‘strangers and wanderers’ (11:13). [‘Heavenly’] means that it is a divine land which God himself has promised.”

  3. on 22 Jul 2010 at 4:31 pmDavid

    I love it… “no marriage in heaven”.

    As if stating eloquently… “How does one come to be unified or given away to be unified, in a kingdom that is already unified?”

  

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