[I was recently asked how I interpret the promises regarding the land in the Bible. The following is my first installment of that explanation]
When it comes to the promises regarding the land, the place where we would think to begin is with Abraham and the promises which are given to him in chapter 12. It is here, after all, that we first see the promise regarding land.
However, the promises of Gen. 12 must first be seen in the light of the whole context of Genesis. The promises to Abraham are prefaced by the promise to Adam and Eve in Gen. 3:16. The promise of Genesis 3 is especially salvific in nature. The promises to Abraham, it would seem, given this context, would follow in stride as fundamentally salvific in nature.
The progression of Scripture also backs this. As one looks at the development of the land in the OT, one sees that they never achieve the full acquisition of it. Much of this is because the boundaries are always moving on them! First the promise to Abraham is that he would receive a land. It is interesting to note that the boarders of which are never mentioned.
Later in chapter 12, when Abraham arrived at the oak of Moreh, God said that he would give him “this land.” At this point the boarders are defined as “a plot somewhere around this tree.”
In chapter 13 the boarder is expanded. Abraham is told to “lift up his head and look northward, south, east, west.” He is also commanded to “walk through the land.” In other words, the boarder is now getting some sizable acreage. The exact border is a bit ambiguous, but we know that it has increased because is now defined as “as far as you can see.” Yet the size of the territory is still somewhat restricted—being limited to the eye and the curvature of the earth.
It is interesting to see too that Abraham does not “walk through the land,” but instead pitches his tent in the suburbs of Hebron, a major metropolis city of the time. One is inclined to think that the best thing we have for a boarder at this point is the ancient equivalent of New York and its outskirts.
As the Scriptures continue to progress the land of promise continues to expand, ever out of the reach of the Israelite people. Even the vast realms established under the rule of Solomon never come close to reaching the extents that they were supposed to attain. The only conclusion every Jew had was “more.” This is realized in the book of Psalms when it says that the “meek shall inherit the earth.” Now we are talking! The promise was never about a certain territory. Instead, it was about the whole realm God had created originally. Abraham’s promise was a, in reality, promise of salvation. It was a promise that the creation would be restored and one day God’s people would have it in full again.
The New Testament rides this wave the rest of the way home. Jesus begins by restating it early on, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven…Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth…Blessed are those who are persecuted, for they shall inherit the kingdom.” The kingdom is more than simply national Israel. First, it is that spiritual rule wherever Christ is believed upon. Secondly, it is that future realm in eternity where the whole earth is given as the possession of inheritance.
Romans 4:13 also confirms that the scope of the promise was not confined to the land of Canna alone, but to be understood in a much broader sense. Paul says “For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world.”
Finally, Hebrews tells us that it was never about the specific land of Canaan in an ultimate way. Abraham was “looking forward to a city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God… for they desired a better country, that is a heavenly one.”
In sum, the light of Scripture points us to the saving acts of God where he restores all creation. The promised land is nothing less than the whole realm that was mentioned in Genesis 1.
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