The and Bible and the Land – 3  The Land and the Covenant

The and Bible and the Land – 3 The Land and the Covenant

The Land and the Covenant

Whenever I am in a debate or discussion on the theology of the land, I almost always get the question: “But aren’t the promises of land eternal and unconditional?” This is an assumption shared by many Christians, but usually without considering the full consequences of such a statement. If this is true, then it means no matter what biblical Israel did, she and her ancestors will always be the legitimate owners of the land.

Now, I have a serious problem with this line of thinking, for it makes God unconcerned with our faithfulness and our responsibility to our neighbor or to the land itself. There is no accountability. So, we must ask, is this thinking biblical to begin with? I would like to suggest that the answer is “no”. This line of thinking also ignores the wider framework of the theology of the land in the Old Testament, namely the covenant. As Chris Wright says:

It is insufficient simply to say that the LORD ‘gave the land to Israel’, without taking into consideration the context of the gift, which was the covenant relationship and its reciprocal commitments. The land was an integral part not only of the LORD’s faithfulness to Israel, but also of Israel’s covenantal obligation to the LORD.[1]

In the discussion about the land in the Old Testament, we must ask, “Did God give the land to Israel without any conditions, or were the promises really unconditional?

For this, we need to begin at the first calling to Abraham (Gen. 12:1-3). There, the more accurate translation of verse two should read as: “Be a blessing so that I can bless those who bless you”.  In other words, there is an element of conditionality in the first call to Abraham. The evidence from the translation of the Hebrew text of Gen.12:2b is indeed a strong one, and is supported by the larger Abrahamic narrative. The covenant of Gen. 15:17-18 is preceded by a reference to Abraham’s faith (15:6): “And he (Abraham) believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness”. The narrative in Gen. 17 starts with a call for Abraham to walk before God and be perfect (17:1), and ends with a commandment of circumcision (17:9-10). Gen. 18:19 makes justice a condition to the fulfilment of the promise, and Gen. 22 makes the point that it is because Abraham obeyed that he will receive the blessing, including the land.

When we move forward in the story to Israel’s time before they entered the land, we see clearly that the status of Israel in the land was conditional to obedience:

Do not make yourselves unclean by any of these things, for by all these the nations I am driving out before you have become unclean, and the land became unclean, so that I punished its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants.  But you shall keep my statutes and my rules and do none of these abominations, either the native or the stranger who sojourns among you (for the people of the land, who were before you, did all of these abominations, so that the land became unclean), lest the land vomit you out when you make it unclean, as it vomited out the nation that was before you.” (Lev. 18:24-28)

(Apologies for the strong and vivid language. It’s the Bible!)

The warnings in these verses are strong and clear. The land does not tolerate ungodliness. Holiness is a requirement to dwelling in the land. In fact, the text equates Israel with the nations that dwelt in the land before her. Israel is no better than those nations. She will not hold any special status in the land. If anything, she is held to higher standards, since she was given the law. There is no “free gift” here with “no strings attached”.

Bible scholars usually observe three areas that Israel had to observe if she was to stay in covenant with God. The first is idolatry. Worshiping other gods will cause Israel to forfeit its right to stay in the land. The second are Sabbath and Jubilee laws. The third is justice. And guess which of these sins is tied more directly with being expelled from the land? Indeed, it is the sin of socio-economic injustice. Let us consider some references:

Justice, and only justice, you shall follow, that you may live and inherit the land that the LORD your God is giving you. (Deut. 16:20) 

Jeremiah makes a similar point:

For if you truly amend your ways and your deeds, if you truly execute justice one with another, if you do not oppress the sojourner, the fatherless, or the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own harm, then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your fathers forever (Jer. 7:5-7).[2]

These social justice laws are so important for our understanding of the theology of the land. The land was supposed to be a place of equality and justice, and where the powerless are protected.

The same applied to post-exile Israel. For example, Ezekiel 33:24-26 gives a strong warning against relying on ethnicity or the past to possess the land again:

Son of man, the inhabitants of these waste places in the land of Israel keep saying, ‘Abraham was only one man, yet he got possession of the land; but we are many; the land is surely given us to possess.’ Therefore say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD: You eat flesh with the blood and lift up your eyes to your idols and shed blood; shall you then possess the land? You rely on the sword, you commit abominations, and each of you defiles his neighbor’s wife; shall you then possess the land?’ (Ezek. 33:24-26)

It is amazing how relevant these verses are for today, where we see many who “rely on the sword” and on being children of Abraham in the flesh. “Shall you then possess the land?”

Even after the exile, dwelling in the land was conditional to obedience. In short, there is no “cheap grace” in the Bible. God holds all those who receive his gifts accountable before him. We saw this with Adam and Eve, and now we see it with Israel. With election comes responsibility. Just like Adam and Eve lost Eden because of disobedience, Israel lost the land because of disobedience.

[1] C.J.H. Wright, 2004, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God, Inter-Varsity Press, Illinois, p. 92.

[2] See also Jer. 7:8-15; 21:12-14; 22:3-5; Isa. 5:12-13; Ezek. 16:49.