What happened to the promised land? It became the promised empire

Read time: 7 minutes
God shows Moses the promised land

Andrew Bunt provides a quick and lucid overview of the argument of Oren Martin’s book Bound for the Promised Land: The land promise in God’s redemptive plan (2015). I have not read the book. Martin thinks—assuming that Bunt has understood him correctly—that the land of Canaan was always intended to be “a type of the ultimate fulfilment of the land promise in the new creation.”

Evangelicals have tended to offer spiritualising solutions to the salvation-historical problem of the land: physical land in the Old Testament, spiritual “land”—traditionally heaven, more recently new creation—in the New Testament. Martin seeks to avoid this disjunction by suggesting that from the start the “land” was only ever a provisional representation in history of “something greater that will recapture God’s original design for creation.”

Here is Bunt’s concise six point summary of the evidence for this claim provided by Martin:

  1. The promises given to Abraham are a reinstating of the role given to Adam which was itself a call to impact further afield than just the land of Canaan.
  2. The form of the promise given to both Abraham (Gen. 22:17-18) and Jacob (Gen. 26:3-4) suggests a much larger and greater fulfilment than the promised land later inhabited by Israel.
  3. In Deuteronomy, the coming entrance to the land is presented as a return to the situation in Eden, linking it to the wide scope of the call on humanity in Genesis 1 and 2. Entry to the land is also connected with securing rest suggesting it is a type of entering God’s eternal rest.
  4. Joshua presents something of a tension between the fulfilment of the land promise and a yet-to-come fulfilment, suggesting that the original promise was about more than just Canaan.
  5. The reigns of David and Solomon again introduce the themes of Eden and rest, both of which suggest broader fulfilments. As things begin to fall apart in Solomon’s reign, the prophets draw on Eden, Abraham, and David to further open up the scope of what God had promised.
  6. In their discussion of the return from exile, the prophets speak of both national and international elements and envisage a return to the land which is coextensive with a new creation.

I think the summary is just about cogent enough to merit a critical response—just keep in mind that this is a review of a very brief review of the book, which is very poor practice.

Anyway, I am not persuaded by Martin’s thesis. It looks like another well-meaning attempt to steer evangelicals towards a creation-centred eschatology, one that better suits our global outlook, while bypassing the consistently political—indeed, geo-political—focus of both the Old and the New Testaments.

  1. It is true that the mandate given to the patriarchs is a recapitulation of the original creation mandate given to humanity. Just as humanity was blessed and instructed to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth (Gen. 1:26-27), so Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were blessed by the creator God and told to be fruitful, multiply, and fill the land which he would give to them (Gen. 12:2-3; 17:1-6; 22:17; 26:24; 28:3-4; 35:11-12; 48:4). The descendants of Abraham in the land were to be an obedient humanity in microcosm following the progressive departure of the macrocosm from the original design.1
  2. But there is no suggestion that the microcosm of Israel would impact further afield by expansion. The families and peoples of the earth would be indirectly blessed by the creator through the presence of a dedicated new creation people in their midst. The texts cited (Gen. 22:17-18; 26:3-4) speak only of the blessing of the nations of the earth in the offspring of Abraham and Isaac. The nations do not cease to be nations, distinct from Israel.
  3. No doubt the entry into Canaan is conceived somewhere, somehow in Deuteronomy as a return to Eden (no reference is given). But it is nowhere suggested that this entailed the reinstatement of the original command to fill the earth. Humanity had filled the earth already. The challenge for the descendants of Abraham was to establish and sustain a small scale “creation” within the carefully prescribed boundaries of the land and Torah—and that would be hard enough. Entry into Canaan is certainly described as gaining “rest” after the travails of exodus and conquest (Deut. 3:20; 12:9), but this is a type of “God’s eternal rest” only from the perspective of the author of Hebrews (Heb. 3:4:1-11). The Old Testament expectation is that the physical land would be a lasting home or inheritance for Israel if they stayed faithful to the covenant and did not do what they thought was right in their own eyes (Deut. 12:8-9).
  4. The task given to Joshua is stated clearly and emphatically at the outset. He is to lead the people over the Jordan into the land that YHWH has promised to give them: “From the wilderness and this Lebanon as far as the great river, the river Euphrates, all the land of the Hittites to the Great Sea toward the going down of the sun shall be your territory” (Josh. 1:4). This is a much larger territory than was actually possessed by Israel. In his commentary Butler observes that “Israel has two sets of borders, that in which her own people live and that which is the land of promise.”2 So, yes, there is gap between reality and fulfilment, but the fulfilment is only a larger territory or mini-empire (cf. 1 Kgs. 4:21). It is not the whole earth.
  5. I disagree that the use of creation or Eden language to describe either Israel flourishing in the land or the renewal of Israel’s presence in the land suggests “broader fulfilments.” The assumption is always that Israel is a new creation in microcosm; it flourishes, fails, and is renewed in microcosm, a small vulnerable patch of land on the margins of several great empires.
  6. Again, it is correct to say that the prophets sometimes thought of the restoration of Jerusalem and the land after invasion and exile as the recovery of a pristine Edenic condition: “For the LORD comforts Zion; he comforts all her waste places and makes her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the LORD” (Is. 51:3). The new order would be like a new heavens and new earth (Is. 65:17; 66:22). But the political shape of this imagined future is clear: Israel is a priestly people attendant on the one true God, in the land, in the midst of nations that now orientate themselves in submission towards Jerusalem and the temple (cf. Ps. 72:8-11; Is. 60:10-14; 61:5-6; Zech. 14:16-19). The final Old Testament vision is not of the renewal of the macrocosm but of a new empire.

Jesus’ prediction that Jerusalem and the temple would again be destroyed as a final judgment on a wicked and adulterous generation of Jews (cf. Matt. 23:29-24:2) was a deep affront to Jewish eschatological hope, a stark contradiction of the Old Testament vision. But we do not have to regard what comes next as a “spiritualising” of the Old Testament focus on the land. Quite the opposite. I would argue that, in the end, the New Testament witness is faithful to the Old Testament conviction that the hostile pagan kingdoms of Israel’s world would eventually be judged by Israel’s God and—so to speak—subjugated.

In other words, rather than trying to accommodate Old Testament expectation to a supposed New Testament eschatology that confuses kingdom and new creation, we would do better to read the New Testament as a natural extension of the Old. Not much has changed.

The nations raged, and the kings of the earth conspired against YHWH and his anointed, but God declared to his king: “You are my Son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel” (Ps. 2:7–9).

The anointed king who would finally overthrow the forces in heaven and on earth aligned against the God of Israel was Jesus. The king who would break them with a rod of iron was Jesus (cf. Acts 13:33; Rom. 1:4; Heb. 1:5; 5:5; Rev. 2:27;12:5; 19:15). Here was a “King of kings and Lord of lords” to displace the great pagan rulers, from Nebuchadnezzar to Caesar (Rev. 19:16; cf. Ezra 7:12; Ezek. 26:7; Dan. 2:37).

This was not new creation. It was kingdom—a far-reaching restructuring of the political order of the ancient world, the rule of the God of Israel over the nations in history. This would be no less real, no less physical, than Israel in the land. The simple difference was that YHWH’s anointed was enthroned not in Jerusalem but at his right hand in heaven, in the Jerusalem above. And the priestly people of the living God were now scattered among the nations of the empire.

It’s a thousand years before we get to a new heavens and new earth (Rev. 20:1-21:8).