Rethinking the Land Promise
The place of the land promise in redemptive history is a complicated and controversial matter. How do we understand the fulfilment of the land promise in the church age and beyond?
Many modern evangelicals incline towards a spiritualising answer: The land promise was originally about the physical land of Canaan but with the coming of Christ that is spiritualised and now applies to the coming new creation. But in Bound for the Promised Land: The land promise in God’s redemptive plan, Oren Martin makes an interesting case that the promised land was always meant to be understood as a type of the ultimate fulfilment of the land promise in the new creation. It is not that the fulfilment of the promise changes but that the promised land was only ever meant to be a picture of what was to come. On Martin’s reading, the fulfilment of the land promise is not a slightly awkward problem to be explained away but just part of the broader flow of God’s plans for redemptive history.
One of the helpful arguments that Martin makes is that the Old Testament itself, from as early as the promises to Abraham, suggests that the land promise was always about more than the geographical land of Canaan. Martin offers six pieces of evidence in support of this position.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
‘There are exegetical grounds both in the immediate context of the Abrahamic covenant and across the entire Old Testament to argue that God’s original intention for the land was not merely to be limited to the specific geographical boundaries of Canaan. In other words, when situated within the biblical covenants and viewed diachronically, the land functions as a type or pattern of something greater that will recapture God’s original design for creation’ (Bound for the Promised Land, p.166).