Cycle 2. God Brings Humans Back Into the Land & They Forfeit It…Again
The good news is that God doesn’t abandon the whole creation project. He chooses to redeem and restore humanity, starting with a guy named Abraham. From the smoke and rubble of Genesis 11, God calls and covenants with Abraham, promising to multiply his descendants, give him some killer real estate, and make him a source of international blessing (Genesis 12, 15, and 17).
Admittedly, the promise of Abraham’s “seed” occupies much of Genesis, but as the Torah unfolds it’s the land of promise that takes center-stage. In fact, the land becomes one of the most prominent features of the story, almost as if it takes on the role of a lead character. For example, the prophet Jeremiah speaks to the land, “O land, land, land, hear the word of the LORD” (Jeremiah 22:29) and then goes on to say, “…because of the curse the land mourns” (Jeremiah 23:10).
Now, can a piece of real estate hear God’s Word or mourn the curse? Of course not. The point is, the land, through every stage of Israel’s history (promise, conquest, possession, misuse, loss, and recovery) becomes so central to Israel’s covenantal experience that to speak of the land is to speak in terms of Israel’s special relationship with Yahweh. It was the place that guaranteed restored intimacy with God and promoted human flourishing. It was a new garden-paradise. Ultimately, it was God’s gift to God’s people to enjoy God’s presence. A pretty sweet deal, right?
This brings us back to the divine gift/ownership concept. Just as God had the right to give the whole world to Adam and Eve, he has the right to give the land to Israel as an expression of his covenantal commitment to them. To be clear, this gift has nothing to do with their righteousness. Their land, as well as their existence as a nation, was based on God’s electing love (Deuteronomy 9:4-6). It was a gift.
But that gift is accompanied by ethical responsibilities. Israel may possess the land, but the Lord owns it so they remain accountable to him in what they do with it. It’s not a “one and done” type of deal. It’s the context for ongoing obedience to God and faithfulness to God, family, and neighbor. Everything they do in the land, from establishing territories to pruning trees, is an opportunity serve and obey the Lord. But what if they don’t obey? They forfeit the land.Leviticus 25:23 says, “…the land is mine and you reside in my land as foreigners and strangers,” meaning God could withdraw his protection and allow Israel to become like landless foreigners again if they broke his covenant.
This is where the land serves as a thermometer of covenantal faithfulness, revealing the spiritual state of the nation. Sure, Israel may perform all the external religious rituals but the one reliable way of gauging Israel’s true faithfulness to Yahweh is their occupation in the land. The covenant curses say that disobedience will result in loss of the land and exile from their home, something the prophets won’t let Israel forget as they flagrantly reject God’s kingly rule. But it’s all to no avail. Israel rejects Yahweh in lieu of pagan nations and their gods. They’re no longer a “light to the nations,” they’re just like the nations!
It becomes obvious there’s only one recourse—exile. In fulfillment of the covenantal curses Moses predicted back in Deuteronomy 28, God’s people are sent into exile. They finally taste the unavoidable consequences of centuries of disobedience. They’re once again strangers and exiles living in an oppressive, foreign land. It feels like déjà vu.
Cycle 3. God Brings Humans Back Into the Land…But It Still Feels Like Exile
As if being reduced to refugees in a strange land isn’t disorienting enough, the enormous sense of national disruption produced by loss of the land would have been crushing. Israel understood their relationship with God and the inheritance of land to be two sides of an inseparable coin. The exile undermined their entire framework. They never thought they could be disinherited, but now that Jerusalem lay in ruins they had to reconsider the nature of their covenantal relationship. They were asking the hard questions. What of their identity now? Where was their God? How did the land fit into their current status as exiles?
The prophets arrive on the scene to make sense of these questions. They confirm that loss of the land was a horrific fracture in their relationship with God but it wasn’t the end of it. Ezekiel reveals that God is alive and well in Babylon reigning on his mobile throne, while Jeremiah speaks hope for God’s people despite the destruction of the temple. God’s people are not cut off forever. They could experience the covenantal blessings of relationship with Yahweh again through repentance and renewed obedience. Even in Babylon.This reoriented their understanding of the land. The theological concepts (security, blessing, responsibility) remained intact, but they now made room for life with God in exile.
This reorientation is a pivotal moment in redemptive history. Israel may have lost the land but they were still God’s people, which prepared the way for the widening of God’s purposes in the world to embrace the Gentiles in a way that Israel had not previously envisioned. Salvation is no longer tied to a specific space or limited to one ethnic group. In fact, Ezekiel anticipates the broad scope of salvation when he outlines the boundaries of the new land and commands Israel to give an inheritance to all the foreigners among them (Ezekiel 47:21-23). When God gathers his people from the land, it would be people from every nation, tribe, and tongue.
That said, exile is still exile. The people longed for the day that Ezekiel and Jeremiah both prophesied about. They said God would gather his remnant from the nations and restore them to the land and do a new work in their hearts, causing them to love and obey his commands and walk in covenantal faithfulness (Ezekiel 36:24-28 and Jeremiah 31:31-34). And God does eventually bring them back (back) into the land, but it’s not exactly what the prophets envisioned. They’re in the land but oppressive empires rule over them and treat them as outcasts and aliens. And there’s no radical change in their hearts. They still love their sinful, idolatrous ways. Apparently, you can be in the land and still feel like you’re in exile.
We all know this feeling. The world is our home but it’s messed up. We experience lots of pain, trauma, and suffering, much of which comes from our own sin. So the human condition is kind of like that of Israel when they re-entered the land—they’re back, but they still feel lost.