Land plays an important role in the Bible. Genesis begins with humans living in the Lord’s presence in a divinely gifted land. Revelation ends with redeemed humans living in the Lord’s presence in a fully renewed land. Everything in between is the development of God’s people in (and out) of God’s land. So we can’t relegate “the land” to the role of scenic background or maps. We need to take “the land” seriously and appreciate its ongoing significance for us today. We hope you'll see how the land was God’s to give and God’s to take away. It was both a gift and a responsibility, which makes for a pretty interesting story when humans get involved.
One way to do this is to trace the repeated “land/exile” cycles with an eye towards three concepts: the land as divine gift, the land under divine ownership, and the land as a thermometer of covenantal faithfulness.* So let’s break down these cycles, starting in the beginning.
Cycle 1. Humans Inherit and Forfeit the Whole World
In the beginning, God creates a beautiful garden-paradise teeming with lush vegetation where life can flourish and creatures can live. He makes humans (Heb. adam) in his image and gives them the land (the garden and beyond) to rule over in such a way that they represent his good, kingly rule to all the earth. Can God do this? Absolutely. As creator, king, and owner of the earth, God has the right to give the land to humans. What a gift! (Seriously, has anyone given you the world lately?)
To say that the land was an agricultural paradise for Adam and Eve is an understatement. That said, the description we get in Genesis 1-2 is not primarily an agricultural one, but a theological one. The land was ultimately a locus (a fixed position or center) for relationship with God. There in the land, humans walked with him in the cool of the day. There, they experienced his grace. There, they were to rule over his world. Their relationship with God was inextricably linked to the land he gifted to them. To live in the Lord’s land was to live with the Lord. That’s the best part.
But his gift was accompanied by one condition. Humans were to trust God and follow his commands in the land, the context for their obedience. If they obey God, they enjoy the land. If they disobey God, they forfeit the land. After all, the land is still his. He retains the right to take the land back at any time if humans aren’t living faithfully in it. Thus the land serves as a thermometer of sorts, gauging human fidelity to God. If Adam and Eve are still in the land, clearly they’re obeying God’s Word. But if they’re not…
Well you know how the story goes. Humans rebel against God and turn away from life to embrace death. They forfeit the garden-land through their sin and are banished from God’s presence. The worst part? They are exiles. And it’s not pretty. Genesis 4-11 traces the downward spiral of humans living outside the land away from God’s presence, culminating in the building of Babylon. Through humanity’s sin and selfishness everyone is in exile, banished from their true source of life.
That’s just the first “land/exile” cycle. The story continues, but this time the focus is on Israel.
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 makes a covenant 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 to 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 of 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.
Cycle 4. God Reverses the Land/Exile Cycle Through Jesus
The Old Testament ends with the curious fact that God’s people are simultaneously “in the land” and “out of the land.” Generations pass in this uneasy state until the long-anticipated descendant of Abraham shows up on the pages of the New Testament. Through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection he reverses the “land/exile” cycle, going into exile on our behalf and then giving us the land he inherits. Here’s how:
Jesus lives like the true human and true Israelite, obeying God’s words and living by the Torah. He trusts God’s definition of good and evil, even when faced with the cross. He loves God and man, showing particular concern for the oppressed, outcast, and marginalized. He’s the only one who deserves the land, yet he chooses to live without a home going around teaching others what relationship with God is all about. Through his teaching, miracles, and healings he creates little pockets of “land” on earth where people can experience the life, love, and rule of God. Then, to our horror, he’s sent outside the city to suffer as an exile, executed by oppressive powers and banished from God’s presence.
On the cross, Jesus fully identifies with our experience of exile (except ours was a mess of our own making) and then suffers in our place, dying and rising from the dead to inherit the world and bring rebels like us back into the land. Now those who identify with him through faith and repentance are brought into the presence of God and given the world as our inheritance. That’s right, you heard me. The world.
You see, the redemptive purposes of God that began with Israel and their land find their ultimate fulfilment in Jesus, the offspring of Abraham who possesses the world. Through our union with Jesus, we too possess Abraham’s inheritance. In the great commission, Jesus tells his followers that all authority has been given to him and then sends them into the earth with that authority to proclaim the gospel and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:16-20). Today, Jesus-followers continue to go to the ends of the earth to spread the gospel, proclaiming repentance and forgiveness of sins. We create little pockets of “land” as we gather together as God’s covenant community to experience his power and presence.
This covenant community is a diverse, multi-ethnic people from every nation, tribe, and tongue who live together under the rule and reign of King Jesus. Though co-heirs with Christ now, we eagerly await the final day of redemption when we will dwell permanently in the presence of God in a renewed garden-paradise unhindered by sin or suffering. The land that was received and lost by Adam and Eve and by Israel surely pointed to this land, but the re-created land will supersede the garden and Canaan in every way. After all, we will see Jesus face to face and walk in unbroken intimacy with him and his people in perfect covenantal faithfulness.
*These categories are borrowed from the brilliant scholar Christopher Wright. For an in-depth study, check out his book Old Testament Ethics for the People of God. Downers Grove, InterVarsity Press, 2004.