Sunday, January 23, 2022

God’s Land Promise to Israel

Giving Equal Weight to Both Equally Inspired Testaments.

Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from TKU Professor Dr. Boyd Luter’s book, God’s Land Promise to Israel.

Some have blatantly mistaken the meaning of what Jesus said in Matthew 5:17: “Don’t think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.”

In the thinking of such people, though the verse clearly says that Jesus’ mission was not to do away with what most Christians call the Old Testament, they still take “fulfill” to mean that the First Testament—the Hebrew Bible—is simply a book of bygone biblical history about the Jews, now fulfilled and basically irrelevant.

That is a common but very odd conclusion, especially since Paul clearly stated: “All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable” (2 Timothy 3:16). When 2 Timothy was written, the New Testament was still in the process of being written, so the vast bulk of “All Scripture” at that time was the Hebrew Bible. And today, even with a completed New Testament, the Old Testament is still nearly 70 percent of the Bible.

The reason for bringing this up in a study on the Land Promise is, on this topic, one of two extremes has generally been the case in looking at what the biblical canon has to say. One group has tended to “camp” in the Hebrew Bible, draw conclusions there, and basically drop those conclusions onto the New Testament. The opposite group—which privileges the New Testament—has claimed one of three things. Either:

  1. What is taught in the Old Testament about the Land Promise has been, because of Israel’s sin, spiritually superseded by the Church in the New Testament and is thus irrelevant, or
  2. The New Testament says nothing of any consequence about the Land Promise, and thus the textual “silence” effectively infers that Israel forfeited her Land Promise, or 
  3. The Old Testament passages cited in the New Testament that have to do with Israel are typologically applied to Jesus or the Church. (This third understanding will be discussed at the end of this chapter.)

Actually, neither of the first two versions of disagreement represents a “balanced” position. Does it not make sense that if both Testaments of the Bible are equally “God-breathed,”[1] both should have more or less equal say, if, in fact, there is considerable biblical material about the Land Promise in both the Old and the New Testaments?

Some would halt the discussion at this point and say, “Hold it now! There is obviously much less about the Land Promise in the New Testament than the Old Testament. Thus, the stated principle of ‘Giving Equal Weight to Both Equally Inspired Testaments’ does not hold water in regard to Israel’s Land Promise.”

My answer to that is this: after carefully tabulating the number of major passages that, in one way or another, relate to the Land Promise in the Hebrew Bible, there are 28 compared to the 26 in the New Testament. Those numbers cannot be considered the huge disparity that many would expect! 

Hermeneutically, the main point here is that no interpreter should presuppose that they have a clear warrant to read either one of the biblical Testaments through the lens of the other. It is neither valid to read the New Testament through the grid of the Old Testament nor to read the Old Testament through a New Testament grid. Both are equally inspired, both contain a great deal of highly significant material relevant to Israel’s Land Promise, and the insight provided by both is equally necessary to come to an accurate “whole Bible” viewpoint on the Land Promise.

The Land Promise and the Mosaic, Davidic, and New Covenants: The Promise Further Interwoven

Israel’s Land Promise is often discussed as if it is a theological entity unto itself. It is not, though. As noted above, the Land Promise is tied closely to the other features of the wider Abrahamic Covenant (seed/descendants and blessings). Also, the Land Promise is assumed—and sometimes stated outright—by the other major covenants the Lord made with Israel: the Mosaic Covenant, the Davidic Covenant, and the New Covenant.

In regard to the Mosaic Covenant, after Israel’s informal initial acceptance of the covenant with the Lord in Exodus 19:4–8 but before their formal acceptance ceremony in Exodus 24, the Land Promise comes up. In Exodus 23:31, the Lord promises through Moses, “I will set your borders from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea, and from the wilderness to the Euphrates River.”

This description of boundaries in Exodus 23:31 is fairly close to what Abraham was told in Genesis 15:18, with somewhat more detail: “I give this land to your offspring, from the Brook of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates River.” The main point here, though, is that the Exodus passage stating boundaries for the Promised Land is smack in the middle of the first section of the Mosaic Law. That observation makes it clear that the Land Promise is interwoven to some degree with the Mosaic Covenant.

The more well-known of the Davidic Covenant passages is 2 Samuel 7:12–16. Only two verses before the beginning of that passage, these words are found: 

I will designate a place for my people Israel and plant them, so that they may live there and not be disturbed again (v. 10). 

Such a “place” is the Land, which is clearly on the Lord’s mind as He spoke through Nathan the prophet to David. So, if nothing else, Israel having a “place” land-wise was closely related to the covenant He was about to make with David and his descendants in regard to a royal house for Israel.

The relationship between Israel’s Land Promise and the New Covenant is just as easy to spot. A few verses after Jeremiah 31:31–34, the only passage in the Hebrew Bible that uses the wording “New Covenant,” these words are found, speaking of parts of Jerusalem that were currently rubble: 

Look, the days are coming … when the city … will be rebuilt for the Lord…. It will never be uprooted or demolished again (31:38, 40). 

The other well-known New Covenant passage is Ezekiel 36:24–28, which promises, among other features, “I will place my Spirit within you and cause you to follow my statutes and carefully observe my ordinances” (36:27). Just before that verse, the lead-in verse (v. 24) to Ezekiel’s version of the New Covenant states: “For I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and will bring you into your own land.” (Your own land—that’s one way the Lord looks at the Promised Land.) Then, one verse after Ezekiel’s statement about placing the Holy Spirit within Israel, are these words: “You will live in the land that I gave your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God” (37:28).

From these examples, can there be much doubt about how closely linked the Land Promise is, not only to the rest of the features of the Abrahamic Covenant but also to the Mosaic, Davidic, and New Covenants? In His providential wisdom, God seemingly saw fit to intertwine all four covenants to the point it appears that, if one covenant is somehow impacted, so would be the other three.

Thus, the idea of the Land Promise either being done away with or somehow spiritually superseded by Christ or the Church makes much less sense. Instead of the covenantally superfluous factor that supersessionists seem to think that Israel’s Land Promise is, it is actually much more like a tooth whose roots have wrapped themselves around a jawbone that would require very painful surgery, as opposed to a simple tooth extraction when the roots are not deep.

In other words, the Land Promise is part of the essence of the Abrahamic Covenant and also very closely related to Israel’s three other major covenants. Sadly, even though that is true, the Land Promise seems to be like the old comedian Rodney Dangerfield, who complained, “I can’t get no respect.”


[1] The literal translation of the Greek word theopneustos in 2 Timothy 3:16, which is normally rendered “inspired.”

Dr. Boyd Luterhttps://www.tku.edu
Dr. Boyd Luter is the Director of Biblical and Theological Studies at The King's University.