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In my last post, we looked at the main point of the Old Testament—Israel’s struggle with land. A good time was had by all and lives were forever changed.

As I said in that post, there is no central theme in the Old Testament, but boy oh boy is “land” important. Think about it: where in the Old Testament are the Israelites not,

  • anticipating receiving their own land,
  • fighting to get it,
  • fighting to keep it,
  • fretting about losing it,
  • or fretting about getting it back in once it was lost?

Israel’s entire existence is connected in one way or another to the possession of the land—their inheritance, their gift from God.

The Israelites were also given laws that mark them off as a separate (i.e., “holy”) people from the nations—laws of what they can eat and not eat, what is clean and unclean, what to sacrifice and when, keeping the Sabbath, the feasts, male circumcision, etc.

None of these laws, these distinguishing marks, was given an expiration date. And remaining faithful to the laws would ensure that they retained possession of the land.

Then there’s the sanctuary—first the tabernacle in the wilderness and then their permanent structure in the land, the Temple built by Solomon. This Temple in the land was decreed as the only place where God was to be worshiped and where sacrifices could be made to atone for sin.

The very idea of a Temple assumed possession of the land. Hence, the exile posed a huge problem. God’s dwelling place was leveled to the ground and the exiled Jews couldn’t simply continue as is in some other sacred structure on foreign soil. Rebuilding the Temple was, therefore, the Judahites’ top priority once they returned from Babylonian exile.

It is hard indeed to speak of “Israel” in any meaningful sense without the land. The exile posed a major dilemma: how to be “Israel” when their entire religious system is predicated upon the ancient promise of Land, Temple, and the Laws that need to be kept there? One reason synagogues arose in the wake of the exile was as a response to this dilemma: study of Torah became a means of connecting with God when the land-and-temple-locked means of connection were not available.

Now think about these three core elements of Israel’s story—Land, Temple, and Law—and what becomes of them in the New Testament.

  • The continued existence of a people of God in the land as a sign of being in harmony with God is no longer seen as God’s will. Now God’s people are sent out to the nations.
  • According to the Gospels, the destruction of the Temple is not so a cataclysmic end for this new movement but a sign of a new era dawning.
  • Gentiles are now welcomed as children of Abraham without needing to hold to practices that had been core distinguishing marks of Judaism—namely circumcision and dietary laws.

Tying together Israel’s story and the Gospel has been the grand challenge of the church since the very beginning. In the New Testament we see the early followers of Jesus, like the Gospel writers and Paul, taking up that challenge. They are doing the work of connecting Israel’s scripture—with its focus on Land, Temple, and Law—to the story of Jesus—where those elements were no longer central.

To bring those two stories together, Israel’s scripture could no longer be followed, but had to be transformed beyond its original intentions. The New Testament writers took up this task of explaining how the Gospel, which goes beyond the parameters of Israel’s story, is still connected to Israel’s story. The center point of that explanation was the transformative effect of Jesus.

Engaging this “hermeneutical challenge” has been the church’s task ever since: “How do we understand Israel’s story in light of Jesus?” Tracing the theme of “land” throughout the Bible is an entry point to observing this pervasive transformative process.

An earlier version of this post appeared in July 2013.

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.

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  • John Draper says:

    Pete, nice post. Why would God go to such pains to stress the importance of the land and the law only to change the “rules of the game” with Jesus.?

    Seems like a screwy way to set up a worldwide religion. You would think God would want a more seamless transition.

    The Apostle Paul turned the common Jewish understanding of the Torah on its head. Paul is essentially saying, “The rules have changed since Jesus. The law was never supposed to be a permanent fix.”

    That would have shocked any first-century Jew who knew his scriptures. The Old Testament is crystal clear that the Torah was front and center in God’s plan—and always would be. There was no hint in the Hebrew scriptures that the sacrificial system was ineffective or temporary or merely a “type” of a better sacrifice to come later.

    As I said, seems like a screwy way to go ahead setting up a worldwide religion.

    • Pete E. says:

      Maybe it wasn’t God who stressed the importance of land.

      • John Draper says:

        Yes! If some modern country started talking like the ancient Israelites — God gave up this land because we’re his chosen people! — they’d pilloried by the progressive press. We’d think they were terrorists. To me, the Torah is just nationalisitic propaganda, not scripture.

        • Johannes Richter says:

          Unless scripture is nationalistic propaganda… “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” seems to fit that definition. What Prof Enns’ article makes clear is that land, temple and law are not incidental to that agenda. It goes all the way down to identity. How and where our (new!) identity is shaped makes all the difference.

          It is a big deal that God’s once and future kingdom is “in and among” us. It is of crucial significance that the Word became flesh and “tabernacled” with us. It is of utmost importance that the “law is fulfilled” by love.

          Of course it’s propaganda. The gospel IS a personal-political message.

          • John Draper says:

            Johannes, here’s my respectful answer—and, yes, I do disagree with you.  Feel free to respectfully disagree back!

            I would have agreed with you 10 years ago. But since then I’ve read a lot of unorthodox books, including some from Peter, and I think that the orthodox Party Line isn’t correct. (Little “o” orthodox, though I think the Orthodox Party Line is wrong, too. So are the Catholics, while we’re at it. And don’t get me started on the Mormons!)

            Broadly, if you really tease apart the New Testament, finding what parts are from the earliest strata of tradition, I think you see that Jesus never said or did most of what is attributed to him in the gospels.

            Specifically, I don’t think Jesus gave the Great Commission. I think that was created by the church. To me, it seems there are a few subtle yet important clues that show that the Great Commission was written by the church and for the church after Jesus died. First off, there’s no way, it seems to me, that the sophisticated baptismal formula of “The Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost” was in place while Jesus was alive. Jesus was not a Trinitarian. He was a conservative Jew. What’s more, Jesus didn’t really give a rip about the rest of the world, frankly. Jesus thought his mission was only for the lost sheep of Israel. He was about setting up the Kingdom of God immediately, headquartered in Jerusalem.

            My reading has led me to the conclusion that the Jesus we have in the NT is not the Jesus of history. That Jesus is lost to us. I think much of what the Gospels reported originated not in the life of Jesus but in the life of the early church. During the decades between Jesus’s historical life and the writing of the gospels, the traditions about Jesus developed. Thus the gospels are not historical accounts of Jesus’s life. Rather they tell us how Jesus’s followers told and proclaimed his story several decades after his death. What that means is that the stories the Gospels tell should be viewed not as journalistic accounts intended to convey historical information but instead as religious literature designed to cultivate faith.

            The idealized Jesus orthodox Christians have created based on the Bible and everything they heard in church growing up has value if they try to live in a like manner. But they need to realize that the Jesus of history was an often irascible, conservative first-century Jew. What Would Jesus Do? We don’t know, really. But the most informed guesses say he probably wouldn’t have agreed with orthodox Christian theology.

            Pick up any particular dogma and turn it over in your hands. You see man’s peanut-butter-and-jelly fingerprints all over it, the misshapen pieces and the un-flush edges. You see how its beauty was really just a trick of the light.

            Of course, I may be wrong. But that’s what my once-orthodox mind tells me now as it simmers away on my brain pan.

          • Johannes Richter says:

            I’m not that sold on being able to tie the evangelistic movement to the historical Jesus specifically. But a message is a message – and even if he originally delivered it mainly to a Jewish audience, at the very least the logical intent would have been for his teachings to take hold and make a difference. Indeed, in his parables the message has clear implications across prevailing religious and political boundaries. It therefore makes sense that his disciples came to the conclusion that his “good news” about the kingdom of God was intended for “the nations” – in effect the world. A mere journalistic account of Jesus movements and saying wouldn’t have been able to trace consequences and implications, and that is where the gospels really take off. The minimalist conception of Jesus as an eccentric but otherwise unremarkable conservative Jew does not adequately explain the oscillations of awe and antagonism that followed him all the way up to his crucifixion and beyond. He evidently left his followers primed with an apocalyptic expectation – an “end times” in which we still live.

            Everything about the gospel narratives militates against reducing the Christ of faith to the Jesus of history, even as the Jesus of history seems to have militated against reducing the kingdom of God to the Israel of the Bible.

          • John Draper says:

            I’m not too sure I understand you, Johannes. You say “his teachings” took hold. My point is Jesus never spoke much of what Christians claim were his teachings.

            Yes, a message is a message but Christianity, particularly evangelicalism, is not about believing in a message or following a set of rules. It’s about a relationship with a person. My point is that Christians have built this “person” of Jesus out of passages that were created out of whole cloth by the church, not spoken/acted out by the actual person of Jesus.

            For example, Jesus wasn’t particularly interested in “universal love.” His focus was the welfare of the Jews. When he said we should “love our neighbor,” he was referring to the fellow Jews. The gentiles he considered “dogs.”

            Isn’t it interesting that this “person” of Christ speaks to believers by echoing words attributed to Jesus that he in fact never uttered? In fact, among evangelicals, that’s the main method to tell whether a “word” or “impression” you’ve received obstensibly from God is in fact from God — does it agree with scripture? “Jesus would never tell you to do such and such,” they say. “Look at the gospels.” The problem is the Jesus constructed in the gospels never existed. He was an invention of the early church to a large degree.

          • Tim says:

            You may be right about much of this. My own personal view is that ‘(O)orthodoxy’ in general (or what came to be regarded as that later on) was arrived at through rather arbitrary means, at the end of the day.

        • Johannes Richter says:

          I wrote a response that was on topic and respectful, perhaps even worth disagreeing with. Did it get lost or was it rejected?

      • Occam Razor says:

        So all those prophets who were supposed to be communicating with God, they were all wrong? Why didn’t God tell them about his Triune nature and Jesus?

        And if wasn’t God who stressed the importance of the land, how can we be confident that it was God who stressed the importance of Jesus? If the messengers got the message wrong for so long, why would later ones be right? Because it is what we believe now?

        • Pete E. says:

          Prophets were as contextually situated as anyone else.

          • Occam Razor says:

            I’m talking about the conversations in the OT that God had directly with humans, why didn’t he take that opportunity to describe himself and his plan more accurately? He could have cleared up wrong information then and there.

            It doesn’t make sense. God created this bond with Israelities, they formed a religion based on an idea that was wrong. What steps did God take to provide them with the right answers so they weren’t taken by surprise when Jesus was “incarnated”?

            Why did he allow them the misimpression that they used in the Shema, that God was a unitary being? Jesus even repeated that, but now anybody who believes that is condemned? How does that make sense?

          • Phil Ledgerwood says:

            It might be helpful to note that nowhere in the Bible is anyone condemned for their doctrine of the deity (or lack thereof) of Jesus. Many early Christians did not believe Jesus was divine. Later generations of Christians felt differently about this, obviously, but I wouldn’t expect the Old Testament to speak to that.

            What the Old Testament -does- present is the idea of an agent of God coming to overturn Israel’s post-exilic condition, and the New Testament makes a big deal of that as well.

          • Occam Razor says:

            I agree with your point — but I’m talking about what most Christians believe. And that doesn’t answer the questions about why God allowed the Israelites to be so wrong for so long, and the lack of logic behind the plan.

          • Phil Ledgerwood says:

            To be wrong about what?

          • John Draper says:

            Exactly! Why would God go to pains to make sure a faulty understanding of the deity and would let leodged into the Jewish psyche. Doesn’t make sense.

          • John Draper says:

            Phil, perhaps nowhere in the Bible was anyone condemned for their doctrine of the deity, but starting about 300 ad the church leaders vigorously condemmend heretics. People who didn’t hold to the orthodox belief were anathamaetized. The council of Nicea was a reaction to one particular heretic, Arias. Soon enough, the church was murdering heretics.

          • Phil Ledgerwood says:

            Yes, that’s true, but the original comment was about how someone could be condemned in the New Testament for something God never clarified in the Old Testament. My point was that nobody was condemned in the New Testament for it. Obviously, much later, people did condemn others for various doctrinal issues, but that doesn’t really create an issue for the Old Testament.

          • John Draper says:

            I agree with you, Occam Razor. The Old Covenant did not flow logically into the New Covenant. It called for an abrupt change. The Old Covenant was about obeying hte Torah so you could stay in the land. The New Convenant was about being freed from the yoke of the law. You’re right. It doesn’t make sense. Paul invented the New Covenant, not Jesus. Jesus thought the Old Covenant was working just fine.

  • Hill Roberts says:

    As we say in southern redneck land, “That dog will hunt!” (for you non-southern, non-rednecks – that’s high praise!)

  • DonaldByronJohnson says:

    Gentiles have always been able to be a part of Israel without becoming Israelites/Jews, at least since the exodus. There are numerous laws in Torah that describe laws that the gentiles/ger/”strangers who sojourn among you” are to follow when they reside among the Israelites. Here is an example: Lev 17:12 Therefore I have said to the people of Israel, No person among you shall eat blood, neither shall any stranger who sojourns among you eat blood. Richard Bauckham teaches that Lev 17-18 is where we get the 4 laws in Acts 15, and I agree.

    The way to follow Torah when there is no land of Israel is to not do the things associated with the land of Israel, since they cannot be done following the stipulations of Torah. But perhaps remembrances can be done in some way and one can yearn for the reestablishment of the land of Israel.

    The way to follow Torah when there is no dedicated temple is to not do the things associated with the temple, since they cannot be done following the stipulations of Torah. But perhaps remembrances can be done in some way.

  • John Shakespeare says:

    Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the land.

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