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I was taught in seminary and graduate school, as were many others of my generation and several before that, that the Old Testament is too diverse for it to have a “central point.”  As soon as you think you’ve found a central theme, it either doesn’t work (e.g., covenant or holiness) or it’s too broad to be of much use (e.g., God).

Some themes, however, are right there in your face, and one of them is getting higher and higher on my list: LAND–namely the promised land of Canaan.

That may bore you. That may not sound terribly spiritual. Too bad. Land is a major idea the Bible keeps on the front burner. Actually, I may even be understating things a bit.

The promise to receive land, getting it, how to hold on to it, losing it and getting it back, and how not to lose it again. That describes the main storyline of the OT.

Land is already central in God’s promise to Abraham.

Actually, back up.

As I laid out in The Evolution of Adam, the Adam in the Garden is already a snapshot preview of Israel in the land of Canaan.

  • Adam and Israel are each placed in a piece of prime real estate.
  • Remaining there depends on obedience to God.
  • Both Adam and Israel break God’s law and are driven out of the land.

There is more to the story of Adam than the parallel with Israel, but this parallel is seriously undervalued. And I’m not riffing. The idea goes back to medieval Judaism:

Just as I led Adam into the garden of Eden and commanded him and he transgressed my commandment, whereupon I punished him by dismissal and exile… so also did I bring his descendants into the land of Israel and command them, and they transgressed my commands and I punished them by dismissal and exile. (Genesis Rabbah)

The gift of land, stipulations for remaining there, and being exiled for failing to follow orders is how the Old Testament begins. The rest of Israel’s narrative walks us through this same path, ending with exile—and return.

Note how Israel’s “core narrative” (Genesis—2 Kings) is focused on land.

Abraham’s story (Genesis) begins with a guided tour of the land that God promises to give to his descendants. Subsequent action takes place in the land, with Israel’s ancestors struggling to establish themselves. The Abraham story, in other words, makes the case that the land of Canaan is rightfully Israel’s.

The famine and the Joseph story (Genesis) recount Israel’s move to Egypt, which, according to the Abraham story, is all part of God’s plan to guide his people back home and take back what’s theirs from its wrongful inhabitants, the Canaanites.

Israel is delivered from Egypt (Exodus) not to run free like prairie dogs, but so they can enter Canaan and set up shop. On Mt. Sinai (Leviticus) they are given a law code and a sanctuary, not just “because”—but to establish rules of conduct and worship as a landed nation.

Forty years in the wilderness (Numbers and Deuteronomy) delayed the reception of the land promise, prompted by Israel’s (actually, the spies’) unfaithfulness in trusting that God would give the land to them. (“Oh, we’ll never conquer that place. They have fortified cities and giants.”)

They enter the land through conquest (Joshua)—namely, wiping out the Canaanites and others who get in their way. God is determined to get them into the land at all costs.

The period of the monarchy and divided monarchy (Samuel and Kings) is one long series of bad tales that explain the cataclysm of the loss of the land—namely disobeying Yahweh by worshiping foreign gods. First to go is the larger northern kingdom in 722 BC at the hand of the Assyrians. Next to go is the southern kingdom of Judah at the hand of the Babylonians in 586 BC.

Prophetic warnings often deal with the consequences of Israel’s disobedience—the threat of losing the land, chided for having lost it, or what God is going to do restore the people to it.

I’m all on board with the fact that Israel’s story has beautiful and inspiring depth, and there’s plenty to talk about there. But my point here is:

  • A dominant storyline that runs through Israel’s entire historical narrative and prophetic writings is about a small nation’s struggle with land—God’s promise to give it, Israel taking it, what Israel needed to do to keep it, losing it anyway, and getting it back.

“Land” is at the heart of Israel’s story. The New Testament transforms this story into something else. It has to. We’ll get into in my next post.

[An earlier version of this post appeared 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.