The theme of Land in the Bible doesn’t begin in Genesis 15, but in the first few chapters of Genesis. Genesis 1 is the account of all that God created. Of all of creation God puts man in a portion of it:.
Gen 2:15 The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.
When man falls, God takes what had been his gift, and curses it.
Gen 3:17 And to Adam he said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
Gen 3:18 thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field.
Though at first man was to eat of the tree of life, now his food comes by pain and is of a lower quality. But what does this have to do with Abraham? Understanding the promise of Abraham requires understanding the narrative flow of Scripture. Abraham is chapter 12, not 1, of Genesis. Abraham comes in after the story has commenced. Abraham is an element in the History of Redemption.
God has already begun his program of redemption in the promise of the seed, sometimes called the proto-evangelium (first gospel) in Genesis 3:15:
Gen 3:15 I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”
The seed of the woman (Christ) will crush the head of the serpent (Satan). As a result of this promise, Adam names his wife “Eve, because she was the mother of all living.” (Gen 3:20) From Eve, Christ will come to bring life, and “life to the fullest.”
Yet the story of redemption tells, not just a story of soul-saving, but the redemption of all creation. Paul tells us in Romans that “the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.” (Rom 8:22) Man not only awaits redemption, so does creation.
Back to Abraham. God’s promise to Abraham includes a large tract of land, larger than he would even have use of at that point:
“from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebusites.” (Gen 15:18b-21)
Some people interpret the geography as similar to modern day Israel, while you can also find some maps of what some other people estimate that land to be. What is the meaning of this land promised to Israel? How do we interpret this? If we say it is something other than the literal land in the Middle East, are we not “spiritualizing” the text, and treating the Scriptures loosely?
Many of these questions go to the heart of how we read the Old Testament. Many want a very literal reading, so much so that Genesis 3:15, that the church has always interpreted as the proto-evangelium, is really just explaining why snakes and people don’t get along. So too, the land promise made by God finds full fulfillment in the political possession of the land mentioned in Genesis 15 by an entity with the name of Israel. If this is the way we are to read the Old Testament, this is a reasonable interpretation.
In reading the Bible, the only infallible guide to interpreting the Bible is the Bible itself. Many places in the Bible, it does exactly that: interprets itself. Sometimes in the same passage, such as the Gospel authors giving an interpretation to the parables of Jesus. Sometimes in different books, such as Malachi (1:3) or Romans (chapter 9) interpreting the story of Esau and Jacob. Indeed, to understand the Scriptures, the Scriptures themselves instruct us.
The New Testament tells us that many things in the Old Testament, such as festivals, “are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.” (Col 2:17). What is written in the Old Testament is to be understood in the context of Christ. The writer of Hebrews concurs, writing:
Heb 10:1 For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities
The “true form” of the shadow in the Old is found in the New. The most “literal” and surest form of reality is what is revealed to us in Christ and the New Testament as God unfolds his plan in the narrative of the redemption of His creation. With this in mind, what was the land a shadow of? What part of redemption does this promise point to? The writer of Hebrews stops in the middle of his hall of fame of faith in Hebrews 11 to reflect on the land promise and explain it to us:
Heb 11:13 These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.
Heb 11:14 For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland.
Heb 11:15 If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return.
Heb 11:16 But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.
The author of Hebrews writes of the hope of the land as a desire for a better country, a heavenly one, a city that God has prepared. The true form of the land is found in the story arch from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22. The promise to Abraham is the restoration of the garden, and its improvement. The story begins with the lost Paradise of the Garden continues in the plan of restoration of God from Genesis 3 onward to Abraham’s promise which looks to the restoration of all things in Revelation. When we look at Revelation, we see John describe to us:
Rev 21:10 And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great, high mountain, and
showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God,
I don’t know of any more obvious referent the author of Hebrews could mean by “a heavenly city” that God prepared than a holy city coming down straight from heaven! The old Jerusalem was indeed a fulfillment, but according to Hebrews, the fullest fulfillment is the New Jerusalem.
My friend Matt Bradley has a wonderful exercise in Scripture (listen to his lesson introducing Historical Redemptive reading here). Open the first few chapters of Genesis and compare them to Revelation. The parallels are striking:
We find the tree of life:
Gen 2:9 And out of the ground the LORD God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
Rev 22:2 through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life
Gen 2:10 A river flowed out of Eden to water the garden,
Rev 22:1 Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life,
And the light of Day:
Gen 1:5 God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night.
Rev 22:5 And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.
But as you can see, the end is not only a restoration of the Garden, but there is improvement over the Garden. The Garden had two types of tree (good and bad), the city only has the tree of life. The Garden had night and day, but the city only has day. The Garden had a serpent, but the serpent is defeated and in the city: “nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.” (Rev 21:27)
God’s land promise, we see shadowed the promise of full restoration, a restoration and improvement over the lost Garden. Christ, in His covenant obedience, has been given all things (1 Cor 15:27), and in turn, Christ declares “Behold, I am making all things new.” (Rev 21:5) The inheritance Christ receives is the whole earth, the land of promise and beyond, remade, so that:
Rev 21:1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away.
The history of redemption begins in Genesis 3:15, and in Abraham we are given a shadow of a true form, that lets us look forward to the ultimate fulfillment of the promise in the new creation when:
Rev 21:4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
If one accepts the conclusions of this post on the Land of Israel, then one can sing this following hymn with hope. This hymn became especially popular among African-Americans who identified with the theme of exhile, while looking forward to a better day of the Promised Land. You can notice the similar themes to mine in my post such as longing for wher “those wide extended plains, Shines one eternal day” [Modern versions are found on Jars of Clay’s Redemption Songs and Indelible Grace 2]
On Jordan’s Stormy Banks by Samuel Stennett
On Jordan’s stormy banks I stand,
And cast a wishful eye
To Canaan’s fair and happy land,
Where my possessions lie.
I am bound for the promised land,
I am bound for the promised land;
Oh who will come and go with me?
I am bound for the promised land.
O the transporting, rapturous scene,
That rises to my sight!
Sweet fields arrayed in living green,
And rivers of delight!
There generous fruits that never fail,
On trees immortal grow;
There rocks and hills, and brooks and vales,
With milk and honey flow.
O’er all those wide extended plains
Shines one eternal day;
There God the Son forever reigns,
And scatters night away.
No chilling winds or poisonous breath
Can reach that healthful shore;
Sickness and sorrow, pain and death,
Are felt and feared no more.
When I shall reach that happy place,
I’ll be forever blest,
For I shall see my Father’s face,
And in His bosom rest.
Filled with delight my raptured soul
Would here no longer stay;
Though Jordan’s waves around me roll,
Fearless I’d launch away.