Contrasting Perspectives on the Land
How is the land of the Bible being viewed today? Consider these five perspectives.
Several different perspectives on the land of the Bible have arisen in the course of history. In many ways, these various views of the land belong distinctively to the age in which they developed. Yet it is also true that basic elements of these different ways of looking at the land have been present in every human era and are no less present today than they were when originally established. Five perspectives on the land of the Bible warrant special attention.
FIVE PERSPECTIVES ON THE LAND
The Crusader Perspective
The energy spent and the blood spilt because of the Crusader perspective on Palestine is almost immeasurable. Almost a thousand years after the misguided Crusaders made their futile attempt to claim Palestine for Christianity, the land still shows the pockmarks that remain as a result of their presence. Remnants of walls, castles, churches, and cities protrude from the surface of the land wherever the traveler goes. At Caesarea, an impressive moat and fortress remain. With a spectacular view overlooking the Jordan valley, impressive remains of Belvoir Fortress still stand. This significant citadel withstood a four-year siege near the end of the twelfth century before it finally fell to Saladin. The shell of a Crusader castle dramatically occupies the peak of a mountain on the way toward snow-covered Hermon, and the ruins of another mark the halfway point on the way down to Jericho from Jerusalem. At Jerusalem itself, large parts of the city wall date back to the days of the Crusaders.
So what inspired this massive sacrifice of life, limb, fortune, and family? Obviously motivations must have been mixed. But undergirding the whole endeavor was the view that this land was holy and therefore could not remain in the hands of a Muslim community. To protect its sacredness, this holy ground must be wrenched from the infidels without regard for the cost.
Few people today would claim that their view of the land of the Bible agrees with the perspective of the Crusaders. Yet one wonders: is not the commonplace designation of this place as the "Holy Land" tainted with the twisted outlook of the Crusaders? Just what is it that makes this land “holy” in the minds of so many? So long as the "Glory," the Shekinah, dwelt in the temple of Jerusalem, the land was made holy by the special presence of God. But the departure of the "Glory" meant that the land's holiness, its sanctification by God's abiding presence, was no more. Just as the burning bush in the wilderness sanctified the ground around it only so long as the glory of God remained, so this land was "holy" only so long as God was uniquely there.
Indeed, many people may affirm that they sense a special closeness to God as they ''walk today where Jesus walked." But human feeling cannot be equated so simplistically with divine determinations. In fact, the specific teaching of Jesus was that the time would come when the presence of the holy God would be found neither in Jerusalem nor on the mount of Samaria, but wherever he was worshipped in Spirit and in truth (John 4:21, 23). Material locale simply does not have the capacity to retain divine holiness.
The Crusader perspective on the land of the Bible led well-meaning people astray for centuries. It cost countless families their husbands, their children, their fortunes, and their futures. The same misdirected zeal may not characterize people today who think of Palestine as the "Holy Land." But this view can mislead severely and substitute a false form of worship for the true. Instead of accepting the biblical teaching that any location can be the most holy place on earth if the one true God is worshipped through Jesus Christ at that place, the land of the Bible is romanticized so that people suppose that if they are there God will be known with special power and truth.
The Pilgrim Perspective
All through the ages, people have felt a compulsion to travel to the land of the Bible. Most individuals make the trek because they naturally associate the land with the events recorded in the Bible. But throughout history, the motivation of many has been a sense of gaining merit with God. Even in the twentieth century, professing Christians travel halfway around the world to be "rebaptized" in the Jordan River, assuming that somehow this water has a greater capacity for cleansing from sins than any other. A yet more subtle version of this same view supposes that a pilgrimage to the land of the Bible will remove the soul's haze and give a clear vision of the person of Christ.
But Scripture offers no specific blessing for the sinner as a consequence of his traveling to any particular place. Only faith in the sacrifice of God's Son can bring peace between God and men, and this faith can be exercised equally from any place in the world. It actually brings into question the sufficiency of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ to suggest that some physical relocation of the sinner will contribute to restoring him to fellowship with God.
The Zionist Perspective
The rebirth of the state of Israel in 1948 has rejuvenated the belief on the part of many Jews and Christians that the land of Palestine belongs forever to the Jewish people, and that all this land should be returned to them as its rightful owner. On the basis of the promise given to Abraham that the land belonged to him and his offspring forever, it has been concluded that the whole of the land of the Bible remains irrevocably entrusted to the Israelite people. This view has received strong impetus since the termination of World War II. Having witnessed the Holocaust in which six million Jews perished under Adolf Hitler's "final solution" to the Jewish "problem," the Western nations of the world have sympathized with the concept of a Jewish homeland. Early considerations proposed Uganda, among other places, as a possible location for displaced Jews. But in the end, everything pointed to the land of their ancestors. First in trickles against armed opposition and then by the tens of thousands, Jews from every part of the world flowed into the land of the Bible. The visitor today cannot but be amazed at the determination of these people who have come to the land. On the tops of obscure mountains, in the midst of barren deserts, up high-rise apartments among others who do not understand their speech, Ethiopian Jews, Russian Jews, Moroccan Jews, British, Canadian, and Spanish Jews live together. Despite world criticism and complaint, the Jewish people continue to claim this land as their own.
But in what sense is the land, the whole of the land of the Bible, the property of the Jews by right of divine gift and covenant? This question is answered in different ways today even by the Jews themselves. Some among the Hasidim (the most devout of the Orthodox Jews) insist that, by the covenant with Abraham, God gave the whole of the land to Abraham's descendants in perpetuity. Others would be more modest in their appeal to the promises given to the patriarchs. To them the promise of the Lord insures some right of possession for the Jewish nation today, although their claims would not exclude the possibility of political compromise.
There is of course the difficult, unsolved problem concerning the identification of a "Jew." For as a Jewish commentator on Genesis has noted, the "Jewish" people never have known "purity of blood"1. Since the time that God established his covenant with Abraham, any Gentle could become a full-fledged Jew by confessing the God of Abraham and, in the case of a male, being circumcised (Gen. 17:12-13). The prevailing definition of a Jew as anyone who has a Jewish mother may have some functional appeal, But since the time of Abraham, a "Jewish" mother might have had not one single drop of Abrahamic blood running through her veins. The place of Rahab the Canaanitess and Ruth the Moabitess in the honored line of Davidic kings makes the point rather dramatically (cf. Josh. 6:25; Ruth 4:13-17; Matt. 1:5).
But if any Gentile can become an heir of the promises to Abraham without having any ancestral connection with the Jewish people, then the criterion for inheriting the land cannot be racial. It is not true to the teaching of the Scriptures to say simply that the racial descendants of Abraham are the rightful heirs to the land of Palestine, for the term "Jew" cannot be confined to categories of race.
The "religious" test also proves inadequate in determining who is a Jew, even from a Jewish perspective. Many Jews in the land of Palestine today are atheistic, agnostic, and even antireligious in their personal sentiments. Yet they are recognized by the state of Israel as being "Jewish." As a consequence, fidelity to the religion of Judaism will not be accepted by the Jews themselves as the proper criterion for determining who is heir to the promises of the land.
This question also is difficult to answer from a Christian perspective. The apostle Paul, recognized in his day as a "Hebrew of Hebrews" (Phil. 3:5), declared, "He is not a Jew who is one outwardly" (Rom. 2:28 NASB). Only the person with a converted heart may legitimately be called a Jew (Rom. 2:29).
The point could hardly be made more emphatically. If inheritance of the land is associated with being Jewish, and true Jewishness requires the renewal of the heart, then anyone who has no change of heart automatically is excluded from being heir to the promises of God. Contrariwise, every converted Gentile has become a fellow citizen, a fellow participant, a fellow heir of the promises of God alongside Jewish believers in Jesus (Eph. 2:19; 3:6). "For it is we who are the circumcision, we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh" (Phil. 3:3). Whatever the promises of God to Israel might have been, they now belong to all who have the renewed heart, whether they are Jew or Gentile in background.
Zionism, whether of a Jewish or Christian variety, has tended to blur these considerations about heirs of the promise to Abraham concerning the land. It has been assumed that this promise was directed by God to a race of people called the Jews, while failing to recognize that ancestry never in itself identified the heirs of the promises to Abraham. All through the ages, "Gentiles" could become "Jews" by professing faith in the God of Israel. At the same time, "Jews" could be excluded from inheritance in the promises of God and expelled from the land itself if their professed faith in the God of their fathers proved to be false. Already two mass expulsions from the land have proved that point.
The Millennial Perspective
Companion to Jewish Zionism is the Christian millennial perspective on the future prospects for the land of the Bible. One of the classic forms of this view sees a day coming when, in faithfulness to his promises to Israel, God will restore the Jews to Palestine and establish an earthly Jewish kingdom under the domain of the Messiah. It is proposed that this universal kingdom with its center in Jerusalem will be characterized by an enforced peace. In fulfillment of the prophecy of Psalm 2, the Prince of Peace will rule the nations with a rod of iron, quickly subduing all efforts to subvert his righteous reign. On the basis of Revelation 20, it is understood that this great kingdom will last for one thousand years, and so it is called the "millennial" kingdom. While much variety of viewpoint relates to the sequence of events surrounding this messianic earthly kingdom, the basic premise is the same. Messiah will come, and for one thousand years he will enforce a reign of peace in a restored Jewish kingdom with its center at Jerusalem in the land of Israel.
Significant support for this position has been found in the language of the old covenant Scriptures, which speak constantly of the restoration of Israel to their land after the exile. This language is very explicit in describing the rebuilding of the walls, the planting of vineyards, the reunion of the northern and southern kingdoms, and the setting of David on his throne in Jerusalem. Support also may be cited in the definiteness of the description found in Revelation 20 and its indication that Christ will subdue Satan for a period of one thousand years, after which he will be released for a short time. Because of the apparent definiteness of these scriptural affirmations, it may be assumed that this viewpoint will continue to be favored by a large number of evangelical scholars devoted to the inerrancy and infallibility of the Word of God.
Yet some problems basic to this viewpoint must be noted. First among them is the supposition that God continues to view the Jewish believers of the new covenant differently from gentile believers. For one of the central messages of the new covenant Scriptures is the breaking down of the "middle wall of partition" that previously had distinguished Jew from Gentile (Eph. 2:11-14). The origin of this expectation regarding an ending of the distinction between Jewish and gentile believers is rooted deeply in the old covenant itself. After all, before his calling, Abraham was but one more "Gentile," a worshipper of idols on the other side of the river Josh. 24:2-3). His basic constitution was no different from that of any other "Gentile" who today is called out of darkness into the glorious light of the sons of God. Even before any "Jewish" nation existed, God made it explicit that his elect people would include descendants of Abraham and "Foreigners" who were Gentiles (Gen. 17:12-13). Constantly the prophets of Israel harped on the point that equal honor must be given to all members of God's kingdom, whether Jews or Gentiles. Isaiah the prophet even placed Israel as third behind Egypt and Assyria as the people of God (Isa. 19.24-25). In a most dramatic and prophetic insight, Esau's descendants are declared to be among the nations who will have God's name called upon them, indicating that they will become principal possessors of the promises that first were given to beloved Jacob (Amos 9:11-12).
These considerations of both old covenant and new covenant Scriptures make the concept of a future prominence for "Jewish" believers in relation to their "gentile" counterparts difficult to comprehend. Although most millennialists would decry any suggestion of a second-rate citizenship for gentile believers, the idea of a future inheritance for Jewish believers that in some way is not equally shared with their gentile brothers runs counter to centuries of scriptural revelation that points in a contrary direction. Is it actually to be supposed that the "middle wall of partition" still exists in the mind of God, and is to be erected again? Yet, apart from some expectation of a geographical fulfillment of promises made uniquely to the Jews, the whole idea of a future millennial kingdom loses its point.
A further matter of significance has to do with the nature of the prophecies concerning restoration to the land. It must not be forgotten that Israel as a nation actually was "restored to the land" after seventy years of captivity, just as Jeremiah had predicted (Jer. 29:10). The fact that this restoration did not correspond to the projected grandeur predicted by the prophets only points to a fulfillment beyond anything that could be realized in the world as it is presently constituted. Ezekiel's vision of the restoration arises out of a context that anticipates the total transformation of nature by the resurrection of the dead (Ezek. 37:11-14). Earthly, temporal improvements to the present state of the world simply will not meet the expectations created by prophecies old and new. The description of the restored Jerusalem in these prophecies anticipates a "New Jerusalem" coming down from heaven in the figurative perfections that will endure for eternity, not the temporal provisions of a mere one thousand years. The water flowing out of Ezekiel's temple has the power to freshen the Dead Sea and make it teem with fish (Ezek. 47:6-12). Is not this description a picture of the land of the Bible that breaks the bonds of time and space as we know it, and anticipates the new creation in which righteousness and blessing shall endure forever (Rev. 22:1-2)?
The millennial perspective on the land of the Bible honors the Gospel of Christ by calling Christians today to take most seriously their responsibility to preach the Gospel to Jews as well as Gentiles. For "God did not reject his people, whom he foreknew" (Rom. 11:1-2). Always, in every generation, a significant number of Jewish believers will be grafted back into the true Israel of God. Yet this view of the millennium also has the disadvantage of creating an expectation for some distinctive dealing of God with the Jews in which the land will be theirs in a way that it will not belong to gentile believers.
The Renewal Perspective
At the beginning of this study, it was proposed that the idea of "land" first appeared in the purposes of God with man's experience of Paradise. The "land" of blessing at Creation was the cosmos, the whole of the universe. In Paradise, man as originally created enjoyed all the blessings of land graciously given by his Creator.
A renewal perspective looks once more to paradise as the ultimate meaning of "land." To Israel, a land "flowing with milk and honey" was promised, but Canaan hardly met for them these expectations of paradise. Yet throughout the centuries, this land served well as a figure, a type of what God ultimately would do. In the end, he would give back to a redeemed race the original paradise they had lost as a consequence of sin.
So it should not be surprising to find the new covenant Scriptures interpreting God's promise to Abraham in cosmic terms. The Patriarch would be heir of the cosmos (Rom. 4:13). The whole of the created universe would be his. Not only would his seed be as numerous as the stars; he and his seed would inherit the stars. Along with the heavens, he would also possess the whole of a reshaped, re-formed earth where righteousness prevailed.
It appears that Abraham sensed this fact all along. Scripture testifies that he was "looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God" (Heb. 11:10). It was not merely the possession of Canaan that he anticipated. He looked for a world with a foundation built by God him self, a renewed world that would last forever. Only then would the promises of God the Father concerning the land find their appropriate climax. For throughout their wanderings in the land of Canaan, Abraham and the other patriarchs "were longing for a better country-a heavenly one" (Heb. 11:16).
The land of the Bible serves a purpose that will outlast its own existence. For eternity, people will praise God for many things. But high on the list will be significant praise for his handiwork in creating this land bridge of the continents, this place where he could carry out the work of redemption for sinners from all the nations of the world. As a grand stage set for carrying out the critical events of the drama of redemption, this land served God and man well.
Even today it can offer a great service to the kingdom of Christ. If rightly viewed, it can reinforce, illumine, and dramatize the eternal truths of the Scriptures. It can inspire a deeper love of God's Word and increase a saving understanding of his eternal plan of redemption.
1 B. Jacob, The First Book of the Bible: Genesis (New York: Ktav Publishing, 1974), 233.
The excerpt above is taken from O. Palmer Robertson’s Understanding the Land of the Bible: A Biblical-Theological Guide, (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1996), 133-144.
For further interaction on this topic see O. Palmer Robertson, The Israel of God: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2000).
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