From Land to Lands, from Eden to the Renewed Earth: A Christ-Centered Biblical Theology of the Promised Land
Isaac’s book is a significant contribution to the biblical theological discussion of the Land, offered by one who lives there—in Bethlehem at Bethlehem Bible College. A friend of mine directed me to this volume, specifically because it was from inside a shared tradition, evangelical Christianity, but from outside of my own Western culture, being by a Palestinian author. My eagerness to learn from Isaac was not disappointed.
His thesis is simple: “This study argues that the land has indeed been ‘universalized’ in Christ” (10) and it is this universalization that affirms the importance of the land for our theology and mission. In this, his topic is at the center of the tension that exists between Dispensational and Covenant perspectives. As a Palestinian, it would be quite a surprise, perhaps a shock, if he held a Dispensational perspective; but he holds his Covenantal perspective in a non-disputational way and does not even mention Dispensationalism until his conclusion (356). Even then, he does so to inform his readers of the topography of the discussion. His primary concern in this regard is to differentiate his position from any overlap with perspectives that consider the church as “spiritual” or “invisible” Israel (358). That said, he is not shy; he is asserting that “in Christ” replaced “in the Land” as the “experience of the community of believers on earth . . . in the present era of the new covenant” (359–60) even as we await consummation.
How does he build this case? Isaac’s method is that of biblical theology. He begins in the Garden and references some of the best scholarly works which expose the reality that “the Land” equals “the Garden” and that the Garden is the dwelling place of God, including Beale, Wenhem, Brueggemann, and others. This Eden is seen as proto-Land; Adam as proto-Man. In doing so he displays his three-fold themes which he will use to explore the Bible diachronically: Eden as sanctuary (holiness), Eden as covenanted territory (covenant), and Eden as royal garden (kingship). He sequentially explores and exposes these themes in chapters 2–4. In regard to the holiness of the Land he warns against elevating Zion above the place it is given in the OT: it is neither always favored nor an ultimate object of faith. In regard to (the land) covenant, he argues that “forever does not always indicate unconditionality” (87). Citing 1 Samuel 2, he reminds his readers that the necessary condition is the specified covenant lifestyle, a covenant responsibility. If this is not kept, exile is the result. Lastly, in regard to kingship, God’s people are given what Issac calls the “vicegerency.” Through Adam in Eden, and then Abraham, Israel, and the Monarchy, God would rule the whole earth. But the kingship failed; the land did not prosper. Then, in chapters 5 and 6 he explores how these three themes, displayed in the OT prophetic promises, will yet lead to Eden restored. This includes making space in the Land for non-Israelites (129) and a fulfillment in Isaiah 11:9–10 when all the earth is full of the knowledge of YHWH (148). This reveals an overall prophetic movement that removes all limits: “[the Land] extends to the ends of the earth” (150). The necessary implication for Isaac is this: “being in the land physically does not equal being in the land theologically” (177), which sets up the reader for his argument: Jesus is the event that is the hermeneutical key to understanding a theology of the Land.
One of the reasons this book is so very helpful is that (as he notes) there are very few works devoted entirely to a (biblical) theology of the Land, and all the more so a NT theology of the land (citing several which do so: W. D. Davies, K. J. Wenell, and Gary Burge). To some, this might not seem like an oversight but a necessary effect of the deficit of attention to the Land in the NT. But Isaac gives reason to consider that “the NT is not entirely silent about the land” (190). Indeed, in Christ, he finds the hermeneutical key. So returning again to his previously identified themes, Isaac investigates Jesus as holy space (chapter 8), Jesus as covenanted land (chapter 9), and Jesus as the kingdom of God (chapter 10). He is the holy space because he is temple—the “a-territorial” place we meet with God (229). He is the covenanted land in that we are his offspring (Galatians 3:16), citing Genesis 12:3 which has, as its context, the Land to which Abraham was to inherit as the “heir of the world” (Romans 4:13). This helps us understand that “if Jesus is the new Israel, then being in Jesus means being part of Israel” (241). He notes that this does not mean a mere “spiritualization” of the covenant, but only what has always been true of the covenant: “racial ethnicity alone does not guarantee the benefits of the Abrahamic covenant” (260) and so this proposal is “not replacement theology, but incorporation theology” (261). Then, he makes the case from the Gospels that Jesus is the Kingdom of God on earth. And, indeed, because Jesus is the faithful covenant partner, he is its fulfillment. As such, it may command his followers in Matthew 28:18–20, the Great Commission from the mountain, using language that parallels and fulfills Deuteronomy 4:39–40 from Nebo (296–7). This leads to the conquering of the Land in the Book of Acts as the Apostles go about the work of conquering the earth parallel to the days of Joshua (310+).
Finally, Isaac displays how the NT reveals Eden restored in the NT (chapter 11). Following Beale and others, he reminds us that our destination is not “heaven” (the place of God’s dwelling), but the Land restored (the place God designed for his people). This is the New Heavens and the New Earth: “It would not make any sense for God to create something good, placing human beings in it, only to take them away from it in the consummation” (344). His charts in his conclusion are quite helpful, graphically displaying his work in only three pages (348-50).
Drawing his argument to a close, Isaac did not lose sight of the Covenant-Dispensational “divide” when he notes that his theme raises the question: “What about the original ‘Promised Land’ itself? . . . Is there a special place for the original land in Christian thought and theology?” (373) and perhaps more importantly, “What is the proper Christian response to the conflict taking place these days in that very same land?” (373). Isaac is not merely imagining what ideological response people will have to his proposal and how it will affect theological discussions; he is also reflecting on the dramatic enactment (i.e., practical lived response) implied if the Spirit and Word have determined his theology—and perhaps the detrimental effect if he is wrong. Although he is clear that he is not advocating replacement theology or supercessionism, but “incorporation” (377), some might feel he is moving in that direction when he advocates for a “shared land theology,” for Israel and all nations—including Palestinians. In support, and refuting a non-biblical genealogical perspective, he cites the “Kairos Palestine” (2009) document:
We believe that our land has a universal mission. In this universality, the meaning of the promises, of the land, of the election, of the people of God open up to include all of humanity, starting from all the peoples of this land. In light of the teaching of the Holy Bible, the promise of the land has never been a political program, but rather the prelude to complete universal salvation. It was the initiation of the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God on earth (379).
Actually, while his proposal for dramatic doctrinal display will not satisfy all, his argument is not anti-Dispensational, fitting more into the Progressive Covenantal camp. My concern (if “concern” it is, for I found his book to be well written and well argued) is that while this response fits his title, it elides much of his argument in regard to Christ as the Land, thus rejecting, or at least limiting the implications of Chris Wright’s affirmation (359)—an issue to be more thoroughly explored in the “in me” statements of Christ and the “in him” and “in Christ” statements of Paul.
It seems wise for us to learn from a man who was born in that land and whose ancestors have lived there for generations. He is a Christian brother whose work shows that he affirms God’s Word and seeks to hear and obey that Word by the Spirit. Indeed, only when we hear the many voices of every tribe, language, tongue, and nation will we hear God’s voice most clearly. This book is a gift to the church to further this critical discussion.