In this fifth part of the Promised Land blog series, we will look at what the Bible really says about the land of Canaan, a.k.a. the Holy Land, a.k.a. Israel/Palestine. Christian Zionists are often convinced that God wants the Jewish people to possess Gaza and the West Bank, since these areas were included in the biblical land of Israel that God gave to the Jewish people. They say that this divine promise is eternal, and that it must be fulfilled before Jesus returns. A few even think that Israel will possess an even greater area, from Egypt to the Euphrates (including Syria, Jordan, Iraq and parts of Saudi Arabia).
This belief is affecting the current conflict in the Middle East in huge ways. Jews and Christians who are convinced that Gaza and the West Bank rightfully belongs to Israel are often skeptical towards a two-state solution, and they do not criticize the Israeli settlements or the occupation and blockade of Palestinian territory. They have strong lobby groups in both Israel and the US, and even though politicians are more pragmatic, it has been shown very clearly that American and Israeli politics have been shaped by these ideas.
Let us look then at what the Bible actually says about this. The land of Canaan is first mentioned in the book of Genesis, when God calls Abram from modern-day Iraq to resettle in the west. “To your offspring I will give this land.” He said (Gen 12:7) In Gen 15:18, He clarifies what land we’re talking about: “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates”, and in 17:8, He clarifies how long this covenant will last – forever! “The whole land of Canaan, where you now reside as a foreigner, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.” This promise is later transfered to Jacob, or Israel (Gen 28:3-4). That settles it right? Israel has eternal, divine right to all Palestinian areas, as well as to Jordan, Syria and Iraq. Ka-boom!
Well, hold your horses. Very few Christian Zionists are so radical that they actually think that Israel should possess everything between Egypt and Iraq (many don’t even know that these were the borders that were given to Abraham), but there are a few like Arnold Fruchtenbaum from Jews for Jesus who claims that since Israel has never possessed this land, it will happen in the future, because God cannot lie. But according to Scripture, Solomon did control this vast area at one point (2 Chron 9:26). And before that, both God and the Israelites were quite content with a lesser area. In Numbers 34:1-12, the Lord describes Israel’s borders, which roughly correspond to its modern borders, including the occupied territories, but excluding countries like Syria and Iraq.
It was this area that Joshua sought to conquer. As Judges 1:27-36 shows he never succeeded with taking over the entire land, and yet it says that “So the Lord gave Israel all the land he had sworn to give their ancestors, and they took possession of it and settled there…Not one of all the Lord’s good promises to the house of Israel failed; every one was fulfilled” (Joshua 21:43-45). Stephen Sizer puts it “either the writer of Joshua was not a ‘literalist’ in the modern sense of the word or perhaps he had the wrong maps.”
In Deutoronomy 2:1-5, God forbade the Israelites to conquer the land of Edom, south of Beersheva in the Negev desert, since this land was supposed to belong to the children of Esau (Israel’s “cousins”). Now this is very interesting, since this area is included in the “river of Egypt to Euphrates” area that was promised to Abraham. We must remember that Israel wasn’t Abraham’s only descendant, Esau was also – as well as Ishmael. And as many of you probably know, the Arabs generally draw their ancestry back to Ishmael.
Another thing that is important to note is that God wanted Israel to be hospitable to foreigners, His covenant was given on the basis of faith, not race. He says that Israel must treat immigrants as if they were natives, and love them as themselves (Lev 19:33-34). Ezekiel prophesied: “You are to distribute this land among yourselves according to the tribes of Israel. You are to allot it as an inheritance for yourselves and for the foreigners residing among you and who have children. You are to consider them as native-born Israelites; along with you they are to be allotted an inheritance among the tribes of Israel. In whatever tribe a foreigner resides, there you are to give them their inheritance,” declares the Sovereign Lord.” (Ezek 47:21-23) King Solomon had no problem with giving away towns and land to other people groups to strengthen diplomatic relations (1 Kings 9:11-13).
Furthermore, as Sizer also has shown, the promise of the land was conditional. Over and over again in the Torah and the prophetic writings, God emphasizes that it is His land (Jer 2:7), that the people of Israel are His guests (Lev 25:23) and that if they are disobedient they may actually be cut out from the covenant. In fact, right after God says that He establishes an eternal covenant with Abraham and his descendants, He says that they must obey His covenent or else they will be cut out from His people (Gen 17:8-14). In Deut 19:8-9 we see that the territory that God gives to Israel is condition by their obedience to the Law and love for Him. Deut 28 makes it crystal-clear that if the people are disobedient to the Lord, they lose their right to possess the land:
“If you do not obey the Lord your God and do not carefully follow all his commands and decrees I am giving you today […] You will be uprooted from the land you are entering to possess. Then the Lord will scatter you among all nations, from one end of the earth to the other.” (Deut 28:15, 63-64).
Jeremiah, who foresaw about the coming exile in Babylon, prophesied “Through your own fault you will lose the inheritance I gave you.” (Jer 7:4). And Ezekiel is crystal clear that possession of the land is conditional:
Son of man, the people living in those ruins in the land of Israel are saying, ‘Abraham was only one man, yet he possessed the land. But we are many; surely the land has been given to us as our possession.’ Therefore say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Since you eat meat with the blood still in it and look to your idols and shed blood, should you then possess the land? You rely on your sword, you do detestable things, and each of you defiles his neighbor’s wife. Should you then possess the land?’ (Ezek 33:24-26)
I know what some of you are thinking now: “Are you accusing Israeli Jews for being like that?” I am well aware that there are many God-fearing Jews, in Israel and elsewhere. However, the old Israeli kingdom is not easily translated to the secular state that shares its name today. 25% of Israelis aren’t Jews, many Jews in Israel are not very religious, and as a Christian I must say that there is one point I find even the most zealous Jew not being obedient to the Lord, and that is when it comes to recognizing the Messiah, who is God Himself.
Does this mean that I think that all Jews are cursed and should not possess the land at all in accordance with Deut 28:63-64? No, when I look at the New Testament, I cannot see that the land of Canaan plays a very important role anymore – it is hardly ever mentioned. As I showed in the previous part of this blog series, the early church saw themselves as the New Israel and thought that those who rejected the Messiah were excluded from God’s people while Gentiles who accepted Him were welcomed, but nowhere did they argue that Christians should possess the land of Canaan! Hebrews 11 is one of the very few texts in the New Testament that talk about the land, and it gives us some clues on what’s going on here:
“By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God. And by faith even Sarah, who was past childbearing age, was enabled to bear children because she considered him faithful who had made the promise. And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.
All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.” (Hebrews 11:8-16)
I believe this is one of the clearest refutals of Christian Zionism in the whole Bible. Here we learn that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Israel) were strangers in the promised land and on the earth, belonging to a country that was not of this world. Abraham was looking forward to another “city”, whise architect and builder is God, in “a better country – a heavenly one”. God had prepared a city for the Israelites. And later on, the author of Hebrews says that “you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven.” (Hebr 12:22-23). John saw the same city in his amazing vision about the end times:
“I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Rev 21:2-4)
In all of Revelation, in all of Jesus’ own speaches about the end times, and in all of what Paul or the other apostles wrote on the same subject, never is it mentioned that the Jewish people must return to the land of Canaan before Judgement Day. Not even once! Canaan has played out its role, the true Promised Land is Heaven. That is a truly eternal promise, because in Heaven we will have eternal life. The same word that describes the promise of the land as everlasting in Gen 17:8, is used to describe the ministry of the priest in Ex 29:9. But as the letter to the Hebrews tells us, we don’t need priests to make sacrifices with sheep and goats for us anymore since Jesus is the High Priest who died for our sins (Hebr 9:11-15). Likewise, Jesus is the one who is leading us to the true Promised Land, the Land that lasts forever and ever, namely Heaven.
In the next part of The Promised Land, we will discuss a Bible passage that is often used to support Christian Zionism, namely Romans 11.