Tracing the Theme Through Four Cycles in Scripture
by Whitney Woollard 5 years ago
The promised land plays an important role in the Bible. It’s a major biblical theme introduced in the book of Genesis and developed all throughout the Bible, even into the Bible’s final book, Revelation. The Hebrew Bible, specifically, shines a spotlight on this divine gift by showing God’s people cycling in and out of the land, caught in a pattern of rebellion against God. This land that God promised to Abraham all the way back in Genesis is not simply a geographical backdrop—it acts as a picture of covenant faithfulness as God’s people try (and often fail) to live out their divine calling. Let’s take a look by breaking down the four cycles of the nation of Israel moving in and out of the promised land, beginning on the first few pages of the Bible.
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Cycle 1: Humans Inherit Creation
Though many of us understand the promised land to be Canaan, the land God said Abraham and his descendants would inherit, the pattern of God giving humans land in which to flourish begins with the garden of Eden. In the beginning, God creates a beautiful garden paradise, teeming with lush vegetation, where life can flourish. He makes humans (Heb. adam) in his image and gives them the land (the garden and beyond) to rule over so that they may represent his good, kingly rule to all the earth.
To say that the land was an agricultural paradise for Adam and Eve is an understatement. That said, the description we get in Genesis 1-2 is not primarily an agricultural one but a theological one. The land was ultimately a place where God could dwell with humans—the place where God’s space and humans’ space overlapped. In the garden, humans walked with God in the cool of the day, experiencing his gracious gifts and ruling over creation with him. The humans’ relationship with God was inextricably linked to the land he gave to them. And to live in God’s space is to live with God—that’s the best part.
But this first promised land, and life in God’s presence, came with a simple instruction: Humans were to trust God and follow his commands. If they obeyed God, they could continue living in this lush garden infused with God’s presence. But if they chose to act by their own wisdom and ignore God, they would forfeit the land God had given them. So the land serves as a thermometer of sorts, gauging human fidelity to God.
The story is a familiar one—humans rebel against God and turn away from life to embrace death and their own definition of good and bad. They forfeit the garden-land through their sin and are banished from God’s presence to live as exiles. Genesis 4-11 traces the downward spiral of humans living outside the land, away from God’s presence, culminating in the building of Babylon. Through humanity’s sin and selfishness, everyone is in exile, banished from their true source of life. So how can humans get back to the promised land and God’s presence? The Eden story introduces this theme as the first land-exile cycle in the Bible. And the story continues, but, this time, the focus is on the nation of Israel. Let’s take a look.
Cycle 2: God Promises Land to Abraham and His Descendants
Despite human rebellion in Eden and outside of the garden, God is not yet finished with his human partners. He has a plan to bring his people back into his presence by giving them the land of Canaan. From the smoke and rubble of Genesis 11, God makes a covenant with Abraham, promising to multiply his descendants and give them a fertile land in which to flourish (sound familiar?) so that Abraham’s family can bless all nations (Gen. 12, 15, 17).
Admittedly, the promise of Abraham’s seed (the family line that will become the nation of Israel) occupies much of Genesis. But as the Torah unfolds, it’s the promised land that takes center stage. In fact, the land becomes one of the most prominent features of the story, almost as if it takes on the role of a lead character. For example, the prophet Jeremiah speaks to the land, “O land, land, land, hear the word of the LORD” (Jer. 22:29), and then goes on to say, “… because of the curse, the land mourns” (Jer. 23:10).
So can a piece of real estate hear God’s word and mourn the curse? Of course not. The point is that the promised land, through every stage of Israel’s history (promise, conquest, possession, misuse, loss, and recovery), becomes so central to Israel’s covenantal experience that to speak of the land is to speak in terms of Israel’s unique relationship with Yahweh. It was the place that guaranteed restored intimacy with God and promoted human flourishing—a new garden paradise.
Just as God gave the whole world to Adam and Eve, he now gives the land to Israel as an expression of his covenantal commitment to them. To be clear, this divine gift has nothing to do with the righteousness of the people. Their promised land, as well as their existence as a nation, was based on God’s love for them (Deut. 9:4-6). It is a gift.
But that gift is accompanied by ethical responsibilities. Israel may possess the land, but God is still the ruler over all creation, so they remain accountable to him in what they do with it. It’s not a “one and done” type of deal. It’s the context for ongoing obedience to God and faithfulness to God, family, and neighbor. Everything they do in the land, from establishing territories to pruning trees, is an opportunity to serve and obey Yahweh. And if they don’t obey, they forfeit the land. Leviticus 25:23 says, “… the land is mine and you reside in my land as foreigners and strangers,” meaning God could withdraw his protection and allow Israel to become like landless foreigners again if they broke his covenant.
This is where the land serves as a gauge of covenantal faithfulness, revealing the spiritual state of the nation. Israel may perform all the external religious rituals, but the one reliable way of seeing Israel’s true faithfulness to Yahweh is their occupation of the land. The covenant curses say that disobedience will result in loss of the land and exile from their home—something the prophets won’t let Israel forget as they flagrantly reject God’s rule. But despite Yahweh’s instructions and the prophets’ warnings, Israel rejects Yahweh and turns to sin and other gods. They are no longer a “light to the nations” (Isa. 42:6)—they are just like the nations!
And so, in fulfillment of the covenantal curses Moses predicted back in Deuteronomy 28, God’s people are sent into exile. They finally face the consequences of centuries of disobedience and are once again strangers and exiles living in an oppressive, foreign land.
Cycle 3: God Brings Israel Out of Exile and Back Into the Promised Land
As if being reduced to refugees in a strange land isn’t disorienting enough, the loss of the promised land would have been crushing. Israel understood their relationship with God and the inheritance of the land to be inherently connected. The exile undermined their entire framework. They never thought they could be disinherited, but now that Jerusalem lay in ruins, they had to reconsider the nature of their covenantal relationship. The Babylonian exile led Israel to question their identity as a nation, the presence of their God, and if they would ever be able to return to the promised land.
The prophets arrive on the scene to make sense of these questions. Yes, the loss of the land was a horrific fracture in Israel’s relationship with God, but it wasn’t the end of it. Ezekiel reveals that God is alive and well in Babylon, reigning on his mobile throne, while Jeremiah speaks hope for God’s people despite the destruction of the temple. God’s people are not cut off forever. They could experience the covenantal blessings of relationship with Yahweh again through repentance and renewed obedience—even in Babylon. This reoriented their understanding of the promised land. The theological concepts attached to the land (security, blessing, responsibility) remained intact, but they now made room for life with God in exile.
This reorientation is a pivotal moment in a redemptive history. Israel may have lost the promised land, but they were still God’s people, which prepared the way for the widening of God’s purposes in the world to embrace the Gentiles in a way that Israel had not previously envisioned. Salvation is no longer tied to a specific space or limited to one ethnic group. In fact, Ezekiel anticipates the broad scope of salvation when he outlines the boundaries of the new land and commands Israel to give an inheritance to all the foreigners among them (Ezek. 47:21-23). When God gathers his people, they would be from every nation, tribe, and tongue.
That said, exile is still exile. The people longed for the day that Ezekiel and Jeremiah both prophesied about. The prophets said God would gather his remnant from the nations and restore them to the promised land and do a new work in their hearts, causing them to love and obey his commands and walk in covenantal faithfulness (Ezek. 36:24-28; Jer. 31:31-34). And God does eventually bring them out of exile and back into the land, but it’s not exactly what the prophets envisioned. They’re in the land, but oppressive empires rule over them and treat them as outcasts and aliens. And there’s no radical change in their hearts. They still love their sinful, idolatrous ways. Apparently, you can be in the land and still feel like you’re in exile.
We all know this feeling. The world is our home, but it’s messed up. We experience pain, trauma, and suffering, much of which comes from our own sin. So this picture of God’s people in exile is a picture of the human condition as a whole. The people are in the land God promised to their ancestors, but they still feel lost.
Cycle 4: God Reverses the Land-Exile Cycle Through Jesus
The Hebrew Bible ends with the curious fact that God’s people are simultaneously in the land and out of the land. Generations pass in this uneasy state until the long-anticipated descendant of Abraham and David, the Messiah and snake-crusher, shows up at the opening of the New Testament. Through his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus reverses the land-exile cycle by going into exile on our behalf and then giving us the land he inherits. Let’s unpack this.
Jesus lives out the divine calling of the first humans and the nation of Israel, obeying God’s words and living by the Torah. He trusts God’s definition of good and evil, even when faced with the reality of death on a cross. He loves God and neighbor, showing particular concern for the oppressed, outcast, and marginalized. Jesus is the first person in the Bible to actually live by covenant faithfulness, yet he chooses to live without a home, going around teaching others what God’s Kingdom is all about. Through his teaching, miracles, and healings, he creates little pockets of the promised land, where people can experience the life, love, and rule of God. And then he’s sent outside the city to suffer as an exile, executed by oppressive powers and taking on the weight of a rebellious humanity.
On the cross, Jesus fully identifies with our experience of exile and then suffers in our place, dying and rising from the dead to inherit the world and bring humanity back into the promised land. Now those who identify with Jesus through faith and repentance are brought into the presence of God once again and given the world as our inheritance—led by Jesus, the new Adam, into the new Eden.
The redemptive purposes of God that began with Israel and their promised land find their ultimate fulfillment in Jesus, the offspring of Abraham who possesses the world. Through our union with Jesus, we too possess Abraham’s inheritance. In the Great Commission, Jesus tells his followers that all authority has been given to him, and then he sends them into all the earth with that authority to proclaim the Gospel and make disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:16-20). Today, followers of Jesus continue to go to the ends of the earth to spread the Gospel, proclaiming repentance and forgiveness of sins. We create little pockets of the promised land as we gather together as God’s covenant community to experience his power and presence.
This covenant community is a diverse, multi-ethnic people from every nation, tribe, and tongue who live together under the rule and reign of King Jesus. Though co-heirs with Jesus now, we eagerly await the final day of redemption when we will dwell permanently in the presence of God in a renewed garden paradise, unhindered by sin or suffering. The land that was received and lost by Adam and Eve and by Israel surely pointed to this land, but the re-created land will supersede the garden and Canaan in every way. After all, we will see Jesus face-to-face and walk in unbroken intimacy with him and his people in perfect covenantal faithfulness.