Sunday, July 17, 2016

Israel and the Promised Land: Part 2

An Everlasting or a Periodic Possession?

Dispensationalists find the fulfillment of the Abrahamic land promise in the future earthly millennium, when Israel will rule and exercise sovereignty over the Promised Land. But according to this dispensational understanding of fulfillment, the “everlasting possession” (Gen. 17:8) of the Promised Land would mean a temporal possession of Palestine during the eschatological millennium at best. Considering the 70 years of Babylonian captivity, and almost two millennia since the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 until the formation of the present state of Israel, the 1000 years of millennial reign would barely make up half the time when Israel was dispossessed of the land in Palestine. As an analogy, if I were to purchase a free-hold property in Singapore, and was dispossessed of the property for half the time, would that be legally regarded as an “everlasting possession?”

For the purpose of our present discussion, let us briefly consider the Noachian covenant God made with the patriarch Noah in Genesis 9:

“And God spake unto Noah, and to his sons with him, saying, And I, behold, I establish my covenant with you, and with your seed after you; And with every living creature that is with you, of the fowl, of the cattle, and of every beast of the earth with you; from all that go out of the ark, to every beast of the earth. And I will establish my covenant with you; neither shall all flesh be cut off any more by the waters of a flood; neither shall there any more be a flood to destroy the earth. . . . And the bow shall be in the cloud; and I will look upon it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth. And God said unto Noah, This is the token of the covenant, which I have established between me and all flesh that is upon the earth (Genesis 9:8-11, 16-17).”

In this covenant with Noah, God declared that he will never destroy the Earth again with a universal flood. Genesis 9:16 explicitly states that it is an “everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth.” If God were to postpone the Noachian covenant for two millennia, and destroyed the world a few more times with universal floods, could He still claim that it was an “everlasting covenant?”

But this is exactly what Dispensationalists are propounding: that the “everlasting” covenant with Abraham is delayed or postponed for at least two millennia. The Abrahamic covenant will find its fulfillment when national Israel possesses the Promised Land in the eschatological millennium. In the meantime, God is not dealing with Israel, but with the Church. God has temporarily suspended His eschatological time clock for Israel, and His “everlasting” covenant with Abraham. He will, nevertheless, ensure that His land promise to Abraham will be fulfilled in the future, earthly, millennial rule.

What Dispensationalists are actually doing is forcing an indefinite time gap called the “Church Age” into the everlasting nature of the Abrahamic covenant. They are interpreting the literal meaning of the word “everlasting” to mean “postponed” or “delayed.” The Hebrew word for “everlasting” is used several times in the Old Testament. For example in Genesis 13:15, in the context of the Abrahamic covenant, the word is translated to “for ever.” “For all the land which thou seest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed for ever (Gen. 13:15).” Again in Genesis 17:7-8, the same word is translated “for an everlasting” twice. “And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee. And I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land wherein thou art a stranger, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God (Gen. 17:7-8).”

The idea of postponement cannot be derived from the Hebrew word for “everlasting.” Dispensationalists, who emphasize the so-called “consistently literal” hermeneutics, should interpret the Hebrew word “everlasting” to mean exactly that: everlasting, forever and ongoing. The Abrahamic land promise cannot be postponed for almost two millennia, and yet be everlasting in any sense. Likewise, the Noachian covenant cannot be postponed for any period of time without forfeiting the everlasting nature of the promise.

Indeed, when God made the Abrahamic promise to Israel, it was intended to be conditional in a sense. That is, Israel will possess the land as long as she chooses to hold it or until certain conditions are changed. From the Reformed perspective, all the promises made to Israel in the Old Testament were either fulfilled in Christ and His Church, or were forfeited through disobedience. The blessings of the covenant were not postponed or delayed.

Adams observes that obedience through faith in the Messiah is required to bring about national blessing for Israel:

“Then the nationalistic covenant with Israel was conditional. The people committed themselves, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do!” (Ex. 19:8). Obedience would bring nationalistic blessing; disobedience would bring a curse (Deut. 28). In this sense, “the Law is not of faith; on the contrary, he who practices them shall live by them” (Gal. 3:12). Blessing as a nation could be experienced only by loyalty to the covenant, as was similarly true of suzereign/vassal treaties of the Middle East.”[1]

Despite the withdrawal of God’s covenant blessing, and the exile of Israel to Assyria and Babylon, God’s faithfulness to His covenant is evident in the prophecies of Jeremiah (Jer. 30-32). “For, lo, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will bring again the captivity of my people Israel and Judah, saith the LORD: and I will cause them to return to the land that I gave to their fathers, and they shall possess it (Jer. 30:3).”

Concerning the Promised Land as God’s gracious gift to Israel, Holwerda writes, “Even when Israel failed and lost the land, the promise of possession did not cease. The promise that the land will be possessed is irrevocable. But if possession is to be maintained, God’s people must become holy as God is holy.”[2] Thus, Israel’s return from exile was still conditioned by its repentance and return to God. Moses proclaimed to the Israelites:

“And it shall come to pass, when all these things are come upon thee, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before thee, and thou shalt call them to mind among all the nations, whither the LORD thy God hath driven thee, And shalt return unto the LORD thy God, and shalt obey his voice according to all that I command thee this day, thou and thy children, with all thine heart, and with all thy soul; That then the LORD thy God will turn thy captivity, and have compassion upon thee, and will return and gather thee from all the nations, whither the LORD thy God hath scattered thee. If any of thine be driven out unto the outmost parts of heaven, from thence will the LORD thy God gather thee, and from thence will he fetch thee: And the LORD thy God will bring thee into the land which thy fathers possessed, and thou shalt possess it; and he will do thee good, and multiply thee above thy fathers (Deuteronomy 30:1-5).”

It is obvious that the Promised Land was never meant to be an unconditional blessing to a disobedient nation. Faith, repentance, and subsequent obedience to God’s commandments were crucial for Israel’s restoration.

It is notable that only a remnant of Israel, and not the entire nation, was eventually brought back to the land in Palestine. “The remnant shall return, even the remnant of Jacob, unto the mighty God. For though thy people Israel be as the sand of the sea, yet a remnant of them shall return: the consumption decreed shall overflow with righteousness (Isa. 10:21-22).” God has never promised to save each and every Israelite; only a remnant was brought back to the Promised Land.

Likewise, in the New Testament, the apostle Paul tells us that, “Even so then at this present time also there is a remnant according to the election of grace (Rom. 11:5).” God’s covenant faithfulness to Israel is demonstrated by the fact that a remnant from every generation of Jews is redeemed in Christ Jesus. God has, indeed, not forsaken the Israelites. He is redeeming unto Himself a people from every tribe and tongue, Jews included.

Even in the Old Testament, restoration of Israel to its Promised Land cannot be accomplished apart from a covenant relationship with Yahweh. In relation to the New Covenant dispensation, nowhere does the Old Testament envision an unconditional, geo-political reconstitution of Israel as a nation. From a New Covenant perspective, the recognition and acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah is the necessary condition of return to the Promised Land. The land in Palestine cannot, therefore, be claimed by those who reject the Messiah as Savior and Lord.

The Old Testament patriarchs were saved by faith (Heb. 11), not by genealogy or the biological inheritance of Jewish genes. Only by looking forward to the promised Messiah and by faith in His deliverance were the Old Testament saints justified.

Holwerda writes concerning the disinheritance of national Israel:

“Judgment falls on those who do not believe. Even though, as the Old Testament people of God, Israel possessed the mysteries of the kingdom in the law and the prophets, they did not understand the mysteries. They had a different understanding of the kingdom of God, a kingdom of political might and power defeating the enemies of Israel and overwhelming the forces of evil, and, as a result, they did not believe that the kingdom of God has arrived in the person and ministry of Jesus. Consequently, their privileged position as the heirs of the kingdom would be taken from them: “For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away” (Matthew 13:12).”[3]

The land is never promised to the Israelites unconditionally. Apart from saving faith in the promised Messiah, the New David, Israel as an unbelieving nation can have no part in the new, heavenly Jerusalem (Heb. 12:22).

The Land Was Possessed by Israel According to the Old Testament

In the book of Joshua, God assured Joshua that He would deliver the land of Palestine into the hands of the Israelites, “Be strong and of a good courage: for unto this people shalt thou divide for an inheritance the land, which I sware unto their fathers to give them (Josh. 1:6).”

Dispensationalists believe that, since Israel has never literally or geographically occupied the Promised Land from the Nile to the Euphrates, the Abrahamic land promise has yet to be fulfilled literally. But this understanding ignores the testimony of the Old Testament writers, and their understanding of the land promise.

Similarly, according to Dispensationalism, Israel has yet to occupy the Promised Land based on geographical and historical evidence. But this begs the question: Should a Christian’s understanding of Scripture be based upon fallible science, geography and history, or should his interpretation rest upon the internal evidence of Scripture alone?

Although the secular historian or archaeologist might argue against the notion that the Israelites did exercise geo-political sovereignty over all of the Promised Land, the Old Testament provides us with an infallible record of this land possession:

So Joshua took the whole land, according to all that the LORD said unto Moses; and Joshua gave it for an inheritance unto Israel according to their divisions by their tribes. And the land rested from war (Josh. 11:23).”

Again, the Scripture records,

“And the LORD gave unto Israel all the land which he sware to give unto their fathers; and they possessed it, and dwelt therein. And the LORD gave them rest round about, according to all that he sware unto their fathers: and there stood not a man of all their enemies before them; the LORD delivered all their enemies into their hand. There failed not ought of any good thing which the LORD had spoken unto the house of Israel; all came to pass. (Josh. 21:43-45).”

Scripture emphasizes the fact that the LORD Jehovah gave unto Israel “all the land” which He promised to give to the patriarchs, and not just part of the land. The texts of Joshua 11:23 and 21:43-45 contradict the dispensational expectation of a yet future, literal fulfillment of the land promise: “There failed not ought of any good thing which the LORD had spoken unto the house of Israel; all came to pass (Josh. 21:45).”

Israel did possess the land of Palestine according to Scripture; all the promises of God did come to pass (Josh. 21:45). The land was given to Israel via Joshua’s conquests. According to the Bible Presbyterian’s consistently literal hermeneutics, it is difficult, if not impossible, to interpret “all the land” to mean “some of the land.” Perhaps only through the usage of creative, exegetical acrobatics can “all” mean “some.”

The Book of Nehemiah, likewise, affirms the actual possession of the land by national Israel. In Nehemiah 9:22-24, the Levites confessed:

“Moreover thou [Yahweh] gavest them [the Israelites] kingdoms and nations, and didst divide them into corners: so they possessed the land of Sihon, and the land of the king of Heshbon, and the land of Og king of Bashan. Their children also multipliedst thou as the stars of heaven, and broughtest them into the land, concerning which thou hadst promised to their fathers, that they should go in to possess it. So the children went in and possessed the land, and thou subduedst before them the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites, and gavest them into their hands, with their kings, and the people of the land, that they might do with them as they would.”

The Book of Nehemiah, together with the Book of Joshua, testify that Israel “possessed the land,” and not simply a part of the Promised Land. Despite the temporal occupation of the Promised Land, the Jews lost possession of it through disobedience. There is no biblical evidence that an unrepentant, faithless nation will repossess the physical, land blessings of God.

The reader might begin to ask, “Should the New Testament Church understand the Abrahamic land promise as referring to a physical, geographically limited piece of land in Palestine?” Furthermore, should the actual, everlasting possession of this piece of land be considered as the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant?

Despite Joshua’s successful conquest of the land of Canaan, Israel’s temporal possession of the Promised Land was not the fulfillment of the Abrahamic land promise. Williamson elaborates:

“Nevertheless, while the territorial promise was fulfilled in the conquest of Canaan, it was only partially fulfilled, or rather, this was only the first stage of fulfillment (Josh. 13:1-2). Although the land had been allocated to the various tribes, Israelite control of the territory was still limited. As long as there were pockets of resistance, there could be no permanent state of rest. . . . Moreover, as repeatedly emphasized in Deuteronomy, the continual enjoyment of such rest was dependent on covenant loyalty (cf. Deut. 4:25-28), without which Israel’s experience of the ‘good and spacious land’ would be short-lived (cf. Josh. 23:12-13). Thus the fulfillment of the territorial promise in Joshua’s day fell short, not only in relation to the geography, but also – and more significantly – in respect to the ideology of the promised land.”[4]

The temporal possession of the Promised Land in the Old Testament was but a typological anticipation of the fulfillment of the Abrahamic land promise which has yet to come. This fulfillment is not limited to the nation of Israel, but also includes the Gentile nations, and will be universal in scope and dimensionality. Williamson continues:

“While the promise of land was certainly fulfilled to some extent in the period covered by Genesis-Kings, it was never fully realized. Rather, its fulfillment in the nation [of Israel] was but a preliminary stage and a symbol of its climactic fulfillment. It is not surprising, therefore, that other Old Testament writers should envisage a future and more permanent fulfillment of the territorial promise – one that would impact not just Israel, but all the nations of the earth.”[5]

Therefore, in order for us to understand the ideology behind the Promised Land, we must first consider the New Testament’s expectation of the fulfillment of the Abrahamic land promise. This we will consider in the next instalment.

[1] Geoff A. Adams, “The New Covenant of Jeremiah 31:31-37,” Reformation and Revival 6, no. 3 (1997): 88.
[2] David Holwerda, Jesus and Israel: One Covenant or Two? (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1995), 95.
[3] Ibid., 55.
[4] Paul R. Williamson, “Promise and Fulfilment: The Territorial Inheritance,” in The Land of Promise (Leicester, England: Apollos, 2000), 23-24, quoting Holwerda, Jesus and Israel, 30-31.
[5] Ibid., 32.