Friday, March 17, 2006

Building a Theology of the Land, Part 4

In an attempt to win the award for “longest series without comments” during the forthcoming “Biblical Studies Carnival IV,” I’m picking up my series on “Theology of the Land.”

When I last left off, I asked how Jesus’ application of the promise of Land to his disciples in Mt 5.5 functions. I think the rest of Mt and the NT tell us.

Some have argued that what the NT does with the Land is “spiritualization”; this was classically argued by W. D. Davies in his seminal work on the topic, The Gospel and the Land. For my part, I prefer to avoid the term “spiritualization,” which has decidedly docetic connotations (not accusing Davies of this). I think we actually see two things in the NT: (1) universalization (2) eschatological reserve, which will of course be eschatological reversal. These are not original with Christianity, but are built from the foundation of texts such as Isaiah 65-66, where we find a “new heavens and a new earth” despite the present throes of Exile and suffering.

Matthew 28:16-20 has universal implications which I think are spelled out well in Paul, see below—not that Matt or Paul were copying one another;

Revelation 21-22 is obvious, particularly in its echoes of Isaiah 65-66 and Genesis 1-3.

More potent than these, perhaps, is the remarkable Romans 4:13 (on which see NTW’s commentary, his short paper on New Exodus/New Inheritance in Romans 5-8 at, and Hays, Conversion of the Imagination, 90). Paul states that Abe was promised--not a strip of Land in Palestine, nor the Fertile Crescent, but--the KOSMOS. This of course leads up to Romans 8 and the groaning of ALL creation, which will be liberated in the future. Paul believes he has permission to make this hermeneutical move because of God's intention to rescue all creation, reconcile ALL THINGS (Colossians is very strong here); because the promise to Abe in Gen 12 carried universal implications; and because the Land was always meant to be a Type of God's intention for Earth, as Isaiah and others indicated.

Eschatological Reserve:
Matthew 19:28, the eschatological “regeneration” (palingenesia, a remarkable term worth more press than I can give it) has strong “Land” connotations, as Jesus speaks of 12 thrones and the 12 tribes. Jesus offers this as impetus to let go of lands, houses, etc. in the present—something those with such things have a difficult time doing, as the context in Matt 19 plainly shows.

Again, Revelation 21-22 is relevant.

Acts 7 (esp. vv 2-5, 29-33, 45-50) and Hebrews 11:8-10, 13-16 are clear: Abe didn’t ever own a plot of land to set his foot in (save to bury his wife). Hebrews in particular takes this example and runs with it, applying it in spades to believers. As with Matthew, this is held out as an example, and it functions as an exhortation to let go (of traditions and Temple in Acts 7? Hard to say, but Heb 11 is quite clear) of things in this present world for the sake of gain in the future. Acts 7 speaks of near fulfillment in Israel's previous possession of the Land, but also, in the context of the "universalization" of God's reign in Acts, the whole of the OT is thrown into a different trajectory (Lk 24), a universalized one (Acts 28).

There is more in the NT on this question, as well as in contemporaneous lit like Qumran; but these are core texts (off the top of my head). Possibly a future post will explore the practical implications of this...

Again, I insist that there is nothing “spiritual” (=anti-physical) in this doctrine, and that it grows organically out of the Scriptures of Jesus, Matt, Paul, author of Hebrews, etc. In a sense, it is even more physical than the original promises, if only due to the greater dimensions and the promise of permanence.


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