Abstract: In this essay, Darrell Bock discusses the nuanced understanding of God’s land promise to Israel. He highlights that the New Testament doesn’t dismiss the promise to Israel but contextualizes it within a larger narrative of inclusion and reconciliation among nations. The promise is rooted in God’s commitment to Abraham and extends to encompass a broader divine blessing through Christ, the ultimate seed of Abraham. Bock asserts that Israel’s physical presence in the land during the New Testament period doesn’t negate the promise’s ongoing relevance but emphasizes the lack of peace that was also part of the promise. Ultimately, the promise of land is seen, Bock argues, as part of God’s grand narrative of redemption. Israel’s role is central because of her Messiah, and God’s faithfulness to his promises is a testament to his character and plan for reconciliation that includes all nations.
Israel and the land is about a divine promise including a specific people. Simply put, God keeps his promises to those who receive them. It’s often claimed the New Testament moves the land promise from being about Israel as a people in the land to being about God’s people in the world. That’s an oversimplification. The question is whether that universal expansion neuters the specific promise made to Israel of a people in a land.
It’s sometimes said that the New Testament says nothing about the land promise. This ignores a first-century New Testament reality. Israel is in the land during this time, so there’s little need to remind the nation of a promise already in place. What Israel lacks is the promised, accompanying peace. Israel as a people among the nations “certainly would not have excluded the nation of Israel.” (As Craig Blaising and I note in Progressive Dispensationalism, the New Testament stresses Gentile inclusion not Israelite exclusion from the promise. This isn’t about nationalism but about reconciliation and peace among nations.)
So how widespread and specific is this land promise? The promise is specific and grounded in God’s character. God tied the promise of a people and a land to commitments made to Abraham in Genesis 12:1–3 (all citations NET). The land issue leads off this promise in verse 1. It says, “Now the Lord said to Abraham, ‘Go out from your country, your relatives, and your fathers’ household to the land I will show you.’” The people of Israel are going to exemplify divine blessing in verse 2, specifically, “Then I will make you into a great nation.” They function as a people in witness to God. That witness isn’t just present in the person of Messiah but is part of a program of reconciliation between peoples (Eph. 2–3).
The New Testament stresses Gentile inclusion not Israelite exclusion from the promise.
This very Israel is distinguished from the nations within this promise in verse 3, as blessing to the world will come through them and the seed of Abraham. Genesis 12:7 speaks of this promise as being for Abraham’s descendants or seed: “To your descendants I will give this land.” In Genesis 13:15–16, the seed promise is repeated: “I will give all of this land you see to you and your descendants forever. And I will make your descendants like the dust of the earth.” Now in the New Testament the seed is seen as Jesus the Christ (Gal. 3:16). He is the seed par excellence as the executor of this promise. But Israel as a people among the nations remains as beneficiaries of that promise when they believe. To include others or expand the promise to the world doesn’t remove the original promise or recipients. This is especially so as Romans 9–11 looks for a response of Israel as a people to Jesus as the Christ. They will be more than the current remnant of Paul’s time.
God repeats the land promise to the patriarchs regularly. It appears in reaffirmations to Abraham (Gen. 15:5–7, 18–21; 17:1–8), Isaac (26:2–5), and Jacob (28:3-4, 13–15). So the blessing as a people involves the inclusion of a land for a nation at peace. The book of Genesis ends with a promise about this land to Joseph (50:24). This is a repeated promise for a specific nation of people among the nations.
Genesis isn’t alone. The Lord says to Moses in Exodus 6:4, “I also established my covenant with them to give them the land of Canaan, where they were living as resident foreigners”. Also in verse 8, “I will bring you to the land I swore to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob—and I will give it to you [plural] as a possession. I am the LORD.” Land for this people is a consistent core to the promise. So is this possession temporary and conditional?
Is the Promise of Land Ultimately Conditional?
Deuteronomy 28–32 conditions their well-being and security in the land. That involves an elevation among the nations in blessing (Deut. 28:1, 8, 12). Disobedience will lead to defeat, fleeing, and other disasters (vv. 15–37). Fleeing the land and servitude to other nations is a part of this warning (vv. 48–49). But is it permanent, and does this change the land promise’s ultimate status?
The answer is in Deuteronomy 28–32. Deuteronomy 28:62 teaches judgment for disobedience is severe; verses 63–64 say this judgment includes scattering among the nations. Is that the last word? No. Deuteronomy 30 speaks of a reversal. There the Lord brings Israel back to the land and blessing (vv. 1–4). In verse 5, this blessing is greater than that received before by their ancestors. And in Deuteronomy 32, a Song of Moses commemorates this.
Joshua 21:43 says, “The Lord gave Israel all the land he had solemnly promised to their ancestors.” This wasn’t the final fulfillment of this promise, as that included the idea of peace in the land. So we move to displacement from the land with Assyria and Babylon, and we must ask again, Did this change the promise’s ultimate status?
Promise to Regather
Jeremiah 11:1–17 describes the nation under the effects of the Deuteronomic curse for disobedience. A contrast surfaces in Jeremiah 32–33. In chapter 32, the prophet buys a field at Anathoth, symbolizing that Israel will come back to the land. Jeremiah 32:22 notes the promise of the past, and then the Babylonians are said to have come in verses 23–24 because of disobedience. Verse 25 closes the summary, noting about Anathoth, “The city is sure to fall into the hands of the Babylonians. Yet, in spite of this, you, Sovereign LORD, have said to me ‘Buy that field with silver.’”
Jeremiah 32:26–44 summarizes what’s going on. Babylon comes because of disobedience, yet God says,
I will certainly regather my people from all the countries where I have exiled them in my anger, fury, and great wrath. I will bring them back to this place and allow them to live here in safety. They will be my people, and I will be their God. (vv. 37–38)
Verses 40–41 are more emphatic: “I will make a lasting covenant [olam] with them that I will never stop doing good to them. . . . I will faithfully and wholeheartedly plant them firmly in the land.”
Amazingly, Jeremiah 31:31–34 just mentioned the new covenant for Israel and Judah. He seals that covenant with another affirmation in 31:37: “The LORD says, ‘I will not reject all the descendants of Israel because of all they have done. That could only happen if the heavens above could be measured or the foundations of the earth below could all be explored,’ says the LORD.” And now in a bookend, Jeremiah 33:17 notes the people will never be without a descendant of David once the promise comes.
As sure and secure as the days and nights are, so secure are God’s promises to Israel about a king before the nations at large. God’s own Word and promise underlie this commitment. Ezekiel 20:40–41 is similar. Whatever else happens with the Christ promise, whatever expansion the promise involves, it doesn’t involve the elimination of these commitments.
Whatever else happens with the Christ promise, whatever expansion the promise involves, it doesn’t involve the elimination of the original commitments.
Two points remain. First, this is about Israel’s fate among the nations. The picture prevents a reading that simply absorbs Israel into the nations. Second, the original covenant promise to Abraham is the basis for the action. God keeps his Word.
Where the Promise Takes Us
The New Testament affirms this promise. Jesus and the apostles restate Israel’s role. I’ve treated this argument in detail in my chapter from The People, the Land, and the Future of Israel: Israel and the Jewish People in the Plan of God. That discussion adds another dimension to this question of the land. It’s the seed par excellence and those who followed him who share in this kind of hope that included Israel. Texts here include Matthew 19:28; Luke 13:34–35; 21:20–24; 22:30; Acts 1:6–7; 3:18–22; 26:7; and Romans 9–11.
The promise brings us to the land of God’s promise and presence. Unity and diversity, equality and yet distinction, a perpetual evidence of the reconciliation God brings to all and all nations through his work of new covenant in his Davidic heir in his kingdom. Israel stands at the center of the world because of her Messiah. And in it all, God has kept his Word to the patriarchs of Israel because God keeps his promises to those with whom he makes them as God works to a reconciliation that involves all the nations (Isa. 19:23–25).