Bibliotheca Sacra 138 (1981) 302-12.
Copyright © 1981 by
The Promised Land:
A Biblical-Historical View
Walter C. Kaiser, Jr.
In the Old Testament few issues are as important as that of
the promise of the land to the patriarchs and the
fact, Cr,x,, "land," is the fourth most frequent substantive in the
Hebrew Bible.1 Were it not for the larger and more comprehensive
theme of the total promise2 with all its multifaceted provisions,
the theme of
idea or the organizing rubric for the entire canon. However, it
does hold a dominant place in the divine gifts of
Yet there is more to the promise of the land than religious
significance arid theological meaning; an essential interrela-
tionship exists between the political and empirical reality of the
land as a Jewish state and all biblical statements about its spir-
itual or theological
duced to a sort of mystical land defined as a new spiritual reality
which transcends the old geographic and political designations if
one wishes to continue to represent the single truth-intentions3
of the writers of the biblical text. Instead, the Bible is most
insistent on the fact that the land was promised to the patriarchs
as a gift where their descendants would reside and rule as a
The Land as Promise
The priority of the divine Word and divine oath as the basis
for any discussion of the land is of first importance. From the
The Promised Land: A Biblical-Historical View 303
inception of God's call to Abraham in
marked out a specific geographical destination for him (Gen.
12:1). This territorial bequest was immediately reaffirmed and
extended to his descendants as soon as Abraham reached
Shechem (Gen. 12:7).
Thus Alt was certainly wrong in rejecting the land as a part of
the original promise. Noth was closer to the mark when he de-
clared that the promise of both the land and the seed was part of
the original covenant to the patriarchs.4
So solemn was this covenant with its gift of the land5 that
Genesis 15:7-21 depicted God alone moving between the halves
of the sacrificial animals after sunset as "a smoking furnace and
a flaming torch" (v. 17; all translations are the author's unless
noted otherwise). Thus He obligated Himself and only Himself to
fulfill the terms of this oath. Abraham was not asked or required
likewise to obligate himself. The total burden for the delivery of
the gift of the land fell on the divine Provider but not on the
devotion of the patriarch. As if to underscore the permanence of
this arrangement, Genesis 17:7, 13, 19 stress that this was to
be a MlAOf tyriB;, "an everlasting covenant."
Boundaries of the Land
The borders of this land promised to Abraham were to run
"from the River Egypt [Myirac;mi
rhan;.mi] to the
of the oft-repeated pairs of cities, the land included everything
"from Dan to
17:11; 24:2, 15; 1 Kings 4:25 [Heb. 5:5]; and in reverse order, 2
Chron. 30:5). These two cities marked the northernmost and
southernmost administrative centers rather than sharply de-
fined boundary lines.
Even though a number of evangelical scholars have wrongly
judged the southern boundary of the "River
River,6 it is more accurately placed at the Wadi el-'Arish which
reaches the Mediterranean Sea at the town of
ninety miles east of the
Amos 6:14 likewise pointed to the same limits for the south-
ern boundary: the "brook of the Arabah" (hbArAfEhA lHana) which flows
into the southern tip of the
southern boundary are the end of the
304 Bibliotheca Sacra-October-December 1981
Arabah (Deut. 1:7), Negeb (Deut. 34:1-3), and "Shihor
The western boundary of the land was "the Sea of the Philis-
tines," that is, the "
was the eastern shore of the
Only the northern boundary presented a serious problem.
The river that bordered off the northernmost reaches of the
promised land was called "the great river" which was later
glossed, according to some, to read "the River Euphrates" in
Genesis 15:18; Deuteronomy 1:7; and Joshua 1:4. In Exodus
23:31 it is simply "the river."
But is the
River? Could it not be that these are the two extremities of the
northern boundary? This suggestion proves to have some weight
in that the other topographical notices given along with these
two river names would appear to be more ideally located in the
valley which currently serves as the boundary between
modern Arabic Nahr el-Kebir, "the great river."
One of the most difficult topographical features to isolate is
the "plain of Labwah [or ‘toward, in the coming to’] Hamath"
(tmAHE xbol; bHor;) (Num. 13:21), or just simply Labwah Hamath
(Num. 34:8; Josh. 13:3-5; 1 Kings 8:65; 2 Kings 14:25; 1 Chron.
13:5; Amos 6:18; Ezek. 47:15; 48:1-28). Mazar (Maisler) has
identified "Labwah Hamath" or "toward Hamath" as the modern
of Kadesh and northeast
be mentioned in Amenhotep II's stele, as Rameses II's favorite
hunting grounds8 and in Tiglath-pileser III's text along with
Hamath. Numbers 13:21 seems to point to the same "plain"
(bHor;), a district further defined by 2 Samuel 10:6, 8 and
Added to this site are
towns of Zedad, Ziphron, Hazer Ainon (all referred to in Num.
34:3-9; cf. Ezek. 47:15-19; 48:1-2, 28), and Riblah (Ezek. 6:14).
All these towns may be bearers of names similar to some Arabic
village names today, for example: Riblah, Sadad, Qousseir
( = Hazer) or Qaryatein (Hazer Spring).9
The Promised Land: A Biblical-Historical View 305
While the precise details on the northern border remain
extremely tentative, the evidence favors some line far to the north
of Dan which would include old Canaanite settlements such as
Meanwhile, the settlement of Transjordania by the two and
one-half tribes seems to be clearly outside that territory originally
was outside the borders of
promise. The same implication is sustained in
Moses gave to Reuben and Gad: "We will cross over ... into the
remain with us across the
when three of the six cities of refuge were assigned to Transjorda-
nia, they were distinguished from the three that were "in the land
not belong to the land of promise. Likewise the Negeb in the
south was also outside the parameters of the promise.
The Land as the Gift of God
Leviticus 25:23, in a context dealing with the Year of Jubilee,
declares that the owner of the land is none other than the Lord.
Indeed the God of Israel is the Giver of whatever the land yields
(Deut. 6:10-11). Thus one of the central theological affirmations
about the land is that it is the gift of God to
the Book of Deuteronomy refers to the promise of the land made
with the patriarchs, and all but three of these eighteen references
emphasize the fact that He likewise "gave" it to them.10
This land was "a good land" (Deut. 1:25, 35; 3:23; 4:21-22;
6:18; 8:7, 10; 9:6; 11:17), for it was filled with brooks, springs,
wheat, barley, grapes, vines, figs, pomegranates, olives, honey,
iron, and copper.
Yet what God gave He then termed
(hlAHEna). It was "the good land which the Lord your God is giving
you as an inheritance" (Deut. 4:21; cf. 4:38; 12:9; 15:4; 19:10;
20:16; 21:23; 24:4; 25:19; 26:1). Thus the Owner of all lands
24:1) allotted to
306 Bibliotheca Sacra-October-December 1981
Whereas the land had been granted to the patriarchs by
virtue of the divine Word and oath, it was still theirs in theory and
not in actuality. For over half a millennium it was only the land of
their sojourning; they did not as yet possess it. Then under
Joshua's conquest the ancient promise was to be made a reality.
Since the land was a "gift, " as Deuteronomy affirmed in some
twenty-five references (Deut. 1:20, 25; 2:29; 3:20; 4:40; 5:16; et
12:1; 15:4; 19:2, 14; 25:19). This does not mean that the idea of
taking the land by force or conquest was contradictory to the idea
of its bestowal as a gift.11 As Miller correctly reconciled the situa-
tion, God's overthrow of the enemy would be the way in which He
would finally allow
notions come together in the expression, "The land which
Yahweh gives you to possess."
If it be objected, as it surely has, that such action on God's
part is pure chauvinism and unfair partiality, it should be re-
membered that Deuteronomy had already spoken of the same
divine replacement of former inhabitants in Transjordania. The
Emim, Horites, and Zamzummim had been divinely dispos-
sessed and destroyed (Deut. 2:9, 12, 21) and their lands had been
sovereignly given to
of their situation with
(2:12). In fact Amos 9:7 reviews several other exoduses Yahweh
had conducted in the past: the Philistines from
Syrians from Kir of Mesopotamia, not to mention the
Accordingly, as the conquest came to an end, what the pa-
triarchs had enjoyed solely in the form of promissory words
except for a burial plot or two was now to be totally possessed.13
Yet this introduced another enigma, namely, the gap be-
tween the gift of the whole
land and the reality of
conquest and control of the land. On the one hand Yahweh
promised to drive out the inhabitants of
(Ffam; Ffam;) (Exod. 23:30-33), and Joshua made war "a long time"
(MyBira MymiyA) (Josh. 11:18). On the other hand the Canaanites were
destroyed "quickly" (rhema) (Deut. 7:22; 9:3).14 Furthermore not
only is the speed with which the conquest was completed an
issue; but also the extent of the conquest is a problem (cf. Josh.
12:10-23 with 15:63; 17:12; Judg. 1:21-22, 29). But the contrast-
ing statements on the speed of the conquest are relative only to the
magnitude of the work that was to be done. Where the conquest
The Promised Land: A Biblical-Historical View 307
is presented as fait accompli, it is so from the standpoint of the
territory having been generally secured from the theocratic per-
spective (even though there were many pockets of resistance that
needed to be flushed out and some sites that needed to be recap-
tured several times since the fortunes of warfare tended to seesaw
back and forth as positions frequently changed hands).
Nevertheless the inheritance remained as a gift even when
the actual possession of the land lagged far behind the promise.
An identical conundrum can be found by comparing the various
provisions for "rest" (HaUn, Exod. 33:14: hHAUnm;, Deut. 12:9) in the
"place" that the Lord had chosen to "plant" His people. Whereas
tance of the land (Deut. 12:9), by the time Joshua had completed
his administration "The LORD [had given] them rest on every
side, according to all that He had sworn to their fathers .... Not
one of the good promises which the LORD had made to the house
Why then, it might be asked, was David still expecting this
rest as a future hope (2 Sam. 7:10-11)? And why was Solomon,
that "man of rest," expecting it (1 Kings 8:56; 1 Chron. 22:9)?
The solution to this matter is that even the emphasis of Joshua
in 21:44-45 was on the promised word which had not failed
mained in the land has depended on whether it has set a proper
value on God's promised inheritance.
Such conditionality did not "pave the way for a declension
from grace into law," as von Rad suggested16; neither does the
conditional aspect of any single generation's participation in the
blessings offered in the Davidic covenant contradict the eternal-
ity of their promises. The "if" notices in this covenant (1 Kings
2:4; 8:25; 9:4-5; Pss. 89:29-32: 132:12; cf. 2 Sam. 7:14-15) re-
ferred only to any future generation's participation in the bene-
fits of the covenant, but they did not affect the transmission or
the certainty of God's eternal oath.17 The ownership of the land
(as a gift from God) is certain and eternal, but the occupation of
it by any given generation is conditioned on obedience.
Therefore neither the days of Joshua nor those of David could
be used as a kind of blank check for any subsequent generation to
rest on their fathers' laurels. Indeed, the word of promise could
also be theirs, if they would enter not only into the material
resting place, but if they too would appropriate that rest by faith
as did Caleb and Joshua (Ps. 95:7-11; cf.
308 Bibliotheca Sacra-October-December 1981
Loss of the Land
The history and theology of the land divides right at this
point. In the succinct vocabulary of Brueggemann,18 the
is "the juncture between two histories." In the one "history is one
of landlessness on the way to the land" and in the other it is
non for continued enjoyment of life in the land is obedience that
springs from a genuine love and fear of God. Failure to obey could
lead to war, calamity, loss of the land, or death itself (Deut. 4:26).
Many of the laws were tied directly to the land
existence on it, as indicated by the motive clauses or introductory
words found in many of them.19 In fact when evil was left un-
checked and was compounded, it caused the land to be defiled
and guilty before God (Deut. 21:23; 24:4). This point could not
have been made more forcefully than it is in Leviticus 26 and
Deuteronomy 28. Naturally no nation or individual has the right
to interpret any single or isolated reverse or major calamity in life
as an evidence of divine love which is seeking the normalization of
relationships between God and man.
bold to declare with the aid of divine revelation that certain
events, especially those in related series, were indeed from the
hand of God (e.g., Amos 4:6-12 and Hag. 1:4-7).
The most painful of all the tragedies would be the loss of the
land (Lev. 26:34-39). But such a separation could never be a
permanent situation; how could God deny Himself and fail to
fulfill His covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Lev. 26:42)?
As surely as the judgments might "overtake" (Deut. 28:15, 43; cf.
Zech. 1:6) future generations, just as surely would every prom-
ised blessing likewise "overtake" (Deut. 28:2) them the moment
"repentance" (bUw) began (Deut. 30:2, 6, 8, 10; cf. Zech. 1:6).20
Forsaking the covenant the Lord made with the fathers would
lead to an uprooted existence (Deut. 30:24-28) until God once
more restored the fortunes of
The Prophets and the Promise of a Return
The "headwaters" of the "return" promises, as Martens
states in one of the first studies of land theology in the prophets,21
are in Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Both of these men had experienced
firsthand the loss of land; yet together they contain twenty-five
The Promised Land: A Biblical-Historical View 309
explicit statements about return to the land22 and five texts with
indirect announcements of return.23
Jeremiah's characteristic formula for the restoration of
yTib;wa). Twelve of its twenty-six occurrences in the Old Testament
are found in Jeremiah (e.g., 29:14; 30:3; 32:44). Ezekiel on the
other hand usually casts his message in a three-part formula
(e.g., Ezek. 11:17; 20:41-42; 36:24; 37:21): (a) "I will bring
(Hiphil of xcAyA) you from the people"; (b) "I will gather (Piel of CbaqA)
you from the lands"; (c) "I will bring (Hiphil of xOB) you into the
In one of the most striking passages in the prophets, Yahweh
pledges that His promise to restore
will be as dependable and as certain as His covenant with day and
night (33:20, 25).
While the sheer multiplicity of texts from almost every one of
the prophets is staggering, a few evangelicals insist that this
pledge to restore
Ezra, and Nehemiah led their respective returns from the Babylo-
nian Exile. But if the postexilic returns to the land fulfilled this
promised restoration predicted by the prophets, why then did
Zechariah continue to announce a still future return (10:8-12) in
words that were peppered with the phrases and formulas of such
prophecies as Isaiah 11:11 and Jeremiah 50:19?
Such a return of the nation
from a literal worldwide assemblage of Jews from "the four cor-
ners of the earth" (Isa. 11:12). The God who promised to bring
spiritual and immaterial blessings will also fulfill the material,
secular, and political blessings in order to demonstrate that He is
indeed Lord of the whole earth and all that is in it.
The question as to whether the return follows a national
spiritual awakening and turning to the Lord or vice versa is
difficult. Sometimes the prophets seem to favor the first, as in
Deuteronomy 30, and sometimes it appears that the return pre-
cedes any general repentance, as in Ezekiel 36:1-37:14 and
perhaps in Isaiah 11. But there can be no question about a future
return in any of the prophets.
The New Testament and the Promise of the Land
For Paul, no one of the previous promises has changed--not
even the promise of the land. Since the Old Testament has an
310 Bibliotheca Sacra-October-December 1981
authority equal to that of the New Testament, the permanency
and directness of the promise of the land to
contravened by anything allegedly taught in the New Testament.
Tal is wide of the mark when he summarizes the view that the Old
Testament can be set aside now that the New Testament era has
dawned.25 He holds that all geopolitical rights promised in the old
covenant have been cancelled and that the best
hope for now is to be part of the new people of God, the church,
but without nationality, land, or statehood. But such a view does
not square with either the Old covenant or the New covenant.
The most significant passage on this subject in the New
Testament is Romans 9-11, especially 11:11-36. For Paul,
"full number" or as the RSV puts it, "full inclusion" (plh<rwma,
11:12; cf. plh<rwma tw?n
e]qnw?n in 11:25). Thus
remains God's link to her own future as well as the link to the
future of the nations. For if her temporary loss of land and
failures have fallen out to the spiritual advantage of the
world and their reconciliation to God, her acceptance will signal
her "life from the dead" (11:15).
"And so all
with the predictions of Isaiah 27:9 and 59:20-21. The "and so"
(kai> ou!twj) probably points back to verse 25 and the "mystery" of
the temporary failure of
tiles comes in (cf. Luke 21:24). Then, in that future moment, "all
of individual salvation nor a matter of converting to a Gentile
brand of Christendom, but it is a matter of God's activity in
history when the nation shall once again, as in the days of
blessing in the past, experience the blessing and joy of God
spiritually, materially, geographically, and politically.
The main lines of Paul's argument in Romans 9-11 are clear
and in complete agreement with the promise of the land to the
detract from or minimize the full force of this blunt witness to
God's everlasting work on behalf of
the greatest philosophies of history ever produced:
watermark on secular history that simultaneously demonstrates
that He can complete in time and space what He promised to do
and that He, the Owner and Ruler of all nations, geography, and
magistrates, will deal severely with those nations that mock,
deride, parcel up, and attack
The Promised Land: A Biblical-Historical View 311
attempt to do so either in the name of the church or the name of
political and economic expediency will answer to the God of
more ways than one. The mark of God's new measure of grace,
not only to
at large, will be
of it in the millennium.
1 H. H. Schmid, "Crx," Theologisches Handworterbuch zum Alten Testament,
Ernst Jenni and Claus Westermann, eds. (Munich: Chr. Kaiser Verlag, 1971),
1:227-35, esp. 234; and "hmdx," pp. 58-59, cited by Elmer Martens, "Motivations
for the Promise of
2 For a discussion which organizes the total message of the Bible around the
promise, see Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Toward an Old Testament Theology (Grand
Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1978).
3 The hermeneutic claimed here is that which was set forth by E. D. Hirsch,
Validity in Interpretation (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1967), esp.
chap. 1. Also see Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., "The Current Crisis in Exegesis and the
Apostolic Use of Deuteronomy 25:4 in I Corinthians 9:8-10," Journal of the
Evangelical Theological Society 21 (1978):3-18.
4 See Kaiser, Toward an Old Testament Theology, pp. 89-91, 58-59.
5 Cf. Genesis 13:15, 17; 24:7; 26:3-5: 28:13-14; 35:12: 48:4; 50:24.
6 The argument is usually based on the fact that the Hebrew word rhAnA is
consistently restricted to large rivers. However, the Hebrew is more frequently lHana
(= Arabic wady) instead of the rhAnA of Genesis 15:18 which may have been
influenced by the second rhAnA in the text (J. Simons, The Geographical and
Topographical Texts of
the Old Testament
272). In the Akkadian texts of Sargon II (716 B.C.) it appears as nahal musar
(James B. Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testa-
ment (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969), p. 286; also Esarhad-
don's Arza(ni) or Arsa = Arish(?), (ibid., p. 290). See Bruce K. Waltke, "River of
van Publishing House, 1975), 5:121: and J. Dwight Pentecost, Prophecy for
Today (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1961), p. 65. An interesting
case for the
Mizraim)," Palestinian Exploration Quarterly 92 (1960):37-56.
Simons argues that Shihor is not a branch of the
easternmost branch of the
Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 197512:224-25), but is the Wadi el-'Arish
(Simons, Geographical and Topographical Texts, p. 104).
Benjamin Mazar, "
Schools of Oriental Research 102 (1946):9. Cf. Simons, Geographical and
Topographical Texts, pp. 99-102; George W. Buchanan, The Consequences of the
Covenant (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1970), pp. 91-109; Yohanan Aharoni, The Land of
the Bible, tr. Anson F. Rainey (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1967), pp. 65-67;
and Yehezkel Kaufmann, The Biblical Account of the Conquest of
(Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1953), pp. 48-56. Is the Myirac;mi xObl;-dfa of 2 Chronicles
312 Bibliotheca Sacra-October-December 1981
26:8 of sufficient weight to offset this interpretation, or is it merely an imitation of
the older tmAHE xObl;-dfa as Simons argues (Geographical and Topographical Texts, p. 101)?
9 See Buchanan, The Consequences of the Covenant, pp. 99-101.
10 This point is made by Patrick D. Miller, Jr., "The Gift of God: The Deuterono-
mic Theology of the Land," Interpretation 23 (1969):454. The references he gives
are Deuteronomy 1:8, 35; 6:10, 18, 23; 7:13; 8:1:9:5; 10:11; 11:9, 21; 19:8; 26:3,
15; 28:11: 30:20: 31:7; 34:4.
11 Von Waldow felt these two ideas were "self-contradictory" (Hans E. von
Path, eds. Howard N. Bream
et al [
12 Miller, "The Gift of God," p. 455.
13 For further development of this thought see Kaiser, Toward an Old Testa-
ment Theology, pp. 124-36.
14 For a full statement of this problem, see G. Ernest Wright, "The Literary and
Historical Problem of Joshua 10 and Judges 1," Journal of Near Eastern Studies
5 (1946):105-14. For a partial evangelical response, see Kenneth Kitchen, Ancient
Orient and Old Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1964).
15 See Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., "The Promise Theme and the Theology of Rest,"
Bibliotheca Sacra 130 (April-June 1973):135-50.
16 Gerhard von Rad, "The Promised Land and Yahweh's Land in the Hex-
ateuch," in The Problem of the Hexateuch and Other Essays, tr. E. W. T. Dicken
(New York: McGraw-Hill Co., 1966), p. 91. Also see von Rad, "There Remains Still a
Rest for the People of God: An Investigation of a Biblical Conception," in The
Problem of the Hexateuch, pp. 94-102.
17 See Kaiser, Toward an Old Testament Theology, pp. 61-66, 92-94.
18 Walter Brueggemann, The Land (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977), pp.
71-72. See also the mammoth tome by W. D. Davis, The Gospel and the Land
(Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1974), esp. pp. 36-48.
19 This fine point is made by Miller, "The Gift of God," pp. 459-60. The instances
from Deuteronomy he lists are 15:1ff.; 16:18-20; 17:14ff.; 18:9ff.; 19:1ff.; 19:14;
21:1 ff. ; 21:22ff. ; 24:1-4; 25:13-16.
20 Cf. Kaiser, Toward an Old Testament Theology, pp. 137-39, 198, 223.
Martens, "Motivations for the Promise of
the earlier study of Hans-Reudi Weber, "The Promise of the Land: Biblical Inter-
pretation and the Present
Situation in the
(1971): 7-10 (="La Promesse de la Terre," Foi et Vie, 71 [19721:19-46).
22 Martens listed these explicit ones as Jeremiah 3:11-20: 12:14-17; 16:10-18:
23:1-8; 24; 28:1-4; 29:1-14: 30:1-3; 30:10-11; 31:2-14; 31:15-20; 32:1-44;
42:1-22; 50:17-20; Ezekiel 11:14-21; 20:39-44: 34:1-16: 35:1-36:15; 36:16-36:
37:1-14; 37:15-28; 39:21-29.
23 The indirect ones were Jeremiah 30:17b-22: 31:23-25; 33:1-18; Ezekiel 28:20-26:
34:17-31 (Martens, "Motivations for the Promise of Israel's Restoration," pp. 172-96).
24 Ibid., pp. 164-72.
Uriel Tal, "Jewish
Self-Understanding and the Land and State of
Union Seminars Quarterly Review 26 (1970):353-54.
26 But seethe brilliant essay by Shermaryahu Talmon, "The 'Navel of the Earth'
and the Comparative Method," in Scripture in History and Theology: Essays in
Honor of J. Coert Rylaarsdam, eds. Arthur L. Merrill and Thomas W. Overholt
(Pittsburgh: Pickwick Press, 1977), pp. 243-68. He concluded thatCr,xAhA rUBFa does
not mean a mountain peak that serves as the center of all the surrounding
landscape, but that it is a plateau, a level plain nested on a mountain. The
Septuagint o]mfaloj, "navel," is unwarranted when judged by biblical and
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