Is It (or “OT”) All About Land? (RJS)

Is It (or “OT”) All About Land? (RJS) August 1, 2013

Pete Enns has a couple of interesting posts recently: And the main point of the entire Old Testament is…. followed by The gospel and the transformation of Israel’s story beyond its borders. These posts are worth some thought and some discussion.

From the intro to his first post (highlights and emphasis in the original):

I was taught in seminary and graduate school, as were many others of my generation and several before that, that the OT doesn’t have “a” central point–there’s no central concept around which you can organize the OT. The OT is too diverse for that sort of thing. As soon as you find a theme that seems to work, it either doesn’t (e.g., covenant) or it’s too broad to be of much use (e.g., God).

I agree, but some themes are right there in your face, more than others, and one of them is getting higher and higher on my top 10 list:


That may sound off a bit boring–maybe even not terribly spiritual–but land is a major idea the Bible keeps on the front burner. Actually, I may even be understating things bit.

The promise to receive land, getting it, how to hold on to it, losing it and getting it back, and how not to lost it again.

I’ve just described the main storyline of the OT.

And toward the end of his second post (again, highlights and emphasis in the original):

So, here–finally–is my point for today:

Tying together Israel’s story and the Gospel has been the grand challenge of the church since the very beginning. The two don’t fit together easily, and it takes creative energy to bring them together.

What we see in the New Testament is the early followers of Jesus, like the Gospel writers and Paul, taking up that challenge. They are doing the work of connecting Israel’s story–with it’s focus on land, temple, gentile exclusion, holiness laws, etc–to the Jesus story–where those elements were no longer central, and where Messiah Jesus didn’t meet expectations.

To bring those stories together, the Old Testament could no longer be followed, but had to be transformed beyond its original intentions.

The New Testament writers were assigned this task of explaining how the Gospel, which goes so far beyond the confines of Israel’s story, is still connected to Israel’s story. The center point of that transformation was Jesus.

The full posts put these ideas into a more complete context. But this is enough to get the general idea for discussion.

Does this make sense to you? Is Land a (or even the) main storyline of the Old Testament?

Did the New Testament writers need to transform the Old Testament beyond its original intentions?

Now Peter Enns is the Old Testament scholar. This is certainly not my area of expertise. I’ve learned many things from him and from other careful Old Testament scholars. But I have to admit, there is a piece of this that doesn’t quite ring true to me. While it is clear that elements focusing on the land and recovering the land upon return from exile play an important role in parts of the Old Testament, I don’t see this as the major theme, rather it is an incidental theme required for the story line, but not the point of the story. It seems to me that the major theme that unites the various disparate texts we have in the Old Testament canon lies in Yahweh as creator and redeemer and in concepts like obedience, and righteousness, rather than “Land”. Perhaps a better way to say this would be to say that the underlying theme in the Old Testament is the Wisdom of God rather than any specific reward from God.

And then we get to Adam. In the first post (And the main point of the entire Old Testament is….) Pete connects his suggestion that the main point of the Old Testament is land to an interpretation of the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2 and 3.

Land is part of God’s promise to Abraham. Actually, back up. As I laid out in The Evolution of Adam, the Adam story is already a snapshot preview of Israel and land.

The Garden of Eden is symbolic of Canaan. Adam and Israel are each placed in a piece of real estate, and remaining in the land depends on obedience to God. Both Adam and Israel break God’s law and are exiled.

I thoroughly enjoyed, was challenged by, and learned a great deal from The Evolution of Adam, but I have to admit this view of Genesis 2-3 didn’t convince me. It is not that I think it is a dangerous interpretation, just that I remain unconvinced that it is the right interpretation. Remaining in the land depends on obedience to God, but the emphasis is not on the land, but on obedience and all that this entails. The Adam story as a snapshot preview of Israel is too limiting.

In Ch. 5 of The Evolution of Adam Enns brings up slightly different perspective. The text of Genesis 2-4 is, he suggests, an example of Old Testament wisdom literature. This approach to Genesis has roots in the second century beginning with the writings of Irenaeus of Lyon and is still common in Eastern Orthodox thinking. When Genesis 2-4  is read side by side with Proverbs several different elements help make this connection. Elements of shrewdness and cunning play a key role, the serpent is more cunning than any other creature and outwits Eve. Eve lacks wisdom and attempts to fend off the serpent on her own before being deceived by the serpent’s half-truths.

Adam and Eve give in to their childish impulses, listen to the cunning serpent rather than to their Father and choose the path of foolishness which leads to death, rather than the path of wisdom, which leads to life. Adam and Eve’s disobedience is a failure to fear God.

Following the path of wisdom yields life. The Adam story depicts this as maintaining access to the tree of life. Likewise in Proverbs wisdom leads to life, and wisdom is referred to as “a tree of life to those who lay hold of her” (3:18; cf. 11:30). This is why Adam and Eve, when they take their own path toward wisdom and eat the forbidden fruit, are barred from eating of the tree of life. (p. 90)

The Adam story as Wisdom literature makes more sense to me than the Adam story as a snapshot preview of Israel. Wisdom literature in the Old Testament is not really focused on Israel or on land. Rather it seems to be a reflection that grows out of Israel’s experience but focuses on wrestling with deeper truths about mankind and about God. In this vein, the story of Adam and Eve is a story that goes deeper and speaks more globally to the human condition than a story of “Israel’s drama – its struggles over the land and failure to follow God’s law – …placed into primordial time” alone ever could.

What do you think?

Am I off base? …Missing the point? …Making a point?

If you wish to contact me directly, you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

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  • Rick

    You are right on RJS.
    The OT is more about God and His creation, of which the land plays a role. I am thinking that Enns is starting to have a hard time seeing the forest through the trees.
    Are you saying you are seeing indications that Enns has changed his position on Gen 2-4 since writing “The Evolution of Adam”?

  • RJS4DQ


    I don’t think he has changed his position much. Both “Adam as Israel” and Genesis 2-3 as wisdom lit. Are discussed in his book. And they are not mutually exclusive. I think he prefers a wrong emphasis here though, with land and Adam as Israel primary.” That is why I think it would make a good discussion point.

  • Phil Miller

    I read Enns’ posts last week, and they do make a lot of sense to me. He’s not the first OT scholar I’ve read who’s put forth such a proposition, actually. But if you think about it, it’s really not all that different than what is going on in the Middle East today. What are all the conflicts about now? Land – who has rightful claim to it, who was promised what, etc.

  • RJS4DQ

    Is the OT an account of Middle Eastern land battles with a theological overcoat or is it primarily a theological book?

  • mark

    “Land” is a major theme in ancient Israelite culture–as in most cultures. The Israelite scriptures–there was no “OT” back then–offer evidence of the importance of that theme, as well as others.

  • I’m not sure about arguing the land is the central point or theme of the OT, but I do think it gets underplayed in most OT discussions. It’s hard to ignore the language throughout the OT that if Israel is faithful the land will prosper; if not, briers, thorns, etc.

    Some argue the OT is a story in which God, Israel, and the nations are the major players/characters. I like Ellen Davis’ suggestion that the OT is fundamentally about God, People, and Land. “People” includes Israel, but is not limited to Israel as the actions of “the nations” either through war or other interaction positively and negatively impact the land. I don’t know where Davis argues this in print, but I have heard her make this point through various lectures.

  • Phil Miller

    Like the girl in the taco commercial, “why not both?”… 🙂 Sorry, couldn’t resist.

    I guess the way I see it, at the time the OT was compiled, theology and land, or more importantly, territorial claims to that land couldn’t really exist without one another. The thing that made Israel sort of unique is that in many ways they were a people without a land in the beginning, but they come to possess a land because of God’s promise to them. So unlike some deity’s who were tied to the land, YHWH actually makes a much bolder claim.

    The way I look at is this. Israel’s very foundation is based on a promise from God to give them a land in which they could be fruitful. If they are exiled from their land, it seems that the very nature of God, or probably more to the point – their relationship to God – than is called into question.

  • Susan_G1

    As I commented on Pete’s blog posts, I see the importance but not the centrality of land. It’s importance is underscored in the promise attendant the 4th commandment. Land is not as critical as the relationship God wants to have with His people. When in the bible is God: not seeking to be in relationship with His people and giving us the means to do that; not angry that we have fallen out of relationship; not punishing us for that; not forgiving us for that; not making covanants to prove His desire to be in relationship with us; not giving us prophets to remind us of that; not pointing to the final solution, the final (c)hesed, Jesus His son?

  • Rebecca Trotter

    I have always thought that the point of the OT was the need for Israel to remain a nation and a people with enough devotion to God for him to be able to enact his saving mission of the cross for all humanity through them. So, land plays a central role in the need for Israel to remain – and conceive – of themselves as a people. But I’m not sure that it’s the point in and of itself.

    I think that we often make the error of thinking that the cross was plan B for when plan A – Israel and the law – proved insufficient. I actually think that the cross was plan and and the OT is the story of God laying the ground work for the final rescue mission. There’s this lovely verse in Hosea in which God says, “I found Israel like grapes in the desert.” It wasn’t that Israel or the founders of Israel were perfect – much of the OT is taken up with illustrating just how imperfect they were. Rather, it seems to be that God had found people who he could work with. Wild grapes make poor wine. But the very best wines come from grapes which were cultivated over time from their wild ancestors. If we think that God chose a group of bronze aged people to hold up as exemplars of faith and morality and upon whom he would bestow his timeless law, we have totally missed what’s happening. Rather, what we see in scripture is the story of this process of cultivating a people from wild grapes to those worthy of making new wine with.

  • David Hull

    I think that land has to be considered as a main theme for a number of reasons

    – the Abrahamic covenant, which begins in Genesis and finds fulfillment in and through Davidic kingship (in terms of encompassing the scope of the promised Land) has a strong emphasis on land and spans the bulk of the OT.

    – the blessings/curses in Deuteronomy focus on the fecundity of the land or expulsion from it in exile

    – prophetic critiques throughout the OT always involved exile from the land

    – YHWH’s judgment/blessing against/for Israel in the OT inevitably involved the land they inhabited

    – the theme of the Exodus involved liberation from the land of slavery and journey to a land of promise, one that would be their own

    – ultimately the punishment for chronic idolatry, immorality and injustice on the part of Israel was exile from the land, and the seeds of hope involved restoration to the land.

    These are just a couple of thoughts…

  • Rick

    But aren’t those reflective of the main theme: God and His relationship with His creation, especially His chosen people?
    Enns indicates that the land aspect is the main storyline, rather than God and His creation.

  • Jon G

    RJS, I think you are slightly missing the point. I think both the Adam story as Wisdom Literature and as snapshot preview apply in Enns’ world. It’s jus a matter of perspective. From God’s perspective, that story is teaching us about how to be wise and “follow” the god who created and adores us and who is out for our joy. But from the human perspective, it is a story about “what we get” by following. This is where the intermingling of divine and human authorship as laid out in “Inspiration & Incarnation” comes into play. The realization of the “dual” nature to Scripture holds the key to harmonizing the two approaches, I think.
    But, I’m still in process on this stuff…

  • Len Hjalmarson

    In WD Davies survey, The Gospel and the Land, he denies that land has an ongoing role in covenant history. He relativizes both Jerusalem and the Temple, in a move toward spiritualization that is typical of our stance in Western culture. In fact ever since Newton we have preferred “space” over “place,” but we are now rediscovering that God’s kingdom is both reign and realm – a hopeful recovery for a missional and incarnational people! Just as the theme of covenant is transparent in the NT, so the theme of land is submerged, but latent, even present as some would argue in the “geography of the Eucharist.”

  • trin

    Waltke says the OT is about God establishing his kingdom on earth, and that kingdoms need 3 things: land, people, law (constitution). The OT records the events of this process (and how God REDEEMS when we screw up/sin) and I do find that helpful to tie the OT elements together.

    If Waltke is right, we then see a strong connection to Jesus and the new covenant, i.e. God’s kingdom now physically established in the nation of Israel/land – and Jesus succeeding where Israel failed (NTWright) – means the kingdom can now move from the external to the internal (as prophesied by minor prophets). God’s kingdom now comes IN all that are IN Christ. With covenant 1 complete, covenant 2 fulfills God’s promise to/covenant with Abraham.

  • d_w_scott

    I’m glad you brought up Davis. As I was reading this post, I couldn’t help but think about her book, “Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible”. It does business with this theme pretty thoroughly.

  • David Hull

    Rick, I think that your point is a valid one.

    I mentioned that land should be considered a main theme in the OT, not the main theme. However, if land is taken out of the OT it would be completely eviscerated… actually so much of the OT and the NT depicts the people of God as sojourners looking for a land of our own where God will dwell among us.

    Enns is a little back and forth in what he says above, note that he says both:

    “I agree, but some themes are right there in your face, more than others, and one of them is getting higher and higher on my top 10 list:


    That may sound off a bit boring–maybe even not terribly spiritual–but land is a major idea the Bible keeps on the front burner.”

    and then:

    “I’ve just described the main storyline of the OT.”

    He mentions land as both a theme and the main storyline. I do think that in terms of story development, land is intimately interwoven with the whole OT- in Eden/exiled from Eden, Abraham called from him home to a land that God promised (promised to Isaac and Jacob also), Israel’s Exodus to the land of milk and honey, Israel’s exile from the land, Israel’s return to the land, the promise of new heaven and new earth (land)

    I agree with you that this is connected to the relationship with YHWH, either intimacy with or separation from Him. I think that land is one of the dominant ways that this is communicated in the OT.

    What do you think?

  • Rick

    Good thoughts.
    I agree that the land aspect is big, and has been (at times) overlooked. However, I just don’t think it falls into “main theme” because that seems to diminish the bigger theme of God and His creation (including His people).

  • Nathan Eyland

    I agree that Land is a fundamental aspect of OT theology. C. Wright makes it part of his ‘triangle’ – God, Israel, Land. Cline’s theme of the Pentateuch is about Land, people, law. But I don’t think these three are limited to the Pentateuch. The Abrahamic covenant plays out throughout most of the OT.

    For me the linking aspect comes through the concept of inheritance. For the OT, the Land was their inheritance. For the NT, the concept of inheritance becomes the new earth, the new ‘land’. IN Christ, we are ‘inheritors’ (Sons?) of God’s kingdom, which is not limited to the old land.

  • andrew

    Thank you for such a wonderful contribution to the discussion!