And the main point of the entire Old Testament is….

And the main point of the entire Old Testament is…. July 22, 2013

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.

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.

Not everyone is convinced by this, which is fine. If you read Evolution of Adam, you will see that I pose this as a legitimate–and undervalued–reading of the Adam story. I’m not riffing. I got this from medieval Judaism:

Just as I led Adam into the garden of Eden and commanded him and he transgressed my commandment, whereupon I punished him by dismissal and exile… so also did I bring his descendants into the land of Israel and command them, and they transgressed my commands and I punished them by dismissal and exile (Genesis Rabbah)

The gift of land, stipulations for remaining there, and being exiled for failing to follow orders is how the OT begins. The rest of Israel’s narrative walks us through this same path, ending with exile–and return.

Israel’s “core narrative” (Genesis-2 Kings; this the older of Israel’s two historical narratives, the other being 1 and 2 Chronicles with Ezra and Nehemiah in the wings) is fixated on land.

Abraham’s story begins with a guided tour of the land that God promises to give to his descendants. Subsequent action takes place in the land, with the Israel’s ancestors struggling to establish themselves. The Abraham story, in other words, makes the case that the land of Canaan is rightfully Israel’s.

The famine and the Joseph story recount Israel’s move to Egypt, which, according to the Abraham story, is all part of God’s plan to guide his people back home and take back what’s theirs from its wrongful inhabitants, the Canaanites.

Israel is delivered from Egypt not to run free like prairie dogs, but so they can enter Canaan and set up shop. On Mt. Sinai they are given a law code and a sanctuary, not just “because”–but to establish rules of conduct and worship as a landed nation.

Forty years in the wilderness was a delay in receiving the land promise, prompted by Israel’s (actually, the spies’) unfaithfulness in trusting that God would give the land too them. (“Oh, we’ll never conquer that place. They have fortified cities and giants.”)

They enter the land through conquest–namely, wiping out the Canaanites and others who get in their way. God is determined to get them into the land at all costs.

The period of the monarchy and divided monarchy is one long series of bad tales that explain why the land was eventually lost–namely disobeying Yahweh by worshiping foreign gods. First to go is the larger northern kingdom in 722 BC at the hand of the Assyrians. Next to go is the southern kingdom of Judah at the hand of the Babylonians in 586 BC.

Prophetic warnings often deal with the consequences of Israel’s disobedience–the threat of losing the land, chided for having lost it, or what God is going to do restore the people to it.

I’m all on board with the fact that Israel’s story has beautiful and inspiring depth, but that’s a topic for another time. The main storyline that runs through Israel’s entire historical narrative and prophetic writings is about

a small nation’s struggle with land

God’s promise to give it, Israel taking it, what Israel needed to do to keep it, losing it anyway, and getting it back.

“Land” is at the heart of Israel’s story. The NT transforms this story into something else. It has to. We’ll get into in my next post.


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  • Uh oh – I wonder what Native North America would think of land being central to the story of Israel?

    • John Shakespeare

      The colonisation and possession of American territory by Europeans, as with so much of imperialism, was in part justified by their habit of thinking of themselves as God’s people, able therefore to take land which was not theirs. That habit of thought was derived from the Christendom idea, which depended on a misreading and a misapplication of the OT. It does not, however, invalidate Peter Enns’s reading of the OT, but rather of its misuse.

      • John Shakespeare

        I should have added that Roger Williams was opposed to the seizure of land and instead purchased it from the indigenous people.

        • Jack Mahkimetas

          The Native Americans were burning, flaying, and bashing each other’s brains out with war clubs long before the Europeans ever set foot in the New World. So much for any sort of romantic idyll our progressive 21st cent. sensibilities would like to project back onto them.
          The fights were always about finite resources. Whether it was prime farmlands or fishing grounds, it has always about the haves wanting more and willing to do anything to get more. Nothing has changed, the worst in our nature as humans has only morphed into other not so obvious structures. The sun is the same in a relative way no matter how many times we go round it.

    • Jordan

      Randy Woodley has a book about that! Shalom and the community of creation. He also has an interview about it at homebrewed Christianity. It’s well worth the listen

      • I was actually thinking of Randy as well as other Native Christian leaders like Terry Leblanc and the late Richard Twiss among others. Their understanding of how to do theology follows Dr. Twiss’s latest book – “Rescuing Theology from the Cowboys.” It also extends Jamie Smith’s work on embodiment for spiritual formation to include “emplacement” as a theological category for doing contextual theology. Very important people to follow and read.

  • Adam Omelianchuk

    I would have ventured “monotheism.” Doesn’t that have more to do with God?

  • WR

    Curious why in your opinion, if the Pentateuch is a late document, genocidal conquest was the narrative in which land acquisition is cast by post-exilic Israel.

  • Brian P.

    Land: I guess that covers the first three dimensions of the universe of our modern cosmology. I suppose not just land but Sky and Underworld too. If I could add augmenting Land, it might be Time–what we might consider today the fourth dimension of the universe. Generalizing, this gets us to a theme of “trying to make sense of our existence in the universe.” I’ve never really explored Terra Criticism as a form of literary criticism or systematizing theology. Anyhow, YHWH definitely emerged from his roots as a patron war god of the ancient Mesopotamian pantheon. He was the god of a people of a land, the one “who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” Now there’s a good theme too tied to existence in Land and Time: How do we not just make sense of our existence in the universe, but how do we be a free people? Sometimes, models that explain everything run risk of explaining nothing.

  • John Shakespeare

    Excellent, excellent!

  • Rick

    Isn’t it more about a chosen people and their relationship with God, from which the land becomes a key factor?

    • ctrace


  • mark

    Adam Omelianchuk is onto something important.

    By posing the question as being “about the OT,” a book, we deflect our attention away from what the real question should be about: God’s use of Israel, a people, as a vehicle for a revelation that culminates in Jesus as the self revelation of God.

    The problem is this: at any given time in the history of Israel, the OT didn’t actually exist. The real question should be more like: what is God revealing to us in the history of Israel–a people, not a book–and its religious thought? Framed in that manner we are free to consider ALL the evidence, and not just the “Old Testament” (although that’s obviously a huge part of the evidence)? What is the main trajectory, if there is one?

    My answer is not just “monotheism,” but the identity of God is what revelation through Israel is about–that is the trajectory that leads us to Jesus of Nazareth as God’s self revelation. The point at which Israel arrived is not only God as “one,” but so importantly God as Creator from nothing. This is the take off point for Jesus that leads us into God as Trinity.

    Further, this approach, I submit, makes sense of Israel within the total history of mankind and allows us to understand revelation within that global context, allows us to escape a fundamentalism that sees the “OT” as being about Middle Eastern real estate transactions.

    In this regard I can’t recommend highly enough Mark S. Smith’s book Memoirs of God.

  • mark

    Re “the land,” I’d like to recommend a fine book by Gary M. Burge: Jesus and the Land: The New Testament Challenge to “Holy Land” Theology.

  • Jacob L. Wright

    I very much agree with you Pete! I’ve always thought that biblical scholarship should do a lot more on the centrality of the land in the HB. Land is a much better candidate than the German theological claim that “die Mitte” of the OT is: “Jahwe der Gott Israels, Israel das Volk Jahwes”

  • John Masters

    I’ve recently lead an adult bible study of Joshua and now we’re into Judges…I could have saved us all about six months if I’d read this first. You summed it up completely.

  • Patrick Miller

    Land is still the central focus in the Israel-Palestine debate today!

  • Peter Kirk

    But weren’t you taught in Sunday School what the main point of the Old Testament is: Jesus! 😉

    Seriously, I’m glad that in seminary (actually London Bible College) nearly 30 years ago I was taught what you are teaching now, through a study of “The Land” by Walter Brueggemann. The same lesson was also implicit in Christopher Wright’s triangles, in “Living as the People of God”. Thank you for the reminder of that lesson.

    • ctracec

      >But weren’t you taught in Sunday School what the main point of the Old Testament is: Jesus! 😉

      That’s basically what Jesus Himself said. I’ll go with what my Lord and King and Savior said.

    • TJ

      “But weren’t you taught in Sunday School what the main point of the Old Testament is: Jesus!”

      Yes because Jesus is the one who gives us our true land, our true home, a city who’s founder and builder is God. The OT is about the land and the rest that it promises. But Joshua did not give them true rest when they came into the land. Jesus does. So yes, the OT really is about Jesus because Jesus fulfills the hopes, promises and expectations of all of the various ways of looking at the OT, whether it is land, rest, covenant, restoration or recreation.

  • Mitzi

    Another great discussion on land in the OT is found in Ellen F. Davis’ book Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible.
    Davis suggests in part that land is one of three dominant symbols in Leviticus where it is seen as 1) a means of subsistence, 2) an extended sanctuary and a locus for holiness of life (obedience) — an idea taken up in Zionist theology, 3) and, most intriguingly, as a partner with God and humanity in covenant relationship, i.e., a moral agent.

    On last point, see Leviticus 26:42 – ” I will remember my covenant with Jacob and my covenant with Isaac and my covenant with Abraham, and I will remember the land.” Notice that list is backwards. Before Abraham was, the land was. Is there a sense in which land our ancestor? This list seems to point to an intimate connection between humans and land also evoked in God’s creation of Adam from adamah.

  • Chris McAlister

    I teach a whole class on this idea to the 3 undergrad religious courses I teach. You can’t understand the OT without the filter of land. This is why the selling of the land is such a big deal in Acts. The center of their identity had shifted/was shifting from land to Jesus/KOG

  • For Native North American Christian leaders like Dr. Terry Leblanc, Dr. Randy Woodley, the late Dr. Richard Twiss, the theological category of “land” is an indispensable theological category. It also extends Jamie Smith’s work on embodiment for spiritual formation to include “emplacement” as a theological category for doing contextual theology. Very important people to follow and read on this topic, specifically Randy Woodley’s latest publication, Shalom and the Community of Creation.

  • Susan_G1

    Very interesting. That had truly not occurred to me.

    The only time I sat down with a chronological Bible and read through the OT as story, my recurrent impression was that it was about the Holiness of God, his covenant love with the Israelites, and the foreshadowing of Jesus. It intrigues me to think about it from a land perspective.

  • chuckdegroat

    Brueggemann’s The Land! One of my fav’s. Always good, Pete. Thanks for continuing to write.

  • Andrew Dowling

    Great post. What’s so fascinating is that the Jewish people are pretty much the only people who managed to retain their strong ethno-religious identity WITHOUT land for around 1800 years scattered across many nations.

  • Is land the main point of “the entire Old Testament” or one of the main points of the Deuteronomistic historian?

  • debhurn

    …the 3 P’s, all dear to the male heart, Property, Power and Prestige. But as in the ancient world the latter two were reliant on the first, it does indeed all condense down to “land”. The property of Abraham (and other pastoral nomadic chieftans) was measured in livestock, servants and precious metals (Gen 24:35), but clearly for him and for Israel, the exclusive possession of “land” was the ultimate goal.

  • Bryan

    This is interesting as it correlates to the ethics of the ANE world and its relation to marriage. Hosea portrays land (aretz f.) as feminine and characterizes untilled land as ‘wild’ and ‘untamed’ while land that is cultivated is ‘under control’ and flourishes. Themes of marriage as well as the blessing of God in the land seem to be inextricably woven together. Capital punishment in the form of stoning for any adultery was meant to ‘purge’ the evil from the land and thus, maintain the presence of God. For an agricultural society, there was clearly a need for God’s assistance for daily survival and ethics played a part.

  • James

    I believe you are absolutely right–fulfillment and non-fulfillment (seemingly) of the promise of land and of a chosen people to live there in right relation to their God. See David J.A. Clines, The Theme of the Pentateuch.

  • Evelyn

    Christopher J.H. Wright is fascinating on this subject; see for example ‘OT Ethics for the People of God’. He posits three approaches / angles: theological (God); social (Israel) and economic (Land). These were, in his view, the three pillars of Israel’s worldview. The three are in relationship with each other – he draws a triangle with God at the top and the others as the bottom two corners. Highly recommend this book.

  • John Stamps

    Peter, you’ve written a truly thoughtful post here. My question comes down to, Who is the person reading the Bible and in what community are they reading it?

    If I’m a scholar deconstructing the Hebrew Bible in a secular university and bound by the rules of historical-critical scholarship, “land” as the leitmotif of the Hebrew Bible makes some sense to me. Especially if I am suspicious of any claims about a holy and transcendent deity revealing himself to a group of people.

    But what if I’m an Orthodox Jew reciting the Akedah (the binding of Ishaq) every morning? Then the focus on land, even Eretz Yisrael, is way too reductionist. I bind myself to Ha-Shem, who has bound Himself to us and revealed His very Name to us in the Torah. Despite this very great privilege, I dare not the presumption to speak the Name of G-d, for Ha-Shem’s Name is holy.

    Or what if I’m St Basil the Great reading the LXX? If I listen to the Old Testament as it’s read throughout the Eastern Orthodox liturgical year, “land” does not jump to the top of the list!

    Ha, I’ve just become a post-modern relativist! We no longer have an intrinsically authoritative document. Instead, we have multiple communities reading what we think is the same document. But in effect it’s not the same document, due to our different reading habits and communities.

    • Brian P.

      In this little story, I’m unclear how the postmodern is the relativist. It seems he or she has the broadest, most objective grasps and that the other two examples have schemas relative to their contexts. Rather than a relative understanding, I’d suggest he or she has an understanding of understandings. To me, that seems like a great framework from which to build empathy.

      • Rory Tyer

        The postmodern may or may not be a relativist, since relativism and postmodernism (when either of those things can usefully be described as single entities, which may not be possible) are not the same. But a postmodern person is a relativist when that person’s commitments include the assumption that the question of the truth of a given understanding, or a given sphere of understandings, is not something intrinsic to those understandings but something that may be laid aside at the outset; which, coincidentally, is typically not the way such understandings – in the sense you seem to use the term here – are held or understood by those who hold them.

      • John Stamps

        Why isn’t post-modernity similarly a schema relative to its context? Is post-modernity exempt from its own historical and cultural situation?

        Who is reading Genesis and what community is reading it has a definite impact on what is discovered there.

        First, it makes a huge difference if the reader construes Genesis as simply one piece in a huge collection of ANE literature or whether it is privileged as sacred scripture (whether it is Torah or the Christian Bible). If Genesis is viewed as ANE literature and de-sacralized, reading it as propaganda disguised as religious literature in order to justify land-snatching and ethnic cleansing makes perverse sense.

        Second, how it’s read makes a difference. For example, take Jon Levenson or James Kugel chanting a Torah parsha in synagogue or in daily devotion, or lecturing on Hebrew Scripture to bored undergrads. The same two scholars, but they’re performing very different activities on the same text — Sefer Beresheis, not Genesis in the Oxford Annotated Bible. Land might be important here, but I suspect it’s more important that they’re struggling to bind themselves to Ha-Shem’s revelation of the Sacred Name in the Torah.

        Third, where and how we hear makes a difference as well. Several posters have talked about writing sermons on Genesis. Genesis will be read and exposited in various ways. But would it make a difference in how you hear Genesis if it was chanted or sung? Would it make a difference whether we’re chanting from a Torah scroll or reading from a codex? In addition, in Eastern Orthodoxy, Scripture is normally chanted, not simply read aloud. Sometimes we even place a candle over the Gospels (not the entire Bible or even the NT) to indicate we’re hearing the very words of the Risen Jesus speaking to us when the priest or deacon chants them. We don’t “hear” these words as a piece of ancient religious writing. Of course we could be self-deceived if we don’t recognize religion as a piece of false consciousness. But that’s a different topic for another time.

  • Thank you for this, Pete. I’m preaching on Genesis 18 last Sunday and this from the Lectionary, and had been puzzling over how the Abraham narrative, and this chapter, functioned in Genesis. You have provided a plausible and heuristic answer!

  • James

    The problem we have with land and chosen people as biblical story is current political and ethical application. I find this sadly deficient in Phillip Cary’s We Are All Rahab Now (Christianity Today, July/Aug, 2013). What is your take?

  • If not the whole story, land was certainly a prominent theme. How does this relate to the current Palestinian situation?

  • This reminds me of Matthew 13:44,

    “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

    (Think of the ‘field’ as ‘land’.)

    One ‘twist’ provided by the NT can be seen by looking at WP: Third Temple. Succinctly, the Temple is now the Body of Christ, not an assembly of inanimate objects. Does this mean that the concept of ‘land’ also transforms similarly? I think the concept of ‘kingdom of heaven’ gets at this idea.

  • One word sums up the OT right from the Garden and it’s not land…it’s Exile.

  • I think the concept of land is definitely a thread throughout not only the OT, but also the NT. But thankfully the trajectory is that the land broadens to the full earth as part of God’s restorative plan and given as a gift to his people.