The question “to whom did God promise territory” arises not only because there is now a modern state called Israel. It also arises in the general sense of the rights and abuses of those who occupy any territory.
The lectionary readings for tomorrow, the second Sunday in Lent, are Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18; Psalm 27; Philippians 3:17-4:1; Luke 13:31-35;Luke 9:28-36, (37-43a). Click here to read them all.
I will focus on the first reading.
Chapter 15 of Genesis tells us of events which happened to Abram after he saved his nephew Lot, his family and his belongings, from four kings. The recovery of Lot ends with Abram handing over the lands of the four kings to the empire ruled by Melchizedek.
At the time, Abram is like a man who had abandoned his apartment, moved into a rental property, and has waited for years to receive the promise of a lovely home filled with children.
God’s “word” comes to him in a vision. Warrior language is used. God will be to Abram “a shield” and will give him a “great” reward. Abram complains that it will be of no use to him, as he doesn’t have any children. God says, “not so.” Abram is reassured, for he “believed God.”
God reminds Abram that it is He who brought him to that moment of time and will honour his promise to give him “this land to possess.” Abram asks for a sign. God tells him to bring 5 animals. He brings them, slaughters them, and lays them down on the ground.
Birds come to feed on the carcasses. Abram shoos them away. It turns dark. Very dark. Abram falls into a deep sleep. God tells him his descendants will be many, and will be enslaved for 400 years, in “a land not theirs.” Then, they will be freed and will drive the Amorites out of their homeland, as judgment on their terrible behaviour (“iniquity”).
Abram awakens. He sees “a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch” consume the carcasses. The narrator continues, “On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.”
What does that account mean for us today? To whom did God promise territory?
First, God chose Abram. We don’t know why he didn’t choose Anbalagan from India, Ah Chai from China, or Ahmad from Arabia. But we know that Abram is claimed as ancestor by Jews, Christians, and Muslims. There’s much we don’t know. We need to be comfortable with not knowing.
Second, the land was given to Abram’s offspring, long after Abram died. God took over 400 years to fulfil his promise. Abram is commended for his trust and patience.
Third, the previous occupants of the land were driven out by Abram’s offspring as punishment for their unjust practices (iniquities). Abram’s offspring entered with laws which they were to obey and enforce, to assure respect and equality. Their nation was to be a model of goodness.
Fourth, descendants of Abram in Israel today cannot appeal to the Bible to say the land is theirs, because their ancestors were evicted for the same reason the Amorites (and others) were. And we live in the shadow of the cross of Christ – with no Temple in Jerusalem.
Fifth, the whole world belongs to God, and He has appointed His son, Jesus, to be King. No one has any unique claim to any land anywhere. Only those who live justly in a land have a moral right to claim and rule it.
Derek Kidner says the New Testament finds this chapter momentous:
The New Testament finds this a momentous chapter in two respects: first in its declaration that Abram was justified by faith (6), a phrase at the heart of Paul’s gospel in Romans 4 and Galatians 3; and secondly in its record of the covenant – for this, rather than Sinai’s, was the fundamental covenant, and it spoke of grace and not law (Gal. 3:17–22). To honour this promise God would bring his people out of Egypt (Exod. 2:24), and his Son into the world (Luke 1:72, 73).
Walter Brueggemann says the passage is about trust:
The text of Gen. 15, taken as a unit, asks whether Abraham can, in fact, trust. And it asks if Yahweh can, in fact, be trusted. It is faith which permits Abraham to trust and God to be trusted. It is unsure faith that wonders about the delay. The issues are set here. The remainder of the Abrahamic narrative explores the answers.
Alex Awad, says “the land” is replaced by a new reality:
In the old covenant the land was important in order to house and shelter God’s chosen people and provide a place for a central temple where the priesthood could function. But, since the basic features of that covenant were changed, there was no longer any need for a specific land or territory to “house” the new covenant. For this reason, the concept of a Promised Land was modified in the new covenant to a new reality, a reality which Jesus and his followers called the ‘Kingdom of God.’ When contemporaries of Jesus asked him about the place of that kingdom, he responded by saying, “The kingdom of God is within you.” By localizing the kingdom in the hearts of the faithful, Jesus made that kingdom of God both spiritual and global. And a kingdom that is thus present throughout the world need not – cannot – be limited to a specific plot of ground.
To whom did God promise territory?
John Walton says:
By the time we get to Hebrews 7, much … Jewish tradition is mixed into the consideration of Melchizedek. The author of Hebrews is not drawing his information on Melchizedek solely from the Old Testament; he is also interacting with the traditions known to his audience. It is the Jewish profile of Melchizedek, not just the canonical profile, that informs his comparison. The author has been addressing his audience all along on their own level and in relationship to their own beliefs. He need not accept their beliefs, but he is demonstrating that Christ’s position is superior to the position in which they have placed others. He therefore relates not only to the Melchizedek of history, but to the Melchizedek of Jewish imagination.