I am the LORD who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess" (Gen. 15.7, NRSV)
"And I will give to you and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding, and I will be there God" (Gen 17.8, NRSV).
God's promise to Abraham is a controlling axis in the story of Scripture. Christians know that through that promise Yahweh chose the line of Abraham to ultimately bring the Messiah to redeem his creation. We know that God gave Abraham a great name, many descendants, and he has blessed all the nations through him. But what ever happened to the land? The story recorded in the Pentateuch drives inexorably from paradise lost in Eden to paradise regained in the Promised Land. We as Christians also know that the promise to Abraham meant far more than the number of Jewish people in the world today. We know that the blessing to the nations was far more than Abraham could dream or imagine. So what about the Land? This is a question many thoughtful believers have posed.
In the Story that is revealed in Scripture, when God established his covenant of grace with Abram we understand that the universal scope of Genesis 1-11 is suddenly restricted (or narrowed) to Abraham and his seed. But this narrowing served the purpose of universalizing the promise to all nations. Within the NT the covenant is not restricted to ethnic Israel but includes myself and all believing Gentiles.
Did that narrowing for the sake of widening apply to only part of God's gracious promise to Abraham? God chose one man, one family, one nation for the sake of the entire human race. Or does that narrowing for the sake of widening apply to all of the promise? Does it include the land? Does God choose one spot, one land, one area for the sake of the entire creation??
Let me probe in the Story of God a little deeper. Just as Yahweh narrowed his covenant people to mostly Israel but in the NT gathered all humanity, does the inheritance of the land that was limited to Canaan likewise now encompass all of creation? I think it does.
Note in Genesis 17.8 that it reads "and I will give to YOU, and to your descendants." God promised to give the land not simply to the then unborn children of Abraham but to Abraham himself. Now as the Story presses towards its goal we learn that Abraham never owned a foot of the land except for a burial cave (Acts 7.5; Gen 23). Yet according to the Story what did Abraham think about this situation? The Eloquent Preacher to the Hebrews elaborates on Abraham's point of view ...
"By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God" (11.9-10, NRSV. See 11.13-16)
It is also interesting that this same Preacher to the Hebrews understands that Canaan was a type for the eternal rest of God's people (Hebrews 4). To probe even further we learn from Galatians 3.29 that all those who have faith and are baptized into Messiah are "Abraham's offspring, heirs according to the promise." Are we heirs to only part of God's promise to Abraham?? or are we heirs to all of God's promise of grace to Abraham?
The movement of the Story seems to be a universalizing of the land promise to include not only all believers redeemed but all creation redeemed. Already before Paul's time Jewish thinking had been providentially led to understand the land promise to be way beyond simply the borders of Canaan. Though many examples can be adduced Jesus, the Son of Sirach will suffice.
"Therefore the Lord assured him with an oath that the nations would be blessed through his offspring; that he would make him as numerous as the dust of the earth, and exalt his offspring like the stars, and give them an inheritance from sea to sea and from the Euphrates to the ends of the earth" (Sirach 44.21, NRSV)
The careful reader of the Story will note that Paul makes use of all the promise to Abraham and applies it to all his "descendants." "For the PROMISE that he would inherit the WORLD did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith ..." (Romans 4.13, NRSV).
Note that Paul does not say land of Canaan but the world (as Sirach had understood too). There is no text in the canonical Hebrew Bible that says this. But as pointed Jewish thought already embraced the universal import of the promise of grace. So indeed just as God chose a man for the sake of all people, he chose a "spot" for the sake of the world. Abraham's descendant are more than Jews and the promise land is more than a patch of ground.
But we must probe Paul in light of the Story a little deeper. What does Paul mean? He means what the Hebrew Preacher means ... I will show this through Moses E. Lard's insightful Commentary on Romans (something of a classic among Churches of Christ):
"THE WORLD, The word "world", kosmos, I construe as denoting simply the material earth, or globe; nor do I see how it can be made to bear any other meaning. But the word can not here signify the world in its present form; for Abraham and his spiritual offspring have never inherited it in this form, neither will they. It must, then, refer to the world in its future, renovated or glorified form--in its final form, when it becomes a 'new earth.' In that form, indisputably, Abraham and his spiritual seed will inherit the world, but never in any other. The reference, therefore, I conclude is the future earth" (Commentary on Romans, p. 142).
The land promise is ultimately fulfilled in the New Heavens and the New Earth. As Abraham sojourned in Canaan he looked forward, in faith like his offspring still do, to "inherit the world" (in Paul's words). Abraham looked, in faith, to that City. According to the Story recorded in Scripture we learn finally where that City will be.
"And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, COMING DOWN OUT OF HEAVEN from God prepared as a bride adorned for her husband" (Rev 21.2)
"in the Spirit he carried me to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem COMING DOWN OUT OF HEAVEN from God" (Rev 21.10)
"the city of my God, the new Jerusalem that COMES DOWN FROM GOD out of heaven" (Rev 3.12).
God did not renege on Abraham. When humanity brought sin into this good creation of God there was vandalism of shalom towards God, towards one another, towards creation. God's promise to Abraham was aimed at healing all those war torn areas. The land promise did not disappear rather in the Story as a cast off piece of non-Spirituality. Rather it finds its goal in the genuine Spiritual blessing of the redeemed earth which the children of Abraham ... the meek ... will inherit. Our sabbath rest awaits us! Come Lord Jesus! Amen.