“To your offspring I will give this land.” This divine pledge to Abraham in Genesis 12:7 introduces the profound bond between the land of Israel and the narrative of the people who dwell in it. This theme of the land promises, as enduring as it is controversial, extends from biblical history to modern geopolitics. On the one-month anniversary of the war between Hamas and Israel, we asked three senior evangelical statesmen—G. K. Beale, Darrell Bock, and Gerald McDermott—to explain the depths of this biblical relationship between Israel and the land and to consider whether it continues to be relevant to the church in our time. Read the other entries: Darrell Bock | Gerald McDermott
Abstract: In this essay, G. K. Beale explores the Old Testament land promises to Israel, examining the idea that the promises were intended to expand beyond the initial borders to encompass the whole earth. He discusses the evolution of the land promise from a specific location in Canaan to a worldwide scope, alluding to the eschatological expansion of Israel’s borders as part of God’s predestined plan. Beale argues that in this age the promises have begun to be fulfilled spiritually in Christ and will be consummated physically in the new creation, proposing a two-stage “installment fulfillment.” He concludes that contemporary events in Israel do not represent the fulfillment of these Old Testament promises, but rather that in Christ and through the church, the expansion of Eden will be realized universally.
The inception of a land promise begins in Genesis 1–2. I’ve argued in my book The Temple and the Church’s Mission that Eden was a garden sanctuary and Adam was its high priest. Temples in the ancient world had images of the god of the temple placed in them. Adam was that image, placed in the Eden temple. His task was to “fill the earth” with God’s glory as a divine image-bearer along with his progeny as image-bearers (this seems to be the implication of Gen. 1:26–28).
Thus, he was to expand the borders of Eden, the place of God’s presence. Adam and his progeny were to expand Eden’s borders until they circumscribed the earth so God’s glory would thus be reflected throughout the whole world through his image-bearers.
Corporate Adam Expands the Place of God’s Presence
The commission to Adam and Eve to multiply their offspring and to rule, subdue, and “fill the earth” was passed on to Noah and then repeatedly to the patriarchs and Israel. Consequently, the mantle of Adam’s responsibility was placed on Abraham and his seed, Israel; they were considered to be a “corporate Adam.” The nation was designed to represent true humanity. Starting with the patriarchs, the commission was mixed with a promise that it would be fulfilled at some point in a “seed,” but Israel failed to carry out the commission. Thus, the promise was continually made that an eschatological time would come when this commission would be carried out in Israel.
Adam and his progeny were to expand Eden’s borders until they circumscribed the earth, and so God’s glory would thus be reflected throughout the whole world through the image-bearers.
That part of the commission to expand Eden to cover the whole earth also continued, but now Israel’s land became conceived of as Israel’s Eden (as it’s called at several points in the Old Testament: Gen. 13:10; Isa. 51:3; Ezek. 36:35; Joel 2:3). This description of Israel’s land being like Eden was enhanced by the repeated descriptions of the “land flowing with milk and honey” and luscious fruit (e.g., Num. 13:26–27; Deut. 1:25; Neh. 9:25).
The key to understanding why Israel was to expand the borders of its land to cover the earth rests in the fact that Israel was a corporate Adam, and just as he was to expand the borders of Eden, so Israel was to do the same. In particular, Eden wasn’t a mere piece of land but was the first tabernacle (the place of divine presence), which Adam was to expand.
Likewise, Israel’s land was to expand because at its center in Jerusalem was the temple, in which was the holy of holies, where God’s presence dwelled. I discussed in chapter 19 of my book A New Testament Biblical Theology that Israel’s temple symbolized the unseen and seen heavens (respectively the inner sanctuary and the holy place) and the earth (the courtyard).
The purpose of the symbolism was to point to the end time, when God’s special revelatory presence would break out of the holy of holies and fill the visible heavens and the earth. Accordingly, there are prophecies that describe how God’s presence will break out from the holy of holies, cover Jerusalem (Isa. 4:4–6; Jer. 3:16–17; Zech. 1:16–2:11), then expand to cover all of Israel’s land (Ezek. 37:25–28), and finally cover the entire earth (Isa. 54:2–3; Dan. 2:34–35, 44–45).
Strikingly, the passages from Jeremiah 3, Isaiah 54, and Daniel 2 make explicit allusions either back to the patriarchal promises or to Genesis 1:28 when discussing the expansion of the land. From the perspective of the Old Testament writers, it’s difficult to know whether this complete expansion was envisioned to occur through military means or through other, more peaceful ways (e.g., through the nations voluntarily bowing to Israel and its God).
We know, at least, that Israel was to expand its beginning possession of the promised land through military means (Deut. 9:1; 11:23; 12:29; 18:14). Yet other texts foresee a more peaceful means in the eschaton whereby the nations throughout the earth become subject to Israel (Amos 9:11–12; Isa. 2:3–4; 11:10–12), with the possible implication of Israel possessing their lands.
Prophecies of the Universal Expansion
This expansive temple-land theology underlies other prophecies of the universal expansion of Israel’s land. Although not discussing the temple, Isaiah prophesies about the final resurrection of the dead (Isa. 26:16–19) that will coincide with resurrected people inhabiting the new creation. He says, “You have increased the nation, O LORD, You have increased the nation, You are glorified; You have extended all the borders of the land.” Thus, the allusion to Genesis 1:28 (“increase and multiply” and “fill the earth”), as it has no doubt been refracted through the Abrahamic promises, leads to the expansion of Israel’s land.
Amazingly, this cosmic expansion is directly linked to Israel’s end-time resurrection, suggesting that the fulfillment of the Genesis 1:28 commission to expand occurs through the resurrection of people. This pattern of multiplying and filling the earth is the same one we’ve observed in Genesis 1:28 and Genesis 2, where the commands in Genesis 1:28 are to be concretely carried out by expanding the Eden sanctuary. We’ve observed this same Genesis 1–2 pattern in Israel’s promised expansion over the earth and the expansion of the Jerusalem temple.
The notion of Israel’s borders being expanded to cover the earth isn’t only implied in Isaiah 26:18–19 (“deliverance for the earth” [see especially the LXX] and “the earth will give birth to the departed spirits”) but is explicitly stated in 27:2–6. In this passage, Israel is portrayed in the eschaton as a “vineyard of delight” (like the garden of Eden) that God will protect and with which he’ll be at “peace” (the participial form of the noun for “delight” [ḥemed] occurs in descriptions of Eden in Gen. 2:9; 3:6.). This vineyard will expand to cover the whole earth: “In the days to come Jacob will take root, Israel will blossom and sprout; and they will fill the face of the earth with fruit” (Isa. 27:6). This echoes “be fruitful . . . and fill the earth” in Genesis 1:28.
Thus, the Abrahamic promises represent a major development from Genesis 1–2 in the anticipations for the expansion of Israel’s land. Since my conclusion concerning Genesis 1–2 is that the sacred land of Eden was to be enlarged to cover the entire creation, it wouldn’t be surprising to see this theme developed in the promises to the patriarchs. This is exactly what we find.
Although the initial form of the Abrahamic promise relates only to Canaan, it’s placed in a global context: “All the families of the earth will be blessed” (Gen. 12:1–3). The next restatement (13:14–17) still has the boundaries of Canaan in view, but there’s an addition: “I will make your seed as the dust of the earth, so that if anyone can number the dust of the earth, then your seed can also be numbered” (13:16). This may be taken figuratively, so that the Israelite descendants will be numerous but still fit within the boundaries of the promised land. But because it’s eschatological in nature, it’s more likely that, while still figurative, it refers to a number of Israelites so large they couldn’t fit in the land.
Multiplying to Bless
The same idea is implied by Genesis 15:5 (“Count the stars, if you are able to count them. . . . So shall your seed be”) and 22:17–18 (“I will greatly multiply your seed as the stars of the heavens, and as the sand, which is on the seashore”). Genesis 28:14 directly connects multiplication to blessings for the whole earth (“Your seed shall also be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread out to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and in you and in your seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed”; almost identical is 26:3–4!)
If these Genesis texts refer to the patriarchs’ seed filling not only the boundaries of Israel but all the earth, then they suggest what has been explicitly stated in some of the above passages about Israel’s end-time universalistic expansion. This idea also fits with Genesis 1–2—expanding the sacred space of Eden until Adam and Eve’s progeny “fill the earth.”
Subsequent developments of these patriarchal promises in the Old Testament make more explicit the suggestive nature of the universalizing aspect of these promises. For example, Psalm 72:17 (“And let men bless themselves by him; let all nations call him blessed”) develops the promise of Genesis 22:18 (“In your seed all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves”). This is significant because the one being blessed is the end-time Israelite king (the individualized seed of Abraham) who will “rule from sea to sea, and from the river to the ends of the earth” (Ps. 72:8). This is an explicit widening of the original borders of the promised land, which had been set “from the Red Sea to the sea of the Philistines, and from the wilderness to the River [Euphrates]” (Ex. 23:31).
This is summarized in Genesis 15:18 as “from the river of Egypt as far as the great river, the river Euphrates.” The psalm begins with the “river” (apparently of Egypt) but substitutes “the ends of the earth” for the “river Euphrates.” Again, the patriarchal promise relating to Israel’s land is universalized by the psalm. Zechariah 9:10 quotes Psalm 72:8, developing the same idea about Israel’s eschatological king: “His dominion will be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.”
Psalm 2 is also similar to Psalm 72. God’s promise to the Messiah (2:2, 7) is to “give the nations as [his] inheritance and the ends of the earth as [his] possession” (v. 8). The wording of “give an inheritance” (nātan + naḥălâ) in Deuteronomy is a typical expression used in God’s promise of giving the land of Canaan to Israel (e.g., Deut. 4:21, 38; 12:9; 15:4; 19:10; 21:23; 24:4; 25:19; 26:1; 29:8).
Likewise, “possession” (ʾăḥuzzâ) refers to Israel inheriting the land of promise (Gen. 17:8; Num. 32:32; Deut. 32:49). Here in Psalm 2, God’s promise of the land of Canaan as a possession is extended to the “ends of the earth.” And as in Psalm 72, the promise is made to an individual end-time Israelite king under whose rule the original boundaries of the promised land will be widened to cover the whole earth.
Expanded to the Whole World
The New Testament understands the land promise as a promise that Israel’s land would be expanded to encompass the entire world. For example, Romans 4:13 says, “For the promise to Abraham or to his seed that he would be heir of the world was not through the Law . . .” (so also Heb. 11:8–16; Matt. 5:5 in allusion to Ps. 37:11).
The land promises will be fulfilled in a physical form when all believers inherit the earth, but the inauguration of this fulfillment is mainly spiritual until the final consummation in a fully physical new heaven and earth. The physical way these land promises have begun fulfillment is that Christ himself introduced the new creation by his physical resurrection. In this connection, the Abrahamic promises concerning the land are promises to his “seed,” referring ultimately to Christ (Gal. 3:16) and those in union with him (v. 29). This explanation is in line with Paul’s assertion that “as many as are the [Old Testament] promises of God, in [Christ] they are yes” (2 Cor. 1:20).
The land promises will be fulfilled in a physical form, but the inauguration of this fulfillment is mainly spiritual until the final consummation in a fully physical new heaven and earth.
I’ve discussed many of these promises and found that even in their Old Testament context they included not only a physical dimension but also a spiritual one (e.g., reflecting the glory of God as image-bearers). These promises have begun spiritually and will be consummated physically in the final new creation. This two-stage fulfillment can be termed an “installment fulfillment.” Even the initial, spiritual stage is part of a literal fulfillment; the Old Testament promise always had a spiritual dimension in view.
Therefore, none of the references to the promise of Israel’s land in the Old Testament appears to be related to the promises of ethnic Israel’s return to the promised land on this present earth. What’s going on in Israel today is in God’s predestined plan, but it’s not any kind of fulfillment of his promises in the Old Testament. Whereas Adam and Israel (the corporate Adam) failed to expand Eden throughout the world, it is now in Christ, the Last Adam and true Israel, and the church, in union with the Last Adam and true Israel, that Eden will finally be expanded to the ends of the earth.