Israel, the Land & Being ‘in Christ’

Christopher Wright’s treatment of ‘the land’ in Old Testament Ethics for the People of God is truly thought provoking. Central to his treatment are the dual themes of divine ownership and divine gift. The land as divine gift lies at the core of God’s promises to Abraham – there would be seed, land, and blessing. The land was far more important that we, as NT Christians, probably acknowledge. In many ways, the land would be a gauge within Israel of their relationship to God – it was given as an inheritance, which speaks of unique sonship. Moreover, removal from the land was the ultimate in threats and punishment, realized in the exile and subsequent return.

Yet, God makes it clear that the land is his prior to Israel’s possession of it (Exodus 15:13, 15) and will remain his even during their conquest and possession of it (Lev. 25:23). Ownership hasn’t completely passed from God to Israel; God retains ownership of it and Israel possess/uses the land under terms of a covenant. Israel is called to remember the sojourner/alien in their land because they are likewise aliens and sojourners in God’s land. In fact, God’s land cannot permanently be bought and sold, but has been allotted to his people in an equitable way. The people of Israel couldn’t use and abuse the land any way they saw fit – living in the land came with profound responsibilities to the land and to fellow Israelites living in the land.

Interestingly, the notion of land all but disappears in the New Testament. Does this mean that it has no bearing on us as New Testament believers? Wright argues that it still has bearing, in three distinct ways: paradigmatically, eschatalogically, and typologically (my spell-check loved those words). Paradigmatically, Israel was to live in the land, in relation to the land and to one another in the land, as a model for how God intended his people to live. In many ways, Israel is spoken of in Edenic terms. Yet, there is an understanding that sin has now tainted the experience of living in Eden. Israel’s life in the land is meant to be a model for how people are to live out the reality of being God’s people. The broad commands to love neighbor and love God were to be made concrete in Israel’s life.

Eschatologically, we now see that Israel’s life in the land had an already but not yet aspect to it. They already experienced the blessing of dwelling with God in his land, of living out kingdom principles. But, there was a not yet element to it – they never quite experienced the rest they were promised, and what they did experience was still tainted by the presence of struggle and sin. All their hopes and promises point us ahead to the eschaton. Israel was a foretaste of a restored Eden – small and imperfect. It points to a more universal and more perfected restoration – a renewed creation where harmony between God’s earth and his people is restored. The prophets especially point us in this direction.

Wright’s most interesting contribution, in my humble opinion, is in the typological way of understanding the land. As stated above, the theme of the land all but disappears in the New Testament. But, Wright contends it is replaced, in large measure, by the language of being ‘in Christ’. Wright articulates this succinctly,

“To be in Christ, just as to be in the land, denotes first, a status and a relationship that have been given by God; second a position of inclusion and security in God’s family; and third, a commitment to live worthily by fulfilling the practical responsibilities towards those who share the same relationship with you” (pg. 192). 

This is certainly evident in Paul (see especially Ephesians 2:11-3:6, and also much of Galatians), but also in the author of Hebrews insistence what we have in Christ is better than what God’s people experienced in the old covenant.

The ethical implications of this parallel are striking. Just as the ancient Israelite bore responsibility for those who shared the land with him – and this is foundational to the whole ethical and economic systems in Israel – so Christians bear a responsibility for those who are in Christ. Wright contends,

“The extent of this kind of language in the New Testament [Christian fellowship and the responsibilities it entails] leads me to the view that it has deep roots in the socio-economic ethics of the Old Testament. There are so many similarities which show that the experience of fellowship – in its full, rich, ‘concrete’ New Testament sense – fulfills analogous theological and ethical functions for the Christian as the possession of the land did for Old Testament Israelites. Both (land in the Old Testament, fellowship in the New) must be seen as part of the purpose and pattern of redemption, not just as accidental or incidental to it…This gives to both that deeply practical mutual responsibility that pervades both Old and New Testament ethics.” 

 While I certainly want to study and ponder Wright’s assertions more, it confirms my suspicions that the concept of being ‘in Christ’ is maybe the most important idea in the whole of the Bible – foundational to our identity, our understanding of sanctification and ethical living, and at the very core of what it means to be saved. Great stuff!