Land as Gift, Temptation, Task, and Threat
by Ross and Gloria Kinsler
We will make use of Walter Brueggemann’s incisive Old Testament studies, this time his book, The Land: Place as Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith. Brueggemann states at the outset, “Land is a central, if not the central theme of Biblical faith.” (1977:3) In Chapter 4 he reviews the basic theological meanings of the land as expounded in Deuteronomy. After liberation from Egypt, the giving of the Law at Mt. Sinai, and 40 years of wilderness wanderings, Israel stands at the River Jordan, ready to enter the Promised Land. This is one of the most critical moments in the entire history of salvation. How are the people of God to understand and fulfill their vocation in this new land?
For Israel the land is, first, a gift of Yahweh. The God who delivered them from Egypt, by grace, gave them the Promised Land, also by grace.
For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron and from whose hills you may mine copper. You shall eat your fill and bless the Lord your God for the good land that he has given you. (Deut 8:7-10)
Israel could be assured even into the future insofar as they continued to recognize and trust in the Lord as their liberator and giver of the land, insofar as they continued to hear and obey the Word of the Lord, insofar as they continued to live that alternative social possibility required by their liberation from slavery. “The gifted land is covenanted land. It is not only nourishing space. It is also covenanted place. The Jordan is entry not into safe space but into a context of covenant.” (Ibid. 52)
For Israel the land is also temptation. It can be seductive. For the land may give the people a sense of security so that they no longer remember their identity as people of Yahweh, delivered from slavery in Egypt, covenanted with the Lord who delivered them. Thus Moses warns them as they are poised to cross the Jordan and occupy their new land:
Therefore, observe diligently the commandment--the statutes and the ordinances--that I am commanding you today. If you heed these ordinances, by diligently observing them, the Lord your God will maintain with you the covenant loyalty that he swore to your ancestors; he will love you, bless you, and multiply you; he will bless the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground, your grain and your wine and your oil, the increase of your cattle and the issue of your flock, in the land that he swore to your ancestors to give you. (Deut 7:11-13)
On entering the Promised Land Israel would be tempted to forget Yahweh and Yahweh’s ways. They might even adopt the very practices that had enslaved them in Egypt. And they might look for other gods that would approve of these practices. “Remembering Yahweh is not simply an act of religious devotion . . . . Remembering Yahweh is for Israel the source of the qualities of humanness and humaneness which are its distinctive heritage.” (Ibid. 55) The possibility remains that Israel might lose the land if they forget and abandon their covenant, their history, their foundation.
For Israel the land is, thirdly, responsibility. It is precisely at the entrance to the Promised Land--likewise at the time of King Josiah’s Reform and at the time of the return from exile--that they must review the Law given to them at Sinai, for it is in the Law that they can find the necessary guidance for their life. The keeping of the Law is not simply to please the Lord or even to ensure continuing blessing and prosperity but rather to maintain their roots and identity as liberated slaves, so that all might enjoy fullness of life. Central to this responsibility are the Sabbath Day (Deut 5:12-15) and the Sabbath Year (Deut 15:1-18), which provide for rest, forgiveness of debts, concern for the poor, and freedom of slaves. In these two texts the theological foundation is the memory that they were once slaves in Egypt.
Finally, for Israel the land is threat. Given the new security of possessing their own land, Israel might forget her real identity as a liberated people gifted with this land and fail to trust in Yahweh. Granted the possibility of organizing their society to gain power and wealth, they might abandon their covenant with Yahweh and its Sabbath obligations toward debtors, the poor, and slaves. This new power and wealth might even lead them to adopt other gods more in keeping with their aberrant life in the land and also in keeping with their pagan neighbors. Thus the people of Israel might lose their faith, their identity, their social experiment, and the land, which normally would mean that they would lose their very lives and existence as a people.
-from Jubilee Workbook #5 (unpublished), "Biblical Faith" section