It is difficult to understand a book like Martin’s Bound for the Promised Land without realizing that it is sitting on top of an enormous controversy. His irenic style and casual assembling of biblical texts doesn’t let on why this topic starts wars—metaphorical theological wars and quite literal military campaigns. And he shies away from drawing out the obvious implications for us, something that every reader will look for. But first some background.
The subject of “land” is explosive. Is God the distributor of land? Is “land” an inherent cultural right for people (“This is my land”) or more tellingly, does it come with a divine right (“God has given me this land”). Cherokee Christians in the US are working on this issue and virtually everyone in Israel/Palestine thinks about it.
The theological problem is anchored to one question and one question alone: Do the Abrahamic promises of land (Gen 12:1–3, etc.) still have relevance for Christians or have they been fulfilled by the New Testament? There are two fundamental approaches to this. For some whose theology is formed by dispensationalism (Craig Blaising, Darrell Bock) the answer is yes. Others accept dispensational eschatology, wed it to modern political Zionism (Joel Willitts, Gerald McDermott, Mark Kinzer) and end up with the same result: Abraham’s covenantal land promises still have currency in biblical theology and today in the politics of the Middle East. Here we can consult the recent edited volume The New Christian Zionism, edited by Gerald R. McDermott (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2016), whose voices affirm a very strong “yes” and are eager to affirm these land promises not only in biblical theology but for the modern secular state of Israel. But here the key is Abraham. Thus Blaising writes, “To understand the Bible, one must read it in view of the Abrahamic covenant and that covenant with Abraham is the foundational framework for interpreting Scripture and the history of redemption which it reveals” (Progressive Dispensationalism [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1993], 135). From this they will conclude that the land promises to Israel are unconditional and permanent. And an easy line is drawn from “the land of Abraham” to “the land of modern Israel” in the Middle East today.
On the other hand, there are a host of other scholars who take a second view. In each case, they cover the exegetical issues of the Old and New Testament carefully and then work to build a case for a “land” theology. In some cases, they are academic pastors such as Fredrick Martin who wrote American Evangelicals and Modern Israel (Sisters, OR: Deep River, 2016). They are Palestinian scholars such as Munther Isaac at Bethlehem Bible College (From Land to Lands, from Eden to the Renewed Earth [Carlisle, UK: Langham, 2015]). There is Walter Bruggemann’s well-known The Land, now in its second edition (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2002) and Colin Chapman’s Whose Promised Land? now also in its second edition (Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2015). I have also added to this conversation with Jesus and the Land: The New Testament Challenge to “Holy Land” Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2010). These scholars are shaped by Reformed Theology, they see the Abrahamic land promises as temporally limited and conditional, and they argue that the dispensational and Zionist scholars are underestimating the significance of what the New Testament is saying. Generally, they do not draw a line between Abraham’s descendants and the modern state of Israel (both presumed recipients of the same promise). These Reformed theologians elevate the importance of Jesus and his covenant, they believe that the new covenant fulfills the substance of what was given to Abraham, and they find a long theological arc that stretches from the “land of Eden” to the “land of Abraham” and culminates in the renewal of the world in the universal promises given in Christ. Land, then, is less a political reality than it is a theological reality, a theological symbol perhaps, for what God is promising his people.
Oren Martin’s Bound for the Promised Land sits squarely in this second tradition. Martin is a theologian at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky—a school well-known for its Reformed theological views. And here he offers a careful, thoughtful outline strongly reminiscent of Munther Isaac’s From Land to Lands. As a theologian, he wants to see the whole and this is clearly the book’s strength. He prefers the forest over the trees and yet he does not neglect the needed exegetical detail in specific texts. But he asks new and important questions: What is God’s eschatological goal in history? What is the relationship of the kingdom announced by Jesus to this goal? For Martin, the question of “land” cannot be an end in itself but is a subset of the larger questions regarding God’s purposes. And this is where he shines as a theologian. He requires that exegesis of key texts serve the larger theological arc of scripture.
The book advances through the land promises of Abraham, the subsequent movements of land acquisition (the conquest) and the failures to keep the land (the exile). And here he shows (echoing the OT prophets) just how tenuous, conditional, and fragile the reality of this promise is. Moreover, he claims that the land promises are not an end in themselves but serve as a type or pattern of something else, a future reality that will only be seen in the New Testament. He refuses to begin with Abraham and move to modern Israel. Instead he begins with Adam and moves toward the eschatological promises of Christ. He moves then from Eden to Eden.
When he turns to the New Testament he deftly shows how the promise of land is imbedded in the Gospels as well as the Epistles. For the casual reader, it may not be obvious but like things assumed widely in any culture, they only need the barest hint and everyone understands what is meant. As I have argued as well (in Jesus and the Land) the New Testament is announcing the fulfillment and inauguration of this land motif and the Apocalypse is describing its completion. The wider theological program is a sweeping movement from Eden to Eden (not Israel to Israel) and the gospel takes up what was promised and announces its arrival. As N. T. Wright has said many times over: the promise of the New Testament is not the re-establishment of a political entity (OT Israel) but the reconstituting of the world. The disciples’ question to Jesus in Acts 1:6 (“Lord will you at this time reestablish the kingdom to Israel?”) displays the deep misunderstanding we must avoid. God’s program for the world is not political realities but kingdom realities.
Martin’s treatment of these themes is perhaps the most sensible and thorough we have seen to date. And yet when we finish reading the last chapter (“Theological Reflections”) we are left with an inescapable disappointment. This book ends as if it were 1950. Today many theologians and fervent Christians, particularly in the millennial generation, are seeking more: What are the ethical implications for this reframing of the land promises? In a word, the land promises of the Bible have been weaponized in the Middle East just as they were used to conquer the Native American tribes centuries ago. We need sober, courageous, and wise teachers like Martin to help us through the woods. It takes courage to make explicit what is implicit in this theology. And in very conservative settings, these implications will come with a degree of risk. But this is what my students want us to say in class: What difference does our theology make? Martin has written the map and now we look to him to show us the way from here.