Written by O. Palmer Robertson |
Monday, October 30, 2023
The land of the Bible serves a purpose that will outlast its own existence. For eternity, people will praise God for many things. But high on the list will be significant praise for his handiwork in creating this land bridge of the continents, this place where he could carry out the work of redemption for sinners from all the nations of the world. As a grand stage set for carrying out the critical events of the drama of redemption, this land served God and man well.
Several different perspectives on the land of the Bible have arisen in the course of history. In many ways, these various views of the land belong distinctively to the age in which they developed. Yet it is also true that basic elements of these different ways of looking at the land have been present in every human era and are no less present today than they were when originally established. Five perspectives on the land of the Bible warrant special attention.
Five Perspectives on the Land
The Crusader Perspective
The energy spent and the blood spilt because of the Crusader perspective on Palestine is almost immeasurable. Almost a thousand years after the misguided Crusaders made their futile attempt to claim Palestine for Christianity, the land still shows the pockmarks that remain as a result of their presence. Remnants of walls, castles, churches, and cities protrude from the surface of the land wherever the traveler goes. At Caesarea, an impressive moat and fortress remain. With a spectacular view overlooking the Jordan valley, impressive remains of Belvoir Fortress still stand. This significant citadel withstood a four-year siege near the end of the twelfth century before it finally fell to Saladin. The shell of a Crusader castle dramatically occupies the peak of a mountain on the way toward snow-covered Hermon, and the ruins of another mark the halfway point on the way down to Jericho from Jerusalem. At Jerusalem itself, large parts of the city wall date back to the days of the Crusaders.
So what inspired this massive sacrifice of life, limb, fortune, and family? Obviously motivations must have been mixed. But undergirding the whole endeavor was the view that this land was holy and therefore could not remain in the hands of a Muslim community. To protect its sacredness, this holy ground must be wrenched from the infidels without regard for the cost.
Few people today would claim that their view of the land of the Bible agrees with the perspective of the Crusaders. Yet one wonders: is not the commonplace designation of this place as the “Holy Land” tainted with the twisted outlook of the Crusaders? Just what is it that makes this land “holy” in the minds of so many? So long as the “Glory,” the Shekinah, dwelt in the temple of Jerusalem, the land was made holy by the special presence of God. But the departure of the “Glory” meant that the land’s holiness, its sanctification by God’s abiding presence, was no more. Just as the burning bush in the wilderness sanctified the ground around it only so long as the glory of God remained, so this land was “holy” only so long as God was uniquely there.
Indeed, many people may affirm that they sense a special closeness to God as they ”walk today where Jesus walked.” But human feeling cannot be equated so simplistically with divine determinations. In fact, the specific teaching of Jesus was that the time would come when the presence of the holy God would be found neither in Jerusalem nor on the mount of Samaria, but wherever he was worshipped in Spirit and in truth (John 4:21, 23). Material locale simply does not have the capacity to retain divine holiness.
The Crusader perspective on the land of the Bible led well-meaning people astray for centuries. It cost countless families their husbands, their children, their fortunes, and their futures. The same misdirected zeal may not characterize people today who think of Palestine as the “Holy Land.” But this view can mislead severely and substitute a false form of worship for the true. Instead of accepting the biblical teaching that any location can be the most holy place on earth if the one true God is worshipped through Jesus Christ at that place, the land of the Bible is romanticized so that people suppose that if they are there God will be known with special power and truth.
The Pilgrim Perspective
All through the ages, people have felt a compulsion to travel to the land of the Bible. Most individuals make the trek because they naturally associate the land with the events recorded in the Bible. But throughout history, the motivation of many has been a sense of gaining merit with God. Even in the twentieth century, professing Christians travel halfway around the world to be “rebaptized” in the Jordan River, assuming that somehow this water has a greater capacity for cleansing from sins than any other. A yet more subtle version of this same view supposes that a pilgrimage to the land of the Bible will remove the soul’s haze and give a clear vision of the person of Christ.
But Scripture offers no specific blessing for the sinner as a consequence of his traveling to any particular place. Only faith in the sacrifice of God’s Son can bring peace between God and men, and this faith can be exercised equally from any place in the world. It actually brings into question the sufficiency of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ to suggest that some physical relocation of the sinner will contribute to restoring him to fellowship with God.
The Zionist Perspective
The rebirth of the state of Israel in 1948 has rejuvenated the belief on the part of many Jews and Christians that the land of Palestine belongs forever to the Jewish people, and that all this land should be returned to them as its rightful owner. On the basis of the promise given to Abraham that the land belonged to him and his offspring forever, it has been concluded that the whole of the land of the Bible remains irrevocably entrusted to the Israelite people. This view has received strong impetus since the termination of World War II. Having witnessed the Holocaust in which six million Jews perished under Adolf Hitler’s “final solution” to the Jewish “problem,” the Western nations of the world have sympathized with the concept of a Jewish homeland. Early considerations proposed Uganda, among other places, as a possible location for displaced Jews. But in the end, everything pointed to the land of their ancestors. First in trickles against armed opposition and then by the tens of thousands, Jews from every part of the world flowed into the land of the Bible. The visitor today cannot but be amazed at the determination of these people who have come to the land. On the tops of obscure mountains, in the midst of barren deserts, up high-rise apartments among others who do not understand their speech, Ethiopian Jews, Russian Jews, Moroccan Jews, British, Canadian, and Spanish Jews live together. Despite world criticism and complaint, the Jewish people continue to claim this land as their own.
But in what sense is the land, the whole of the land of the Bible, the property of the Jews by right of divine gift and covenant? This question is answered in different ways today even by the Jews themselves. Some among the Hasidim (the most devout of the Orthodox Jews) insist that, by the covenant with Abraham, God gave the whole of the land to Abraham’s descendants in perpetuity. Others would be more modest in their appeal to the promises given to the patriarchs. To them the promise of the Lord insures some right of possession for the Jewish nation today, although their claims would not exclude the possibility of political compromise.
There is of course the difficult, unsolved problem concerning the identification of a “Jew.” For as a Jewish commentator on Genesis has noted, the “Jewish” people never have known “purity of blood”1. Since the time that God established his covenant with Abraham, any Gentle could become a full-fledged Jew by confessing the God of Abraham and, in the case of a male, being circumcised (Gen. 17:12-13). The prevailing definition of a Jew as anyone who has a Jewish mother may have some functional appeal, But since the time of Abraham, a “Jewish” mother might have had not one single drop of Abrahamic blood running through her veins.