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Three views on the promised land

May 12, 2011

Three views on the meaning of the promised land are presented, two of them by Jews, (Philo, and Eliezer Schweid) and one by a Christian author (Patrick Fairbairn).

Since the first century AD, Jewish conceptions of the promised land have found that it has symbolic meaning. Philo of Alexandria tried to harmonize Stoic philosophy with Jewish religious tradition. Gary M. Burge wrote of him: [1]

Philo image

Philo of Alexandria

Philo is inspired by his desire to adapt Judaism to Hellenistic thought and he does this by allegorizing his Bible. For him, the truth of the concrete objects of Jewish life now take on a new meaning. The land is reinterpreted as the knowledge and wisdom of God. Thus he neglects the land promises found in Abraham and the patriarchs whenever the covenant is mentioned. No land promise appears even in discussions of Isaac or Jacob. In Genesis 28.10-22 when Jacob dreams at Bethel, the Hebrew text’s explicit reaffirmation of the land promise (28.13) is replaced by Philo with a promise of wisdom and virtue. The promise that Joseph would be buried in the Promised Land in Philo becomes a hope that his soul will inhabit “cities of virtue.” Canaan becomes not a place of religious promise but a metaphor, a stage of development for the soul. Moses’ leadership, therefore, will not take Israel to the Promised Land, but to a higher level of maturity and wisdom. Even in his eschatology, Philo does not see a literal ingathering of exiled Israel to a literal Promised Land. This instead will be an arrival into a state of deeper wisdom. As Amaru concludes, “In Philo, this Judaism is described as a religious or cultural ‘nationality’ minimally to a single ethnic base or territory.”

A modern Zionist author, Eliezer Schweid, Professor of Jewish Philosophy at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, while taking a more literal approach than Philo to the land promise and Old Testament prophecies about the land, conceives the land as symbolic, and suggests it is a symbol encompassing the national vision of Jews, including their history, and future destiny. Schweid hoped for a time when God will dwell in Zion and the status of the land will be “raised on high” in the center of the world. He suggested that even animals will become righteous and peaceful. Schweid wrote: [2]

This is a key statement: The special character of the land is understood, interpreted and perceived as symbolic, and this symbolic understanding continues to shape the image of the land through the living memory of its history. That is, insofar as the people is instructed by the words of the Torah and the prophets, it learns to view its land in accordance with the image that has its source in the historical events that took place between them and the land, and whose marks remain engraved in the scenery of the country. History accumulates in the culture that molds the land’s present image, and memory gives life to the signs that remain and endows them with context and significance. This is true of every people living in its own country. Here, however, we must again call attention to the unique nature of the scriptural conception of history: history in the Bible is directed toward destiny. Historical memory is more than a recollection of past events. It is primarily a continual tension of anticipation directed toward the future, as each generation passes on to the next its expectations and hopes, its faith and its aims. All that we recall of the history of the people involves a constant readiness for the future destined for them, both as commandments and as reward. This orientation is also embodied in the people’s perception of the land as being promised, a land of destiny–that is, a land in which one ought to live in a certain way and whose suitability for a particular people is determined by the way they act in it. That is to say: the image of the land of Israel reflects the vision of its future more than it reflects its past and present. In this sense, too, it is a promised land, a land that one day will fully become what it was destined to be by the will of God. This, indeed, is the form taken by the ideal image of the land of Israel described in the visions of redemption.

How does the land of Israel appear in these visions? They seem not to add anything to the motifs enumerated above, but rather to dramatize them and elevate them to the highest utopian level. First of all there is the great bounty that bursts forth from the inward recesses of the land as though from springs of love. The land will bear the people in its bosom and sustain them like a mother embracing her young and giving them suck. There will be a great abundance of food and fruit. The gladness of free people who are not oppressed by concern for their future will prevail, and there will be a feeling of gratitude over all. Peace will reign in the land, and it will be founded upon righteousness and justice, not only among men, but even among animals. The land itself will bestow peace on its very foundations. This will be the basis of the kingdom of God in the land. He will reign directly, for He will dwell in His sanctuary in Zion, in the midst of the people living according to His commandments. Then, too, the status of the land, in the center of the world and raised on high, will become clear. The land of Israel will be a sanctuary for all peoples, and the teaching of God will go forth from Jerusalem.

Schweid saw the land as being in some way connected with “the entrance of the spiritual world.” He wrote: [3]

The uniqueness of the Land of Israel is thus “geo-theological” and not merely climatic. This is the land which faces the entrance of the spiritual world, that sphere of existence that lies beyond the physical world known to us through our senses. This is the key to the land’s unique status with regard to prophecy and prayer, and also with regard to the commandments.

It is true that in a “geo-theological” sense, the land of Canaan is at the center of three of the world’s religions. Jerusalem is viewed as a holy city in the Jewish, Muslim and Christian faiths. But the New Testament indicates that since Jesus ascended to heaven, the holy city is now the heavenly Jerusalem, rather than the earthly one. Thus, in the gospel, the significance of the promised land must be understood in a new way; it is a metaphor, representing the spiritual things inherited by the saints. In his book The typology of Scripture, Patrick Fairbairn supported this approach to the significance of the land. He believed the land promise alluded to the future inheritance of the faithful saints, including the promise of the resurrection. Fairbairn wrote as his concluding remarks to an extended discussion: [4]

1. The earthly Canaan was neither designed by God, nor from the first was it understood by his people, to be the ultimate and proper inheritance, which they were to occupy; things having been spoken and hoped for concerning it, which plainly could not be realized within the bounds of Canaan.

2. The inheritance was one which could be enjoyed only by those who had become the children of the resurrection, themselves fully redeemed in soul and body from all the effects and consequences of sin, made more glorious and blessed, indeed, than if they had never sinned, because constituted after the image of the heavenly Adam;– and as the inheritance must correspond with the inheritor, it can only be man’s original possession restored,–the earth redeemed from the curse which sin brought on it, and, like man himself, rendered exceedingly more beautiful and glorious, than in its primeval state,–the fit abode of a church, made like, in all its members, to the Son of God.

3. The occupation of the earthly Canaan by the natural seed of Abraham, was a type, and no more than a type, of this occupation by a redeemed church, of her destined inheritance of glory; and consequently every thing concerning the entrance of the former on their temporary possession; was ordered so as to represent and foreshadow the things which belong to the church’s establishment in her permanent possession. Hence, between the giving of the promise, which though it did not terminate in, yet included the land of Canaan, and under that infolded the prospect of the better inheritance, a series of important events intervened, which are capable of being fully and properly explained in no other way, than as having a typical bearing on the things hereafter to be disclosed respecting that better inheritance. If we ask, why did the heirs of promise wander about so long as pilgrims, and withdraw to a foreign region, before they were allowed to possess the land, and not rather, like a modern colony, quietly spread, without strife or bloodshed, over its surface, till the whole was possessed? Or, why were they suffered to fall under the dominion of a foreign power, from whose cruel oppression they needed to be redeemed, with terrible executions of judgment on the oppressor, before the possession could become theirs? Or, why before that event also should they have been put under the discipline of law, having the covenant of Sinai, with its strict requirements and manifold obligations of service, superadded to the covenant of grace and promise? Or, why again should their right to the inheritance itself, have, to be vindicated from a race of occupants, who had been allowed for a time to keep possession of it, and whose multiplied abominations had so polluted it, that nothing short of their extermination could render it a fitting abode for the heirs of promise? The full and satisfactory answer to all such questions, can only be given, by viewing the whole in connexion with the better things of a higher dispensation,–as the first part of a plan, which was to have its counterpart and issue in the glories of a redeemed creation, and for the final results of which the church needed to be prepared by standing in similar relations, and passing through like experiences, in regard to an earthly inheritance. No doubt, with one and all of these, there were connected reasons and results for the time then present, amply sufficient to justify every step in the process, when considered simply by itself. But it is only when we take the whole as a glass, in which to see mirrored the far greater things, which from the first were in prospect, that we can get a comprehensive view of the mind of God in appointing them, and know the purposes which he chiefly contemplated.


1. Gary M. Burge. Jesus and the Land: The New Testament Challenge to “Holy Land” Theology by Gary M. Burge. (Baker Academic, 2010). p. 22.

2. Eliezer Schweid. The Land of Israel: National Home Or Land of Destiny. Translated by Deborah Greniman, Fairleigh Dickinson Univ Press. 1985. p. 28-29.

3. Ibid., p. 56.

4. Patrick Fairbairn. The typology of Scripture. Volume 1, Sect. 7. Daniels & Smith. 1852.