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Covenant Theology and the land promise

January 27, 2012

A quotation from a recent book by Greg Nichols on how the promise of the land of Canaan to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and their progeny is viewed from the point of view of Covenant Theology was posted recently at this blog. [1] Nichols wrote:

One dimension of this impact calls for special attention. I refer to the perpetual possession of Canaan as a divine inheritance: “I will give unto thee and to they seed after thee the land of their sojournings, all the land of Canaan for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God” (Gen. 17:8) In light of this testimony of Scripture, the question arises: Is the land of Canaan the perpetual inheritance of God’s people? I offer five considerations in answer to this question.

First, God has already given to Hebrew Israel all the land that he promised to give them (1 Kings 4:21; Neh. 9:8).

Second, Hebrew Israel, as a society, is no longer God’s theocratic nation (Matt. 21:43). In Genesis 17:8, Scripture explicitly connects possessing Canaan with being God’s people. They possessed it as God’s people. Yet they are no longer the theocratic nation of God’s people. Possessing Canaan as divine inheritance lasted only as long as Hebrew Israel, as a society, remained God’s theocratic nation.

Third, the old covenant inheritance, Canaan, was inseparably joined to the book of the law (Lev. 25:10). Joshua allotted Canaan to Hebrew Israel by tribes. They were to retain their possession by genealogical records. The year of jubilee recognizes and perpetuates this allocation of Canaan (Lev. 25:10). It is impossible to keep the year of Jubilee in Germany, or the United States, or in any other land. Canaan is the land of the book of the law. Conversely, the book of the law is the law of the land of Canaan. Plainly, God’s people are no longer under the book of the law as their theocratic constitution. Therefore, the land of Canaan is no longer the divine inheritance of God’s people under the new covenant.

Fourth, God has already given his people the down payment of their better, new covenant inheritance (Eph. 1:13-14).

Fifth, its description as “everlasting” was also applied to other temporary institutions. The word translated “everlasting” in Genesis 17:8, literally means, “until the distant future.” Often it does signify forever and ever (Deut. 33:27; Ps. 90:2), but not always. Context must determine its duration. Scripture uses this very word to describe the duration of the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:34) and of the Aaronic priesthood (Exod. 29:28, 40:15). Scripture indicates explicitly that these other old covenant institutions terminate with the coming of Messiah. His coming is their vanishing point, the end of the age. Similarly, in Genesis 17:8, [this Hebrew word] signifies “until the distant future, throughout the entire era of Hebrew Israel’s theocracy.” That era lasted a very long time, some fifteen-hundred years, until the promised Messiah came to institute the new covenant.

In conclusion, Scripture does not teach that the land of Canaan is the perpetual inheritance of God’s people. I neither assert nor deny the right of Hebrew Israel to possess Canaan today. If they retain any right to Canaan, that right does not rest on theocracy, since they are no longer God’s theocratic society. Rather, any such right would grow out of the general principles of justice that apply to all territorial disputes among nations.

In the covenant that God made with Abraham, there were three components; (1) he will possess the land of Canaan; (2) his progeny will number as the stars, and as the sand of the sea shore; and (3) a seed in whom all nations will be blessed.

The fact that Abraham did not possess the land during his natural life is mentioned in the New Testament to show that he understood the promise of land to be an assurance of his resurrection. [Acts 7:5]

When Jacob blessed his son Joseph, he said his blessings extended “unto the utmost bound of the everlasting hills,” [Genesis 49:26] alluding to the height, and durability of mountains, which suggests that his blessings were both spiritual, and eternal. Mountains are high, and endure for long periods of time; thus they point to the high, and lofty or spiritual nature of his blessings. Through the prophet Isaiah, God said his thoughts are higher than those of man. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” [Isaiah 55:9]

To understand the nature of the land promise from a Gospel point of view, we need to view the land in a spiritual way. Hebrews 11:16 says, “But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city.” This city is the very same one to which all those who are in Christ have come: “But ye are come unto mount Sion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, To the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, And to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling, that speaketh better things than that of Abel.” [Hebrews 12:22-24]

If we compare the items mentioned in these verses with the covenant that God made with Abraham, we note there are again three components; (1) a country, which is mount Sion, or Zion, and the heavenly Jerusalem; (2) a people numbering as the stars, the saints whose names are written in heaven; and (3) a seed, Jesus.

Thus, the statement “ye are come unto mount Sion, and unto the city of the living God” corresponds to the promise of the land of Canaan that was given to Abraham. The land is represented by a heavenly mount Sion, which is called “a better country.” [Hebrews 11:16] As Isaiah foretold, Jerusalem has been raised up above the hills, and established in the tops of the mountains. [Isaiah 2:2-3]

Hebrews 12:22-24 Promises to Abraham, Isaac, & Jacob
The land

ye are come unto mount Sion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem
Abraham: Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will shew thee [Genesis 12:1]

Abraham: And the LORD said unto Abram, after that Lot was separated from him, Lift up now thine eyes, and look from the place where thou art northward, and southward, and eastward, and westward: For all the land which thou seest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed for ever. … Arise, walk through the land in the length of it and in the breadth of it; for I will give it unto thee. [Genesis 13:14-15, 17]

Abraham: Unto thy seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates [Genesis 15:18]

Isaac: Sojourn in this land, and I will be with thee, and will bless thee [Genesis 26:4]

Jacob: the land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed [Genesis 28:13]
The nation

the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven
Abraham: I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing [Genesis 12:2]

Abraham: I will make thy seed as the dust of the earth: so that if a man can number the dust of the earth, then shall thy seed also be numbered. [Genesis 13:16]

Abraham: Look now toward heaven, and tell the stars, if thou be able to number them: and he said unto him, So shall thy seed be. [Genesis 15:5]

Abraham: I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore [Genesis 22:17]

Isaac: I will make thy seed to multiply as the stars of heaven [Genesis 26:4]

Jacob: thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south [Genesis 28:14]
The seed

to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant
Abraham: in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed. [Genesis 12:3]

Abraham: in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed [Genesis 22:18]

Isaac: in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed [Genesis 26:4]

Jacob: in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed [Genesis 28:14]


1. Greg Nichols. Covenant Theology: A Reformed and Baptistic Perspective on God’s Covenants. Pelham: Solid Ground Books, 2011. pp. 191-192.