Three years ago I had the privilege of traveling to Israel. On a mission trip with my church, we spent nearly two weeks touring the country and participating in evangelistic efforts in places like Haifa, Tiberias, and Tel Aviv. It was an incredible experience to tell a young Israeli whose barber shop opened up to the Sea of Galilee, “On that water Jesus walked, and in this Hebrew New Testament, you can learn more about the Messiah.” Needless to say, I returned to the U.S. with a host of memories and incredible images of the countryside in which our Savior was lived and died.
This weekend many of those bucolic scenes were recalled as I read O. Palmer Robertson’s book Understanding the Land of the Bible: A Biblical-Theological Guide. Robertson’s premise in the book is that the land of the Bible which intersects the continents of Africa, Asia, and Europe was divinely designed to proclaim gospel truth. Concluding his introduction he writes, “Let us allow this land in its uniqueness to reinforce for us today the truths that bring salvation for men” (4).
In his book, he unfolds a biblical theology of the land. In so doing, he considers the land from West to East and then from South to North and then by paying attention to many of the features of the land. Without allegorizing or spiritualizing, he shows how consideration of the land really does reveal redemptive truth. After laying out the latitudinal aspects of the region, Robertson summarizes, “Traveling across the Land of Promise from west to east can provide many insights into the purposes of God for the whole of the world. In microcosmic fashion the design of the land serves as a means of embodying the truth of God intended for all nations” (24). What is this intended truth? Figuratively, that people dwelling in desolate wilderness will move into the hospitable presence of God within the Promised Land. Clearly, this pattern of dwelling in the land plays itself out within the Bible (Abraham’s call to Canaan, Joshua’s entry into the land, the return from Exile, and Jesus crossing the Jordan into the land at his baptism are all physical-geographical moves that contain theological significance).
Moreover, moving from South to North recalls history and geography that carry historical and theological import. The exodus drove north out of Egypt, the divided kingdom was split according to Northern tribes of Israel and the Southern tribes of Judah and Benjamin, after Babylon repopulated Samaria, the Northern Samaritans were disdained by the more Southern Judeans, Galilee of the Gentiles on the Northern-most end of the country, was filled with foreigners during Jesus day and became a microcosm of the diverse world He can to save. In short, “The whole of the land was designed by the Lord for his good purposes as he determined them from before the foundation of the world” (37).
After considering the beautiful and rugged terrain of the Bible, Robertson surveys the cities of importance throughout the land of Canaan. He does so chronologically, considering the role of each during the Patriarchs, the Judges, the united and divided monarchies, and finally at the time of Christ. Taking a chapter on each epoch in redemptive history, he examines the Scriptures for significant references to these locales and shows how their particular placement in the land and in time shaped the biblical narrative.
Overall, Robertson’s treatment, which at times seems more like a survey than a theology, does well to help the student of the Bible read the Scriptures with an awareness of God’s plan within the land. He unveils the significance of geographic features and historic locations for the reader less attuned to such particulars. And he shows how all Scripture and all creation points to its Creator and Redeemer.
This land was made for Jesus Christ. All its diversity was designed to serve him. Its character as a land bridge for three continents was crafted at Creation for his strategic role in history of humanity. Even today all nations flow constantly to this place, for its is uniquely his land, the focal point of the world (109).
This point is worth considering further. For it challenges us to think about the land of the Scriptures in way that many of us are slow to do. It makes us come back to the Bible looking at it with renewed eyes. For consider, Psalm 72:8 says, “May he [the king] have dominion from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.” Yet, how can we begin to understand such a sweeping statement without a particular understanding of the seas, the River, and the ends of the earth? Indeed, we need to learn more about the land to understand this language. Certainly, the Scriptures speaks to these things, but too often I overlook them. Consequently, Robertson’s book is helpful in calling my (our) attention back to reading the Bible more faithfully, and better understanding all that it is saying about Jesus Christ.
So let me commend to Understanding the Land of the Bible, as it would help you read the Bible more completely or supply biblical-theological material to your next sermon. Still, beyond reading another book, let me urge you to reflect on the significance of the land in the Scriptures. It is steeped with history and with revelation concerning the redemptive plan(s) of God. For, as Robertson reminds us, “It is Christ’s land” (cf. Psalm 2)! Studying the Scriptures with a view to the land points us forward to a day when Jesus will return to have dominion over all the lands. Until that day let us become more well-versed in the land in which he inhabited, so that when he comes he might find us faithful in the land in which we now reside.
Sola Deo Gloria, dss