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Jesus and the Land: The New Testament Challenge to Holy Land Theology

Author: Gary M. Burge

Jesus and the Land: The New Testament Challenge to "Holy Land" Theology, by Gary M. Burge.  Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010.  xiv + 153 pp.

     The very subtitle of this book, The New Testament Challenge to "Holy Land" Theology, warns the reader that the contents could be controversial and emotional.  Just the term "Holy Land" evokes poignant thoughts and pictures for both Jew and Christian, not to mention the word "theology."  Gary Burge, however, has masterfully approached this difficult subject in a balanced and engaging manner.  Of course, he begins his analysis at the logical place where the "Holy Land" is attached to the Jewish religion: the promise that is given by God to Abraham in Genesis 13:14-17 and then again more fully in Genesis 15:18-21.  He notes that the connecting of land to some religiously significant event is not an uncommon occurrence and he even provides some references to relatively modern examples. From the Old Testament, Burge states that many see this promise of the land as a symbol of God's grace to Abraham and his descendants.  It is this grace that causes the land to be called a good land: a land of milk and honey. 

     Additionally, he contends that the land is connected to the covenant between God and Abraham and that as Abraham and his descendants fail and succeed, the land will fail and succeed.  Burge notes that this sense of relationship between the land and the actions of Abraham's descendants can be seen in Deut 4:25-27 where Moses warns the Israelites that they can lose the Promised Land if they are evil in the sight of God.  Thus the ability to live on the land is a reflection of the Israelites' adherence to the Torah! Conversely, the removal of the land from the Israelites is a reflection of their lack of adherence to the Torah. This becomes a major underpinning in his overall thesis that the land, which can be lost, has in fact been lost for the Israelites.

     Burge points out that writers such as Philo and Josephus looked at the land through a different set of lenses that redefined the land covenant motif for the Israelites.  The concept of a Promised Land became an eschatological concept when all of Judah would be gathered together into the land.  The covenant land no longer was territorially based upon which the Israelites were reliant for a national identity; rather the Jewish framework became one of obedience to God that would lead to a better life, longevity and prosperity.  While this was not a universally held viewpoint, the very fact that it was held by some is illustrative of the environment into which Jesus entered.

     How Jesus addresses the "Holy Land" motif can be seen in several parables, the most significant one being the parable of the vineyard in all three Synoptic Gospels (cf. Mark 12:1-12;  Matt 21:33-46;  Luke 20:9-19). As Burge states, this parable is viewed as the signature parable of Jesus' climactic relationship with Israel or Jerusalem.  Burge claims that the vineyard parable amply illustrates what was stated previously; that the Israelites can lose the land and the land can be given to another.  Jesus seems to proclaim here that due to the sin of the Israelites, the owner (God) of the land has taken the land from them.  The issue though is to whom has the land been provided?  Dr. Burge implies that Paul in his epistles provides the answer.

     According to Burge, Paul's theology concerning the land stated the world is the Promised Land.  God's covenant was not just for the Israelites, but for the entire world.  This is in accord with the Great Commission where the disciples are to proclaim the good news throughout the world.  This meant that the limitation to a specific section of land in the Middle East had to be disposed of completely.  Paul does not, nor can he, associate his theology to the Promised Land or Jewish territorialism.  His theology has to be universal and open to all or the Great Commission cannot be obtained.

     The above are just a few of the logical links that Burge forges from Genesis to Revelation indicating that a "Promised Land" theology should not be held onto by Christians.  His thesis is that we must stop teaching, preaching, and speaking about a "Promised Land" as being owned, since God alone is the sole owner.  Rather, we must ask if we are willing to be owned by the land.  Are we as Christians attached to the owner through Jesus Christ?  This becomes the final set of statements from Dr. Burge; statements that we should pay attention to since in the past how these questions have been answered has resulted in crusades, Christian Zionism, and religiously fueled nationalism.

     In general, Burge articulates his thesis soundly and logically.  While this book has few archaeological insights, it has strong insights into understanding how a "Holy Land" theology has evolved through the centuries. Reading the book makes one more aware of the sensitivities and ideas that can spring from a "Holy Land" theology.

Donald McNeeley Tidewater Bible College