The Theological Importance of Land

How important is land? Land nowadays seems always accepted but rarely seriously considered.  When we more often drive than walk to the end of the driveway, and find ourselves crammed in developments where houses come with a five-foot radius of space on each side and a few token bushes to represent landscape, we no longer think in territorial terms.  If our lives depended on the productivity of our soil and the reliability of our well or stream, and our property had been handed down for the last ten generations or so, with our solemn responsibility being to make sure it lasts another ten, we would view the world differently.

Walter Brueggemann in The Land (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002) explores the Bible through the lens of the land, making that his dominant category by which to understand its themes.  Laying out his case that this is an indispensable aspect of Biblical theology, he claims that its use will allow us to “find that the Bible in its entirety is about another agenda that calls into question our conventional presuppositions and our settled conclusions” (197).  Beginning with the land as foundational, he works through the Biblical narrative to analyze its content in correlation to this principle.  While this is helpful and brings more into balance the current slant strongly away from any such emphasis, other lenses through which to view the Bible remain more fundamental.

One of the most prevailing images of the Christian life presented in the Bible is that of a journey.  This journey must be started from somewhere, go through somewhere, and end up somewhere.  All of these involve the concept of land, and the entire Old Testament can be viewed as an elaborate metaphor mirroring our spiritual life.  We leave the Garden of Eden into the wilderness beyond.  We become entrapped in the land of bondage, and then must make our way through the wilderness until we arrive at the promised land.

Brueggemann talks about the significance of landlessness as not only figurative of our modern issue of hopelessness but also as symbolic of being without God.  It demonstrates our dependence on God’s provision.  Having land of one’s own can so easily set one up for trusting in that as the resource for living, and forgetting where the land came from and to whom it truly belongs.  It is amazing how quickly we forget the hard times of waiting and uncertainty, and rely on what we have been given instead of on the giver.

The temptation is to manage land so as to eliminate uncertainty and dependence.  While we have a divine mandate to care and administrate over what we have been given, this must never take precedence over our status as servants and caretakers, not owners as our inevitable tendency leads us.  We are all only stewards, waiting for the king to return to claim His own.

Defilement of the land also presents itself as a potent temptation.  Whatever area we are in has been given to us by God, and we have a responsibility to care for it.  For the Israelites, it was very important that they remove temptation and deal with the native Canaanites.  Instead, they mingled with them, intermarried, and ended up serving their gods.  They made their land of promise abhorrent and intolerable for the very Promiser.  Learning from these lessons, we must skirt these two extremes and care for and yet not ultimately desire our place in this world.

There is a huge contrast between our conception of land and God’s conception of land.  God gives to the poor and the meek, and takes away from the scheming and manipulative.  He does not reward actions that only serve personal self-interest, which we would claim is only necessary to survive.  We must care for those who cannot care for themselves, in our land and possessions especially.

Land is integrally wrapped up in the covenant.  Not only is the land promised by the covenant, but loss of the land is the punishment for not keeping the covenant.  Exile is the ultimate punishment, and is the inevitable effect of breaking the law.  In the same way we are promised the realm of freedom from sin, but if fail to guard our minds and control our tongues we are drawn away from God and then we will lose that territory and drift back into the wilderness or even worse, to the prison.

Seeing the theme of land as one of the dominant themes has allowed me understand many of the images used in the Bible and see them come alive with greater meaning and depth.  Just as so many of the agrarian references which were used to such great effect on those first hearing them but now have become archaic and foreign, the language of land is no longer understood in modern day America.  Moving from place to place, even across the world, is now an accepted way of life, and the ties to geography are now not nearly as binding as they once were.  This does make a significant difference in comprehension, but is not imperative for Christian understanding.

Seeing and understanding the land as basic is not required for salvation, as no doubt Brueggemann would agree.  However, regardless of its undoubted usefulness in Biblical scholarship, even its status as the primary category seems dubious.  The primary theme of the Bible is redemption, and while land serves as an apt illustration of this, it cannot substitute for it.  At heart, we all have the desire to be united with God and this is not fundamentally an issue of physical geography.

One of the main points, if not the main point of the message of Jesus was that the kingdom of Godis at hand.  While this is definitely a primarily geographical reference, it does not point to an ultimately geographical meaning and as such should be understood.  The kingdom of God is on earth only in the sense of the kingdom being within us, because Jesus makes very clear that it is not an earthly kingdom (John 18:36, Luke 17:10-21).  Understanding the physical components of a kingdom will certainly aid in the comprehension of this concept, but seeing it as a purely physical construct would be misleading.

I accept that the land is the primary category embodied in the Old Testament.  And while it definitely remains important in the New Testament, the focus is subtly shifted.  From what used to be a covenant people tied down to an ethnicity and location, we see the emergence of a universal and inclusive body irrespective of cultural divisions.  The daily sacrifices and laws governing daily life are completed and fulfilled by a new arrangement of grace and freedom in a new covenant.  Jesus lived in a real place and time, as do we all, but he moved the locus from that to the spiritual implications before only implied: what was implicit is now explicit.

What we see in the Old Testament is a physical representation of what was always intended to be a spiritual reality.  This reality certainly affects and guides our physical life, but has meaning beyond it.  The importance of the spiritual understanding seems woefully neglected in so much contemporary scholarship and preaching.  God’s point was never the importance of the physical death and blood of the sacrificial animals, it was the mercy and grace behind the concept of sacrifice.  To tie one’s self too tightly to the physical aspect of land is to restrict its range of influence.  We all desire to have a place to belong, but that desire is only perfectly satisfied in the presence of God, which has almost no resemblance to the soil of this earth.

It is true that we must tie our status as followers of Christ to our physical lives, which is one of Breuggemann’s primary points.  Despite the shift in thinking, land still remains very important and strategic, and in many cultures is still the dominant factor in living.  Nonetheless, placing it as principal among Biblical categories seems too strong.  While it is more important than something that merely adds value or makes understanding more complete—it is essential to Biblical understanding—it should not become the crucial terminology of all Biblical language, which seems to be the route Brueggemann is heading toward.  Some of the correlations drawn in The Land, such as sexuality and land management, seem somewhat forced.

As far as the disciplines of geography, such as map work and the like, these are not emphasized by Brueggemann and this seems wise.  Specific disciplines such as these are not imperative for even the conceptual understanding of the land that he is advocating.  At the same time, the more one comes to love the Bible and seriously study and live by it, the more enjoyable and rewarding such enterprises become.  There are so many who would give so much for such an opportunity and never get one, and this should serve as a solemn reminder for those of us who have such chances.  In sum, looking through the grid of the land is a good and useful method, but not the only or primary one.

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2 thoughts on “The Theological Importance of Land

  1. I think we need to take this very seriously because we have been so used to a neo-platonic “spritual -physical/” dichotomy. The Kingdom of God needs to be worked out in the physical and we will walk on gold and live in a city on earth eventually. certainly the land is much bigger than the land of Israel – it is the whole world. As Sesi and others used to say we really need a theology of land to understand Christianity in Africa. It was important that his body be flown from Houston to be buried at home in Shimba Hills. why? culturally, theologically, etc. why?

  2. Yeah, I do agree that we often miss out on some of the concrete realities of our faith. Since being in Africa, my views of land have grown and I see it as much more important now than I used to. Especially when you see land being passed down from generation to generation, and then also the challenges as the parcels get smaller and smaller. I believe the subject of land and physical space is important for a theology of the kingdom of God as well as missions. As far as the burial, I haven’t considered that topic very much, but I would be interested in hearing more about the various reasons for where burials take places, and all the implications of that.

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