It seems that ever since God expelled humanity from the Garden of Eden, mankind has tried to find its way back. Whether they build a personal paradise like the fabled hanging gardens of Babylon, or they seek a land too good to be true like the golden city of El Dorado, people seek perfection. Even today, theories about going to Mars to build utopia in biodomes abound.
In the Bible, there are mentions of a promised land, which have bled into Christian culture as songs and as powerful imagery. Sometimes, centuries, even millennia, of use in culture distorts the meaning of a word or concept. Let's first discuss where the promised land is. In the Old Testament, the promised land referred to a place in the Middle East promised to Abraham’s descendants, known as Israel; in the United States, enslaved people used it to refer to states where they would be free. In recent times, it refers to Heaven, the land promised for those who follow Jesus Christ in this life.
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Where Is the Promised Land?
After the flood, the generations descended from Noah spread out over the face of the earth, which looked very different after the flood. Cultures and civilizations began to develop. In the Land of Ur, modern day Iraq, one man was called by God to go elsewhere, to follow him in faith to a land that would be for his descendants - Abraham.
Genesis records that God told Abraham about the Hebrew people spending 400 years in Egypt, and then be called out to inhabit the land of Canaan, “On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates’” (Genesis 15:18). This area has been fought over for many centuries, but it was promised by God to the descendants of Abraham, and it will be the seat of Jesus’ throne during the millennial reign.
The promised land of Canaan, eventually called Israel, was a fertile land, good for agriculture and shepherding. While there were no literal rivers of milk and honey, it was good for people to live and thrive. Its regions hold different properties. Galilee in the north contained mountains and was lush. Closer to Judea, the climate was more arid, where sheep could graze and wheat could be grown.
In American culture, the promised land has been used as a metaphor as well. During the early years of the country when slavery was legal, a culture developed to help the enslaved escape to freedom. Part of this culture included songs about the promised land, referring to free states where slavery was illegal. An example of this language includes, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”
In broader Christian culture, the promised land refers to Heaven, to eternity with God in a land where there will be no more sorrow or death.
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Why Was This Land Promised to the Jews?
The Jewish people, or the Hebrews, received the land of Israel because they were the descendants of Abraham through his son Isaac, and through Isaac’s son Jacob. God chose a section of land for the family that would eventually be the home of a royal bloodline whose ultimate descendants would be the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords. The family He picked was Abraham’s family, “because Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws” (Genesis 26:5).
Both Abraham and Isaac had other sons, who did not receive the birthright. Ishmael was Abraham’s son by his wife Sarah’s handmaiden, named Hagar. He was not the legitimate son through his wife. Despite not being heir to his father’s birthright, God did not forsake Ishmael. “For Ishmael, I have heard you; behold, I have blessed him and will make him fruitful and multiply him greatly. He shall father twelve princes, and I will make him into a great nation. But I will establish my covenant with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this time next year” (Genesis 17:20-21). Ishmael became his own nation. God wanted the bloodline of David, and of Jesus Christ, to be the inhabitants of the land of Israel.
Isaac had twin boys. Esau came out first, with Jacob clutching at his heels. Isaac inherited by virtue of being his father’s oldest legitimate son, and he expected Esau, his own oldest son, to inherit the same. In fact, the Bible records that Esau, who was a hunter and more masculine than his brother, was his father’s favorite. However, as recorded in Genesis 25, one day he came home from a hunt particularly hungry, and Jacob said he would give him some stew in exchange for his birthright. Esau agreed. He sold the right to his father’s blessing and the right to the land of Canaan for a meal. Jacob then subsequently tricked his father into confirming this exchange and giving him the blessing due the oldest child.
Even after selling his birthright, Esau permanently revoked any claim he may have had to living in the promised land. Ishmael’s descendants did not have a claim to it, and Esau married into that family to spite his father; “So when Esau saw that the Canaanite women did not please Isaac his father, Esau went to Ishmael and took as his wife, besides the wives he had, Mahalath the daughter of Ishmael, Abraham's son, the sister of Nebaioth” (Genesis 28:8-9). This immature act disinherited Esau and his descendants, and he joined another nation of people.
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Did the Hebrews Ever Reach the Promised Land?
It would take centuries for Abraham’s descendants to finally settle in Israel. Jacob and his family fled famine to go to Egypt where one of his sons, Joseph, had been made second-in-command over all the land, and stockpiled food to help the people get through those years of starvation. They settled in the land of Goshen in Egypt, and remained for 400 years.
After Joseph’s death, they spent much of that time in captivity. It took Moses 80 years after that to obey God and confront Pharaoh. Once they were free, they crossed the Red Sea and stopped at Mount Sinai, where God gave the people the Ten Commandments as the foundation for the law of their people. While they were there, the people began to fear Moses would not return, so they created and worshipped a false god. This generation would also despair at the sight of the powerful people living in Canaan.
Because of this final act of faithlessness, God decreed, “none of the men who have seen my glory and my signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have put me to the test these ten times and have not obeyed my voice, shall see the land that I swore to give to their fathers. And none of those who despised me shall see it” (Numbers 14:22-23). It took another forty years before Joshua and Caleb finally led their people into the promised land.
They conquered the land, and lived there for centuries.
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Is Jerusalem Still Significant for Believers Today?
The land of Israel, and the city of Jerusalem, became more special, as it was the center of much of Jesus’ ministry. The temple at Jerusalem was a place of worship, of important moments, of some of His ordeal the night He was arrested, and it was just outside the city walls. It is prophesied that one day, Jesus will return to earth to reign. It is a day Christians anticipated.
The capital of the millennial kingdom will be Jerusalem, “Thus says the Lord: I have returned to Zion and will dwell in the midst of Jerusalem, and Jerusalem shall be called the faithful city, and the mountain of the Lord of hosts, the holy mountain” (Zechariah 8:3). Even when eternity begins, and the new heaven and the new earth descend, the capital city will be called the new Jerusalem.
The promised land is, by itself, an unimportant piece of land. In many respects, no one piece of land is worth the bloodshed and violence that region of the world has faced. Its significance lies in the promise attached to it, and the one who made that promise. God made a covenant to Abraham to give him land from which his family would live, work, and eventually rule. He blessed it for them, allowing them to live there. For centuries it was the home of God’s people, and where Jesus came to redeem the world from its sin, and provide a path to salvation for all. The promise was not just to Abraham, or to David, but to all the world - have faith in God’s promises, and you shall be saved, and spend eternity with Him.
Pentecost, J. Dwight. The Words and Works of Jesus Christ. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1981.
Prager, Dennis. The Rational Bible: Genesis God, Creation, and Destruction. Washington D.C.: Regenery, 2019.
Wilmington, H.L. Wilmington’s Guide to the Bible. Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, 1981.
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Bethany Verrett is a freelance writer and editor. She maintains a faith and lifestyle blog graceandgrowing.com, where she muses about the Lord, life, culture, and ministry.