The conflict between Palestinians and Israelis is about land: To whom does it rightfully belong? For Palestinian Christians, who have lived and survived in the holy land and called it home for centuries, this is not only an academic question but a personal issue with immediate implications. Muslims and Jews also make religious claims for this land. And some Christians, based on Old Testament promises, believe this land is an eternal possession of the Jewish nation. Overlaid with politically charged agendas, it is no surprise that this is one of the most complex conflicts in modern days.
In the following, I trace a theology of the land. Understanding this topic biblically reframes the land as a place of inclusivity instead of exclusivity, an understanding that provides a platform for peace and even reconciliation.
Land in the Old Testament: a covenant of blessing and obedience
In the Old Testament, the land is continually portrayed as part of the covenant between God and his people. This began in the Garden of Eden. There, man’s relationship with God, man, and nature was in perfect order. Adam was placed in Eden, commissioned to take care of it and to rule for God, then to extend the realm of God’s rule outside its borders (Genesis 2:7-15). However, Adam failed to keep the covenant, leading to the loss of his royal, priestly status – and importantly, loss of this special and ideal land. The land cannot tolerate covenant breakers. And Adam’s loss is not the entire story: Eden’s capacity to bless the entire creation was lost. Men and women now live in anticipation of the return to Eden.
As the Biblical narrative continued, God elected Abraham to be a blessing for all the nations of the earth. Abraham was promised a seed that would become a great nation and bless all the families of the earth (Genesis 12:1-3; 22:18). God also demanded obedience. In Abraham, we see Adam and Eden take two. This nation, Israel, was called to be a light to the nations, an ideal community, and a source of blessing to the whole earth (Isaiah 49:6). However, like Adam, Israel fell short and left God’s purposes unfulfilled. Throughout biblical history, Israel repeated two covenant-breaking sins: they were unfaithful by worshiping other gods; they failed to care for the vulnerable – the poor, widows, orphans and strangers. The law, after all, is summed up in the two commands: love God and love neighbours. In punishment, God took his people from the land by sending them into exile.
However, God continued to offer hope through prophets who spoke of a coming Messiah who will rule from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth, with the nations joined under his rule (Isaiah 2). The Temple will expand as God’s presence covers the whole world (Ezekiel 40-48). Hearts will be circumcised as a guarantee of obedience. There will be full restoration and peace. Land promises are repeated, but this time in ideal, eschatological language (Jeremiah 30-34). The restored Temple will be even greater than the original (Haggai 2:9).
The land is part of God’s mission. However, the Old Testament makes it clear that land promises are connected to obedience to God.
Jesus, Owner of the Land
In the New Testament, land promises are fulfilled and understood through Jesus. The second Adam and true Israelite, Jesus lived in perfect obedience, was given the right to rule for God, and inherited not only the land of Palestine-Israel but also the whole universe (Matthew 28:18). God’s rule broke through into our world and the journey back to Eden reached a pivotal point. Through faith in Christ, the true seed of Abraham and the one in whom all promises are fulfilled, we are declared children of Abraham and heirs to the promises (Galatians 3:16, 29). The land became a universal promise for all God’s people, regardless of ethnic identity.
In Christ Jesus, the land becomes a place of inclusivity, not exclusivity. Jesus reigns over a universal kingdom. Paul expanded the understanding of the land promises when he declared that Abraham inherited the world (Romans 4:13). This kingdom of Jesus has no racial barriers (Ephesians 2:19); it includes people from every tribe, tongue, and nation (Revelation 5:9-10).
The Kingdom of God is one of peace and reconciliation (Romans 14:17). We are reconciled to God and to each other (2 Corinthians 5:18-19). These are real promises with implications for the church here and today. The ministry of the church should embody realities we miss from Eden. We should not only pray your kingdom come here on earth (i.e., in the land), but we should practice it, even while anticipating the final realisation of the kingdom in the second coming of Christ.
This is theology of the Land. This is the Gospel.
Implications for Life in the Land
First, land belongs to God in Jesus – every land, the Holy Land in particular. No nation or individual can claim possession of anything in this world, let alone exclusive possession. Our theology therefore promotes a just sharing of the land and its resources, in a way that honours the holy owner of the land.
Second, the land is to be a place of witness to Christ. As a Palestinian Christian of Arab descent, my family roots in this land go back to at least the 16th century, when ten generations ago my forefathers settled in the Bethlehem area. There has been a Christian witness in this land for literally 2,000 years. The on-going presence and work of God’s people in the Arab church is part of the witness of Jesus Christ in the Holy Land today.
Finally, the theology of the land reminds us of God’s purposes for restoration. This includes reconciliation to God, self, and neighbour. Peace and reconciliation are needed here – like everywhere. The Palestinian church plays a critical role in the work of God today, in part by helping develop and live out a biblical theology of the land.