Presence and Place: toward a theology of land in the OT

Series Intro:

I’ve had a long standing fascination with the theology of “land” found in the Old Testament.  It constitutes a major theme within the discipline of biblical theology and also has much to teach us as Christians today.  While the following content is considered an OT theology, I will give New Testament examples of the “land” theme in later posts.  For some of you this may be your first encounter with a more formal theological presentation.  I will make the occasional additional remarks outside of the original document where further clarification might help the newer reader of theology.  Finally, I always encourage interaction.  Some of you have privately shared with me that you don’t want to “sound stupid” when replying to some of the biblical/theological discussions found here.  Let me encourage you to interact in a spirit of “humble charity”.  Be willing to seek clarification and understanding is the sign of an open mind and heart.



From the beginning of the biblical narrative it has been the activity of God to be present in his creation and from that presence, he also sustains his creation.  The account of the creation of man and woman is the high point of the creation narrative (Gen. 1:26) with all previous creation being in subjection to man and woman (1:28).  Their being in right standing with the creator and enjoying the full fellowshipping presence of the creator in an appropriate environment is the desired outcome of God.  This desire of God to be present with his people is illustrated throughout the biblical narrative.  God will reveal his presence to the patriarchs for the purpose of call and mission that all nations might be blessed through them.  He will deliver his people from captivity by his presence in a great exodus (Deut. 4:37) and will develop their moral, ethical and spiritual character by dwelling among them.   God will promise a new dwelling for his people in a new land where they are to be fruitful, multiply and enjoy the abiding presence of God (Ex. 6:8).

Furthermore, the blessing of God in the OT is expressed in part by geographical orientation.  There is a physical space that God wants his people to inhabit and likewise, he will necessarily dwell among them in that physical space (Gen, 3:8; Ex. 25:8).

Purpose and Direction

In consideration of the above narrative sketch, it is my intent to demonstrate that the promised land of the Old Testament is both geographical and spiritual.  God’s presence in a place designates it as holy, while his decided absence from a place removes blessing from its inhabitants.  Moreover, because of God’s purpose and mission, he necessarily establishes sacred places that serve as a “light onto the nations” when his people rightly inhabit them.  In order to bear witness to terrestrial beings, his presence is demonstrated in territory, space, and time.

I. Genesis 1-3: Archetype for Place and Presence

In the beginning of the biblical narrative the author depicts God as creator of both heaven and earth.  Immediately following the creation statement, the spirit of God is in the act of hovering over the not yet organized creation deemed “formless and void”.[1] This environment will not sustain life in general and so specifically, will not be able to be inhabited.  Then there is a series of “let there be…” statements as light is separated from day, the expanse of the sky and sea, the sea and the land, etc.  It is from God’s presence that order and not chaos come forth, and life rather than death.

It comes as a natural next step that out of this ordering and life giving presence man is created.   The narrative draws our attention to the hierarchical nature of man’s role in creation, for man bears the image of God (Gen. 1:26) and in doing so, has responsibility to preside as god on earth (cf. Psalm 8). The environment given to Adam is a gift of sorts, in that he was created in another place and then placed into the sacred space of the garden (Gen 2:8).  This garden is a separate place from the rest of the world and is intended to be the source of life for the created order as well as the environment in which man will dwell with God (Gen. 3:8).[2]  This dwelling will be eternal pending man’s obedience to the commands given to him.  Man’s mandate to “rule over” (kabash) and subdue (rabah) becomes more poignant as we look forward in the biblical text where God gives orders to the priests of Israel.  Adam is to work (‘abad) and care (shamar)for the garden, the same words are used for the services of the priest in the later Jerusalem temple.  So Adam’s function in the garden connects strongly with the later function of the priests who are also said to be in the presence of God during their temple work.  Eden’s capacity as a sanctuary is central for our understanding of proper interaction with God’s presence within the context of place.  Adam and Eve’s role is not to be a passive one, but one of God honoring priestly activity as they accurately bear the image of their maker in the land God has given to them.[3]

God’s presence with man is not to be assumed, however powerfully it may be displayed in the early stages of the narrative.  Instructions are given to man so that he may continue to dwell in the direct presence of God within the life sustaining environment of Eden.  It is at the point of the fall that man’s relationship with God changes. Subsequently, man’s relationship with the land (Gen. 1:17) and with his fellow human also changes (1:16). Man cannot maintain relationships in and with sacred space when he has not been faithful to the One who has given him that space and who dwells in that space.  Therefore, man is banished from the garden and cursed with certain death.  Apart from the eternal life giving presence of God Adam and Eve will not find the blessing of eternal life in the garden.  Yet by God’s gracious and sovereign purpose, man will continue to create life on earth being fruitful and multiplying.

II. Place and Presence: Pre-Monarchy

While the first eleven chapters of Genesis have a universal scope regarding man’s relationship to God and creation, Genesis 12 quickly narrows its focus on the figure of Abraham.

A. Patriarchs

            God now sets about the work of creating a people through the descendants of Abra(ha)m so that through those people all nations will be blessed (Gen. 12:3).  The fulfillment of this blessing will have a geographical locus that God will show to Abra(ha)m; a land that will be given to God’s people as a gift and just as it was in the creation story, they will be formed outside of God’s desired environment and will then be graciously placed within it (Gen. 17:8).

While Abraham will be promised the land of Canaan, God will not disclose begin to disclose his presence in the land until the biblical narrative reaches Jacob.  As Jacob reaches Bethel he has a dream where God promises him the same things he promised Abraham.  In addition God promises Jacob that he will be with him.  Upon waking Jacob responds, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it…How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.” (Gen. 28:16-17)

Jacob then responds to God’s revealing of himself by an act of worship and dedication. Jacob recognizes God’s ability to provide as he takes the stone he was lying on and pours oil on it.  There is even further foreshadowing of God’s presence in the land as Jacob says, “…this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God’s house…” (28:22).

[1] The Hebrew phrase is תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ(tohu va vohu),used together only one other time in the OT canon in Jer. 4:24, depicting the same sense of “uninhabitability”.

[2] William J. Dumbrell, Biblical Theology Retrospect and Prospect, ed. Scott J. Hafemann (New York: InterVarsity P, 2002), 56. Dumbrell points to the potential inference contained in the Hebrew word  gan which refers to a fenced-off enclosure, particularly by a wall or hedge. (cf. 2 Kings 25:4; Jer. 39:4; 52:7; Neh. 3:15).

[3] Dumbrell, 58.