The Land Promise To The Patriarchs

This post is part of the the biblical promise of land series (click to view the other posts in this series).

In the previous post in this series we took a look at Noah and how God's purposes in creation and the land promise associated with those purposes were passed on from Adam to Noah. We also saw that, like Adam, Noah and his descendants failed to fulfill these purposes culminating in the events at Babel. Babel was an anti-Eden. Eden's purpose was to glorify God and to act as a starting point for God's glory and his presence to be spread across the whole earth. Babel's humanly self-declared purpose was just the opposite – to glorify man and to stay within the confines of the city. In judgement, God confused their language and spread them across the whole earth.

We also started to recognize a pattern of judgement. It starts with chaos, and then moves to creation, commission, sin, and exile. We will continue to follow this pattern as we look further into the history of land promises in the Bible.

Let's now turn to the patriarchs – Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. As expected, we see that Adam's commission and its associated promises are passed along to them. We'll start with a discussion on the similarities between Adam and Noah's commission and the one given to the patriarchs, and then we will discuss the differences between the two commissions.

Commission Similarities

Remember, God's ultimate purpose is to be glorified across the entire earth which involves God's blessing upon his servants so they will be fruitful and multiply, filling the earth, subduing it, and ruling over it (Gen. 1:28). This is God's commission to man, what we call the Cultural Mandate. Within that commission is a land promise to man that he will inherit the whole earth. Here is what God says to the patriarchs:

to Abraham

  • “And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:2-3)
  • “That I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly...I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant to be God to you and your offspring after you. And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.” (Genesis 17:2,6-8)
  • I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.” (Genesis 22:17-18)

to Isaac

  • “Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you and will bless you, for to you and to your offspring I will give all these lands, and I will establish the oath that I swore to Abraham your father. I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and will give to your offspring all these lands. And in your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 26:3-4)
  • “I am with you and will bless you and multiply your offspring for my servant Abraham's sake.” (Genesis 26:24)

and to Jacob

  • God Almighty bless you and make you fruitful and multiply you, that you may become a company of peoples. May he give the blessing of Abraham to you and to your offspring with you, that you may take possession of the land of your sojournings that God gave to Abraham!” (Genesis 28:3-4)
  • “The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring. Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south, and in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed.” (Genesis 28:13-14)
  • “I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply. A nation and a company of nations shall come from you and kings shall come from your own body. The land that I gave to Abraham and Isaac I will give to you, and I will give the land to your offspring after you.” (Genesis 35:11-12)

(List from A New Testament Biblical Theology by G.K. Beale, emphasis both his and mine)

Therefore, God gave the same commission to the patriarchs as he did to Adam and Noah, often using the exact same language. He blessed the patriarchs and called them to multiply and fill, subdue, and rule over the earth. The whole earth was to be their inheritance.

Commission Differences

There are also several differences between God's commission to Adam and that given to the patriarchs. First, the commission to the patriarchs now includes a spiritual aspect where they are called to overcome the influence of evil in humanity. This evil in unregenerate hearts wasn't initially present in creation with Adam and it wasn't specifically addressed with Noah. However, Abraham and his descendants were now to “possess the gate of [their] enemies,” fill the earth and be witnesses on God's behalf to fallen humanity. This is significant because God is now including redemption as part of his plan to spread his glory throughout the earth, using Abraham and his descendants to give testimony to God's glory.

Second, God gives promises along with the commands instead of just commands. Whereas Adam was commanded to carry out the commission, God also commands the patriarchs but he adds promises that the commission would be fulfilled in their eschatological seed. Humanity was no longer able to fulfill the commission on their own, but God, in his infinite wisdom, promised that he would enable humanity to do the very thing they could no longer do.

“...the expectations of the original Adamic commission were still in force, though together now with God's promise that he will enable the Abrahamic seed to carry out the commission.” A New Testament Biblical Theology by G.K. Beale

Third, starting with Isaac, God gives assurance that his presence will be with his people. God repeatedly promises, “I am with you.” This assurance was made to give confidence and encouragement to God's people that he would fulfill the commission through them. We will see further importance of God's presence when we look at the land promises to the nation of Israel in a future post in this series.

Fourth, and most pertinent to this series, God promises Abraham and his seed a specific piece of land with specific borders as an everlasting possession (Genesis 15:18-21). Why would God promise this if God's intent was for them to fill and inherit the whole earth? To answer, do you notice a similarity to this with creation and God's covenant with Adam? Eden had specific borders and was to be the starting point of Adam's commission. In the same way, the land of Canaan was to be the starting point, the launching pad, for God's glory to be spread throughout the earth by Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and their descendants. Canaan was to be another Eden and Abraham and his descendants were to be a corporate Adam.

In fact, we see descriptions of Canaan in the Bible that mirror Eden. Not only is Canaan consistently called “a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey,” using imagery that reminds us of the garden (Exodus 3:8, 3:17, 13:5, 33:3 to name just a few), but it is also directly compared to Eden (see Isaiah 51:3, Ezekiel 36:35). God ordains that the fulfillment of his plan of redemption and the spread of his glory would start in Canaan and then expand to the whole world. As we continue this series, we will see that the Israelites understood this and had an expectation of the universalization of the land promise.

In the next part of this series, we will take a brief break from tracing the path of God's land promise to specifically look at the “eternal possession” clause of the land promise given to Abraham and his offspring. This is an important and highly-charged issue, so I will dedicate an entire post to it, giving it the careful attention it deserves.

This post is part of the the biblical promise of land series (click to view the other posts in this series).