In #28 we saw that the book of Genesis actually contains two once separate accounts of the Abrahamic covenant, and we noted their main differences and contradiction. In this post and the 2 that follow we will look at other contradictory expressions of the Abrahamic covenant between the writings of the Yahwist, Priestly source, the Deuteronomist, and lastly Paul.
The promise of possessing the land of Canaan to Abraham and his descendants is a prevalent and significant theme throughout the Yahwist narrative in Genesis. It is presented as an unconditional, divinely ordained, promise which the Yahwist has placed variously upon the lips of Yahweh:
“to your offspring I will give this land” (12:7)
“for all the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring forever” (13:15)
“to give you this land to posses” (15:7)
“to your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river of Euphrates”1 (15:18)
“I’ll give all these lands to you and your descendants, and I’ll uphold the oath that I swore to Abraham your father” (26:3).
In all these examples, Yahweh’s promise of the land is freely given to Abraham and through him to Isaac, Jacob, and finally Jacob’s children. In other words, there are no conditions attached to this divine promise in J.
This whole tradition, however, is negated by the Deuteronomist, Priestly writer, and later exilic authors—those who had witnessed first hand the loss of their land: both the land of the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BC and the land of the southern kingdom of Judah in 587 BC. When these authors sat down to rewrite Israel’s “history” they did so in order to explain their current plight—captivity, exile, loss of land. This manifested itself by having Yahweh now express the land promise as a conditional one.
In fact, the book of Ezekiel explicitly disputes the unconditional land promise tradition. Written after the complete annihilation of Jerusalem, its people, land, and temple by the Babylonians in 587 BC, Ezekiel, through the mouthpiece of his god, strongly questions the claim of an unconditional promise of the land to the now currently landless descendants of Abraham in exile:
The word of Yahweh came to me: “Son of man, the inhabitants of these waste places in the land of Israel keep saying, ‘Abraham was only one man, yet he got possession of the land; but we are many; the land is surely given us to possess.’ Therefore say to them, ‘Thus says the lord Yahweh: You eat flesh with the blood, and lift up your eyes to your idols, and shed blood; shall you then possess the land? You depend on your swords, you commit abominations, and each of you defiles his neighbor’s wife; shall you then possess the land?” (Ezek 33:23-26)
Keeping or returning to the land, according to Ezekiel’s Yahweh, is conditioned on keeping the ordinances and cultic laws. This is the same theological conviction we find in the Deuteronomic literature, and although the Deuteronomist did not witness the total destruction of the land of Judah as Ezekiel did, he nevertheless did know of the total destruction of the land of northern Israel in the late 8th century BC. Like Ezekiel, the Deuteronomist was also moved to alter the tradition and punctuate the conditionality of the promise that Yahweh made to Abraham and his descendants.
And now O Israel, listen to the laws and the judgments that I am teaching you to do, so that you’ll live and you’ll come and take possession of the land that Yahweh your father’s god is giving you (Deut 4:1).
And you shall be watchful to do as Yahweh your god has commanded you. You shall not turn right or left. You shall go in all the way that Yahweh your god has commanded you, so that you’ll live, and it will be good for you, and you’ll extend days in the land that you’ll possess (Deut 5:29-30).
And it will be because you’ll listen to these judgments and observe and do them that Yahweh your god will keep the covenant and kindness for you that he swore to your fathers (Deut 7:12).
These are merely a few examples of the Deuteronomist’s conditional land theology. It is the core theological tenet of the book of Deuteronomy. In fact, it is so central that the Deuteronomist apparently went back to the earlier traditions which expressed the unconditional giving and keeping of the land now preserved in the book of Genesis and inserted clauses that expressed the Deuteronomist’s claim of conditionality.2 So for example, Genesis 18:19 stipulates through the mouthpiece of Yahweh:
“For I have chosen him [Abraham] that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of Yahweh by doing righteousness and justice, so that Yahweh may bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.”
Genesis 26:4-5 expresses this same conditionality in more explicit terms:
“because Abraham listened to my voice and kept my watch, my commandments, my laws, and my instructions.”
Thus, among the Yahwist’s assertions of an unconditional promise of land and prosperity to Abraham’s descendants, these Deuteronomic interpretive inserts express this promise as a condition. Furthermore, the wording of these verses— “keep the way of Yahweh” and “keep my watch, my commandments, and my laws”—makes it clear that keeping the land is conditioned on keeping Torah obligations, just as we saw in the Deuteronomic citations above. What is curious about these passages from Genesis, however, is that the giving of Yahweh’s laws and commandments has not yet happened! These verses mention Torah ordinances before the giving of the Torah! As commentators have noticed, they are later Deuteronomic insertions that attempted to reshape these earlier traditions. Like the Ezekiel passage above, these Genesis passages fasten ethical and cultic obligations to the promise of the land.3
We saw in #28 that the Priestly writer also expressed the possession of the land in terms of a covenantal obligation: circumcision (see the forthcoming #30).
We now start to see how later interpretive traditions feed off of these contradictory traditions now inherent in the Bible’s composite text. For instance, Paul in his letter to the Galatians argues that the promise of the inheritance of Jerusalem is unconditional (see #31). We can see the passages that would support Paul’s assertion. Nonetheless, Paul’s Jewish brethren argue that the inheritance is conditioned on obeying Mosaic Torah stipulations. We can likewise see the Old Testament passages that would be used to support this interpretive claim.
This same dispute is reproduced in Luther’s debate with the church. Luther uses the unconditional promise given to Abraham in 12:1-3, 7 to legitimate his theology of divine unearned grace. The Catholic church, however, drew on Genesis 26:3-5, 18:19, etc. to legitimate the position that such grace was conditioned on obedience. Such interpretive differences are purely the result of the Bible’s combination of these convergent theological traditions which once existed as separate texts, and which were written to reflect the ideas, concerns, and social dynamics of distinct groups in distinct historical settings.
- This was the territory allegedly held under the Davidic dynasty. The “river of Egypt” is not the Nile but rather a reference to the Wadi Eschol; likewise the Euphrates envisioned here is a tributary of the Euphrates which flows through Syria. Interestingly, these borders were actually assigned by the Egyptians when this land was an Egyptian province in the 15th-12th c. BC.↵
- Carr, Reading the Fractures of Genesis, 160.↵
- Cf. Gen 22:16-17, an E text, where the promise of the possession of the land is also stipulated on conditional terms connected specifically to Abraham’s obedience: “because you [Abraham] did this thing and did not withhold your son, that I’ll bless you and multiply your seed like the stars of the heavens and like the sand on the shore, and your seed will possess its enemies gates.” The thing that Abraham has done here, is obey god’s command to sacrifice his son Isaac.↵