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To the Land I will Show You
The book of Genesis presents two histories, both concerned with land. One, presented in Genesis 1-11, is about people fully rooted in land living toward expulsion and loss of land. Successively, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and his family, and finally the folks at Babel do everything they can to lose the land, and they eventually do. That history is about presuming upon the land and as a result losing it. The Bible ponders the folly and carelessness that cause people securely landed to give it up.
The other history of Genesis is in chapters 12-50. It features Abraham and his family, and is about not having land but being on the way toward it and living in confident expectation of it. The Bible considers at length that people without land have the resources and stamina to live toward a land they do not possess.
The new history begins as history always begins, in a word spoken. "Now the Lord said to Abraham:' How else could history begin? That is the way with individual histories when persons are addressed and willed into being, into a new consciousness. Such a word spoken gives identity and personhood, and we could not have invented it. It is the voice of the prophet — or the poet if you wish — who calls a name, bestows a vision, summons a pilgrimage. This is not the detached prattle of a computer; not the empty language of a quota or a formula or a rule; but it is a word spoken which lets one not be the same again. Land-expelling history could live by co-ercive language but land-anticipating history can only begin with One who in his speaking makes all things new. That is what Gen. 12:1 does in the Bible. It makes all things new when all things had become old and weary and hopeless. Creation begins anew, as a history of anticipation of the land.
In the wilderness
A second component of Israel's memory of landlessness is that of the wilderness. This memory, expressed in Exodus 16-18, Numbers 10:11ff., shares the experience of being displaced and without land with the sojourn of the fathers.
The wilderness wanderings are a surprize to Israel. That is not the promise of Exodus. The deliverance rhetoric of Exodus talks rather of going out of Egypt and into the land (Exodus 3:7-8). Clearly what happens falls short of the promise. Israel is victimized by a gross mis-calculation of the post-Exodus possibility. Exodus is about freedom but it is about freedom in the good land under the good word of promise.
It turns out otherwise. The wilderness tradition is the most radical memory Israel has about landlessness. Wilderness is not simply an in-between place which makes the journey longer. It is not simply a sandy place demanding more stamina. It is space far away from ordered land. It is Israel's historic entry into the arena of chaos which, like the darkness before creation, is "formless and void" and without a hovering wind (Gen. 1:2). Wilderness is the historical form of chaos and is Israel's memory of how it was before it was created a people.
Finally Israel Comes To The Land
The Exodus is about to be completed. The promise is about to be fulfilled. Landless sojourning is about to end. Israel comes to the Jordan and needs only to cross it and history will begin anew. The Jordan looms as a decisive boundary in the Bible. It is not simply between east and west but it is laden with symbolic power. It is the boundary between the precariousness of the wilderness and the confidence of at-home-ness. The crossing of the Jordan is the most momentous experience that could happen to Israel. The Jordan crossing represents the moment of the most radical transformation of any historical person or group, the moment of empowerment or enlandment, the decisive event of being turfed and at home for the first time.
The land to Israel is a gift. It is a gift from the Lord and binds Israel in new ways to the giver. Israel lives under gift, not gift anticipated, but gift given. That is its new consciousness, and nothing is more radical, especially to landed, emprowered people, that to discover that they are creatures of gift.
The Land, Walter Brueggemann