Does the Land of Canaan Belong to the Jews Forever?

Does the Land of Canaan Belong to the Jews Forever?
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Thursday, April 26, 2012 at 4:14pm

QUESTION: How do you reconcile your view that national Israel (the Jewish nation) is no longer and never again will be the people of God, with the Old Testament promise that the land of Canaan (once known as Palestine, now known as Israel) will belong to the Jewish people FOREVER?

ANSWER: You are referring to God’s promise to Abraham, first recorded in Genesis 12:7 and subsequently repeated to him and to the other patriarchs. In Gen. 12:7 God said to Abraham, “To your descendants I will give this land.” See also Gen. 13:14-17; 15:18-19; 17:8; 26:3; 28:13. In some of these promises the Hebrew word translated “forever” or “everlasting” is included: “I will give it to you and to your descendants forever” (13:15); “I will give to you and to your descendants after you, the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession” (17:8).

First we should note that this promise of the land began to be fulfilled when Israel crossed the Jordan River and took possession of Canaan, as recorded in Joshua 3 & 4. As the Israelites were about to cross over, Moses said to them, “See, I have placed the land before you; go in and possess the land which the LORD swore to give to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to them and their descendants after them” (Deut. 1:8). When the conquest was completed, God’s promise was fulfilled: “So the LORD gave Israel all the land which He had sworn to give to their fathers, and they possessed it and lived in it. . . . Not one of the good promises which the LORD had made to the house of Israel failed; all came to pass” (Josh. 21:43, 45).

At issue here, though, is the inclusion of the word “forever” or “everlasting.” Did not God say that Canaan would be the “everlasting possession” of Abraham’s descendants? In view of most of our English translations, it is no wonder that many take this promise to mean that the land of Palestine still belongs to the Jews today and will be their homeland forever. This is an erroneous idea, however, and is based on a faulty English translation of the Hebrew word that is translated here as “forever” or “everlasting.” The Hebrew word is ‘olam. Though this word sometimes carries the connotation of “eternal,” it does not always mean this. It often means no more than “age-lasting” or “until the end of the age,” namely, the Old Testament age.

This is especially true of OT statements about things related to Israel. God’s provisions for the life and religion of Israel were not meant to endure forever. The following is a list of some other things about Israel that are described with the same Hebrew word (‘olam) and which obviously were intended to become obsolete when the Old Covenant ended:

Circumcision as a covenant sign, Gen. 17:13.
The Passover feast, Exod. 12:24 (see 12:14, 17).
Sabbath observance, Exod. 31:16-17.
The Day of Atonement, Lev. 16:29, 31.
The Aaronic priesthood, Exod. 40:15.
The priests’ clothing, Exod. 28:43.
The priests’ portion of the sacrifices, Exod. 29:28 (see Lev. 6:18).
The priests’ washings, Exod. 30:21.
The bread of the Presence, Lev. 24:8.
The candlestick, Exod. 27:21.
Solomon’s temple, 1 Kgs. 8:13 (see 9:3).
The Levites as custodians of the ark of the covenant, 1 Chr. 15:2 (see 23:13).

From this list it is clear that the word ‘olam does not necessarily mean “everlasting.” Regarding things having to do with Israel, it obviously means “age-lasting,” i.e., only “as long as the Old Covenant age lasts.” There is no reason to think it means anything more than this in the promises concerning the land of Canaan. Thus Israel’s right to claim Canaan as her own possession ended along with all these other Old Covenant practices and privileges.

(Interestingly, the Holman Christian Standard Bible [1999-2003] recognizes this more limited meaning of ‘olam and translates it as “permanent,” “perpetual,” or “regular” in ten of the twelve passages numbered above.)

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