A Biblical Theology of the Ground

In recent years it has become increasingly common for theologians to focus on the sphere (sacred space) in which redemption occurs. The Temple motif from the Garden of Eden to the Heavenly City (i.e. the New Jerusalem) is traced out in such noteworthy works as O. Palmer Robertson’s Christ of the Prophets, and Understanding the Land of the Bible; T. Desmond Alexander’s From Paradise to the Promised Land, and From Eden to the New Jerusalem; William J. Dumbrell’s Covenant and Creation; G.K. Beale’s The Temple and the Church’s Mission, John Fesko’s Last Things First, and Meredith Kline’s Kingdom Prologue. The question that now must be asked is whether or not the work of these men can be further developed for our benefit.

In Understanding the Land of the Bible, Robertson has taken on the enormous task of gathering information about all the significant physical locations in Israel’s history in order to place them within their redemptive historical context, and discover their theological significance. Of the many benefits the reader gains from this work, perhaps the greatest is found in the first few sentences of his chapter, “The Land of the Bible in the Age of the New Covenant.” Robertson opens that chapter with the following significant words: “The Land was made for Jesus Christ. All its diversity was designed to serve Him. Its character as a land bridge for three continents was crafted for His strategic role in the history of humanity.” The land of Israel served a purpose–to receive the Messiah who would come and bless the entire world with eternal blessing. The land served its purpose. It had a typical significance.

Robertson further develops this idea in his allusion to Romans 4:13, where the apostle wrote, “Now to Abraham and his seed were the promise made that he would be heir of the world.” Paul makes the transition from Abraham and his Seed inheriting the land to Abraham and his Seed inheriting the world. Here is a link to which we must pay very careful attention. It becomes evident that the land of Israel was typical of the world. The land of Israel was basically a microcosm of the cosmos. If you return to the text of Genesis 12, where the original promise is made, the first thing that should stand out is that the “world” does not appear to be mentioned. In each and every instance, the reference appears to be the “land” of Israel. This should not move us to conclude that Paul misread Moses, but that he had a greater grasp on the biblical theological significance of the land. In the same context in which God promises Abraham the land of Israel another promise is made. God promises to bless the “nations” of the world through Abraham’s seed. We know from the NT that the seed is Christ and that the nations have reference to all those throughout redemptive history–from every tongue, tribe, nation and language, who trust in Him. The NT writers’ explanation of the promise made to Abraham is much, much larger than many have acknowledged.

A further reason for this conclusion is the linguistic relationship between the Hebrew word for land and earth. The word הָ אָ רֶ ץ can be translated either land or earth. It is used in Gen. 12:1 where God promised Abraham that he would inherit the land. One can immediately see how Paul understands the development from the idea of the land of Israel (as being the typical inheritance) to the inheritance of the entire world. God’s promise to Abraham functioned on two levels: 1) the typical, earthly promise, and 2) the eschatological realization of this promise in the new heavens and new earth.

It is, in fact, the case that Abraham’s descendants (i.e. those who have faith in Christ, see Gal. 3) become heirs of the “world,” in Him who overcame and received the inheritance of the world from His Father. In Christ, we too become heirs of God and of the world. This is also the explanation of the words of our Lord, “The meek shall inherit the earth,” and Peter’s reference to the New Heavens and the New Earth. Believers will come to possess “all things,” as Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 6.

A proper understanding of the purpose of the land of Israel opens a new area of research into the significance of the Garden of Eden. Eden was a special place, a physical location (or land), in which Adam was place by God at Creation. It was the prototypical promised land. There is also identification between Eden and the Temple–the place where God is worshiped by man, and where God dwells with man. The presence of lilies, palm trees, and pomegranates carved around the outside of the Temple are meant to bring the minds of the people of God back to Eden. Phil Ryken notes:

[the Temple] really was like the gates of Paradise. And for many people the way of access was still denied. Unless they were priests they would never see the golden wonders inside. Only the High Priests would enter that most holy place. Yet however limited it was there was access. You see God was opening back up the way to Paradise. You might think of Solomon’s temple as a kind of spiritual portal. The paradise lost could be regained.1

The Lord was always, throughout the Old Testament era, moving everything toward the restoration of the blessing of Eden. This in turn ought to move our attention back to the Garden of Eden to find hints as to the land/world connection. This is the case if we begin at the beginning, with the creation of man.

In Genesis 2:7 we are told that God formed man out of the dust of the ground. The ground (הָ אֲדָ מָ ה) was man’s original environment. In fact, there seems to be an intentional play on words in Gen. 1:27 where we are told that the Lord formed הָ אָ דָ ם out of the הָ אֲדָ מָ ה. There is a clear connection between the ground, and the man who was formed out of the ground. The name Adam lit. means ‘red.’ Since he was made out of red-like clay of the ground, the name is a play on the word ground (הָ אֲדָ מָ ה). [As an aside, there seems to be a relationship between man and the rest of creation as a direct result of his being made out of the ground. Man’s sin and idolatry (Rom. 1) manifests itself–in the greatest act of perversion–in man worshiping the creation (i.e. beasts, animals, tress, etc.). This explains why men now exalt the created order above the image bearer of God and above God Himself. In one sense, the Environmentalist movement, and all naturalized forms of religion, are right to draw a connection between man and the close connection with his environment. The fault with these ideologies lies in the subordination of man to the environment and, at the same time, the exaltation of the creation over the Creator Himself–the very perversion of the original order. The close relationship between man and beast may be argued, in part, from the fact that both are created on the same day (Gen. 1:24; 26-27), as living, moving and breathing beings. The dissimilarity is to be observed by the fact that man, who alone is made “from the ground,” is alone the image bearer of God. We are told that the LORD commanded the earth to bring forth the beasts of the field, but we are not told that they are made from the “ground,” nor that they bear the image of their Maker. Genesis 1:24 is the first time הָ אָ רֶ ץ is mentioned. There it is in regard to the animals. God is said to have created ever living thing that moves on the ground.

There is another reference to the ground found in Genesis 2:5 where we read, “there was no man to work the ground.” The ground is the sphere of blessing and fruitfulness. Eden especially intimates the sphere of God’s richest blessing. God intended to create an image bearer who would work the ground. Therefore, God made man from the dust of the ground (Gen. 2:7). The sphere of blessing that would be the source of fruitfulness is the place that man is taken from. He is taken from the ground and he is created to work the ground. Adam is made to be fruitful and multiply, and to dress and keep the Garden. Adam was to work the ground and take the Garden out into the world. His task was to turn the world into the Garden.

Sadly, we know how quickly man forfeited his task by sinning against his Creator. In the pronouncement of judgment on man (Gen. 3:17-19) we discover that the sphere of blessing, the very place where man originated, is now cursed and turned into a thorny, barren wilderness that man will have to suffer toilsome labor in order to cultivate the once fruitful land. The ground is cursed on account of Adam’s sin. Adam was taken from the ground, the ground was the sphere of God’s blessing man, “the environment in which blessings would be uncovered;” but Adam rebelled against His Maker. God now curses the very place out of which He made man.

Adam’s sin and the depravity and corruption that he brought on all his descendants manifests itself, in the worst way, in the life of his firstborn son. Cain kills his brother, shedding Abel’s blood on the ground that he, incidentally, tilled. When the LORD confronts Cain He makes this astonishing statement: The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground. Cain had sought to hid the body of his brother in the ground, but God is not limited by time and space, as fallen man wants to think about Him. The blood of Abel cries out to God to bring vengeance and judgment on Cain.

The author of Hebrews picks up on the idea of Abel’s blood crying out, when he, “while comparing Old Covenant and New Covenant worship,” writes:

For you have not come to the mountain that may be touched and that burned with fire, and to blackness and darkness and tempest, 19 and the sound of a trumpet and the voice of words, so that those who heard it begged that the word should not be spoken to them anymore. (For they could not endure what was commanded: And if so much as a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned or shot with an arrow. And so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, I am exceedingly afraid and trembling. But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel. (Hebrews 12:18-24)

Abel was a type of our Lord Jesus Christ. The blood that Abel shed was on account of Christ. Abel, was a righteous man, putting his faith and trust in the promise of God for a Savior (Gen. 3:15). Just as Cain, the seed of the serpent (1 John 3: ), killed Abel, the ˜seed of the woman,” so the apostate Jews and unbelieving Romans, the  “seed of the serpent” (Matt. 3:7; John 8:44) killed Jesus, the Seed of the woman (Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 3:23-38; and Rev. 12:1-5). The blood of Abel cried out from the ground for judgment on the ungodly, but the blood of Jesus speaks better things than that of Abel, crying out for redemption and salvation. When Jesus was in the Garden of Gethsemane, agonizing under the realization of what He would suffer, Luke tells us that his swear became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground. The blood of Jesus fell into the ground in the Garden, and it was shed into the earth at the cross. While, the most important aspect of the blood of Christ is that it is sprinkled on the mercy seat in heaven, it nevertheless, falls to the ground, the place of curse that He came into the world to turn to the sphere of blessing.

Returning again to Genesis we soon discover that God pronounces a curse on Cain, further cursing the ground that had once yielded its fruit for him. Cain had shed his brothers blood into the ground, therefore, God cursed the ground, from which man was taken, to an even greater extent than he had before.

When Lamech, a descendant of Seth, bore a son, he called him Noah (lit.”rest”), because he believed the promise of Gen. 3:15. We know this because he said of his son, “This one will comfort [lit. give rest to] us concerning our work and the toil of our hands, because of the ground which the LORD has cursed (Gen. 5:29).” Noah is also a type of Christ. Lamech names his son “rest” because he is believing the promise of God (Gen. 3:15), that He would send a Redeemer to give rest from the burden of sin manifested in God’s curse on the “ground.” Interestingly, Noah does give a typical rest to the ground by obeying the LORD when he is called to go into the ark with the animals and his family. Man and beast, were brought into the ark. God would actually provide rest through the judgment He brings on the earth with the flood. Rest would be provided through judgment. Likewise, Jesus, the greater than Noah, provides eternal rest through the judgment He endures as the sin-bearer. When Noah left the ark, the rest that he typically provided for man is seen in the fact that he is, essentially, the head of humanity on a new earth. All of the flood narrative is moving toward the re-creation of the earth that had been so polluted by sin. So Christ, does not just redeem His elect, He also purchases the new heavens and new earth with His blood. He provides “rest” for us concerning our work and the toil of our hands, because of the ground which the LORD has cursed.

Moving backwards again to the creation account (Gen. 1-2) we learn that there is a Sabbath, a day of rest pointing forward to the eschatological rest that Christ would provide for us. It is interesting that Jesus healed many people on the Sabbath, giving rest from physical infirmities. In this way He was showing that He was the one who could give rest for the soul (see Matt. 11:25-12: 14 for support of this idea). In the OT the rest that Christ came to give is typified, first with Noah and the ground then with Israel and the land. Meredith Kline noted:

Another indication of the royal nature of God’s Sabbath rest is afforded when the Bible interprets the entrance of God’s covenant people Israel upon their royal inheritance as the securing of a Sabbath rest. Thus Israel’s occupation of the promised land is described as God’s gift of rest (menucah) to them (Deut. 3:20; 12:9; 1 Kings 8:56). In fact, in Hebrews 4, Israel’s dominion rest in Canaan (viewed as forfeited by the generation in the wilderness but typologically achieved through Joshua’s conquest of Canaan) is expressly interpreted in terms of the Creator’s seventh day rest.

The link here would be between typical Sabbath rest for Israel in the land, and eternal Sabbath rest for the people of God in the new earth. There was an unmistakable relationship between the land and rest in the book of Joshua. We are told in Josh. 21:43 that God gave Israel rest. But the writer of Hebrews tells us, in Heb. 4, that Joshua did not give the people of God their true rest. The insinuation, of course, is that Jesus gives the people of God the eternal and eschatological rest that Israel only experienced in the land in a typical and anticipatory way (Josh. 21:43-45). Again, the link between the promise that Abraham would be heir of the land and that he would be heir of the world is made through the relationship of Christ to the Sabbath.

The most amazing truth, unfolded in the book of Revelation, is that all the places that were representative of the sphere of God’s blessing (i.e. the Garden, Land and City) become names of the Church. Redeemed humanity becomes the environment of God’s dwelling, the eschatological sphere of blessing. The covenant promise that God would dwell with His people and that He would dwell in them is typified from Eden to Christ. In the New Covenant the land no longer has the typical significance it once had. Meredith Kline explained how it is that man no longer needs a typical environment for redemption:

At the consummation man leaves behind the external he has developed through his earthly history. Glorified mankind is depicted as the city of God, the fullness of the new heaven and new earth. Scriptures identification of the eternal city with the glorified church (Rev. 21:9-10) is accompanied by its proclamation of a new heaven and new earth (Rev. 21:1) and thus intends, of course, no negation of the cosmic dimension of consummated creation, glorified mankind is incorporated into the archetypal Spirit-temple, with which, the cosmos has been integrated. Hence, it is at once the people-temple and the cosmos-temple, together consummated in the glory temple.

It appears that the interchangeable language–in which the church is likened to a Garden, Land, City and Temple–is founded upon the fact that man is taken from the earth/land /ground, the original dwelling place of God with man. It is only through the shed blood of our Savior Jesus Christ that the ground is redeemed, and man again enjoys, this time to a much greater degree, the blessings of God on the land. The blessings of Christ on the land are really typical of His blessings on His people. It is image bearers with which God is most concerned. The environment is simply a way of showing the totality and comprehensiveness of His riches in Christ Jesus. In the truest and highest sense, “He comes to make His blessings flow far as the curse is found.”


2 Responses to “A Biblical Theology of the Ground”

  1. David Cronkhite says:

    “And they cried with a loud voice, saying, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?”

    Genesis and Revelation are like bookends. This verse would correspond to the passage about Abel’s blood in Genesis.

    Another thought: There was the command to remove the shoes when standing on holy ground. Perhaps to show that man is from the dust?

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I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naïve. (Romans 16:17-18)

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