Theology of the Land - Foundational Principles

Theology of the Land - Foundational Principles
The theme of Land is a major one in the Bible.
In “Healing Wounded History”, Russ Parker
estimates that the Old Testament contains
2,500 references to land, and the New
Testament 250 [1]. In the story of Abraham
alone, of forty-six promises God makes to
Abraham, forty mention the land, and twentynine are largely or exclusively about land.
Someone has commented that there are more
references in the Bible to land than to
justification by faith, repentance, baptism or
Christ’s return [2]. Yet, the same could not be
said of the notes of most preachers. In an era
when changing land-use, scientific dilemmas,
resource depletion and global ecological crises
threaten stability and sometimes life itself, a
robust Christian theology of the land is vital.
As an expression of this truth, Old Testament
land-ownership was radically different from
that of other near-eastern societies, where
Kings and feudal lords owned most of the
land. Dr. Chris Wright states: “In Israel the
land was divided up as widely as possible into
multiple ownership by extended families. In
order to preserve this system, it could not be
bought and sold commercially, but had to be
retained within kinship groups” [4]. The story of
Naboth’s vineyard in 1 Kings 21 illustrates this.
King Ahab desires Naboth’s land and tries to
buy it but Naboth replies, “The Lord forbid that
I should give you the inheritance of my fathers”
(1 Kings 21.3). Naboth’s words reveal that in
Israel, “land is not a tradable commodity but
an inalienable inheritance” [5], in other words
that there is a God-given relationship between
people and land.
Our starting point is: “The earth is the Lord’s
and everything in it, the world and all who live
in it” (Psalm 24.1). God is the loving Creator,
who made all good things from nothing, and
has ownership rights over all things.
The relationship between human beings and
the land goes back to creation itself. We are
created from the dust of the earth (Genesis
2.7), giving us a kinship with all living things,
and with the land itself. The words human
(homo sapiens), humus (soil), and humility
share a common root. Our literal feet of clay
should give us a true humility in terms of our
place on this planet. This is not just English
word play. In Genesis 2 the Hebrew word for
“man” (Adam) is deliberately derived from the
word for “ground” (adamah), and the
parallelism of the passage means that “man” is
referred to eighteen times, and ground / earth /
soil nineteen times. Professor Eugene
Peterson has jokingly suggested that we
should retranslate Genesis using “dust” and
“Dusty”, rather than “ground” and “Adam”! [6].
Human land-ownership is therefore always
secondary to God’s. In his book, “The Land”,
Walter Brueggemann states, “Land is not
given over to any human agent but is a sign
and function in covenant” [3]. Thus, land is a
gift – not in the sense of being ours to use and
abuse if we wish - but a gift in covenant, a
leasehold rather than a freehold. The clearest
example of this is in the gift of the Promised
Land to Israel. The land is first promised, and
then given to God’s people, who have to claim
their inheritance with blood and toil. Yet, the
land still belongs to God. In Leviticus 25, the
Lord commands Israel to observe a Sabbath
on the land every seven years, and a Jubilee
every fifty, when land sold is returned to the its
original owner’s family. God tells the people:
“The land is not to be sold permanently,
because the land is mine, and you are but
aliens and my tenants” (Leviticus 25.23).
God has created humans to live in a physical,
geographical context, not as disembodied
souls. As people, and in how we express our
faith, we need to be “earthed”, “rooted”,
“grounded”, or else we become “dislocated”,
“uprooted”, “displaced”. As Parker says: “One
of the strongest and most basic needs of the
whole human race is to belong, and to belong
in the place or on the land where we can
connect, be rooted and grow” [7].
Modern societies, with increasing urbanisation,
with rapid transport from one human
environment to another, with insulation from
the cycles of the seasons and changes of
weather, have lost much of their connection
with place. Yet it is only in the specifics of a
place that our faith can be “located”.
Whilst the language of Genesis 1.28
(“subdue”, “have dominion over”) has
sometimes been used to excuse the unlimited
exploitation of the land and its resources, this
is clearly not the intended meaning. The
ultimate “dominion”, as we have seen, belongs
to God, and our role is as God’s managers,
trustees, or tenant farmers. We are to express
the kind of rule God desires – the rule
exemplified in Christ, the Servant-King.
Genesis 2.15 expands on this theme, when
Adam is placed in Eden “to work it and take
care of it”, a phrase that can be translated as
“to serve and preserve”.
As Christians we have often over-spiritualised
our faith, thus losing our connection with
“place”. The song, “This world is not my home,
I’m just a passing through”, (whilst written as
an understandable response to the horrors of
slavery) is appalling theology! The New
Testament, like the Old, sees “place” as the
context for faith. St. Paul, in speaking to the
Athenians in Acts 17 speaks of how the
Creator God has “determined the exact
places” where people should live (Acts 17.26),
so that they would seek and find Him (v.27).
This world is our God-given home. It is a good
home (although much spoilt by our disastrous
disobedience to God). It contains wonderful
diversity and beauty. It is a home that has
been sanctified by God’s Son Jesus making it
his home too. Archbishop William Temple
once described Christianity as “the most
materialistic religion”, because it affirms a
good creation, and teaches God incarnate in
material form. Just as Jesus worked out his
relationship with God in the back streets of
Nazareth, the roughness of a carpenter’s
shop, and the deserts of Sinai, so we are to
put roots down where God has placed us.
Wright further states, “It is the belief that God
owns the land and demands accountability in
the use of it from his ‘tenants’ that generates
the literal ‘earthiness’ of Old Testament ethics.
Nothing that you can do in, on or with the land
is outside the sphere of God’s moral
inspection.” [9]. The detail of Old Testament
law touches on every detail of farming
practice, from the welfare of domestic animals,
to margins at field edges, and to which crops
were to be used. Although the specific laws
were given for Israel’s particular situation and
should not be transposed literally, there are
underlying principles that still apply. Amongst
the clearest are that God takes a lively interest
in the welfare of all his creatures and of the
land itself, and that humans are responsible to
God for how the land is treated. These
underlying principles are based not on the
covenant between God and Israel, but rather
taken from creation itself, and thus have
universal application.
Our relationship with the land starts with being
created from the same raw materials, but goes
far beyond. As human beings we are unique
because we are also made in God’s image
(Genesis 1.27). Whilst theologians have
debated this endlessly, one clear pointer is
given in verse 28 when we are commissioned
to “fill the earth and subdue it” and to rule over
the earth’s creatures. Professor Bruce Birch
states: “To be created in the image of God is a
gift that brings with it the responsibility to care
for God’s creation.” [8]. We are God’s imagebearers in that God has entrusted human
beings with the stewardship of his earth.
relationship with God is not just in individual
terms – “Jesus and me”, but also includes a
corporate dimension (“If anyone says “I love
God”, yet hates his brother, he is a liar” 1 John
4.20). What we have often failed to realise is
that there is also a wider ecological dimension
to our relationship with God.
This can be pictured as a triangle of
relationship, with God at the summit, and
people and place as the two other points.
Wright first used this helpful image in order to
describe the relationship between God, the
people of Israel, and the Promised Land. He
goes on to describe in detail how “Old
Testament ethics are built upon Israel’s
understanding of who and what they were as a
people, of their relationship to God, and of
their physical environment – their land” [10].
disobey God, and reciprocally humans suffer
randomly from the decay and entropy the fall
has introduced into the whole created order.
Much of the Old Testament consists of the ups
and downs of Israel’s relationship with God,
and the consequent effects on their
relationship with the land. Times of rich
harvest and bounty, of famine and exile are all
linked to spiritual obedience and disobedience.
As Wright says, in relation to Deuteronomy 2830 “The land itself will be both the arena and
agent of God’s blessing or curse” [12].
Throughout the Bible, in both Old Testament
and New, the land is talked of not just as the
passive setting for a story, but also as an
active participant in the drama. Wright states
that the land, “was not just a neutral stage
where the drama unfolds… The land, in all its
dimensions – promise, conquest, shared
possession, use and abuse, loss and recovery
– was a fundamentally theological entity” [11].
Thus, Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden is
accompanied by environmental consequences
as the ground is cursed, producing thorns and
thistles, and Adam is reminded that he is no
more than dust (Genesis 3.17-19). In the very
next chapter, when Cain kills Abel his brother’s
blood cries out from the ground (Genesis 4.10)
to be avenged. The land can, on the one hand,
shout with joy and bow down to God (Psalm
66.1-4 and many other Psalms), and on the
other hand, mourn for the people’s sins
(Hosea 4.1-3), and vomit out evil inhabitants
(Leviticus 18.25-28). Time and again the Bible
uses active verbs, not to suggest that the land
is an animate being, but to emphasise that it is
the active agent of God’s blessing and curse.
Today, many are recognising that “the
environmental crisis is at root a spiritual crisis”
[13]. At one level this is simply common sense.
Greed, over-consumption, waste and pollution
mean we are reaping what we have sown in
terms of ecological disaster. Yet, the
consistent message of the Old Testament is
that it is not only poor stewardship, but also
failure to keep God’s moral law that causes
the land to suffer. To put it simply, and in
terms of the God–people–land triangle, sinning
against the earth damages the land directly,
but sinning against God and neighbour also
damages the land and our relationship to it, in
a less obvious but equally damaging way.
Some writers identify specific biblical “causes
of defilement” with damaging environmental
results. Rev. Alistair Petrie finds four [14]:
1. Idolatry – Jeremiah 3.6-10, 16.18
2. Immorality – Leviticus 18.24-25;
Ezekiel 16.25-27; Jeremiah 23.10
3. Bloodshed – Numbers 35.33-34;
Isaiah 59.2-3
4. Broken Promises – Isaiah 24.5-6
Petrie follows Winkey Pratney [15] in using
Ezekiel 14 to find four judgements of God, to
parallel the four causes of defilement, namely:
To return to the triangle of relationships, the
results of the fall and of human sin are to
introduce a break in every side of the triangle.
Relations between humans and God, between
humans and the land and between the land
and God are all distorted and broken by the
entry of sin into the world. Just as breaking
one thread in a spider’s web may prevent the
whole web functioning, so we are intimately
connected to the rest of creation. Creation
“groans” in pain (Romans 8.19-23) as humans
1. Famine – Ezekiel 14.13-14
2. Ecological devastation – v.15-16
3. War – v. 17-18
4. Disease – v.19-20
Pratney talks of these as “four prophetic
voices designed to get our attention when our
moral madness is full” [16], and Petrie rightly
states, “Whenever people sin on the land, the
land suffers the consequences and reflects the
judgements God sends on His people” [17].
2 Chronicles 7.14 has become a key verse for
our times, because it offers hope in a time of
national and ecological disaster. It makes a
clear link between repentance for moral failure
(humbling ourselves, seeking God, and turning
from wickedness), and God bringing healing
upon the land. It fits squarely with the biblical
theology of the land we have outlined. As we
explore it further, we must also seek to avoid
the ways in which this verse has recently been
misused and misinterpreted.
Yet we must be careful. These lists should not
be seen as exhaustive, or as simple cause
and effect. We cannot say, “If you commit
adultery then you won’t get rain next year”!
Rather these are examples of how failure to
keep to God’s ways – both in terms of good
stewardship and of morality - has an inevitably
negative effect on the land, as well as on our
relationship with God. A break in one side
affects the whole triangle; a tear in one strand
damages the whole web.
There is further reason for caution. Whilst God
continues to send judgement through natural
events, there is probably more emphasis in the
New Testament on God’s final judgement at
the end of time. Moreover, it is very difficult in
practice to distinguish between a specific act
of judgement, and the random chaos
introduced into the natural order through the
fall. When a tower fell in Siloam, Jesus refused
to blame the individuals concerned (Luke 13.45). We must resist the temptation to blame
every farming crisis on specific acts of moral
Firstly, it must be stressed that 2 Chronicles
7.14 is talking about “land” more in an
ecological than a national or political sense.
The context shows that this is not primarily
about healing a nation, but about healing a
place – a physical geographical region – from
problems such as drought, disease and cropfailure (all mentioned in v.13). Petrie
comments: “The word for heal in this passage
is “rapha”, a word used by ancient physicians
meaning “to heal, to mend, to repair or to
make whole.” Used of people, rapha means
restoration to a place of wholeness. Yet here
the word is used in relation to land. As people
are healed and restored in their relationship
with, and stewardship before, God, the land is
subsequently healed as well.” [20].
On the other hand, we cannot avoid the
conclusion that both poor stewardship and
moral decay lead to environmental disaster.
As Bishop James Jones has said: “I believe
that the various farming crises over the years
may well be a judgement of God on the way
we are violating creation. The Bible sees
judgement not just as an event in the future, a
far-off-in-time Day of Judgement, but also as a
present experience. ‘Do not be under any
illusion’ wrote St Paul ‘You cannot make a fool
of God. Because, whatever you sow is exactly
what you will reap.’ “ [18].
Those who have used this verse as a call to
prayer for a nation, and interpreted the
“healing” God brings only in terms of spiritual
and moral revival, have actually missed the
point. In the Biblical world-view, a people’s
“spiritual” relationship with God and their
“physical” relationship with the land where they
live are deeply interconnected. As Parker says
of Genesis 3: “What we are to take from this
passage is that there is an intimacy between
people and the very soil from which they have
come. The earth responds to us, as much as it
responds to God.” [21]
The basic point that the land acts as a
barometer of humanity’s relationship with God
is inescapable. It is not based on the lawbased covenant between God and Israel, but
is written into creation itself. Thus Petrie’s
question, “Is it possible that the ecological
problems we find in the world today are the
fruit of unresolved issues in the land that have
never been dealt with properly?” [19] becomes
a valid, and even an urgent one.
Secondly, there has been some interest
recently in “identificational repentance” or
Christians repent of or confess past sins on
behalf of nations and groups. Such a negative
spiritual heritage or stronghold (Ephesians
6.12) in a particular place or area of land is
broken and the land can be healed, when
Christians and national leaders express
remorse and receive forgiveness. Amongst
evangelicals the jury is still out, with a
consultation organised by the Evangelical
Alliance UK failing to reach united conclusions
[22]. Some believe that spiritual revival and the
healing of the land will only take place when
the power of territorial spirits is broken through
confession of past sins. Others point out that
Jesus and the disciples did not appear to
practise “identificational repentance”, and that
the Bible never advocates repentance by
proxy. This debate will rumble on, but is
actually a red herring for the subject of
“healing the land” as discussed here. 2
Chronicles 7.14 is not about repenting for the
sins of others. It is about God healing the land
when we turn away from our own individual
and social sins.
Yet, if some Christians have fallen into the trap
of applying 2 Chronicles 7.14 in too literal and
immediate a way, there is an opposite danger
that we must also avoid. The fact that God
does not always bring physical healing when
we pray for individuals does not stop
Christians from praying with expectancy that
God can and will heal the sick. We know that
the world is fallen, that God’s Kingdom is not
yet fully here, and that we are in an unseen
spiritual battle, yet most Christians also know
of times when God has brought direct and
miraculous healing in answer to prayer. The
same should apply to praying for the healing of
the land. The creation that is “groaning” is also
longing for liberation from its “bondage to
decay” (Romans 8.21) – a liberation that, like
the rest of God’s kingdom, is both “now” and
“not yet”. The promise of 2 Chronicles 7.14,
whilst given to Solomon and the people of
Israel in a particular place and time, does have
a more general application for us today. God
longs to bring healing to the land, and as
people turn to him, repent and live more
obedient lives – both in personal morality and
in their stewardship of the earth – a spiritual
dynamic is released which leads to a healing
of the land. God’s healing grace is released
when people repent and turn to Him.
Thirdly, the relationship between human
repentance and the healing of the land must
not be seen as simple or automatic. There is a
danger of an “eco-prosperity gospel”, where
we believe we can guarantee bumper crops
and ecological harmony, if only we repent
enough. God is not a machine to be
manipulated by our prayers or our
righteousness. In the same way as the Bible
does not promise material prosperity or
physical health to all believers in this life, no
more does it promise a completely restored
environment here and now. The entry of sin
and death into the world since the fall, have
led to randomness in how nature operates. We
cannot point the finger at areas of the world
suffering from environmental disaster, whether
it be foot and mouth, prolonged drought, or
earthquakes, and accuse people in such
places of directly bringing God’s judgment
upon themselves by their sin. Rather it is the
whole creation that has been “subjected to
frustration” and is “groaning as in the pains of
childbirth” (Romans 8.18-25) because of
human sin. An undersea eruption in the Pacific
may cause flooding in Japan, a nuclear
disaster in the Ukraine may lead to irradiated
sheep in Cumbria, industrial pollution from
Britain may damage forests in Scandinavia.
Globally we are all in this together.
There have been extraordinary stories around
the world of how the land is transformed when
a community turns to God in humble repentant
prayer and renewed obedience. One of the
most remarkable is in Almolonga in
Guatemala, where poor almost sterile land has
been transformed into fertile fields yielding
huge vegetables, as a local community has
turned from crime and immorality to Christ
[23]. We should not be any more surprised by
such stories than by physical healings. The
same Jesus who healed the sick showed his
power over nature in calming the storm, and
he can equally calm today’s ecological storms,
when we ask in humble obedience. He
remains sovereign over his land, and whilst we
may not always see instant or obvious results,
that should not stop us praying.
workers in his Kingdom. We echo the prayer of
Jesus: “Your Kingdom come, your will be done
on earth as in heaven”.
In the end, all true healing comes from Christ,
the one by whom and for whom all things were
made (Colossians 1.16). All the broken
relationships ruined by the avalanche of sin
unleashed by Adam and Eve can be healed in
Christ, and only in Christ. To return to the
triangle of God-People-Land, the saving work
of Jesus Christ on the cross has enabled
reconciliation between people and God,
between and within people, and also between
people and land, and God and the land. The
curse of Genesis 3 is undone in the saving
work of Christ, in whom all things in earth and
heaven find their proper place, their true home
(Colossians 1.18-20). No wonder that the
universe reacted to the crucifixion with an
eclipse and an earthquake – this was an event
with cosmic consequences.
 Dave Bookless, 2002
[1] Russ Parker, Healing Wounded History,
Darton, Longman & Todd, 2001, p.8
[2] Bob Beckett in Alistair Petrie, Releasing
Heaven on Earth, Chosen Books, 2000, p.31
[3] Walter Brueggemann, The Land, SCM,
1978, p.96
[4] Chris Wright, Living as the People of God,
IVP, 1983, p.37-38
[5] Brueggemann, p.93
Eugene Peterson, Unpublished Lecture
on “Creation : the Gift of Place”, available on
CD as part of “Creation & Gospel – from the
Garden to the Ends of the Earth”, a five CD set
available from A Rocha UK.
[7] Parker, p.9
[8] Professor Bruce Birch, in Petrie, p.26
[9] Wright, p.59
[10] ibid, p.19-20
[11] ibid, p.50
[12] ibid, p.48
[13] R. J. Faricy, Wind & Sea Obey Him,
SCM, 1982
[14] Petrie, pp.57-64
[15] Winkie Pratney, Healing the Land,
Chosen Books, 1993, pp.142-147
[16] Pratney, p.142
[17] Petrie, p.68
[18] James Jones, Bishop of Liverpool,
Sunday Morning Service, April 15, 2001
[19] Petrie, p.30
[20] ibid, p.179
[21] Parker, p.9
[22] Rev Dr. David Hillborn, Long Overdue
Apology, IDEA Magazine, March-April 2002
[23] Petrie, pp.202 & 231. Almolonga is also
featured in the Transformations video,
produced by the Sentinel Group, that has had
a major impact in the UK and elsewhere.
When we pray for the healing of the land, we
apply the work of Christ on the cross to the
creation, where the ultimate vision is “to bring
all things in heaven and on earth under one
head, even Christ” (Ephesians 1.10). Just as
in praying for an individual to come to faith, or
in asking for healing, we pray out of obedience
and in the knowledge that the healing of the
land is in line with God’s will. We also pray in
the knowledge that we may or may not see
quick results, and that all healing comes by
God’s grace. Again, just as in praying for
physical healing we encourage appropriate
medical care alongside prayer, so in healing
the land, prayer and practical action should go
hand in hand. Prayer is not a substitute for
good stewardship, and Christians who wish to
see their local areas improved must be
involved in practical conservation and
environmental action as well as prayer.
If we wish to see the land healed, we need to
look at our own lifestyles, our recycling and
purchasing, and our use of God’s resources.
At a wider level we need to look at farming and
environmental policies in the recognition that
all land belongs to God, as do the sheep and
cattle on a thousand hills, and that we are
answerable to him for our use of what is his. If
we are not healing the land, we are destroying
it, and God promises to “destroy those who
destroy the earth” (Revelation 11.18). To put it
more positively, when we pray for the healing
of the land, and when we are involved in
practical creation-care, we become God’s co-