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Bible Study

Hymns about The Promised Land

A study written by Janet Wootton

The Promised Land
The Promised Land is a powerful theme in Scripture, beginning with the promise to Abram in Genesis 12, right at the beginning of the historical narratives which follow the prehistory of Genesis 1-11. God’s first recorded words to Abram are: ‘God from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.’

Five verses later, Abram is in the land of Canaan, of which God says, ‘To your descendants I will give this land’. His nephew, Lot, is removed from the picture and finds his own destiny. Abram and Sarai are left with their household – but no descendants. The rest of the story of Abra(ha)m relates to the need for descendants to whom the land can be given.

The promise of the Land is repeated at critical moments in the story: Genesis 13:14-17, 15:18-21 and 17:8 (though not, oddly in 22:17-18, after the aborted sacrifice of Isaac). Abraham makes it the basis of his provision for Isaac’s marriage in 24:7 and Isaac, in turn, passes it on in his blessing to Jacob in 28:4, when Jacob goes to find his wife from among their family. The promise is reaffirmed by God to each generation of the patriarchal period: to Isaac in 26:3-4, to Jacob in 28:13 (in the famous dream of Jacob’s ladder), and through Joseph to his descendants when he died in Egypt (50:24).

Awareness of the Promise seems to have languished along with the fortunes of Israel in Egypt. Under increasingly vicious oppression, the people cried out to God for help. It was Moses, rescued from the male infanticide which Pharaoh was using to weaken the people, who received the Promise again in a suitably mysterious and dramatic encounter with God, by the burning bush (Exodus 3:8). Now it is, ‘a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey’, and, once again, it becomes the focus of the people’s life.

One of the most poignant scenes in Scripture comes at the end of the Israelites’ forty years of wandering in the wilderness in search of this wonderful land. Moses, who has heard God speak by the burning bush, confronted Pharaoh in a long and nerve-racking series of tests, coped with the grumbling of the Israelites and the misguided meddling of his brother and sister, undergone the most amazing spiritual experiences in the mountain and face to face with God in the tabernacle, and, above all, spent his whole life in quest for the land of promise, was allowed to see the land, but not to enter it. Deuteronomy 34 describes Moses’ last moments, on top of a mountain in Moab, gazing on the Promised Land – and never setting foot in it.

It fell to Moses’ follower, Joshua, to lead the people through the parted waters of the Jordan and into the land. The promise is reaffirmed again and again in these dramatic scenes, by God to Joshua (Joshua 1:2), by Rahab the prostitute (2:8), by Joshua to the people (3:10) and by the dramatic action of God in holding up the flow of the river for the people to pass through, in an echo of the parting of the Red Sea.

Look at the words of the promise in chapter 3. All along, it has been recognised that the land is already occupied by the Canaanites, and, indeed, Abraham and his descendents lived more or less peaceably among them. Now, however, they are to be driven out by the living God himself. The land is to be occupied by means of genocide or ethnic cleansing. The horrifying abuses of recent centuries, the destruction of indigenous peoples, the holocaust, Rwanda, Bosnia, all take part of their inspiration from the fact that the God worshipped by Christians occupied a land by the extermination of its unwanted inhabitants.

In fact, the later chapters of the book of Joshua and the book of Judges show that the occupation of the land was not one glorious campaign, but a messy series of battles, city by city, reversals as the inhabitants and their allies fought back, and inter-tribal conflict among the people of Israel themselves.

The ideal of life in the land was unlike the reality. This was true in another way too. Part of the Promise, as it developed through the complex of laws supposed to have been given by God to Moses during the wilderness wandering, was a responsibility incumbent on the people to live as God’s people. This involved a complex ritual life, described most clearly in the legal section of Leviticus, and a standard of justice, laid out most fully in Deuteronomy.

The prosperity of the people and the fabled fertility of the land are dependent on rigorous adherence to social laws, regulating the punishment of crime and the distribution of wealth. The rights of what we would call the marginalized are to be protected in the inclusion of the poor, orphans and widows, and strangers under legal protection and in the religious festivals which included the distribution of food. The long speech of Moses, which brings the book of Deuteronomy to a close, echoes with resounding blessings on the land and the people if they are obedient to these requirements and equivalent curses if they depart from them.

Already, the land is taking on more significance than simply a piece of territory. It is broad and good, flowing with milk and honey; it is given by God at the expense of its indigenous inhabitants; it is dependent on an internal system of justice and fairness.

Of course, the people failed in their obedience to God, and a degenerate and despotic monarchy reduced the majority of the population to subservience and many to poverty. The prophets of the early years, Amos and Hosea reminded the northern tribes of God’s standards, and warned that they would lose any claim on the land which God had given to them. Amos 2:6 graphically describes the process of release from Egypt followed by destruction of the Canaanites, by which Israel came into the land, and goes on to warn of imminent destruction awaiting Israel, because they, ‘trample the poor into the dust . . and turn aside the way of the afflicted’ (2:7) among other things.

Amos is realistic and unrelenting in his warning (even more so if you take the recantation in 9:8b to the end as a later addition). Hosea is far more torn between his recognition of God’s rightful anger, and his awareness of God’s longing for Israel to repent and return. Chapter 2, though couched in violent and misogynist terms, shows vividly the relationship between obedience and prosperity, though the wilderness, as in Jeremiah, is not only the punishment but also the place where God rebuilds his relationship with the people.

Assyria swept down like a wolf, and all that, and the northern tribes were swept from the Promised Land and from the face of the earth. Prophetic attention turned to the equally corrupt south, to Judah. Now we are in the territory of the major writing prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Again, the warning is that the people will lose their right to live at peace in the land, through their corruption and decadence. While Jerusalem, the symbolic city of God, now comes to dominate the imagery of prosperity and peace, a good deal of Promised Land imagery remains.

Isaiah describes the people as a vineyard, giving sour grapes instead of the wholesome fruit which was expected, and therefore abandoned to return to wilderness (5:1-7) and Jeremiah paints a picture of rural as well as urban despair (14:4-6).

Again, the warnings are not heeded, and Jerusalem and its surrounding countryside are taken by the enemy and their leaders, the cream of the society, deported. Now, during the long years of exile, the Promised Land becomes, as in the time of Moses, a defining vision, maintaining hope and identity under Babylonian rule. Isaiah and Ezekiel, or the traditions drawn from the two prophets, both prophesy the rebuilding of the community in the return to the Land. For both, the ruling metaphor is the City and (more in Ezekiel than in Isaiah) the Temple.

But Isaiah, particularly, draws on ideals of justice and promises of related prosperity which derive from the promise of the land. In Isaiah 58, 61 and 65:17ff, returning prosperity and peace are related to the re-establishment of a just and fair community.

Ezekiel, on the other hand, and other writers of the same period, Ezra and Nehemiah, resurrects another ideal of the Land, purity in the face of its inhabitants. While Isaiah extends the promise to include foreigners (56:6-8), Ezekiel completely excludes them (44:9). Ezra 10 is even more exclusive, denouncing any intermarriage between the people of God and foreigners. The genocide which brought the people into the land in the first place is matched by the exclusion of foreigners from the community.

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It is fascinating to see how our hymn writers have treated this rich tradition. If you look up the biblical references quoted in this account in the index of HymnQuest, you will see how fashions have been reflected in the use of the imagery of the Promised Land.

Up to the 19th century, it was almost exclusively used to refer to life after death, with the Jordan River a powerful symbol of death itself as a river to cross. Isaac Watts uses the imagery to great effect in his hymn ‘There is a land of pure delight‘ (HymnQuest has the Jubilate version), where he describes the Promised Land as a place of sweet fields and everlasting spring. All that separates us from that Land is the ‘narrow sea’ of Jordan, but ‘timorous mortals’ (‘trembling mortals’ in the Jubilate version) are struck with fear at the sight of the water. The last verse rises majestically above the viewpoint of the timorous mortals, to ‘climb where Moses stood’, so that we can see beyond the stream of death to the land beyond.

The brooding hymn, ‘Guide me O thou great Jehovah‘, of which HymnQuest has a number of translations from the Welsh, carries the imagery even further. Now life is seen as the pilgrimage through the wilderness, needing the guidance of the ‘fiery, cloudy pillar’ and the ‘streams of living water’ which sustained the Israelites in their wandering. The journey ends, of course, on ‘the verge of Jordan’, which, as in the Watts text, inspires fear. This time the hymn takes the journeyer over the Jordan with God’s help, in the glorious lines, ‘Death of death, and hell’s destruction, Land me safe on Canaan’s side’.

HymnQuest has some lovely surprises. The hymn, ‘The God of Abraham praise‘ has a number of verses which are not normally sung. These take the singer through the ‘howling wilderness’ to Canaan’s bounds, through the ‘watery deep’ to the land of plenty. The verses go on to pick up the language of the heavenly city, another powerful image for life after death.

However, if you look up ‘promised land‘ in the theme index, these are not the hymns which will appear. Among the first hymns shown, a new way of using this imagery appears. Technically, the Promised Land moves from being an eschatological symbol, to representing a state of blessing which is achievable in this life. What is more, it is very much a communal state. Where earlier hymns looked from the viewpoint of the individual longing for blessing, these texts recover the notion of a travelling people, and blessings which are, or ought to be, available to all. The Deuteronomistic call for justice and obedience to God’s Law re-enters the imagery.

This, of course, has a long and noble heritage in the spiritual song which came out of African slavery. The slaves rightly saw a parallel between their situation and the slavery of the Israelites in Egypt. Songs such as ‘Go down Moses‘ see the ending of slavery in terms of the liberation of the people from Egypt, and the new equal community as the entry into the promised land.

Michael Forster’s text, ‘The voice from the bush said, Moses, look snappy‘ draws a parallel between the misery of the slaves in Egypt and the suffering of our world today. The hymn ends, ‘We’ve got to give them a better tomorrow, So God says to you and me.’ and the chorus, ‘Lead my people to freedom, Got to go to the Promised Land.’

Cecily Taylor is more explicit in, ‘There was a man who had a dream to share‘, in which she makes a clear link between Moses and Martin Luther King. Moses gazing on the Promised Land becomes King gazing towards the vision of a Land where, ‘Everyone is equal In dignity and rights’.

These hymns start to pick up the prophetic call to restore the Promised Land. Using the biblical index, it is instructive to follow through the prophetic texts mentioned in this Bible Study. Isaiah 58, 61 and 65 reveal a host of texts carrying strong messages of justice. There are several Shirley Murray hymns from the great writing explosion in Aotearoa New Zealand, and others reaching back into the folk revival of the 1960s and 1970s.

Looking up the theme of justice picks up many of the same hymns. But there is another theme, which recognises the other side of Israel’s entry into the Promised Land. Remember that it was not an empty land, but one whose indigenous inhabitants are driven out, destroyed, by God. If you look up ‘genocide’, you will find a small collection of stark texts, which deal with the horrors of genocide in our time. Brian Wren’s, ‘Will God be judge‘ has the chilling second verse, ‘Will God be judged, and satisfy the slain?’

The theme genocide refers also to the theme ‘atrocities’. There is no theme, ‘indigenous people’, though the New Zealand material does touch on this issue, and perhaps the theme will appear in later versions of HymnQuest.

This study has revealed two major uses of Promised Land imagery – for life after death and for justice in this life. It is clearly a very rich biblical theme, which is capable of addressing a whole variety of spiritual and social life-situations. It will be fascinating to see where it will go next.

© 2001 Janet Wootton. Copying facilities provided are limited to local use by owners of HymnQuest. Wider or commercial use needs negotiation with the copyright holder.

The copyright in this bible study vests in the author. Permission is given for them to be reproduced by HymnQuest purchasers for local use. Wider or commercial use requires their consent.

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