The promise that he would possess the land of Canaan was repeated to Abraham on several occasions. God also promised that in his seed, all nations would be blessed. The same promise was repeated to Isaac, and in a dream to Jacob, soon after he had deceived his father Isaac, in order to obtain the blessing intended for his older brother Esau. Jacob was fleeing, afraid for his life.
When the children of Israel entered the promised land under Joshua, and took possession of it, the land was distributed among the 12 tribes. The selection of the particular areas where each tribe would dwell was by lot.
When Caleb was given his portion, he claimed the area of Hebron. He said, "give me this mountain!" [Joshua 14:12] Having surveyed the entire land, as one of the 12 spies, perhaps he remembered this area. And similarly, each family received a certain territory. No one person inherited the entire land.
The promised land, which is a rather small country, not particularly rich in minerals or oil, much of it lacking trees, and having a chronic shortage of water, has tremendous historical and religious significance. It also has symbolic meaning in the gospel, as the type of the "rest," or the eternal inheritance, of those who believe in Christ.
Not only that, the land also represents the things promised to Christians in this life. For example, mountains represent the revelations of God, and promises, just as the mountain Caleb was given was the fulfilment of a promise made to him, because he gave a true report of the land. The rivers of living water, in Zechariah 14:8, and the river flowing from the temple in Ezekiel 47, are prophecies about the spirit of God that goes forth from the church, represented by Jerusalem, and the temple. Those are figurative rivers, and not literal, and they represent things that can't be seen with the eye.
In the NT, the land promise of the OT is fulfilled in Christ. Paul said "For all the promises of God in him are yea, and in him Amen, unto the glory of God by us." [2 Corinthians 1:20] If this appears strange to some, Paul explained,
But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.
For a Christian, to dwell in the land of promise is a figure, or shadow, of the blessings of living by faith in Christ, in peace, and leaving the wilderness behind. The "wilderness" pictures the progressive journey of a believer to a mature faith. Thus, the land is compared to Eden, where the saints have access to the tree of life, and the promise of immortality. [Ezekiel 36:35; Joel 2:3]
The promise of land, and Israel's possession of it, and their exile, are very prominent topics in the OT. The promise made to Abraham, that in his seed all nations will be blessed, is called the gospel in the NT. [Galatians 3:8] The land promise is connected with the gospel, in some way, but obviously there is nothing in the NT that requires Christians go to Palestine.
Paul said of the law, it was a "schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ."[Galatians 3:24] It was under the Mosaic law, that the Israelites entered the promised land, and conquered, and eventually lost the land when they were taken into captivity.
The author of Hebrews said the law had "a shadow of good things to come," and this is true of the land promise; the land was a type of the "rest" which is the eternal inheritance of the saints.
For the law having a shadow of good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with those sacrifices which they offered year by year continually make the comers thereunto perfect.
The land that Joshua and the children of Israel took possession of was called a "rest," but it was only a type or a "shadow" of the true rest, which is offered by Christ.
For if Jesus had given them rest, then would he not afterward have spoken of another day.
Some insist that the land promise has to be viewed literally. They say that Canaan should be possessed by ethnic Jews. That is also the message of Zionism. The theory ignores the significance of the land from the point of view of the gospel. It insists upon viewing the prophecies of the OT from a non-Christian perspective, in particular, that of unbelieving Jews.
Some even claim that the Jews in the IDF are justified in their brutal treatment of Palestinian Muslims and Christians whose ancestors have lived there for centuries. This is a distortion of what scripture says. These people usually omit to mention that all the OT prophecies of a return to the land connect it with reconciliation to God, and repentance, which is not evident in the modern nuclear armed Jewish state.
The American dispensationalist preachers and writers typically abuse the scriptures, to promote Zionism. Jeremiah's prophecy of Israel's return to the land says they will come with weeping, and receive the Spirit of God, and a new heart and a new spirit. This is the antithesis of Zionism.
Behold, I will bring them from the north country, and gather them from the coasts of the earth, and with them the blind and the lame, the woman with child and her that travaileth with child together: a great company shall return thither. They shall come with weeping, and with supplications will I lead them: I will cause them to walk by the rivers of waters in a straight way, wherein they shall not stumble: for I am a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn. Hear the word of the LORD, O ye nations, and declare it in the isles afar off, and say, He that scattered Israel will gather him, and keep him, as a shepherd doth his flock.
In the same chapter, Jeremiah also spoke of a new covenant.
Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah: Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they brake, although I was an husband unto them, saith the LORD: But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the LORD, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the LORD: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the LORD: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.
This prophecy is applied to the church, in Hebrews 8:8-10, and again in Hebrews 10:16-17.
When we consider the fact that all of the land of Canaan was promised to Abraham, a land that was far greater in extent, than he would actually need, and yet he received none of it in his lifetime, the promise must have some other meaning than a literal view allows. In fact, Abraham's not receiving the land that he was promised is seen as proving the promise of his resurrection from the grave. [Acts 7:5]
The author of Hebrews says that Abraham hoped for a "heavenly" country.
And truly, if they had been mindful of that country from whence they came out, they might have had opportunity to have returned. 16 But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city. 17 By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac: and he that had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, 18 Of whom it was said, That in Isaac shall thy seed be called: 19 Accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead; from whence also he received him in a figure. 20 By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau concerning things to come.
The 11th chapter of Hebrews lists many of the heroes of faith, concludes with the statement that all the OT saints died, not having received the promises.
And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise: God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect.
The promise referred to here, that Abraham did not receive, was the land promise, and something far better than the land is what is promised to the Christian. The land was merely a type, or a shadow, of the true "rest" promised by Jesus.
Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.
Abraham hoped for a resurrection, and a heavenly country, not merely the literal, earthly territory of Canaan. The kingdom of Christ is what Canaan represented. It was something spiritual, which Christ inherited.
The promised land represents the revelations, or oracles of God, and in the NT, Jesus is called "the Word." Jacob, in his dream at Bethel, saw a ladder reaching to heaven, with angels ascending and descending on it, and in the same dream, he was promised possession of the land. The association of the promise of the land, and the ladder reaching to heaven, implies the land was to be a place where revelations of God to man would be given. The land represents all those revelations, recorded in scripture, and ultimately fulfilled in Jesus.
Jesus showed that he replaced the land, when he said to Nathanael, "Verily, verily, I say unto you, Hereafter ye shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man." [John 1:51]
Paul said the main benefit of being Jewish was that they possessed the scriptures. But that is limited to the OT. The true Israel, the church, possesses both the OT and the NT.
What advantage then hath the Jew? or what profit is there of circumcision? Much every way: chiefly, because that unto them were committed the oracles of God.
Christ has received all truth, and he gives understanding to his saints. Ethnic Jews have received only a portion of God's revelations. Likewise, many Christians have received parts of it; but Christ possesses it all.