Holy land and nearness to God

Bible scholar Cornelis de Vos analyses shifts in Old Testament ideas of the land


The quest for nearness to God is often connected with particular locations, the symbolic value of which usually by far exceeds the concrete reality. It is this dynamic that Vos explores in this slightly revised version of his habilitation thesis (Münster). Since God, the people and the land are so tightly bound together in the HB, V. asks how Jewish communities in the Hellenistic tradition and those living in the Diaspora without a longing for return responded to this. He identifies two trends: idealization and substitution. The idealization of the land is explored through studies of the LXX (especially Tobit and the Letter of Jeremiah), Josephus, the Genesis Apocryphon, Jubilees, the Letter of Aristeas, 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch. This tendency, V. argues, is already evident in the HB and expresses itself in a range of ways from the characterization of the land as better than reality, through mythologizing (e.g. claims that the land is the centre of the world), to assertions that the land is intrinsically holy. Analysis of the second tendency (substitution), principally found in the NT, constitutes the bulk of the book. The HB’s connection between God, people and land is retained, but the land is substituted by other spaces (e.g. the Kingdom of God, the community of believers) and the people are defined in new ways (i.e. incorporating Jews and Pagans). So there is a shift from concrete to universal and transcendent. A separate chapter is dedicated to Philo of Alexandria, who occupies a middle position between these two trends. This is an interesting study marked by careful reflection on the methodological and linguistic challenges, broad engagement with the sources, and appropriate contextualization. A rewarding read for anyone interested in the reception of the HB, questions of diversity and identity in Early Judaism or the origins of Christianity.

Literature: Vos, J. Cornelis de, Heiliges Land und Nähe Gottes. Wandlungen alttestamentlicher Landvorstellungen in frühjüdischen und neutestamentlichen Schriften (Forschungen zur Religion und Literatur des Alten und Neuen Testaments, vol. 244), Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht 2012.