PMW 2020-003 by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.
I am continuing a brief study-within-a-study. I am focusing on the little word with a big mean: the word “land” or gē in Greek.
The use of Gē in the NT
In a number of places in the NT this word speaks either of the Promised Land as a whole, or some portion of it. We may find some of the more obvious uses in such phrases as “the land of Judah” (Mt 2:6), “the land of Judea” (Jn 3:22), “the land of Israel” (Mt 2:20, 21), “the land of Zebulun” (Mt 4:15), “the land of Naphtali” (Mt 4:15), and “the land of the Jews” (Ac 10:39). Thus, upon purely lexical considerations, the term can be understood as designating the Promised Land so that tēs gēs becomes “a Semitism translating hā’ āre (= Palestine)” (Van De Water 255).
As noted above John is expanding on Jesus’ Olivet Discourse, which he himself heard (Mt 24:1). That being so, the Lord’s words will necessarily exert an influence on Rev. In that prophecy Jesus’ focus is on the destruction of the temple (Lk 21:5–6) and God’s wrath upon Jerusalem and Judea (21:20–24). Therefore, he warns regarding those in the Land: “Woe to those who are with child and to those who nurse babes in those days; for there will be great distress upon the land [epi tēs gēs], and wrath to this people” (21:23). This clearly refers to the Land of Israel — even though surrounding appearances of gē have a different referent, the whole world: 21:25 contrasts the heavenly bodies with the earth; 21:33 speaks of the earth passing away; and probably 21:35.
With the coming of the new covenant in Christ and his fulfilling of the OT promises, the NT de-emphasizes the Land (Davies 1974:266–74; Walker 1996:116–19, 222; Robertson 2000: 25–31). In fact, Jesus himself takes its place in the hopes and aspirations of God’s people (see Burge 2010). As we will see, Rev’s frequent references to the judgment on hē gē helps illustrate the new covenant’s removal of the Land’s significance for God’s people. In Rev It becomes (ironically!) the sphere of judgment and woe rather than the place of rest and hope.
The use of Gē in Revelation
I am arguing that in Rev an important and frequent meaning of hē gē is “the Land.” Of course, like in all other books of Scripture, Rev can use the word in any of its several senses. But I believe that most appearances refer to the Land for the reasons to follow. Stuart (2:154; cp. 161) states that gēs like eretz “is more or less extensive, as the nature of the context demands. Here [at 6:4], not the whole earth, but the land of Palestine is especially denoted.”
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First, redemptive-history’s 2000 year-old focus on the Land (beginning with Abraham, Ge 12) which dominates the 1500 years of old covenant revelation (beginning with Moses) when coupled with John’s abundant use of the OT as his major image source. This suggests that John himself could be referring to this fundamental reality of biblical revelation, especially in that: Second, John’s intentionally Hebraic presentation which mimics the old covenant prophets who frequently focused on Israel and her land-promises to explain her banishment from it. When we compare Rev with John’s Gospel, we see that John can write Greek in a more polished and acceptable form. Something is going on in Rev to account for his solecisms. We should recall that John was called to labor among “the circumcised” (Gal 2:9) which would have kept alive his dealing with the matter of the Land.
Third, his clear and repeated near-term expectations (1:1, 3; 22:6, 10) introducing this earth-shaking, universe-collapsing prophecies. Since he expects something fast approaching to fulfill his prophecies, this requires events of dramatic historical consequences. This would fit with the collapse of the 1500 years of formal, centralized Jewish sacrificial worship, first by means of a tabernacle, then for the remaining 1000 years in a temple. When we look in the first century we can find nothing else on that order of magnitude for redemptive-history. In fact, with the coming of Jesus as the center point of redemptive history and the hinge of the covenant leading to the firm establishment of the new covenant, we should expect his interest in the question of the Land as the place where the old covenant people and worship operated.
Fourth, Rev reaches its climax in the appearing of “new Jerusalem” (21:2, 9). In that this is a “new” reality it must be replacing the old, original, historical Jerusalem in the Land (cp. Gal 4:25–31; Heb 12:22–24). Jerusalem and the Land dominate the old covenant experience as the historical setting of the promises of God. Fifth, as I will show at 1:7 (see commentary below) John’s theme is Christ’s (metaphorical) judgment-coming against Israel. In his Olivet Discourse warning of this same event (cp. Rev 1:7 with Mt 24:30), he urges his followers to depart Judea as hastily as possible (Mt 24:16–19).
Malina (122) argues similarly from a social-science perspective:
The Greek word gē may mean either “land,” “earth,” “territory” or the like. The meaning of the word depends on the social system and point of view of the speaker. Since the prophet John is of Israelite background, concerned with a cosmic lord called Jesus Messiah (an exclusively Israelite category), uses Israelite scripture for his groups found in Israelite enclaves (whose presence is indicated by references in the letters to Smyrna and Philadelpia [2:9; 3:9]), and looks to the emergence of a new Jerusalem (capital of Judea), there is little reason to expect any concern with non-Israelites.
Later he writes regarding Rev 8:5: “As we have repeatedly indicated, there simply is no solid reason for [translating gē as “earth”]. The focus is the house of Israel, specifically Judea” (Malina 122).
All of this explains a statistical peculiarity regarding Rev: the word gē occurs eighty-two times in Rev, almost a full third of the times it appears in the entire NT (250 x). The translation “the Land” should appear more frequently than it does in most commentaries.
By way of quick sampling, we should note some rather obvious “Land” uses of gē in the following Rev passages. At 3:10 the whole world is contrasted to the Land when it speaks of “the hour of testing, that hour which is about to come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell upon the earth.” When God holds back the “four winds of the earth” (7:1) it is so he can seal the 144,000 from the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel (7:3–4). The 144,000 are immediately contrasted to an uncountable multitude from “every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues” (7:9). These 144,000 are later said to have been “purchased from the earth” (14:3). This reflects the historical reality of Christianity beginning in Israel where it was initially made up almost entirely of Jews. The angel preaches the gospel “to those who live on the earth, and to every nation and tribe and tongue and people” (14:6). The widely recognized image of Israel as a vine appears in 14:19 where the sickle gathers “the clusters from the vine of the earth.”
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These appearances of gē represent the more obvious evidence for its application to the Land. The fuller commentary will demonstrate the contextual demands for an even wider use of gē. In the following Table I will sort out the uses of gē in Rev as I understand it. I would note that the term appears eighty-two times in Rev with 64% speaking of the Land.
In the commentary I will demonstrate the dramatic significance of the translation “the Land” for hē gē. Though “the Land” itself is significant, its significance intensifies when it appears in the two most important phrases involving it: “the kings of the earth” (1:5; 6:15; 17:2, 18; 18:3, 9; 19:19; 21:24) and “those who dwell [katoikeō] on the earth [epi tēs gē]” (3:10; 6:10; 8:13; 11:10; 13:8, 12, 14; 17:2, 8).
At 1:7 Beale (197) disputes this interpretation arguing that “gē (“earth, land”) cannot be a limited reference to the land of Israel but has a universal denotation.” Though here he does so at 1:7 because of that verse’s associating the land with “all the tribes,” he never allows this word to signify simply the Land of Israel anywhere in Rev. I would point out, though, that some of Beale’s own methods allow this use and can be used to counter his argument. For instance, regarding Rev 3:9 Beale (94) notes that “promises given to Israel, who are prophesied to be persecuted by the nations, are now ironically applied to and understood to be fulfilled in Gentile believers persecuted by Israel.”
As I argue above this ironic re-application of prophecy can also explain the ironic re-application of the OT phrase “the kings of the earth” in order to refer to Israel’s high-priestly aristocracy along the lines of John’s method at 3:9. This would be an especially significant rhetorical irony since he is focusing on Israel whose synagogue is no longer “the synagogue of the Lord” (LXX: Nu 16:3; 20:4; 31:16; cf. Pss Sol 17:18; cp. Philo, Post. 19 §67) but a “synagogue of Satan” (2:9; 3:9) and whose “holy city” (11:2) Jerusalem becomes “mystically . . . Sodom and Egypt” (11:8).
Furthermore, Beale (91) argues along with Vanhoye and Vogelgesang and many others for John’s practice of “universalization.” By this method John “has a tendency to apply to the world what the OT applied only to Israel or to other entities.” I agree. But I would argue that John can also employ an opposite method in Rev, which we might call “localization.” That is, since John’s focus is on Christ’s judgment of Israel (cf. 1:7), he can re-orient global judgment language and apply it to Israel as a local reality. After all, “John creatively reworks the OT and changes its application” (Beale 92). If he can universalize some passages and prophetic concepts, why may he not also localize other passages and prophetic concepts? Thus, John may engage in more than one form of “inverted or ironic use,” “polemical irony,” and “retributive ironies” as a “reversal phenomenon” (Beale 92–93).
Gē in scholarly opinion
My argument for gē often referring to “the Land” in Rev is held by a number of commentators. The following do not necessarily interpret the word in as many Rev contexts as I do (most even omitting our text, 1:5). But I would note that this interpretive approach is presented in several contexts in Rev by: Clarke (6:971, 993, 996), Stuart (2:154, 161, 165, 236), Desprez (11–16, 36), Russell (8, 77, 380, 410, 494),Terry (379, 435), Charles (1:298–90), Carrington (131, 138, 277, 291), Beagley (43ff, 52, 85, 68), Ford (2, 3, 180, 213), Chilton (198, 242, 282), Leonard (96–97), Barker (237), Van de water (245–61), Malina (61, 102, 122–23, 144), and Smolarz (240; 273).
As you might expect, this is to be continued. Of the making of blog studies, there is no end.