And inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments, ye shall prosper, and shall be led to a land of promise; yea, even a land which I have prepared for you; yea, a land which is choice above all other lands.
—1 Nephi 2:20
In the musical production, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, the title character, unjustly imprisoned, and seemingly without hope of release, sings the following refrain:
Close every door to meThe musical is great entertainment, and though I wouldn’t recommend it as a reliable source for accurate history or doctrine, this particular song touches on a profound truth when Joseph takes comfort in the Lord’s promise of land. As we examine God’s covenants, we necessarily must start with the idea of a promised land.
Keep those I love from me
Children of Israel are never alone
For I know I shall find
My own peace of mind
For I have been promised a land of my own
So let’s start at the very beginning. When God introduced Adam and Eve into this world, He gave them a place to dwell for their sojourn here—a home that would provide the essentials of life, and therefore, temporal security. It was God’s intent to give Adam and his posterity dominion, or the right to possess, this earth as their inheritance. (Moses 2:26) Adam stood as the patriarchal head of the human family, and therefore the possessor of this covenant from God—including dominion over the earth. The covenant of land became so identified with Adam that the Hebrew word for land is “adamah,” which is derived from Adam’s name.
When Cain committed the first murder, he lost the right to inherit God’s covenant, and therefore the dominion over the earth promised to Adam. As a result, rather than being tied to a land where he could safely dwell, he was instead cursed to be a “fugitive and a vagabond” without any permanent right to land he could call his own. This loss of a homeland is the extent of Cain’s recorded curse, and is also the beginning of a sort of shorthand used in scripture to express the covenant. Whenever you encounter a promised land in scripture, you are looking at a covenant between God and man. If the covenant is broken, right to the land is lost, as it was to Cain.
It’s important to recognize that references to a land of promise generally refer not only to land, but to the full extent of God’s promises. Like I said, shorthand. We’ll see many examples of this usage as we study pertinent scripture. But first, we have to ask why.
The Father promises land to those with whom He covenants. Land is vital because it is the source of food, community and stability. If God promises you a land that cannot be taken away, it means you and your posterity will always have a place to live, and a way to make a living. It means the improvements you make to the land will benefit your family’s future generations. Land provides current and future temporal security for the recipient and any posterity that also choose to honor the covenant. It is a home. It is the anchor for a family and a community. It is identity and standing. Land is life.
Likewise, land has always been equated with wealth. Wars have been, and continue to be, fought over seemingly insignificant patches of dirt. Hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, have died in land disputes, both local and international. World wars have raged over invasions and incursions into land claimed by others. The current situation in the Middle East ultimately comes down to a land dispute between major religions that venerate, and claim right to, the same piece of land.
Though we seldom think about it, without a land to call your own, you are homeless, separated from God in this lone and dreary world, a stranger and foreigner wherever you go—having been dispossessed of your prior home, cast out of God’s presence by the fall, and abiding here only as an alien, rather than a citizen. The beginning of the restoration to God’s presence includes God reversing your unfortunate condition by giving you a home.
This in contrast to how men treat each other with respect to land. In general, under our current system, land ownership is bought and sold at tremendous prices, most often requiring a lifetime of work to pay for the land and its improvements. We trade our very lives for lands, and enslave those who wish to obtain legal title to what is ultimately God’s to give. Such a system, though allowed at this moment, will eventually come to an end.
Land and Temple
Once a people rightfully possess a land by covenant, if they continue to obey God, they can build a temple through which they can reconnect with the divine, and in which God can restore the fulness of the priesthood (D&C 124:28). As the people become sanctified, the land to which they are connected also becomes sanctified (D&C 124:44), and the earth ceases to mourn for the wickedness on her face (Moses 7:48). This is the beginning of how “the earth will be renewed and receive its paradisiacal glory.” (Article of Faith 10)
The journey of a people back to God’s presence, and the establishment of a holy city where God can dwell, all begin with a God-given, promised land. This pattern is clear throughout scriptural history. Enoch obtained a land by covenant and retained his covenantal right to the land as not only his people, but also their entire city, rose up to heaven. After the flood, God gave Noah the same covenant, including the promise Noah would dwell on the earth, safe from threat of a flood. Abraham documented God’s promise of land to him and his seed:
And the Lord appeared unto me in answer to my prayers, and said unto me: Unto thy seed will I give this land. (Abr. 2:19)Lehi received the same covenant:
But, said he, notwithstanding our afflictions, we have obtained a land of promise, a land which is choice above all other lands; a land which the Lord God hath covenanted with me should be a land for the inheritance of my seed. Yea, the Lord hath covenanted this land unto me, and to my children forever, and also all those who should be led out of other countries by the hand of the Lord. (2 Nephi 1:5)When you think about it, the entire Book of Mormon narrative begins with the journey to a land promised by God in a covenant. The sub-narrative of the Jaredite civilization begins the same way, with a land of promise. Here’s how the Lord expressed it to the brother of Jared:
And when thou hast done this thou shalt go at the head of them down into the valley which is northward. And there will I meet thee, and I will go before thee into a land which is choice above all the lands of the earth. And there will I bless thee and thy seed, and raise up unto me of thy seed, and of the seed of thy brother, and they who shall go with thee, a great nation. (Ether 1:42-43)Are you starting to see a pattern here? When God offers a covenant, the first promise is a land to call home. This is such an important part of the covenant that it became the promise repeated for hundreds of years among Lehi’s descendants. How many times in the Book of Mormon do you find some variation of the following statement?
For the Lord God hath said that: Inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments ye shall prosper in the land; and inasmuch as ye will not keep my commandments ye shall be cut off from my presence. (2 Nephi 4:4)Notice that every time the promise is repeated, it is not just about prospering, but specifically about prospering “in the land.” It is a reminder of both the covenant, and of the obedience required to obtain the promised blessings, including the right to the promised land. Ultimately, it is a reminder that sanctification of a people will bring sanctification of the land, and the return to a paradisiacal state in which the earth can again “bring forth in its strength” (D&C 59:3) so the people may indeed prosper in the land. It is the return to Eden and the presence of God.
Land as Covenant Identity
Obtaining the land-right as part of the covenant is so pivotal that it even becomes an indication of who has received the covenant and who has not. As an example, take a look at how Lehi addressed his two youngest sons before he died. Remember, these are the two sons born to Lehi after he had left Jerusalem, and after he had been promised a new land. We should also pause to notice their names—Jacob and Joseph—both named after Lehi’s covenant fathers.
To Jacob, the elder of the two, Lehi said the following:
Nevertheless, Jacob, my firstborn in the wilderness, thou knowest the greatness of God; and he shall consecrate thine afflictions for thy gain. Wherefore, thy soul shall be blessed, and thou shalt dwell safely with thy brother, Nephi (2 Nephi 2:2-3)Notice the affirmative statement that Jacob “shall” dwell safely with Nephi, who had covenant right to the land (1 Nephi 2:20). This affirmative statement indicates that Jacob, though young, had already received his own covenant with God—which should not surprise us, as Lehi notes, “And thou hast beheld in thy youth his glory; wherefore, thou art blessed even as they unto whom he shall minister in the flesh.” (v. 4) Jacob had seen the Lord and received the same blessings as those who would later receive His ministry at Bountiful. Jacob had a covenant.
Joseph, on the other hand, received a somewhat different statement from Lehi:
And may the Lord consecrate also unto thee this land, which is a most precious land, for thine inheritance and the inheritance of thy seed with thy brethren, for thy security forever, if it so be that ye shall keep the commandments of the Holy One of Israel. (2 Nephi 3:2)Notice the expression of a conditional hope: “May the Lord consecrate also unto thee this land…” Lehi expresses his desire that Joseph will receive the same covenant as Nephi and Jacob had, but that it is a yet future, and conditional event. Joseph was still very young, and not yet prepared at this point. Said Lehi:
Behold, thou art little; wherefore hearken unto the words of thy brother, Nephi, and it shall be done unto thee even according to the words which I have spoken. (2 Nephi 3:25)The differences in Lehi’s statements plainly reveal who had a covenant with God and who did not. The right to the land proves it. We could drive home the point by examining Lehi’s statements to his other sons, but the point is made and we need to keep forging ahead.
The Book of Mormon was specifically provided “to shew unto the remnant of the house of Israel what great things the Lord hath done for their fathers; and that they may know the covenants of the Lord, that they are not cast off forever.” (Book of Mormon, Title Page)
The outline of God’s plan to honor His covenants and restore the production of good fruit is shown us in Jacob 5. Perhaps the most poignant scene in this powerful chapter is the moment when the Lord of the vineyard, having done all he could for his failing trees, sits and weeps, lamenting his failure.
And it came to pass that the Lord of the vineyard wept, and said unto the servant: What could I have done more for my vineyard? (Jacob 5:41)Though there had been other failures in other locations, the Lord’s overwhelming sorrow ultimately resulted from the failure of those in the promised land—a land the Lord described as “a good spot of ground; yea, even that which was choice unto me above all other parts of the land of my vineyard.” (v. 43) This was the failure of those tied by covenant to the promised land. This was a rejection of the Lord’s covenant. And though the covenants (roots) remained intact, nobody was interested in receiving what was offered.
We yet remain in that lamentable state today. Nevertheless, there is reason for hope. God made promises to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph, among others, and God absolutely WILL fulfill those promises before this world’s work is finished. As part of that fulfillment, God WILL restore believers to their lands of promise. Such a result is documented multiple times in the Book of Mormon:
And now, my beloved brethren, I have read these things that ye might know concerning the covenants of the Lord that he has covenanted with all the house of Israel—That he has spoken unto the Jews, by the mouth of his holy prophets, even from the beginning down, from generation to generation, until the time comes that they shall be restored to the true church and fold of God; when they shall be gathered home to the lands of their inheritance, and shall be established in all their lands of promise. (2 Nephi 9:1-2)Not only the Jews, and the House of Israel, but even strangers will be offered the covenant.
For the Lord will have mercy on Jacob, and will yet choose Israel, and set them in their own land; and the strangers shall be joined with them, and they shall cleave to the house of Jacob. And the people shall take them and bring them to their place; yea, from far unto the ends of the earth; and they shall return to their lands of promise. And the house of Israel shall possess them, and the land of the Lord shall be for servants and handmaids; and they shall take them captives unto whom they were captives; and they shall rule over their oppressors. (2 Nephi 24:1-2; see also Isaiah 14)In the above text, quoted from Isaiah 14, the Hebrew word “ger,” is translated as “strangers,” and the Hebrew word “saphach” is translated as “cleave to.” But given the various meanings of these Hebrew words, and the Lord’s intent to honor His covenant, a better translation would be “and the sojourners shall be joined with them and shall become part of the house of Jacob.” Or in other words, those without right to the land will obtain that right as they come into the house of Israel by covenant.
God intends to restore His covenants to a believing people who will rise up and receive what He offers. Part of what He offers is the covenantal right to land—which can and must be used to build a temple, establish a holy city, and gather in all who will come to Zion. God has promised these things will happen, and they most surely will.
Understanding the promise and significance of land is the beginning to understanding the coming covenant.
Wherefore, let us be faithful to him. And if it so be that we are faithful to him, we shall obtain the land of promise.
—1 Nephi 7:12-13