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Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. II:
City of God: Chapter 21

Early Church Fathers  Index     

Chapter 21.—Of the Third Promise of God, by Which He Assured the Land of Canaan to Abraham and His Seed in Perpetuity.

Now, when Abraham and Lot had separated, and dwelt apart, owing to the necessity of supporting their families, and not to vile discord, and Abraham was in the land of Canaan, but Lot in Sodom, the Lord said to Abraham in a third oracle, “Lift up thine eyes, and look from the place where thou now art, to the north, and to Africa, and to the east, and to the sea; for all the land which thou seest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed for ever.  And I will make thy seed as the dust of the earth:  if any one can number the dust of the earth, thy seed shall also be numbered.  Arise, and walk through the land, in the length of it, and in the breadth of it; for unto thee will I give it.” 906   It does not clearly appear whether in this promise that also is contained by which he is made the father of all nations.  For the clause, “And I will make thy seed as the dust of the earth,” may seem to refer to this, being spoken by that figure the Greeks call hyperbole, which indeed is figurative, not literal.  But no person of understanding can doubt in what manner the Scripture uses this and other figures.  For that figure (that is, way of speaking) is used when what is said is far larger than what is meant by it; for who does not see how incomparably larger the number of the dust must be than that of all men can be from Adam himself down to the end of the world?  How much greater, then, must it be than the seed of Abraham,—not only that pertaining to the nation of Israel, but also that which is and shall be according to the imitation of faith in all nations of the whole wide world!  For that seed is indeed very small in comparison with the multitude of the wicked, although even those few of themselves make an innumerable multitude, which by a hyperbole is compared to the dust of the earth.  Truly that multitude which was promised to Abraham is not innumerable to God, although to man; but to God not even the dust of the earth is so.  Further, the promise here made may be understood not only of the nation of Israel, but of the whole seed of Abraham, which may be fitly compared to the dust for p. 323 multitude, because regarding it also there is the promise 907 of many children, not according to the flesh, but according to the spirit.  But we have therefore said that this does not clearly appear, because the multitude even of that one nation, which was born according to the flesh of Abraham through his grandson Jacob, has increased so much as to fill almost all parts of the world.  Consequently, even it might by hyperbole be compared to the dust for multitude, because even it alone is innumerable by man.  Certainly no one questions that only that land is meant which is called Canaan.  But that saying, “To thee will I give it, and to thy seed for ever,” may move some, if by “for ever” they understand “to eternity.”  But if in this passage they take “for ever” thus, as we firmly hold it means that the beginning of the world to come is to be ordered from the end of the present, there is still no difficulty, because, although the Israelites are expelled from Jerusalem, they still remain in other cities in the land of Canaan, and shall remain even to the end; and when that whole land is inhabited by Christians, they also are the very seed of Abraham.


Footnotes

322:906

Gen. 13.14-17.

323:907

Various reading, “the express promise.”


Next: Chapter 22

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