The promises that God made to Israel were generally along the lines of "obey, and I will make you prosper in this land." I've often, without realizing it, read that as if it were a promise to take them to heaven - I subconsciously decided that "this land" didn't actually refer to that land, but to the heavenly land that all of "Abraham's children" will one day enjoy. That's really a rather bold leap, and one I'm no longer willing to make. When God said "this land," I believe He meant exactly what He said.
On the other hand, I do see a lot of symbolism in this. In fact, I believe that the entirety of Israel's history is meant as a symbol to the world - a symbol of how well we will succeed at obeying God through our own efforts, even when miracles and prophecies and wonders are happening every generation or so, at least! A symbol that clearly tells the one who sees it, "You won't. You will never succeed, because your heart is hard."
Alright, great. So it's a massive symbol to explain to us our own brokenness. Makes sense. BUT WAIT A MINUTE! Why in the world did God need to play with the hearts and minds of 40+ generations of tribal Israel just to prove a point to the rest of the world? That seems a little ridiculous, doesn't it? Couldn't He simply have told us? Why make them go through all the effort, failure, destruction, and despair? Why not just send a prophet to say, once and for all, "YOU CANNOT OBEY. YOU ARE TOTALLY DEPRAVED.* YOU NEED A DIVINE SAVIOR WHO CAN PURCHASE YOUR FREEDOM, BECAUSE YOU WILL NEVER BE ABLE TO DO IT YOURSELVES." Boom. Done.**
Or what about telling us a story?*** Instead of making all of these people suffer under the weight of ceremonial and religious laws for hundreds and hundreds of years, with only the faint hope that perhaps God would show mercy to them despite their disobedience and failures - why not just tell a few parables with the same message? A few poetic stories about a group of people who tried and failed miserably would prove the same point, wouldn't it?
But perhaps not. Perhaps we, like the ancient Israelites, are just as hard-hearted in the face of what we are told about ourselves. If someone had warned Europe of the coming horrors of World War II, how many people would really have believed that the cold-blooded murder of an entire race was something that the Germans would actually carry out? In fact, if no nation in history had ever murdered the members of a rival nation, who would believe that such an evil was actually possible?
It seems as though God requires Himself to tell us about Himself and ourselves through history. What good is a story, really, if it doesn't mirror actual history in some way or another? Truth, then, is actually worked out through history. It cannot simply be "pretended," or "theorized," or "imagined." It may be that there cannot be something True which has neither happened, nor will happen.
I've heard people say that one of God's reasons for our suffering here on earth is that, having experienced suffering, we will be able to appreciate sides of God's character (His mercy, His healing, etc....) that the angels, who have never suffered, will never really be able to understand. I'm sure that angels have brilliant minds, and I'm sure we could "explain" to them what it is like...but not having experienced it, they will be unable to really comprehend the goodness of God's mercy.
In a similar vein, I've often wondered why Christ actually had to die... If He's now alive, and enjoying the same bliss He was before He came to Earth, what did He actually accomplish? Sometimes it seems a lot like a stage drama - God was obviously trying to get our attention, but He probably could have used a body double for the actual death. Once again, the only answer I can fathom is that, as we have really sinned, so must someone really give satisfaction (make atonement) for our debts. He couldn't simply tell us how much He loved us, or I am sure He would have done just that. He couldn't have truly loved us as much as He does without actually performing an act of love more loving than anything else has ever, or will ever, be.
As a question for further thought, how does this apply to situations where we are trying to help others who are going through a situation we've never been through? How do we interact with them helpfully (or can we even help at all?) despite not having truly experienced what they are experiencing, and therefore on some level being unable understand their suffering?
* Calvin would've appreciated this.
** I am, of course, ignoring the fact that He did actually tell them they were going to fail. But only a time or two, and obviously He just wasn't being clear enough.
*** Best/most ironic name for a genre of literature, ever? "Religious Fiction."