The Promised Land

The promise of land was made to Abraham, and confirmed to Isaac, Jacob, and Jacob's sons. The land that was promised was a central feature in the identity of Israel as a nation, all throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. The unfolding of God's plan primarily involved His people and their inheritance of the land. But are the events recorded in the Old Testament the complete fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant?

To understand how God's Covenant with Abraham forms the foundation for the rest of the Bible, we must first consider exactly what land God promised to Abraham. We saw in the previous article that God promised blessings, including land, to Abraham and his seed. God was very specific about what land He would give them.

Genesis 15:
18 In the same day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, Unto thy seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates:
19 The Kenites, and the Kenizzites, and the Kadmonites,
20 And the Hittites, and the Perizzites, and the Rephaims,
21 And the Amorites, and the Canaanites, and the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.
[see NASB]

Some commentators believe that the "the river of Egypt" refers to the Nile, while others believe it more likely refers to the Wadi El-Arish, which forms the southwestern border of Israel. Either way, the promised land was to stretch from the River of Egypt in the south to the Euphrates in the north, and include the land then inhabited by the people listed in verses 19-21.

God reiterated this designation of the land in Exodus 23:30-31. Then we read of how the children of Israel had to wanderin the wilderness for forty years because the older generation did not believe God nor trust Him to enable them to overcome the inhabitants and enter the Promised Land. When Moses told the new generation about this and about God's promises, he referred back to the land promise made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Numbers 32:8-13). He also reiterated the boundaries of the land God would give them (Deuteronomy 1:7; 11:24). God again reiterated the extent of the land to Joshua (Joshua 1:4). Then we read a summary in chapter 21.

Joshua 21:
43 And the LORD gave unto Israel all the land which he sware to give unto their fathers; and they possessed it, and dwelt therein.
44 And the LORD gave them rest round about, according to all that he sware unto their fathers: and there stood not a man of all their enemies before them; the LORD delivered all their enemies into their hand.
45 There failed not ought of any good thing which the LORD had spoken unto the house of Israel; all came to pass.
[see NASB]

These verses present some problems. They seem to say that the land promise to Abraham was completely fulfilled at this time, and thus there is no basis for belief in any future fulfillment.  Yet in chapter 23 Joshua says that there are still nations that remain, and that they shall (in the future) possess that land.  According to verse 1, this is "a long time after that the Lord had given rest unto Israel from all their enemies round about” and Joshua was “old and stricken in age.”

Joshua 23:
4 Behold, I have divided unto you by lot these nations that remain, to be an inheritance for your tribes, from Jordan, with all the nations that I have cut off, even unto the great sea westward.
5 And the LORD your God, he shall expel them from before you, and drive them from out of your sight; and ye shall possess their land, as the LORD your God hath promised unto you.
6 Be ye therefore very courageous to keep and to do all that is written in the book of the law of Moses, that ye turn not aside therefrom to the right hand or to the left;
[see NASB]

If they had already possessed and dwelt in “all the land” which God had promised, as 21:43 says, why are they being told to go out and possess more?  Similarly, we read further on in chapter 23:

Joshua 23:
14 And, behold, this day I am going the way of all the earth: and ye know in all your hearts and in all your souls, that not one thing hath failed of all the good things which the LORD your God spake concerning you; all are come to pass unto you, and not one thing hath failed thereof.
[see NASB]

Reading this verse out of context could give one the impression that all of the Abrahamic Covenant had been fulfilled. But if you read the context of Joshua's address in chapter 23, you see that he was saying there was still more to do, and also that if the people went and served other gods, they would be driven from the land.

Through the rest of the book of Joshua we read of the Israelites fighting to possess the land and drive out the inhabitants. This struggle continued, in fact, for several hundred years, as we read in the book of Judges. It is clear that there was still much to be done in order to fully possess the land, and yet Joshua 21:43-45 seems to say that they had possessed and dwelt in all the land promised to them, at that point.

What then do we make of these verses? Even Calvin said it was an apparent contradiction. There are some who claim that the book of Joshua was deliberately corrupted to make it say that Israel had conquered all the land. Reference is made to Jeremiah 8:8 ("How do ye say, We are wise, and the law of the LORD is with us? Lo, certainly in vain made he it; the pen of the scribes is in vain").  But this verse doesn't mention Joshua specifically, so even if it was saying that the Book of the Law had been corrupted, it doesn't prove this specific corruption.

Besides, Jeremiah 8:8 is talking about lying scribes who have twisted the Law and made lies out of it. It is certainly not saying that the sacred Scriptures that were copied and preserved are what was corrupted. There is no proof of any such corruption - in fact textual evidence, especially the Dead Sea Scrolls, indicate an even higher degree of integrity than was previously thought.

More to the point, if the verses in Joshua had been purposely changed to say that Israel completely conquered all of the land under Joshua, it would have been caught by any number of scribes, since it flatly contradicts what we read in the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures (even in Joshua itself, as we have seen). What then, is the explanation for the apparent contradiction? I believe it lies in the fact that in many passages, God promises that the children of Israel would possess the land of Canaan, which is only a portion of the promised land elsewhere described as stretching from Euphrates to the River of Egypt.

The land of Canaan was what God initially called Abraham to go into, in Genesis 11 and following (Genesis 11:31; 12:5; 13:12). The first mention of the land promise in Genesis speaks of "this land" in the context of Canaan.

Genesis 12:
4 So Abram departed, as the LORD had spoken unto him; and Lot went with him: and Abram was seventy and five years old when he departed out of Haran.
5 And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son, and all their substance that they had gathered, and the souls that they had gotten in Haran; and they went forth to go into the land of Canaan; and into the land of Canaan they came.
6 And Abram passed through the land unto the place of Sichem, unto the plain of Moreh. And the Canaanite was then in the land.
7 And the LORD appeared unto Abram, and said, Unto thy seed will I give this land: and there builded he an altar unto the LORD, who appeared unto him.
[see NASB]

The second mention of the land promise is also in the context of Canaan.

Genesis 13:
12 Abram dwelled in the land of Canaan, and Lot dwelled in the cities of the plain, and pitched his tent toward Sodom.
13 But the men of Sodom were wicked and sinners before the LORD exceedingly.
14 And the LORD said unto Abram, after that Lot was separated from him, Lift up now thine eyes, and look from the place where thou art northward, and southward, and eastward, and westward:
15 For all the land which thou seest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed for ever.
[see NASB]

It isn't until chapter 15 that God extends the land promise to the Euphrates and the River of Egypt. In fact, this designation is only mentioned in four places (Genesis 15:18; Deuteronomy 1:7; 11:24; Joshua 1:4) while the land of Canaan is referred to by name in many verses. Is (or was) the land of Canaan identical to the land "from the River of Egypt to the Euphrates?" While it is part of that larger area, it is not identical.

Back in Genesis 10, when God separated the various nations, the land of the Canaanites was specifically described.

Genesis 10:
19 And the border of the Canaanites was from Sidon, as thou comest to Gerar, unto Gaza; as thou goest, unto Sodom, and Gomorrah, and Admah, and Zeboim, even unto Lasha.
[see NASB]

When the children of Israel were wandering in the wilderness, God specifically identified the land of Canaan as the land they would enter and inherit.

Numbers 34:
2 Command the children of Israel, and say unto them, When ye come into the land of Canaan; (this is the land that shall fall unto you for an inheritance, even the land of Canaan with the coasts thereof:)
[see NASB]

It then goes on to describe, in detail, the borders of the land of Canaan (Numbers 34:1-15).

When the land was divided among the Twelve Tribes under Joshua, it was only within the land of Canaan, not the entire land from the River of Egypt to the Euphrates. The borders of the Twelve Tribes are described in detail in Joshua 13-22.

It was only later, under David and Solomon, that the kingdom of Israel was extended to the Euphrates (II Samuel 8:1-3; II Chronicles 9:25-26; I Kings 4:21). So when those verses in Joshua say that all the land that was promised had been taken, it must be referring to the promised land of Canaan, not the entire land from the River of Egypt to the Euphrates. Thus there is no contradiction.

The children of Israel's blessings and possession of the land were conditional, based on their keeping the Law of Moses. If they obeyed, they would be blessed, if not, they would be cursed (Leviticus 26; Deuteronomy 28). Specifically, regarding the land, if Israel was faithful to the Mosaic Law, they would be blessed in the land, but if not they would be driven out.

Leviticus 26:
3 If ye walk in my statutes, and keep my commandments, and do them;
4 Then I will give you rain in due season, and the land shall yield her increase, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit.
5 And your threshing shall reach unto the vintage, and the vintage shall reach unto the sowing time: and ye shall eat your bread to the full, and dwell in your land safely.
6 And I will give peace in the land, and ye shall lie down, and none shall make you afraid: and I will rid evil beasts out of the land, neither shall the sword go through your land.
Deuteronomy 28:
8 The LORD shall command the blessing upon thee in thy storehouses, and in all that thou settest thine hand unto; and he shall bless thee in the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.
9 The LORD shall establish thee an holy people unto himself, as he hath sworn unto thee, if thou shalt keep the commandments of the LORD thy God, and walk in his ways.
Leviticus 26:
27 And if ye will not for all this hearken unto me, but walk contrary unto me;
28 Then I will walk contrary unto you also in fury; and I, even I, will chastise you seven times for your sins...
32 And I will bring the land into desolation: and your enemies which dwell therein shall be astonished at it.
33 And I will scatter you among the heathen, and will draw out a sword after you: and your land shall be desolate, and your cities waste.
Deuteronomy 28:
63 And it shall come to pass, that as the LORD rejoiced over you to do you good, and to multiply you; so the LORD will rejoice over you to destroy you, and to bring you to nought; and ye shall be plucked from off the land whither thou goest to possess it.
64 And the LORD shall scatter thee among all people, from the one end of the earth even unto the other; and there thou shalt serve other gods, which neither thou nor thy fathers have known, even wood and stone.
65 And among these nations shalt thou find no ease, neither shall the sole of thy foot have rest: but the LORD shall give thee there a trembling heart, and failing of eyes, and sorrow of mind:
[see NASB]

This is the overall picture that must be kept in mind when reading Joshua. While 23:14 speaks of the blessings that had come to pass, the next verses immediately put forth a warning.

Joshua 23:
14 And, behold, this day I am going the way of all the earth: and ye know in all your hearts and in all your souls, that not one thing hath failed of all the good things which the LORD your God spake concerning you; all are come to pass unto you, and not one thing hath failed thereof.
15 Therefore it shall come to pass, that as all good things are come upon you, which the LORD your God promised you; so shall the LORD bring upon you all evil things, until he have destroyed you from off this good land which the LORD your God hath given you.
16 When ye have transgressed the covenant of the LORD your God, which he commanded you, and have gone and served other gods, and bowed yourselves to them; then shall the anger of the LORD be kindled against you, and ye shall perish quickly from off the good land which he hath given unto you.
[see NASB]

Not only did God warn the children of Israel that this could happen, He specifically told Moses that it would in Deuteronomy 31:14-21. And yet He had told the people in the previous chapter that although it would happen, if they just turned back to Him, He would gather them from where they were scattered, and restore them to the land and the blessings that go with it.

Deuteronomy 30:
1 And it shall come to pass, when all these things are come upon thee, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before thee, and thou shalt call them to mind among all the nations, whither the LORD thy God hath driven thee,
2 And shalt return unto the LORD thy God, and shalt obey his voice according to all that I command thee this day, thou and thy children, with all thine heart, and with all thy soul;
3 That then the LORD thy God will turn thy captivity, and have compassion upon thee, and will return and gather thee from all the nations, whither the LORD thy God hath scattered thee.
4 If any of thine be driven out unto the outmost parts of heaven, from thence will the LORD thy God gather thee, and from thence will he fetch thee:
5 And the LORD thy God will bring thee into the land which thy fathers possessed, and thou shalt possess it; and he will do thee good, and multiply thee above thy fathers.
6 And the LORD thy God will circumcise thine heart, and the heart of thy seed, to love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, that thou mayest live.
7 And the LORD thy God will put all these curses upon thine enemies, and on them that hate thee, which persecuted thee.
8 And thou shalt return and obey the voice of the LORD, and do all his commandments which I command thee this day.
9 And the LORD thy God will make thee plenteous in every work of thine hand, in the fruit of thy body, and in the fruit of thy cattle, and in the fruit of thy land, for good: for the LORD will again rejoice over thee for good, as he rejoiced over thy fathers:
10 If thou shalt hearken unto the voice of the LORD thy God, to keep his commandments and his statutes which are written in this book of the law, and if thou turn unto the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul.
[see NASB]

As we know from the rest of the history recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures, the people did, in fact, turn to idolatry and wickedness, and although God patiently warned them over and over, eventually (nearly 1000 years later) He removed them from their land (Ezekiel 33:23-29; II Chronicles 36:15-21). Yet in Ezra and Nehemiah we read of the remnant of Judah being restored to the land.

But this is still not the end of the story. We read in multiple passages in the Prophets about God's plan to fully restore both Israel and Judah to the land, and the blessings that go with it. We also read of God's promise to establish a New Covenant and change the hearts of His people, as well as the worldwide rule of His Messiah. And all of His promises are based on the foundation of His Covenant with Abraham, which is why those who believe are called the seed of Abraham in the New Testament.

Mark Clarke