The story of Israel’s conquest of the promised land of Canaan is messy, convoluted, and plays out over many decades. Its record covers the entire book of Joshua, spills over into the book of Judges, and is filled with the names of races we don’t know who lived in places we don’t know. Overall, it’s an encouraging story as Israel — with God’s help — wins victory after victory and does indeed claim Canaan as their own. In many ways, though, the story is discouraging in the fact that Israel failed to possess all the territory that God had given them.
In God’s original plan Moses was to be the man who not only led the Israelites out of Egyptian slavery but also in their conquest of Canaan. But that plan died a hard death when the people’s cowardice and lack of trust in God caused them to refuse to invade Canaan on God’s schedule (Numbers chapters 13:1-33, 14:1-10). In the wake of that refusal God prescribed forty years of nomadic existence in the wilderness outside Canaan on the wrong side of the Jordan river.
At the end of those forty years it was Joshua (Moses’ general and successor) who led the Israelites in their conquest of Canaan. He was a great man of God, one of only two adults — the other being Caleb — who had begged the people to invade Canaan forty years earlier. Under Joshua’s leadership the Israelites broke the military back of the various races that inhabited Canaan. The list of the 31 kings who were conquered under his command is found in Joshua 12:7-24.
Still, despite Joshua’s great successes in battle, taking a land isn’t the same thing as actually settling it and possessing it. As evidence of this, even though Joshua 11:23 says that Joshua “took the whole land,” God later told the elderly Joshua, “You are old, advanced in years, and there remains very much land to be possessed” (Joshua 13:1). The responsibility for completing that possessing would fall to Israel’s tribes as each tribe would be assigned the mop-up operation of either killing off or driving out the remaining occupants who lived in that tribe’s allotted portion of the land. Here, unfortunately, is where the failure occurred.
God was explicitly clear about what the Israelites were to do once they crossed over the Jordan river into Canaan. They were to drive out all the inhabitants of the land, destroy the land’s false idols and graven images, and demolish the sacred sites where the people of Canaan worshiped their false gods (Numbers 33:50-53, Deuteronomy 7:25-26). They were not to make covenants with the land’s inhabitants, intermarry with them, or show them any mercy (Deuteronomy 7:1-19). God even promised to send hornets to expose the inhabitants who would attempt to hide from the Israelites (Deuteronomy 7:20).
What God wanted was a systematic possessing of the land little by little (Deuteronomy 7:22). This gradual progressing would keep the wild animals and beasts of the field from becoming dangerously numerous in the territories that Israel had conquered but hadn’t yet settled. Logically speaking God’s plan was a good one, but like all plans it would only work if the people would put it into action.
However, the tribes of Benjamin, Ephraim, Manasseh, Zebulun, Asher, Naphtali, and Dan all failed in their assignments (Judges 1:27-36). Rather than kill off or drive out the inhabitants of their allotted regions, they settled for a coexistence with them. The tribe of Dan even allowed the Amorites to force them to live in the rugged mountains of that area rather than in the pleasant valleys.
All of this caused Jesus Himself — who is referred to in His preincarnate form in the Old Testament as The Angel of the Lord — to come to the Israelites at Bochim and warn them again about making covenants with Canaan’s inhabitants and failing to tear down their altars (Judges 2:1-2). He also told them, “I will not drive them out before you; but they shall be thorns in your side, and their gods shall be a snare to you” (Judges 2:3). The message was clear: “You’ve failed at possessing your land, and your failure will have long-term, negative effects upon you.”
And so what happened? Well, the people kept themselves clear from idolatry as long as the elderly Joshua was alive, but their plunge into the sin followed shortly after his death (Judges 2:7-13). Thus began the cyclical pattern for the time period of the book of Judges:
- Israel embraces idolatry.
- God punishes them by allowing a particular race to oppress them.
- Israel cries out to God for help.
- God raises up a leader (a Judge) to help Israel vanquish the oppressors.
- Israel does fine for a while spiritually, and then the whole pattern begins anew.
But the question for us today is: What spiritual lesson should we learn from Israel’s failure to thoroughly possess Canaan? That lesson goes as follows: When God gives us commands and instructions, we must carry them out to the letter because failure to do so will result in consequences we’d be wise to avoid. That’s why I would advise you to take a moment right now and ask God if you have any outstanding debts in regards to following His commands and instructions to a tee. After all, your complete obedience will be the difference between you claiming all that God has in mind for you or coming up short and settling for something far less.