After the death of Moses on the east side of the River Jordan the responsibility for leading the fledgling people of Israel into the Promised Land fell upon Joshua the son of Nun (Josh. 1:1-2). The first indications were that Yahweh’s power would make them unstoppable. The passage of the ark of the covenant over the dry bed of the Jordan demonstrated to the people that the Creator Himself was their God, and they were in covenant with Him (Josh. 3:17). In a real sense the priests bore the covenant with them as they passed into Canaan. There was every reason to be devoted to God.
The overthrow of Jericho and the way it was accomplished once again only underlined Israel’s dependence on Yahweh (Josh. 6). But Achan’s sin cost the lives of thirty-six men (Josh. 7:1-5), as well as causing the name of Yahweh to be blasphemed.1 Defeat at Ai proved that without God conquest was not going to be possible. Thus, from the very start of the campaign miraculous acts of God encouraged the Israelites to occupy the land.2 But they were also reminded that success depended on them going about it God’s way; that is, with an eye to the covenant.3
The deception of the Gibeonites takes up chapter 9 of the Book. What is most noteworthy for our purposes is the finality of the covenant that was made with Joshua and the elders of Israel (Josh. 9:15). The text places emphasis on the hope that was placed by the Gibeonites in the solemnizing oath that was sworn:
So Joshua made peace with them, and made a covenant with them to let them live; and the rulers of the congregation swore to them.
And it happened at the end of three days, after they had made a covenant with them, that they heard that they were their neighbors who dwelt near them.
Then the children of Israel journeyed and came to their cities on the third day. Now their cities were Gibeon, Chephirah, Beeroth, and Kirjath Jearim.
But the children of Israel did not attack them, because the rulers of the congregation had sworn to them by the LORD God of Israel. And all the congregation complained against the rulers.
Then all the rulers said to all the congregation, “We have sworn to them by the LORD God of Israel; now therefore, we may not touch them.” (Joshua 9:15-19)
If only they could persuade the Israelites to vow to spare their lives the Gibeonites knew they would be safe. The wording of the oath that was taken was the crucial thing. It would be hermeneutically decisive!
At the close of the book there is the famous fulfillment statement in Joshua 21:43-45.
So the LORD gave to Israel all the land of which He had sworn to give to their fathers, and they took possession of it and dwelt in it.
The LORD gave them rest all around, according to all that He had sworn to their fathers. And not a man of all their enemies stood against them; the LORD delivered all their enemies into their hand. Not a word failed of any good thing which the LORD had spoken to the house of Israel. All came to pass.
This passage is often seized upon by amillennialists and postmillennialists to try to prove that the land promise has been fulfilled and that there is no good reason to teach that the nation of Israel still has an expectation of possessing the land grant of Genesis 15.4 For example,
This promise of a land was fulfilled when Joshua led the people of Israel back into Canaan (Josh. 1:2-9). As Joshua himself later put it, “So the LORD gave Israel all the land he had sworn to give their forefathers, and they took possession of it and settled there” (Josh. 21:43; cf. 1 Kings 4:20-21).5
But any reflection on Joshua 23:11-12 and Judges 1 and 3 shows that the amillennial interpretation fails to take the wider historical context into consideration. As Chisholm explains, “The land belonged to Israel, by title deed if not in fact.”6 To all intents and purposes, the land belonged to Israel, and possession of the remaining territory was contingent upon covenant faithfulness to Yahweh.
Yet there is a sense in which the land-grant of Genesis 15 must also be seen eschatologically. The extent of that land promise still awaits final fulfillment.7 In light of this it is best to interpret Joshua 21:43-45 as a statement of God’s fulfilled promise in terms of His covenant faithfulness to a yet disobedient, willful and sometimes feckless people. The land was now “Israel”, though not the promised Kingdom.
In the last chapter of Joshua we read about a covenant renewal at Shechem at which Joshua rehearses the Lords faithfulness to His people (Josh. 24:1-28). This was the fourth time that the children of Israel had pledged to walk in God’s covenant Law.8 But from the human side, such pledges are never going to be kept. Still, the speed at which the tribes faltered is alarming. Within essentially one generation (see Judg. 2:10) the author of the Book of Judges could write of the almost total apostasy of the nation (Judg. 2:10-13).
1 It is not easy for the modern reader to understand the language of herem (indicating dedication to God through utter destruction), but it would have been fully known to Achan. Whether Achan only is executed or whether his “sons and daughters” were also stoned is hard to tell from the text. In light of Deuteronomy 24:16 (“children shall not be put to death for their fathers”) it seems more likely that Achan alone was killed. See Adolph L. Harstad, Joshua, 328. For a description of herem see e.g., Eugene H. Merrill, Kingdom of Priests, 110
2 For Joshua himself, the greatest of these miraculous signs was when he was confronted by “the Captain of Yahweh’s army” in Joshua 5:13-15
3 Harstad comments, “The covenant relationship between the LORD and Israel is implicit in every chapter of Joshua.” – Ibid, 751
4 It is strange how “literal” they can get with some texts in their clamor to “spiritualize” many others
5 Kim Riddlebarger, A Case for Amillennialism, 46
6 Robert B. Chisholm, A Commentary on Judges and Ruth, 119
7 Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. The Promise-Plan of God, 96-97
8 The other times were in Exodus 24 and 34; and Deuteronomy 29. See Elliott Johnson, A Dispensational Biblical Theology, 173. Johnson seems not to view Deut. 29 as a separate covenant to the one at Sinai.
Paul Martin Henebury is a native of Manchester, England and a graduate of London Theological Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary (MDiv, PhD). He has been a Church-planter, pastor and a professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics. He was also editor of the Conservative Theological Journal (suggesting its new name, Journal of Dispensational Theology, prior to leaving that post). He is now the President of Telos School of Theology.