Joshua 21:43-45 and the Land Promises made to Israel
Covenant Reformed brethren claim that Joshua 21:43-45 is the definitive proof-text that confirms the land promises made by God to Abraham and his descendants were completely fulfilled. The passage reads,
43 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.
44 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.
45 Not a word failed of any good thing which the LORD had spoken to the house of Israel. All came to pass.
According to New Covenant proponent, Steve Lehrer,
The book of Joshua tells us that when the Israelites had finally taken most of the land, all of the promises given to Abraham had been fulfilled (Joshua 21:43-45). Nothing else needed to happen for God to make good on His word to Abraham. [Lehrer, 32]
Gary DeMar writes,
In addition, the text [Daniel 9:26] says nothing about the restoration of Israel to her land as a fulfillment of some covenant obligation. All the land promises that God made to Israel were fulfilled (Joshua 21:43-45). [DeMar, 332]
A Reformed blogger who did a series of articles on the land promises writes,
I am claiming that Joshua 21:43-45 declares that God fulfilled his promise to give the land to Israel. Nehemiah and Solomon also declare God did not drop the ball on any of his promises … The inspired author of 1 Kings [1 Kings 4:20, 21] certainly means to grab our attention here. He is proclaiming the promises concerning Abraham’s seed being as numerous as the sand of the sea, have been fulfilled. [Understanding the Land Promises]
Finally, Crenshaw and Gunn, citing Patrick Fairbairn, argue that Israel’s occupation of the land (they deceitfully call it “Palestine”) was ultimately just a type, and their temporary possession of the land was merely a foreshadowing of the things belonging to the Church which is concluded as being the entire earth [Crenshaw and Gunn, 241].
This passage in Joshua, it is argued, clearly states that God fulfilled all the promises He made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and to Moses, of bringing the people of Israel into the Promised Land. Other passages in Scripture, like 1 Kings 4:21, 8:56, and Nehemiah 9:7-8, are also cited as affirming what is recorded in Joshua 21.
How then is a future premillennialist to understand this passage in Joshua? Does Joshua 21:43-45 prove that all the land promises have been fulfilled? That there is no future restoration of Israel in a geo-political kingdom within the physical boundaries outlined by God to Abraham (Genesis 12, 13, 15, 17)? And are the land promises merely typological anyways? Meaning there really is a greater fulfillment with God’s redeemed people, both Jews and gentiles, inheriting the entire earth?
First, in response, let me remind the reader of two key passages I noted in my previous study: Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 30.
Both Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 30 were written before Israel was led into the land by Joshua. Both passages make important redemptive, prophetic predictions concerning Israel’s position in the land. To summarize:
1) Israel will already be in the land and the disobedience of the people will bring God’s judgment upon them.
2) God’s judgment will ultimately bring Israel’s exile from the land (Lev. 26:32-34, Deut. 30:1 [29:28]).
3) God will regather Israel back to the land (Lev. 26:44, Deut. 30:3).
4) Israel’s restoration to the land is due in part to their spiritual salvation by means of God’s regenerating spirit as promised in the New Covenant.
Regarding the last point, Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 30 use New Covenant terminology when describing Israel’s salvation and their subsequent restoration in the land. The prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel also use the same terminology when joining the spiritual salvation of the people with their restoration. Jeremiah specifically identifies the spiritual renewal of the people as a “New Covenant” God makes with them. Ezekiel doesn’t speak directly to a “New Covenant,” though he does mention an “everlasting covenant” in 16:60 and 37:26. Yet, just as Jeremiah does, Ezekiel describes Israel’s spiritual renewal as receiving “new hearts,” having “clean water sprinkled” on them, and the heart-led spiritual obedience of the people that results from the Spirit’s work.
Two factors can be observed with Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 30 and their relation to Joshua 21:43-45:
Israel’s predicted exile and restoration is fore-told BEFORE the people were even in the land and is to take place AFTER they have lived in the land for an unstated amount of time. This conflicts with the Covenant Reformed claim that Joshua 21:43-45 is a total fulfillment of the promises made to Abraham in Genesis, and the promise describing the land as an “everlasting possession.”
Moreover, Israel’s restoration to the Promised Land is in conjunction with the New Covenant that was confirmed and inaugurated by Jesus Christ. The spiritual renewal of the Jewish exiles and their restoration to the land follow after the New Covenant is ratified. Seeing that it is Christ who initiated the New Covenant, the events of restoration follow sometime future after the making of this New Covenant. Hence, there is still a future aspect of this New Covenant awaiting fulfillment, i.e., the Jews returning from exile, being spiritually regenerated, receiving their Messiah, and being restored to the Land.
Thus, the promise God makes in Leviticus, Deuteronomy and the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel to restore Israel forever in the land has to be different from what is being highlighted in Joshua 21:43-45. That means we need to understand this passage differently than the typical Covenant Reformed perspective.
It is important to know that Joshua 21 ends a specific section in the book of Joshua that begins with chapter 13. There, Joshua calls Israel to go and conquer the Canaanites that still dwelt in the land where Israel was yet to possess. In fact, Joshua states in 13:1 that “there remained very much land that needed to be possessed.” The chapters in between 13 and the end of 21 tell of the allotments each of the tribes received.
Joshua 21:41-43 is something of an editorial comment explaining how each of the tribes received from the LORD what He had promised Israel up unto that time. They were made a great nation, free from the Egyptian bondage, brought into the Promised Land, and under the leadership of Joshua, broke the military threat of the various Canaanite groups. Now that each individual tribe has received its allotment of the land, and there was still “very much land” yet to posses, the impression is that those tribes will go and drive those Canaanites out of the land and take possession of them.
The reality, however, as seen in the book of Judges, is that the tribes failed in accomplishing that possession. Instead, we see them not only failing to drive out the occupants (Judges 1:27-36), but also compromising their position of strength by making treaties with the Canaanites and putting them “under tribute.” This only led to the people involving themselves in the fertility religions of the Canaanites, marrying their sons and daughters, and eventually coming into bondage to the very Canaanites they were told to drive out of the land. The tribe of Dan, for example, was forced by the Amorites to leave their allotted territory so they moved to the most northern location of the Promised Land (Judges 1:34; 17-18).
If Joshua 21:43-45 is an absolute fulfillment of what God promised Abraham in Genesis 17:7, 8 as the Covenant Reformed claim, then there are some serious conflicts with what the original land promises promised and what happened in Israel’s history. A number of commentators on Joshua recognize this.
L. Daniel Hawk writes,
the sense of completion, however, stands in stark contrast to the sense of failure and incompleteness which characterizes the preceding material. How can the possession of Canaan be affirmed when the occupation of the land remains incomplete? And in what sense does Israel enjoy rest, given the presence of “determined” peoples with iron chariots? … The description of tribal lands puts Israel in the foreground and demonstrates repeatedly the nations halting and incomplete response to YHWH’s promises and commands. [Hawk, 224, 225]
George Bush (not the former president) notes,
The Canaanites, it is true, were yet in possession of some parts of the country, but they were so far subdued, that they gave them no serious molestation, and they were enabled to sit down in their possessions in the enjoyment of comparative rest and quiet. [Bush, 189]
Even Reformer, John Calvin, recognized the dilemma and the need to reconcile 21:43-45 with the rest of Scripture.
A second point, however, raises some doubt, namely, how the children of Israel can be said to have been settled in the possession of the land promised to them, and to have become masters of it, in such a sense that in regard to the enjoyment of it, not one syllable of the promise of God had failed. …
In order to remove this appearance of contradiction, it is necessary to distinguish between the certain, clear, and steadfast faithfulness of God in keeping his promises, and between the effeminacy and sluggishness of the people, in consequence of which the benefit of the divine goodness in a manner slipped through their hands. [Calvin, 247, 248]
Joshua 21:43-45, rather than being a declaration of absolute fulfillment of all the land promises God made to Abraham and his descendants, is more of an historical marker showing God’s faithfulness to His people up until that point. He was fulfilling His promises made to Abraham, not completing them entirely.
It should also been understood that this passage cannot be taken out the context of the whole of predictive prophecy concerning Israel and the land (Leviticus 26, Deuteronomy 30, Jeremiah 30-31, Ezekiel 36-37, Acts 1:6,7, Romans 11). God had promised everlasting possession of the land to Israel; however, their occupancy of the land depended upon their covenant faithfulness. They failed to be faithful and lost the land. Yet, God is still good in that the better covenant He has made through Jesus Christ will create hearts of covenant faithfulness in the people of Israel and then they will truly enjoy the land as God has always intended.
George Bush, Joshua
John Calvin, Joshua
Curtis Crenshaw and Grover Gunn, Dispensationalism: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow.
Gary DeMar, Last Days Madness
Gregory Harris, Did God Fulfill Every Good Promise?
L. Daniel Hawk, Joshua
Steve Lehrer, New Covenant Theology: Questions Answered.