Q: Joshua 21:43-45 says, “So the Lord gave Israel all the land which He had sworn to give to their fathers, and they possessed it and lived in it. And the Lord gave them rest on every side, according to all that He had sworn to their fathers, and no one of all their enemies stood before them; the Lord gave all their enemies into their hand. Not one of the good promises which the Lord had made to the house of Israel failed; all came to pass.”
Doesn’t this passage indicate that God fulfilled the promises he made about Israel possessing the land, and that we should not expect any future fulfillment?
A: First we must realize that there were several different promises made to different parties pertaining to the land:
In Genesis 15:18, God promised Abraham that the descendants of Abraham would possess the land “from the river of Egypt as far as the great river, the river Euphrates.”
In Genesis 17:8 God promised Abraham that He would “give to you and to your descendants after you, the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.”
In Exodus 23:30 God fixes Israel’s future boundaries: “from the Red Sea to the sea of the Philistines, and from the wilderness to the river…” But this promise was conditioned on Israel’s obedience (Ex. 23:24-25,32-33). If Israel was faithful, they would possess the boundaries. If not, they would be stopped shor and have to deal with the consequences (23:33) that would shorten Israel’s tenure in the land (also see Deut. 28) – they would be removed from the land and scattered. That judgment would not be eternal, though, as God is very specific that Israel would one day be restored to the land (Deut. 30:3-10). That restoration would be unconditional, physical and spiritual, and would be accomplished by God, Himself.
Importantly, the promises made to Abraham were unconditional, while the promises to Israel regarding their initial tenure in the land were conditional.
The comments of Joshua 21:43-45 indicate that God had kept His promises to bring Israel into the land – none of His promises to them failed – they all came to pass (lit., “came in”). As Joshua indicates in Joshua 23:5-6, Israel still had much work to receive the continuation and completion of God’s conditional promises. Clearly, Joshua recognizes that Israel’s borders are not yet complete, but only that God has kept His promises to that point.
The statement that God had kept His promises to “the house of Israel” is clearly limited to that early stage of land possession and dominance over enemies (there were many promises God had made pertaining to other aspects that had not yet been fulfilled, e.g., Gen. 49:10) as Joshua understands. At that point he did not consider that there were no more promises yet to be fulfilled, rather he simply communicates that God had been faithful to that point
Further, the promises that “came in” at the point of Joshua 21:45 were made to the house of Israel. God’s promises of boundaries to Abraham preceded the house of Israel, and measured far beyond what Israel has ever historically possessed. Hence, either the record is not reliable, or we await a future fulfillment (as discussed in Deut. 30).
Interestingly, a key element of the fulfillment of the New Covenant (incidentally made with Israel, see Jeremiah 31) was that Israel would be restored to the land and would have physical and spiritual restoration – this is consistent with the language of Deuteronomy 30.
In short, we are faced with three clear possibilities: (1) the early Biblical narrative does not record the words of God, (2) the narrative records the words but they are untrue, or (3) Israel awaits a future fulfillment of God’s promises – to be accomplished by God and God alone. What we conclude on this issue says much about our understanding of who God is and how He has communicated to us.
Can any of us break His covenant for the day and the night? (Jer. 33:19-26)