THE CONQUEST OF THE PROMISED LAND
“At Mount Sinai God entered into an agreement with the people of Israel. This agreement or covenant we know as the Old Testament. We call it the “Old” Testament to distinguish it from the New Testament established by Jesus Christ. At the time the Old Testament was made between God and the Israelites the people did not clearly understand that it was to be but the forerunner for a new and lasting covenant between God and all the nations of the world.
THE OLD COVENANT
They did understand that God had chosen them from all the peoples of the world to be His own peculiar people. ‘… Thou art a holy people to the Lord thy God. The Lord thy God hath chosen thee, to be his peculiar people of all the peoples that are upon the earth’ (Deuteronomy 7:6). They were told also that it was not their own merit which explained God’s choice. ‘Not because you surpass all nations in number, is the Lord joined to you, and hath chosen you: for you are the fewest of any people’ (Deuteronomy 7:7). They were told that they were chosen simply because God loved them with a special love: ‘because the Lord hath loved them’ (Deuteronomy 7:8).
On their part they entered into the covenant because they had faith in God. He had shown them His almighty power. He has redeemed them from bondage in Egypt and had protected them against the wrath of the Pharaoh. He had fed them miraculously in the wilderness. He had let them hear His voice. He had come to dwell in their midst. As a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night He led them through the desert. In acknowledgement of His power and His presence, in gratitude for His blessings and in anticipation of the land He had promised to them, the people of Israel entered into their covenant with God.
DESIRE FOR MATERIAL COMFORT COUPLED WITH LACK OF FAITH IN GOD’S PROMISE
It would be pleasant to report that the Israelites remained completely faithful to their bargain. Unfortunately this was not the truth. The divine will for man’s salvation was still to engage in a long struggle with the weak rebellious will of man before the glory of God’s plan could be more clearly revealed. The subsequent history of the Israelites presents us with the picture of this struggle.
DELAYS DUE TO THE WEAK REBELLIOUS WILL OF MAN
At first, as always, it was the desire for material comfort which weakened the fidelity of the people. They complained of the hardships of their march from Mount Sinai.
They began to remember with longing the delights of the land of Egypt where they had dwelt. Their slavery in Egypt appeared to them more pleasant than their God-given freedom in the wilderness. Discouraged by the bleakness of their lives they were only too ready to believe that the land of Canaan was too strongly defended for them to conquer it. Their lack of faith in God’s promise to them brought swift punishment. God decreed that no man over twenty, except Caleb and Josue (Joshua), who had trusted His word, should enter the promised land.
LACK OF FAITH IN GOD LEADS TO FRUITLESS WANDERING IN LIFE
As a result of this punishment the Chosen People spent forty years wandering in the wilderness. Little is told us of the happenings of these years. Who can imagine truly the feelings of these men who knew that their own lack of faith had condemned them to long years of fruitless wandering?
QUESTIONING THE AUTHORITY GIVEN BY GOD
But memory is short, and children are impatient both of the sins and the wisdom of their elders. Sacred Scripture tells us how even during this time of punishment the growing generation rebelled against the divine authority.
Some, like Core, refused to recognise the divinely instituted priestly authority of Aaron and his descendants. ‘Let it be enough for you,’ they said to Aaron, ‘that the multitude consists of holy ones, and the Lord is among them. Why lift you up yourselves above the people of the Lord?’ (Numbers 16:3). Others, like Dathan and Abiron, would not acknowledge the civil authority of Moses.
A DETOUR FOR SECURITY REASONS
Toward the end of the period of forty years of wandering the people were encamped near Cades. The time had come to enter the land of promise. Moses requested the permission of the Edomites for the Israelites and their flocks to pass peacefully through Edom on their way to Canaan. But the permission was refused. Choosing not to fight with the Edomites, the people went south, intending to move eastward farther south, and then ascend northward, thus going around the land of the Edomites.
‘A STAR SHALL RISE OUT OF JACOB…’
During this march toward Canaan a curious incident occurred. Balac, king of the Moabites, fearing the advancing Israelites, sent for Balaam, a soothsayer or magician from Mesopotamia. He desired Balaam to curse the Israelites. But, moved by Jahweh, Balaam blessed them instead, saying: ‘A star shall rise out of Jacob, and a sceptre shall spring up from Israel’ (Numbers 24:17). In this way God renewed His promise to His Chosen People.
When the people were within sight of the Promised Land, Moses, their great leader, died. His authority passed on to Josue [Joshua]. Josue led the invasion of the land of Canaan. His military career opened with the dramatic and surprising capture of the walled town of Jericho.
THE CONQUEST OF JERICHO
Before proceeding to the siege of Jericho the people renewed the practice of circumcision, the sign which bound the people to God. They also celebrated the feast of the Pasch and the unleavened bread, recalling to themselves how the power of God had saved them in Egypt. After this Josue invested the city of Jericho. At God’s command the Israelites sent their soldiers to march around the city.
On the seventh day of the siege, as the soldiers were marching round the walls, the priests sounded the trumpets, the soldiers cried out, and the walls of Jericho fell. It is probable that the walls were shaken down by an earthquake. The finger of God is to be seen in the fact that the earthquake occurred at the moment when the Israelites were calling upon their God to deliver the city into their hands.
THE OCCUPATION OF THE PROMISED LAND
After the conquest of Jericho and Hai, Josue defeated an alliance of five Canaanite kings. Then he successfully destroyed the city states of Maceda, Lebna, Lachis, Eglon, Hebron and Dabir. The defeat of the kings of the northern part of Canaan completed the conquest of the Promised Land.
The conquered land was then distributed to the twelve tribes of Israel. The tribes of Ruben and Gad and the half-tribe of Manasses received the lands already given them on the other side of the Jordan. To the other tribes were given allotments on the western side of the Jordan, with the exception of the Levites, to whom no special territory was assigned, because they were to reside in the designated Levitical cities within the territories of the other tribes.
The conquest of Canaan under Josue was not secured. Many of the Canaanite towns and kings had been conquered and the land had been divided among the tribes of Israel. But much of the territory was still unsubdued. It was necessary therefore for the tribes of Israel to continue their work of conquest. At the death of Josue the Israelites had not yet succeeded in wrestling complete domination of the land from its former inhabitants.
LACK OF OVERALL POLITICAL AND MILITARY LEADERSHIP
In the Book of Judges we read the story of the efforts of the Israelites to dominate the land of Canaan. After the death of Josue the Chosen People had no real national leader who commanded the obedience and allegiance of all the people. Instead, each tribe seems to have attempted individually to achieve secure possession of its own allotted territory. Sometimes, though, several tribes united with one another to conquer the land.
Thus Juda, in allegiance with Simeon, defeated Adonibesec of Besec, set fire to Jerusalem, though without apparently destroying the Jebusites who dwelt there or gaining possession of the city, and overcame the city of Hebron. With Othoniel, the nephew of Caleb, Juda conquered Cariath-Sepher. Juda also took Gaza, Ascalon and Accaron.
THE ISRAELITES DISOBEYED GOD’S COMMANDS YET AGAIN
Unfortunately, in these conquests the Israelites did not obey the divine command not to make a league with the idolatrous and polytheistic inhabitants of the land. Thus, the sons of Benjamin did not destroy the Jebusites who inhabited Jerusalem. Manasses did not destroy the inhabitants of Oethsan, Thanac, Dor, Jeblaam and Mageddo. Ephraim did not destroy the Canaanites in Gezer, but dwelt with them. The same policy was followed by Aser, Nephtali and Dan. The tribes of Israel either dwelt side by side with the Canaanites, or, when they were powerful enough, they made tributaries of them.
THE ISRAELITES, INSTEAD, FOLLOWED THEIR OWN DANGEROUS POLICY
This policy was dangerous both from the political and the religious point of view. Politically it was unfortunate because it allowed the Canaanites opportunity to attempt to re-establish their former domination. In the field of religion it exposed the Israelites to the danger of seduction by the religious views and practices of the Canaanites. This danger was made acute by two factors in the history of Israel. In the first place severe spiritual monotheism which Moses had taught them was not as yet completely understood by them. While they recognised Jahweh as their only God, many of them probably still thought that other Gods existed and ruled, each in his own territory. This could lead them to acknowledge the supposed power of the local Canaanite divinities.
THE TEMPTATION OF IDOL WORSHIPPING LOCALLY POPULAR FERTILITY GODS
In the second place, by occupying the Promised Land, the Israelites were transforming themselves from a nomadic, wandering people into an agricultural people to whom the successful growing of crops and livestock would be of major importance. But the gods of the Canaanites were gods of fertility. What would be more natural than for the Israelites to imagine they might find prosperity by giving homage to the local gods of fertility? By not remaining faithful to their promise not to enter a league with the Canaanites the Chosen People exposed themselves to this great and grave danger.
WHO WERE THE ‘JUDGES’ IN THE OLD TESTAMENT?
Events proved the reality of this danger and divine retribution followed swiftly. After the death of Josue and the men of his generation many of the people began to worship Baal and Astarte, the gods of the Canaanites. God became angry with them and allowed the Canaanites to oppress them. But, even though the Israelites broke their covenant with God, god did not break His covenant with them. As often as they deserted God for Baal and Astarte He allowed them to be oppressed by their enemies. But when they repented and called upon Him He raised up military leaders who delivered them from oppression. These military leaders are known as the ‘Judges’.
The activities of the Judges was therefore sporadic, and, as far as we can tell, local. The Judges were not national leaders, like Moses and Josue. They laboured on behalf of particular tribes. The period of the Judges lasted from about 1225 to 1020 B.C.
A PERIOD OF UNREST AND TURBULENCE
The period of the Judges appears as one of unrest and turbulence. Politically the efforts of the Chosen People to possess securely the Promised Land were impeded by the military campaigns and conquests of the Canaanites, the Moabites, the Madianites, the Amalectites, the Ammonites and the growing threat of the Philistines. The successes of these enemies of the Chosen People at different times subjected different Israelitic tribes to their political domination. The situation was complicated by the lack of national unity and by the occasional rivalries and jealousies between the different tribes of Israel.
NEGLECT OF THEIR PROMISES TO GOD RESULTS IN THE DECLINE OF NATIONAL UNITY AND LACK OF SECURITY
The tribes of Israel possessed the foundations of national unity. They had a common history from the time of Jacob and therefore a common bond of past experience. They had also in common a belief in Jahweh, the God of their forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. They had, too, a belief that God had given them the Promised Land.
But in the time of the Judges these unifying factors in the life of the Chosen People were not sufficiently prized by the people to establish a national unity. Like all other nomadic people the Israelites preserved a fierce spirit of individualism and a jealous pride in tribal glory as against national interest.
Yet there are evidences that the political and military difficulties of this period were leading them to realise the benefits of united national action. This can be seen, for example, in their desire to make Jephte their king.
But the fundamental mistake of the Israelites was to neglect the strongest unifying element in their national life. This factor was their religious unity. They had all sworn to a covenant with Jahweh. They were all God’s Chosen People. They had all agreed to worship Jahweh, and Him alone. God, in His turn, had promised to protect them and to give them peaceful possession of the land of Canaan. God had cautioned His people on the danger of fraternising with the Canaanites, and the people had promised that they would not enter into a league with their enemies. What would have happened if they had kept their promises we do not know. How God would have protected them we cannot say, for unfortunately they did not keep their promises. They fraternised with the Canaanites, married their daughters and worshipped their gods. God did not desert them, as they had deserted Him. But He allowed them to become the prey of their enemies.
Yet, time after time, when they repented of their sins, God raised up Judges to liberate them. As the author of the Book of Judges intimates, God sought in this way to educate His people. He wished them to learn that they could be saved only by allegiance and obedience to Him.
THE FAITHFULNESS OF GOD TO MAN
As the subsequent history of Israel will show, the lesson was not perfectly learned. But this history shows once again the same factors playing their respective roles in human history: human weakness and ignorance and failure to love God adequately, the subtle influence of the devil leading men into impure forms of worship, the enduring patience and love of God for man, and man’s ability to rise from his sins and seek the true God. But over all we perceive the faithfulness of God to man, of God Who has sworn that He will redeem man through Israel. God has sworn, and He will not repent.”
– Martin J. Healy S.T.D., 1959