A Home for the People of God
God’s people had been set free from their bondage in Egypt by the mighty hand of God. They had received God’s instructions for organizing their life and worship according to His design. After the delay caused by doubt, they had assembled on the plains of Moab and listened to Moses’ words. But then Moses died. Who would lead them into the land so that they could possess it?
As you study this lesson and read in your Bible of the events, you will become acquainted with the man God chose to lead His people forward. You will follow the people as they enter into the land and win many victories. You will also see them go through darkness and difficulty and see how God continued to guide them into fulfilling His purpose for them as a nation. He desired that their family life, worship, and prosperity be a witness of himself, the only true God, to all the peoples of the earth.
Your study of this lesson will help you understand the various experiences God’s people had during the first years they possessed and lived in their land. As you understand these experiences, you can learn many lessons for your own life.
The Leader and the Land
Joshua—His Preparation and Ministry
God had prepared a man to lead His people into the land of promise—Joshua, son of Nun, a man who had been chosen earlier to spy out Canaan. Caleb, another one of the spies, and Joshua were the only ones who had brought back a good report (Numbers 11:1–14:10). It was to Joshua that God said these words: “‘Moses my servant is dead. Now then, you and all these people, get ready to cross the Jordan River into the land I am about to give to them—to the Israelites’” (Joshua 1:2)
Though Joshua’s preparation can be followed in the books of Exodus and Numbers, it is in the book of Joshua that we read about his years as leader of the nation of Israel. We may divide the book of Joshua into two main parts:
- Chapters 1–12 describe the conquest of Canaan;
- Chapters 13–24 tell how the land was divided among the various tribes.
This book gives evidence of being a genuine historical account; some 300 cities and towns are mentioned in it. The events it describes took place over a time span of about 25 years. Joshua’s final speech to Israel, which is recorded in chapters 23 and 24, shows the godly character of this man who trusted supremely in the Lord and relied upon Him.
Canaan—Its Description, Conquest, and Partition
The Features of the Land
The land of Canaan was God’s choice for His people. Learning some facts about it will help you understand the Scriptures better. The events that took place there will become more alive to you.
Canaan was named after the fourth son of Ham, who was the ancestor of its first inhabitants (Genesis 9:18). However, to avoid confusion, I will refer to the physical land itself as Palestine. During Old Testament times, the area of Palestine had an average width of 65 miles, measuring 100 miles at the widest part. Its greatest length was 180 miles. So it was no larger than a state or province in many countries today.
As the land God chose for His people, it had four special features.
- It was isolated. A glance at the map will show that on the west was the sea, on the south and east were deserts, and on the north were mountains. This isolation was to help God’s people to develop according to His plan. The nations surrounding Israel were idolatrous. But to Israel was given the revelation of the true God.
- It was central. Although it was isolated, Palestine was located in the center of all the great powers of the ancient world. It was used as a land bridge for travel between them. The nations of Egypt, Babylon, Assyria, Persia, Greece, and Rome all grew around it, Israel’s location was important because God had raised it up to be a witness to the world.
- It was limited. The small size of the land made it unsuitable for anyone who had political ambitions. God did not call Abraham to simply be the founder of another nation, but to be the man through whom all the families of the earth would be blessed.
- It was fruitful. Even the faithless spies saw the agricultural produce of Palestine. It was capable of producing all that God’s people would need as long as they would walk in obedience.
The Inhabitants of the Land
There were about seven tribes or nations occupying Canaan at the time Israel was ready to enter it. The Hittites were the most prominent and came from the formerly great empire of that name. They lived near Hebron in Abraham’s time and later mingled with the Amorites in the mountains of what became Ephraim. The Canaanites lived on the sea coast, the Hivites near Shechem, the Perizzites in central and southern Palestine, the Girgashites near the Sea of Galilee, the Amorites in the eastern plateau, and the Jebusites in the central highlands around their capital which later became known as Jerusalem. The term “Canaanites” is often used to refer to all of these tribes or nations.
In Deuteronomy 20:16–18 God told the Israelites to destroy all the inhabitants of the land which He had given them. This command raises a serious question in many people’s minds: How could a just God order Israel to do this? A great deal of misguided sympathy has been wasted upon the destruction of the Canaanites. Much more attention has been given to the judgment God sent upon them than to their character. As we study the Scriptures we find that there were reasons for God’s command.
- God knew that if these wicked nations were not destroyed they would teach Israel to sin against Him (Deuteronomy 18:9–13; Deuteronomy 20:18).
- Canaan had been promised to Abraham and his children. Since the earth is the Lord’s, He gives possession to whomever He pleases. When Jacob was dying in Egypt, he asked his sons to bury him in the land of Canaan as evidence of the hope that one day the promise would be fulfilled (Genesis 49:29–33).
- Any right the Canaanites had to the land by having had possession of it for a long time was lost because of their wickedness. We must remember that these people also had descended from a godly line through Noah’s sons. They were an example of a civilization which had followed the course described in Romans 1.
- The moral depravity of the Canaanite peoples at this time demanded swift judgment. One writer of ancient history has said, “No other nation has rivaled the Canaanites in the mixture of blood and debauchery.” Their life was so foul that 1500 years later in wicked Rome its practices were condemned. Sodom, where not even ten righteous men could be found, was an example of the cities of this civilization. The practices of the Canaanites are described in Leviticus 18:21–23 and Deuteronomy 12:30–32.
- The driving out of the Canaanites is always shown in the Scriptures to be a punishment for their sins (Leviticus 18:24–25). The Israelites were warned that if they sinned and forsook their covenant with the Lord, they would suffer the same punishment (Joshua 23:11–13).
- In His mercy, God had waited long for repentance among these nations. They had had the witness of righteous men like Melchizedek (Genesis 14) and the patriarchs who lived among them. They had been warned by the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:23–25). They had heard of the wonders by which the Israelites had been delivered from Egypt. They had even watched Israel’s presence for almost forty years in the nearby desert.
The Area of Conquest (Read Joshua 2–12)
The people of Israel prepared to enter the land, following Joshua, the leader God had chosen for them. At this time Joshua was eighty years old. A great challenge lay ahead. The old civilizations were decaying. Could a new civilization based on a holy purpose to serve God be built? In Joshua 1:1–9 we read what God said to Joshua at this important time.
The war of conquest took about seven years, and there were many difficulties. The cities were walled and great. There were leagues of kings and armed men with iron chariots. Yet the moral decay of the Canaanite tribes had produced a weakness in them like an internal disease.
Joshua’s military campaign was well planned. It was a direct push for the heart of the land, cutting the Canaanite tribes into two parts. The Israelites moved quickly, and God was with them. Remember, this is not simply a history of a courageous people. It is an account of the powerful miracles of a covenant-keeping God!
The first area of conquest included the cities of Jericho, Ai, Bethel, Shiloh, Shechem, and Dothan. It included all the land west of these cities to about five miles from the Mediterranean Sea, and all of the land east to the other side of the Jordan.
The second area of conquest was to the south. It included the cities of Gibeon, Jerusalem, Jarmouth, Lachish, Eglon, Hebron, and Beersheba. It stretched west to within five miles of the Mediterranean Sea and east to within about five miles of the south end of the Dead Sea.
The third area of conquest was to the north. It included the cities of Beth-shan, Hazor, and Dan. It stretched east and west from about five miles east of the Jordan to within five miles of the Mediterranean Sea. It stretched north and south from about ten miles south of Beth-shan to ten miles north of Dan.
This war of conquest had far-reaching effects. We have received many benefits because of it, for it was from the little nation of Israel that the Bible and Jesus the Christ came. So the Israelites, in a sense, fought for us. Values we hold as precious were passed on to us from them: the worth of the individual, the importance of the home, and the worship of one God who is Creator and Father of all. We could almost say that the war they fought has had more effect on our lives than any other war that has been fought.
The Division of the Land
After the conquest of Canaan, each tribe was given a portion of land. This represented a spiritual as well as a physical inheritance. The Levites were given no land but received 48 cities with their suburbs. The total of 12 tribes was kept (since Levi was eliminated) by dividing the tribe of Joseph into the two sections of Ephraim and Manasseh. God’s challenge to Joshua, “‘There are still very large areas of land to be taken over’” (Joshua 13:1) was appropriate; the boundaries given in Joshua 13 were not realized until the time of Solomon, 500 years later.
The Lessons Learned in Darkness
God’s people went through a difficult transition time after the death of Joshua until Samuel became their leader. This time of transition was one of change, adjustment, and rearrangement. It lasted about 400 years.
Judges—Cycles of Despair
The period of transition we read about in the book of Judges was a time of great spiritual darkness of Israel. But though the book of Judges tells us about this very dark time in Israel’s history, it is still part of the Bible canon. Its events are referred to in many other places in the Bible. The name Judges comes from the name given to the heroes of Israel whose deeds are the central theme of the book.
In general, Israel begins in humble dependence upon God (Judges 1:1–2:5) and then falls away into the depths of sin. The horrors described in the last four chapters show that the condition of Israel had reached the worst state imaginable.
You may ask, How could God’s people sink so low? After Canaan was settled, the tribes seemed to fall apart. There was no central government and no single leader as there had been with Moses and Joshua. It seems that the eldership and priesthood failed to hold the tribes together in unity. There were also the problems of repelling invaders and keeping the land quiet. God’s Word gives some other simple and basic reasons which explain why this was such a dark time.
This description sums up the spirit of this era in Israel’s history.
Throughout the book of Judges the same pattern or cycle was repeated several times; Judges 2:11–19 gives a general summary of this pattern. There were four main stages in the cycle each time.
- Sin—Israel fell into sin and idolatry.
- Punishment—God let their enemies overtake them.
- Repentance—They cried out to the Lord.
- Deliverance—The Lord raised up a judge to deliver them.
This cycle expresses a simple outline of God’s dealing with Israel throughout the book of Judges. There are fourteen judges mentioned in the book (one of these, Abimelech, was not raised up by God). However, the thirteen separate administrations represented can be grouped into seven actual cycles of punishment.
Ruth—Promise of Life
The beautiful and romantic story told in the book of Ruth concerns events that happened in the life of a simple Israelite family who lived during the period of the Judges (Ruth 1:1). The father made a decision to leave the land of promise during a famine. The results seemed terrible for his family. But the story of Ruth shows that God’s hand of providence was upon His people in spite of their faithlessness as seen in the book of Judges.
The book of Ruth may be divided into three major sections.
- Naomi and Ruth return to Bethlehem (1:1–22).
- Ruth meets Boaz (2:1–3:18).
- Boaz marries Ruth (4:1–22).
But the book of Ruth is more than just a beautiful story. It is the Bible’s clearest picture of the person whom Israelite law called the “kinsman-redeemer.” When a man died, his nearest relative could make a claim for him since he could no longer act for himself. This man was called the kinsman-redeemer or the relative who brings back or restores. As we read Ruth’s story we see that this is just exactly what Boaz did. Because he was Ruth’s relative, he was able to restore to her the property belonging to Mahlon, marry her, and raise up a son to carry on the family line (Ruth 4:9–15). Boaz is thus a picture of Christ, our kinsman redeemer.
Ruth, a gentile (non-Israelite), was outside of hope. Yet her decision to worship the true God (Ruth 1:16) placed her in a position to be in the line of Christ the Messiah. She represents all sinners who by faith become a part of the people of God.
The Light Given for the Future
Eli—A Man Judged by God
There are two additional judges in Israel—Eli and Samuel— who appear in the book of 1 Samuel. Eli held the office of both high priest and judge. He was a man of personal virtue. Yet he did not stop his sons from misusing their position as priests to commit great sin. The behavior of these sons, Hophni and Phinehas, show the awful condition of the priesthood at this time (1 Samuel 2:12–17). This condition caused the people to fall away from worshipping God, which was their only bond of national unity. Through a prophet, God warned Eli of the judgment coming upon his house (1 Samuel 2:27–36). God also warned him through the boy Samuel, who was being raised in the tabernacle, the tent of the Lord’s presence (1 Samuel 3:10 18).
But Eli’s sons continued in their evil ways, and God brought about the judgment of which Eli had been warned. The Philistines came against Israel at the battle of Aphek, the Ark of the Covenant was captured, Hophni and Phinehas were killed in battle, and Eli died when he received the news (1 Samuel 4:1–22).
The victory of the Philistines brought about twenty years of oppression for Israel (1 Samuel 7:2–5). This twenty-year bondage, however, became one of the most important times for God’s people. The judgment of God had fallen upon the priestly line of Eli. But God had raised up another leader, Samuel, who was eventually acknowledged by all Israel to be a prophet of the Lord (1 Samuel 3:19–21). The darkness of the time of oppression was turned to light because of the faithfulness of this man, the last judge of Israel.
Samuel—A Man Born for the Future
The name Samuel means “asked of God.” He was born in response to the prayers of a devout but barren woman, Hannah. She gave him to the Lord to be raised at the tabernacle by Eli. God spoke in an audible voice to Samuel when he was still a child about the judgments that were to come upon the house of Eli. Samuel became one of the noblest men in Bible history, a man equal in greatness to Abraham, Moses, and David. He was a mighty man of prayer and faith. He became judge, reformer, statesman, and writer.
During the time of oppression by the Philistines, he challenged the people to return to the Lord with all their hearts. He called all Israel to meet him at Mizpah, and there the people repented and turned to God. When the Philistines attacked, God helped the Israelites to win a great victory.
After the victory against the Philistines at Mizpah, Samuel returned to his home at Ramali and built an altar (1 Samuel 7:17). It was probably during this time that Samuel founded schools for recruiting and training young men in the worship of God. In 1 Samuel 19:18–19 you will see the place Naioth in Ramah. Naioth is a word which suggests the idea of huts or dwellings where students could live. The phrase in Ramah also leads us to conclude that Samuel probably gave his own house over to the purpose of teaching. It was likely that he taught writing, law, and music, all directed towards the true worship of God. And no doubt he encouraged men to seek a prophetic word from God. In 1 Samuel 19:18–24 is a description of the powerful manifestation of the Lord’s presence which was experienced at the school in Ramah.
It was probably at these schools that the Psalms first began to be written. David, for example, associated with the school in Ramah (1 Samuel 19). These schools were called schools of the prophets later on, and during the time of Elijah they existed at Bethel, Jericho, and Gilgal (2 Kings 2:1–5; 4:38–41).
Samuel grew old and made his sons judges. However, they did not follow his example and were very corrupt. It was at this time that Israel demanded a king, much to Samuel’s disappointment (1 Samuel 8:1–9).