For many modern readers, the actions of Israel in the book of Joshua seem indefensible. We wonder how they could claim that the land of Canaan was rightfully theirs when others were already living in it. Some have gone so far as to call Israel’s occupation of Canaan an example of biblically sanctioned ethnic cleansing. It is impossible to understand Israel’s actions without taking into account God’s unique relationship to the earth.
The earth belongs to God. The psalmist declares that the earth, all that is in it, and all who dwell upon it are the Lord’s (Ps. 24:1). Israel’s claim on Canaan had its roots in promises God made to Abraham (Gen. 13:17; 50:24). God also determines the boundaries within which people live (Acts 17:26). The rise and fall of nations, along with the movement of peoples across the globe, are all part of the exercise of God’s sovereignty. The earth belongs to the Lord, who is “sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes” (Dan. 4:32).
Dr. Lawson Stone, professor of Old Testament at Asbury Seminary, has pointed out that in Joshua’s day nobody “owned” Canaan in the modern sense. It was a violent and unstable region, whose “kings” were often warlords who fought over territory. Many of the battles described in the book of Joshua were defensive in nature, a response to aggression initiated by Canaanite warlords who amassed armies against God’s people. But the most significant aspect of Joshua’s campaign was that it was directly and explicitly commanded by God (Josh. 1:11).
The Bible acknowledges the legitimacy of “private” property. The Law of Moses included regulations that dealt with ownership of animals, houses, and land. The New Testament likewise affirms the right of ownership. Ananias and his wife Sapphira were judged by God when they sold a piece of property and pretended to donate the entire sum to the church. But they were not obligated to sell the land or to donate the proceeds to the church. Peter explained the nature of their sin in these words: “Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied just to human beings but to God” (Acts 5:4). We are “owners” of what we possess—but we are stewards first. God has a claim on our property because He has a prior claim on our lives. The earth belongs to the Lord, and so do we.
FOR FURTHER STUDY
To learn more about God’s role in the conquest of Canaan, read Holy War in the Bible: Christian Morality and an Old Testament Problem edited by Heath A. Thomas, Jeremy Evans, and Paul Copan (InterVarsity).