The Hebrew Right to Canaan - What It Was

What it was

Although it is not to be denied that some of the considerations advanced yesterday, as urged by various parties to show the human claims of the Israelites to the Land of Canaan, would be of considerable weight in the absence of any other grounds advanced in the Sacred Books, they lose all their importance in the presence of the repeated and clear declarations in Scripture of the point of view in which the whole matter was to be regarded. We may, or may not, like the view thus stated. That is not the question. Is any clear ground of claim stated or not? That is the real question. If any ground be stated, that, and no other, is the view which we are bound to adopt and to explain. To set aside the view presented to the Israelites themselves, and on which they acted, in order to seek others not once presented to their minds—not once alluded to in Scripture—may be very ingenious, very satisfactory to our own understandings, but is, in fact, tantamount to a denial, in so far as this matter is concerned, of the truth and authority of the record which is the only source of our information.
We, therefore, recur to the old and authentic belief in these matters, seeing that it rests entirely on the Scriptural declarations—and which is certainly none the worse for being the received opinion of the Church from the most ancient times—and not, as the others severally are, the speculations of a few learned individuals.

In the first place, be it observed, then, the possession of Canaan by the Israelites is constantly set forth as a free gift of the Divine favor, by which all ideas of human right are completely excluded. This is clearly stated in the original promise to Abraham, made immediately upon his entering the land, and before any human rights could have been acquired: “Unto thy seed will I give this land;” and again, soon after, “Lift up now thine eyes, and look from the place where thou art, northward and southward, and eastward and westward, for all the land that thou seest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed forever.” And that this was not limited to the land in actual occupation of his flocks and herds, and to which alone Abraham could acquire any kind of human right, is shown by what immediately follows: “Arise, walk through the land, in the length of it, and in the breadth of it, for I will give it unto thee.” These passages appear so conclusive in showing that the land was so entirely the free and absolute gift from God to his people, of that to which they had no sort of human claim, that it seems needless to cite the numerous passages in the Pentateuch, by which that view is corroborated. In fact, no other view is presented. The uniform tenor not only of the Pentateuch, put of the whole Scripture, is in conformity with these original intimations.

But while, on the one hand, the donation of this land was an act of the Lord’s free favor to the Israelites, the deprivation of it was no less an act of his retributive justice—of such justice as it behooved the moral governor of the world to administer against a people laden with iniquity. Gen_15:13-16, is a passage which proves this clearly. Abraham is there informed that before his posterity would receive that goodly heritage, a long period of four hundred years must elapse, the great part of which would be spent by them under oppression, in a land which was not theirs. Eventually they should be brought forth with great substance: and in the “fourth generation they shall come hither again.” Why so long deferred? Why not until the fourth generation? Hear the reason, “For the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full.”

These last words are important for more than one reason. First, they exclude all human right of the Hebrews to Palestine, for if such a right had existed, why, for its being enforced, should the filling up of the iniquity of the Amorites be required? Secondly, if the cause why Abraham’s descendants were not now, but after a long interval, to obtain possession of the promised land, was, that the iniquity of the Amorites was not yet full, it is thereby equally intimated that this filling up of their iniquity would justify, if not demand, the Divine judgment, which, under existing circumstances, would have been unjust—exactly as God, before he destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah by his immediate decree, first of all permitted the abandoned depravity of the inhabitants most notoriously to manifest itself.
When the time was fully come, the Canaanites became a doomed people—doomed to expulsion or extermination by the Israelites, to whom was committed the sword of judgment, and who were the destined inheritors of the land of which the Canaanites had, by that time, proved themselves unworthy. This solemn doom is expressed in the Hebrew by a peculiar word (cherem), which is always applied to such devotement to destruction in vindication of the Divine justice; and this is the term constantly applied to the Canaanites, as to a people who by their enormities, had dishonored even the moral government of God, and were therefore to be constrained, by the judgment inflicted upon them, to glorify that government, and thereby to set forth the great truth, that there is a pure and holy Ruler of the nations.

Then, again, the Israelites, favored as they were for their fathers’ sake, were warned that even they held the land by no other tenture than that which the Canaanites were to be destroyed for infringing. Over and over again were they warned that if they fell into the same dreadful transgressions, for which the Canaanites had been cast out, they would subject themselves to the same doom—be like them destroyed—like them cast out of the good land which they had defiled. We are not left altogether in the dark as to the nature of the abominations which pervaded the land, and which cried to God to show himself as abhorring iniquity, and to prove that the world was not left fatherless of his care. In one place the sacred text, after enumerating various cases of unchastity and impiety of the grossest kind, goes on to say, “Defile not yourselves in any of these things, for in all these things the nations are defiled which I cast out before you. And the land is defiled; therefore I do visit the iniquity of the land upon it, and the land itself vomiteth out her inhabitants.” In another place the Israelites are solemnly warned against imitating the conduct of their predecessors, lest they incur the same penalties: “Take heed to thyself that thou be not snared by following them. Thou shalt not do so unto the Lord thy God; for every abomination to the Lord which he hateth have they done unto their gods; for even their sons and their daughters have they burnt in the fire to  their gods.” What more emphatic testimony can be required than this?

This is the view of the case set forth in the Scripture, and the grounds on which it rests appear sufficient and satisfactory in themselves, although we are not prepared to affirm but that there may have been other reasons, not necessarily produced to the Israelites. But if those produced are sufficient, there is no need to seek for any more. It seems to us that the most serious objection to this view of the case, lies in the alleged danger that a nation should take upon itself to judge of another and act towards it as the Israelites did to the Canaanites. But there is no such danger. The Israelites did not act upon their own judgment, but upon the distinct commission which they received, and which was attested by the miracles which attended their career. The passage through the Red Sea and through the Jordan—the miraculous overthrow of the walls of the first city of Jericho, to which they laid siege—the hailstones at Gibeon, which, without touching the Israelites, slew more of their enemies than the sword—and the remarkable phenomenon in the heavens, likened to the standing still of the sun and the moon—were all so many proofs of their commission, and of the authority by which they acted. That authority and commission was attested by the belief of the very enemies against whom they warred, and who were very far from thinking that they had mistaken a fancy of their own for a Divine commission. They found it all too real. Note: On the subject of this Day there is a large and able article by Hengstenberg, excellently translated in a volume of his Dissertations on the Pentateuch, by Mr. J.E. Ryland, of Northampton. This Dissertation has, to a considerable extent, formed the framework of our consideration of the matter.