God made a promise to Israel: they were guaranteed possession of a promised land. In giving them the land, however, God demonstrates the interrelationship between His mercy and His judgment. To give the land to Israel, God must judge the nations that previously dwelled in it.
Joshua, chapters 6-12, delineates the taking of the land. God instructs Israel on how they are to take possession of the land from its current inhabitants. The mighty nations that dwelled in the land were all stronger than Israel, mightier, and more skilled in battle. Often in the face of their enemies Israel was afraid, but God gave them encouragement and command. His mercy evidences itself regularly in these accounts. Most notably we see this is the account of the taking of Jericho.
Jericho, the great walled city, falls to Israel. Their military campaign was easily the most bizarre in history: march around the city and blow trumpets. The walls just collapsed and Israel took the city without much effort. God’s mercy abounded to them. God’s demonstrations of power prior to this event provoked fear in the nations, even Jericho. He had gone before Israel to prepare the way for their battle. So Rahab testifies:
“I know that the Lord has given you the land, and that the fear of you has fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt away before you. 10 For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and Og, whom you devoted to destruction. 11 And as soon as we heard it, our hearts melted, and there was no spirit left in any man because of you, for the Lord your God, he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath. (Joshua 2:9-11)
Taking of the land was God’s doing, not Israel. His mercy abounded to them. They were not mighty and great (Deut. 7:7). God went before them, God made the way, God gave them the land. His mercy was evident throughout this process.
Yet, taking the land also meant the judgment of wicked nations. The nations that dwelled in the land at the time that Israel came to take it were wicked. They had rejected God; they had turned to false gods, to idols, to wicked practices. God had every right to judge them and it is through His judgment of them that Israel finally comes to rest in the Promised Land. Jim Hamilton writes:
Israel crossed into the land in obedience to and by the power of the word of God. They took the land by humble reliance on the word of God, even when that word called them to do what appeared to be ineffective – march around Jericho. Yahweh gave Israel the land through the judgment of its inhabitants, and Israel apportioned the land to her tribes. Joshua then called Israel to serve Yahweh alone. Yahweh glorified himself by keeping his promise to give Israel the land, and he glorified himself by bringing justice against the wickedness of its inhabitants. Insofar as the salvation that came to Israel, her rest in the land, came by the mighty hand of Yahweh judging the wicked inhabitants of the land, the book of Joshua is a story of God’s glory in salvation through judgment; and the ending of the book points beyond itself to more of the same. (God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment, 154)
A central feature in the book of Joshua as a whole, and the giving of the land in particular, is God’s mercy demonstrated in conjunction with His justice.
We see this further expressed in the salvation of specific peoples through this judgment. So, God judges Jericho, yet he demonstrates mercy to Rahab. It is a mercy all the more appreciated and beloved because it comes in the midst of the judgment of her people. Rahab is a prostitute, not a nobleman or a beloved political, military, or religious figure. She is among the least of the city, but God shows mercy to whomever He chooses (Ex. 33:19). He chooses Rahab the prostitute, who becomes an important figure elsewhere in the Scriptures (Matt. 1:5; Heb. 11:31; James 2:25). God’s mercy, in the midst of judgment, is beautifully realized here.
The same is true for the Gibeonites, who find salvation in and through judgment. When these gentiles hear of all that Yahweh has done they fear for their lives (Joshua 9:9). They trick Joshua into making a “covenant of peace” with them. The fear of judgment has led them to subjugate themselves to Israel, and when Joshua discovers what they have done he curses them, but they live. Salvation in and through judgment is evident here too.
Ultimately these accounts point beyond the literal Promised Land to the spiritual promise of the New Kingdom. This land is given to God’s people by salvation through judgment as well. Entering the Promised Land was about coming to rest in the presence of God, but Joshua was unable to fulfill this promise completely. The author of Hebrews writes:
8 For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day later on. 9 So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God (Heb. 4:8-9)
We can enter this rest only by the sacrifice of Jesus. Only by means of the judgment of God poured out upon Christ in our place do we get to enter into this “Promised Land,” this “Sabbath rest.” Salvation comes as mercy through judgment. The giving of the land demonstrates and points to this reality.
If I’m not mistaken, God had given the peoples of the land of Israel some 400 years to repent of their gross evil, but they did not, and so God cleansed the land for the Israelites to possess it. 400 years is a GREAT grace to offer.