Joshua 23:16—Was God’s promise of the land to Israel conditional or unconditional?
Problem: When God gave the Promised Land to Abraham (Gen. 12–15), Isaac (Gen. 26), and Jacob (Gen. 46), there were no conditions. It was an unconditional covenant (“I will bless you”) with no conditions (“If you do such and such”) in which God swore by His own unchangeable nature (cf. Heb. 6:13–18). However, later both Moses (Deut. 31:16–17) and Joshua (23:16) speak of God expelling Israel from the land if they sinned against God.
Solution: There are two ways Bible scholars attempt to respond to this criticism: spiritually and literally.
Spiritual Fulfillment in the Church. Some claim this promise does not find any fulfillment in literal Israel, but in spiritual Israel, the church. They appeal to the verse which calls believers the “Israel of God” (Gal. 6:16) and the spiritual “seed” of Abraham (Gal. 3:29). They point to Romans 11 which says that Israel was “broken off” because of their rejection of their Messiah (v. 17). Thus, while literal Israel sinned, God nevertheless will keep the Abrahamic covenant with NT believers who were unconditionally elected in Christ (Eph. 1:4).
Literal Future Fulfillment in Israel. Other Bible scholars take the eternal land promises to Abraham’s descendants literally, pointing to a future fulfillment of these when Christ returns to earth to reign (cf. Matt. 19:28; Rev. 19–20). In support of their position they note the following points.
First, the promises of possessing the land of Palestine “forever” (see Gen. 13:15) have never been fulfilled.
Second, unlike the Mosaic covenant (Ex. 19:1–8), this was an unconditional covenant based on God’s unchangeable character (cf. Gal. 3:18; Heb. 6:17–18). Thus God must literally fulfill it to the very people to whom He promised it, or else God would have reneged on an unconditional promise—in which case, He is not God.
Third, the NT church does not fulfill the literal land promises to Israel, but only the promises to receive the spiritual blessings of salvation through the seed of Abraham, who is Christ (cf. Gal. 3:16, 29).
Fourth, the NT could not be the fulfillment of these unconditional promises to Abraham’s descendants because they speak of them as yet future. Paul not only spoke of the nation Israel being cut off, but of their being “grafted in again” and being “saved” (Rom. 11:23, 26). Indeed, the Book of Revelation speaks of “one hundred and forty-four thousand of all the tribes of ... Israel” being reinstated in the end times (Rev. 7:4). Those who advocate this position also note that the word “tribe” is never used in a spiritual sense in Scripture.
Finally, Scripture makes a clear distinction between covenants that are unconditional (e.g., the Abrahamic) and those that are conditional (e.g., the Mosaic law). Paul told the Galatians clearly that “if the inheritance is of the law, it is no longer of promise; but God gave it to Abraham by promise” (Gal. 3:18). In view of this literal interpretation, all threats of non-fulfillment of a covenant refer either to the conditional covenant made with Moses (Ex. 19) or else they are merely exhortations about relating to temporary delays in fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant (Josh. 23:16).
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This excerpt is from When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1992). © 2014 Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe. All rights reserved. Used by permission. Click here to purchase this book.