The allotting of land continues, this time to the descendants of Joseph, the tribes of Manasseh and Ephraim:
4 The people of Joseph, Manasseh and Ephraim, received their inheritance. 5 The territory of the people of Ephraim by their clans was as follows: the boundary of their inheritance on the east was Ataroth-addar as far as Upper Beth-horon, 6 and the boundary goes from there to the sea. … 10 However, they did not drive out the Canaanites who lived in Gezer, so the Canaanites have lived in the midst of Ephraim to this day but have been made to do forced labor. (Joshua 16:4–6, 10 ESV)
1 Then allotment was made to the people of Manasseh, for he was the firstborn of Joseph. … 12 Yet the people of Manasseh could not take possession of those cities, but the Canaanites persisted in dwelling in that land. 13 Now when the people of Israel grew strong, they put the Canaanites to forced labor, but did not utterly drive them out. (Joshua 17:1, 12-13 ESV)
I’ve been at great pains in these reflections to state that, even as God demanded Israel wage a pitiless and merciless war against the people of Canaan, that Israel failed to do so. Failed to follow the command of God.
I’ve done that because I think it’s important to note that our relationship, as people of God, is not merely one of obedience. We don’t merely ask “how high?” when the divine command “jump!” is uttered. There are many consequences to failing to follow the command of God, but being abandoned by God is not one of them.
The story of scripture is one of gift — God gives to Israel — and response — Israel receives of the gift of God, responds with gratitude, quickly gets used to living in and with the gift, takes it for granted, relies either on the gift itself or its own abilities, falls into sin and idolatry, suffers the consequences of sin and idolatry, and then appeals to God for redemption and deliverance. At which point, God acts — giving a new gift to Israel, which Israel then…
Such is the story of scripture.
God tells Israel that he, and not Israel, will do the work of conquering, expelling, and killing the Canaanites:
21 You shall not be in dread of them, for the Lord your God is in your midst, a great and awesome God. 22 The Lord your God will clear away these nations before you little by little. You may not make an end of them at once, lest the wild beasts grow too numerous for you. 23 But the Lord your God will give them over to you and throw them into great confusion, until they are destroyed. 24 And he will give their kings into your hand, and you shall make their name perish from under heaven. No one shall be able to stand against you until you have destroyed them. (Deuteronomy 7:21–25 ESV)
This is God’s work, not Israel’s. Israel is not even an instrument, a proxy through which God acts, the sword of God’s vengeance or justice upon the sinful people of Canaan. Israel is almost a completely passive recipient of God’s acts, whether it be at the walls of Jericho or in defense of the people of Gibeon against the Canaanite confederation. Israel is not taking Canaan; Israel is being given Canaan as a gift. God, and his army of hosts we met in Joshua 5, are doing the fighting.
For God’s ends, and not necessarily Israel’s.
But in these passages, we begin to see Israel growing reliant upon its own strength. “Now when the people of Israel grew strong, they put the Canaanites to forced labor, but did not utterly drive them out. … For you shall drive out the Canaanites, though they have chariots of iron, and though they are strong.” Israel enslaves the Canaanites because Israel is strong, and trusts its own strength and power, and not because it is weak or fears its own weakness.
In weakness, Israel turns to God to act, to deliver and save Israel. In weakness, Israel has no choice but to trust God. In strength, Israel trusts the prowess of its mighty, it wealth and its power, to accomplish things on its own behalf. In strength, Israel doesn’t have to trust God.
In strength, Israel decides it can live with Canaanites in its midst. That enslaving them and dominating them is enough. That merely keeping them down, in their place, under foot, subject to law and violence, the Canaanites will not be a problem. Israel forgets that God very specifically told them they risked becoming “ensnared” by the false gods and idolatrous practices of the Canaanites if Israel didn’t devote them all — people and things — to destruction.
Enslaving the Canaanites will have a couple of consequences. The first is the continued presence of a people whose gods and worship will prove a constant distraction — an attractive nuisance — to Israel. The second is that Israel will eventually compel the labor of its own people as David and Solomon build their great and powerful state.
Human power is troublesome in scripture. Confidence in their own strength allows Israel to think that merely enslaving the Canaanites will successfully deal with them. A wealthy and powerful Israel is its own downfall, its own undoing, as the kingdom is rent apart in a dispute over the taxes and conscription (forced labor) needed to keep the army, the state, and the royal court well supplied and working.
More important than all this, however, is knowing that God never abandons his people. God never absconds, never leaves Israel, is always there, moving closer, finding a way to redeem this wayward people who cannot do what
they we are told and cannot be grateful to the one who called and gathered them us for any great length of time.