Was the Hebrew conquest of Canaan actually a war for independence? On the surface it may not seem so. After all, God had promised the land of Canaan to Abraham’s descendants four centuries prior to their taking possession. It would seem, then, it was not a matter of waging war for recognition as an independent state but simply a matter of destiny fulfilled.
Yet, it is important for us to remember that our understanding of God’s activity in history is limited. For instance, the disciples of Jesus viewed his crucifixion as nothing more than the work of wicked men – until they were given insight into the matter. Eventually they understood the crucifixion was both the work of sinful men and the preordained will of the Father (Acts 2:23, 4:27-28, 5:30). The point is, we cannot suppose our limited understanding somehow confines the scope of God’s activity. Therefore, the Israelites fought a war of total annihilation against the Canaanites as a fulfillment of prophecy, as judgment against sinners, as the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham and as a war for independence. Perhaps a bit of ancient history will help to bring our original question into focus.
Abraham was about seventy-five years old (and still called Abram), when he received the covenant promises from God (Gen. 15:13-21). He was told his descendants would be afflicted for 400 years before the promises concerning the land of Canaan took effect. He was also told his posterity would “return to the land” after four generations – the four generation period taking place within the 400-year span yet specifically different from it.
From the time of the promise to the birth of Isaac was twenty-five years (Gen. 21:5), and Isaac was sixty when Jacob was born (Gen. 25:26). Jacob went down to Egypt when he was one hundred and thirty years old (Gen. 47:9). Joseph was about thirty-two at the time and lived and reigned until age 110. This means 215 years elapsed from the time the promise was given until the time of the descent into Egypt. With Jacob’s resettlement to Egypt, the four-generation period began. Jacob’s son Levi settled in Goshen with Jacob; he bore Kohath who fathered Amram who in turn was the father of Moses and Aaron (Ex. 6:16-20, Num. 26:57-59, 1 Chron. 6:1-3). Thus, four generations dwelt in Egypt proper before Abraham’s descendants returned to Canaan. According to Josephus the Exodus was “430 years after our forefather Abraham came into Canaan, but 215 years only after Jacob removed into Egypt” (Antiquities 2:15:2 – the number is rounded to 400 in the Genesis account – see Gal. 3:17). When we do the math, we find that the Israelites were slaves in Egypt for approximately 137 years.
During that 430-year span, Abraham and his descendants were considered strangers and aliens in the land. It’s hard to understand how a people group can remain “aliens” when they reside in the same region for centuries – unless we acknowledge they were aliens in a religious sense. Their covenant relationship with Jehovah set them apart from their neighbors. They were sojourners because God had not yet fulfilled the covenant promise (in like fashion we are sojourners here on earth with Heaven being our true home; once again we see Old Covenant events are often types fulfilled in the New). Even once the covenant promises had been fulfilled concerning the land of Canaan (Josh. 21:43, 23:14, 1 Kings 4:21, 2 Chron. 9:26), the Hebrew people remained aliens of a sort. King David called his people “aliens and pilgrims as were all (their) father” before them (1 Chron. 29:15).
At the same time, the Hebrews were citizens of the land. This is evidenced in a variety of ways; Abraham lead a local coalition in battle (Gen 14:13-ff), and was called a prince among the people (Gen 23:6); Isaac was covenatally bound to the people of the land (Gen. 26: 26-33), and Jacob had great wealth and influence in Canaan. Later, Joseph became the ruler of Egypt with power that reached as far as the land of Canaan (Gen 41:40-41; Egypt held sway to the border of Syria roughly from the time of Abraham to the days of Joseph and put down a rebellion in Canaan just a generation before the Israelites entered the land). Rights of citizenship were revoked only sometime after Joseph’s death during the 137 year enslavement of Israel.
Clearly the affliction of the Hebrews was not limited to the time of their enslavement. Indeed, the Bible characterizes Ishmael’s mocking of Isaac as persecution (Gen. 21:9, Gal. 4:29-30). Just as it is today, the affliction of God’s people runs the gamut from ridicule to murder and takes place even while they are citizens in the land of their oppression. And so, the fact the descendants of Abraham were afflicted for 400-years or more does not negate the fact they were recognized as members of the empire.
We deal falsely with the historical record if we ignore the fact the Hebrews were an integral part of the Egyptian empire until they were betrayed and enslaved. Thus, it is correct to understand at least one aspect of their conquest of Canaan as a war for independence and a justifiable reaction to Egypt’s betrayal.