Question: Why did God overthrow the nations to give Israel the Promised Land? Did God care about the souls of the nations that lived there?
This is a great question. Or should I say questions? Let me start with the second question and work back.
Yes, God cared about the people in the land. While most of the Bible is told from the perspective of Israel, there are glimpses into the lives of those outside of Israel. The reason Israel is the focus is because this is the nation God used to bring the promise into the world. It started with Abraham, and the promise of Christ began there. From Abraham on, the scripture follows the promise of Christ. Abraham had many children and each of them became people groups and nations. But the promise given to Abraham was to go through Isaac. Before Abraham died, he gave a portion of the inheritance to his children and sent them away from Isaac (Genesis 25:6).
We also see that when conflict arose between Isaac and Ishmael, he was sent away with the promise that he would become the father of nations as well. (Genesis 17:20). From the time that the children of Abraham were sent away, the scripture focuses primarily on Israel – the nation of promise that came directly through Isaac. However, this does not mean that only Israel had the light of the gospel. In fact, many nations had prophets, but only Israel was chastised by God to keep them on course to be promise carriers. Even they were destroyed for their sins, but God kept the promise alive through a small remnant.
The Gospel among the nations.
Let’s first look at the evidence of the gospel in other nations. One of the clearest examples was Moab. When Israel was crossing the desert and passing by Moab, the king of that nation sent word to a local prophet named Balaam. Balaam was not an Israelite, but he was a prophet of God. He was obviously well known, for the kings knew they could call on him and that he spoke in the name of God. Balak, king of Moab, thought he could manipulate God by having the prophet speak a curse, but he found out that it was God who directed the prophet, not the prophet that directed God.
We also see the knowledge of God among the nations through Job. Job is believed to be the oldest book in the Bible and it predates Israel as a nation. Yet Job knew God and he had several friends that advised him in the name of the Lord. God used Job to reveal Himself to the nation in which Job lived, and God worked directly in Job’s life and the lives of those around Job.
Another example is the city of Nineveh. Nineveh was never part of Israel, but when they became morally bankrupt, God sent the prophet Jonah to preach to the city. Jonah hated the Ninevites and did not want to see them repent, so he ran the other way. God didn’t allow him to escape and in the end, he delivered the message and the people turned back to God. The Lord made it clear that His goal was to show mercy, but the message was that if the people refused to turn from their wickedness, God would bring judgment and destroy the city.
Why God drove the nations out.
This brings us back to where we began. Did God despise the people of the Promised Land and leave them without an opportunity to know God? No. The same truth we see elsewhere can be applied here; however, God told Abraham that the people in the Promised Land would become morally bankrupt. God also stated that He would not give the land to Abraham’s descendants until after the people became bankrupt. Look at Genesis 15:13-16
13 Then He said to Abram: “Know certainly that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and will serve them, and they will afflict them four hundred years.
14 “And also the nation whom they serve I will judge; afterward they shall come out with great possessions.
15 “Now as for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried at a good old age.
16 “But in the fourth generation they shall return here, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.”
Abram is the name of Abraham before God renamed him.
Two things are noted in God’s instruction to Abraham. First, the children of Abraham would be taken out of their land (the land promised to Abraham’s descendants) and they wouldn’t be allowed to return until after the iniquity of the Amorites was complete.
The Amorites are only one of the people groups in the Promised Land, but apparently they were the only group not to the point of moral bankruptcy. God spared the entire region because of the Amorites. We see a similar scenario in Sodom and Gomorrah. When God revealed to Abraham that He was about to destroy these wicked cities, Abraham interceded for the people. If you read the story, Abraham asked if God would spare everyone if there were only 50 people counted as righteous. When God agreed, Abraham pleaded the number down until God agreed to spare all if He found only 10 people righteous. The standard of righteousness wasn’t high, for God counted Lot as righteous even though his lifestyle was corrupted by the people around him (2 Peter 2:7-8).
God only found one that could be considered righteous, so Lot was taken out of the city and judgment fell. In God’s conversation with Abraham, He is showing a similar act of mercy to the Amorites. For the sake of a few righteous, God showed mercy on all. But when Israel came out of Egypt 400 years later, this was not the case.
The sins of these nations were truly morally bankrupt. They offered their children as burnt sacrifices, they performed sexual rituals before their idols, they worshiped everything but God, and they ignored the voice of the prophets as we saw earlier. Moab was in the path to the Promised Land, and they had a well known prophet there. He was preaching the word of the Lord, but the nations were not listening.
When God destroyed the nations with the flood in Noah’s day, the people heard the message for 120 years but not one person outside of Noah’s family entered the ark. So it shouldn’t be surprising that we see the same scenario in the Promised Land.
Keep in mind that when Israel entered the land, God said, “Do not think I’m giving you this land because you are better than the inhabitants. It is for the wickedness of these nations that I drive them out.” (Deuteronomy 9:4). Since these people refused to turn, putting Israel in their midst would only corrupt their ability to follow God. We see this throughout Israel’s history. Each time they were judged by God, it was when they followed the ways of the nations around them and became partakers of their sins. They didn’t have the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, so the only restraint was from God’s commands and by separation from the other nations.
When Israel became like the nations that God drove out of the Promised Land, God drove them out from the land. They lived in captivity for 70 years, and only returned to the land when they returned to the Lord. (Seen Daniel 9:1-27)
God held His people to the same standard.
We can see that not only did God care about the nations that did not know truth, He also held Israel to the same standard of judgment. The only difference is that God protected the promise of the coming Messiah. Since Israel was the carrier of that promise, the Lord preserved a remnant so the promise could be fulfilled. That ultimately came to fruition in Jesus Christ. In fact, if you read Daniel 9, God sends an angel to Daniel during his prayer of repentance. The angel Gabriel reveals that the nation will return, and 490 years later the Messiah would present Himself to Israel and would be cut off. We know this as the crucifixion.
The point is that Israel is how God promised to bring redemption to the world and therefore, God preserved them even after they were conquered and taken captive. When God returned His people to the land, it was for the purpose of preparing the way for their Messiah – and ours. This is why Israel was given the land, and wickedness is why people were driven out of the land. This held true for the nations that Israel conquered, and it became true for Israel also. When they became like the nations that were driven out, God treated them like the nations that were driven out. But the promise was given as a sure covenant and wasn’t based on Israel’s worthiness, but on God’s promise to Abraham. That promise was fulfilled and now we are partakers of that promise through Christ.