In a recent comment here at Expository Thoughts, a reader named Joe took issue with the dispensational teaching that the land promises to Israel have yet to be fulfilled. Joe made several arguments in his refutation, one of which was the often repeated claim that the land promises of the Old Testament were completely fulfilled in the book of Joshua according to Joshua 21:43-45, and therefore we have no reason to expect that there will be a future fulfillment of this promise. As I once wrote on another blog:
To comment briefly on Joshua 21:43-45, I see this passage as indicating an initial and partial fulfillment of the covenant promises to Abraham. Part of the difficulty of the issue is that Joshua 21 clearly says that Israel possessed all the land promised to her by Yahweh, and yet other passages in Joshua indicate there was remaining land yet to be conquered and possessed (Josh 13:1-17; 15:63; 16:10; 17:12-13, 17-18; 23:4-6, 12-13). It is not an easy issue to resolve. Calvin referred to it as an apparent contradiction.
Regardless of how we solve this dilemma, however, keep in mind the historical context of these passages in Joshua. Prior to their entrance into the promised land, God said that if Israel obeyed the Mosaic Law, she would experience Abrahamic blessing (Lev 26:1-13; Deut 28:1-14), but if Israel disobeyed the Law, she would experience curses (Lev 26:14-46; Deut 28:15-68). With regard to the promised land, if Israel was not faithful to keep the Mosaic Covenant, she would be dispersed from the land (Lev 26:32-33; Deut 28:63-64), but if she was faithful to the Mosaic Covenant, her days in the land would be blessed and prolonged (Lev 26:5-6; Deut 28:8).
In this way, God’s promise that the nation would possess the land was certain and eternal (the Abrahamic Covenant), but the occupation of the land and enjoyment of the blessings by any given generation of Jews was conditioned upon obedience to the Law (the Mosaic Covenant). Put another way, adherence to the Mosaic Covenant would enable a given generation of Israel to experience the blessings promised in the Abrahamic Covenant, but unfaithfulness to the Mosaic Covenant would delay the fulfillment of the Abrahamic promises until a later time and a later generation.
This leads me to Deuteronomy 30:1-10. Moses and the people of Israel are on the plains of Moab, on the verge of taking the land the Lord promised her. He has just warned Israel that if she is not faithful to keep the Mosaic Law, she will be torn from the land she is about to enter and she will be scattered among the nations (Deut 28:63-64). Then, in Deuteronomy 30 –prior to her entrance of the land — the Lord makes it clear that this will indeed happen: Israel will be unfaithful to the Mosaic Covenant and will, as a result, be dispersed from the land and scattered among the nations (Deut 30:1; see Deut 31:14-22 and Josh 23:16).
This judgment, however, is not the final word, for in the verses that follow the Lord declares that some time after Israel is dispersed, He will grant to her repentance and a circumcised heart, and she will be restored to the land and experience the blessing originally promised to her in the Abrahamic Covenant (Deut 30:2-10). This happens, of course, just as God has promised, when the Northern Kingdom falls to Assyria in 722 B.C. (2 Kings 17:6) and the Southern Kingdom falls to Babylon in 586 B.C. (2 Kings 25:1-21; Jer 39:1-10). This is exactly what the Lord predicted back in Deuteronomy 30:1 (and Deut 31:14-22) — Israel has broken the Mosaic Covenant, and as a result she is dispersed from the promised land.
But this is not the end of the story. After all, God has promised Israel that He will restore her once again to the land “which your fathers possessed” (Deut 30:5). In fact, that’s why you see the promise of restoration continuing throughout the prophets who prophesied after Joshua 21 (e.g., Isaiah 2:2-4; 11:1-16; 14:1-2; 27:1-13; 35:1, 10; 43:5-6; 49:8-13; 59:15b-21; 62:4-7; 66:10-20; Jer 3:11-20; 12:14-17; 16:10-18; 23:1-8; 24:5-7; 28:1-4; 29:1-14; 30:1-3, 10-11; 31:2-14; 32:36-44; 42:1-22; 50:17-20; Ezek 11:14-20; 20:33-44; 28:25-26; 34:11-16, 23-31; 36:16-36; 37:1-28; 39:21-29; Hosea 1:10-11; 2:14-23; 14:4-7; Joel 3:18-21; Amos 9:11-15; Obadiah 17, 21; Micah 4:6-7; 7:14-20; Zeph 3:14-20; Zech 8:7-8; 10:6-12; and 14:11).
When God says, “I will restore them to their own land which I gave to their fathers” (Jer 16:15), He is alluding to the promise He made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to give the land as an everlasting possession (Gen 17:8). The land promised by the prophets doesn’t just happen to be the same land promised to Abraham, as if it were some kind of amazing coincidence, but rather these promises are a reiteration and continuation of the promise made to Abraham.
Frankly, when people use Joshua 21:43-45 as a proof-text to say that God will not restore the nation of Israel to the promised land, it makes me wonder how they interpret Deuteronomy 30:1-10. In this passage, God says that one day after Israel is dispersed, He will bring her back into the very same land from which she was dispersed. Which land is that, and if the restoration to this land is not future, when did it happen?