“… the mountain country shall be yours. Although it is wooded, you shall cut it down, and its farthest extent shall be yours; for you shall drive out the Canaanites, though they have iron chariots and are strong”
(Joshua 17:18 NKJV).
“So the Lord was with Judah. And they drove out the mountaineers, but they could not drive out the inhabitants of the lowland, because they had chariots of iron” (Judges 1:19 NKJV).
When we compare Joshua 17:18 and Judges 1:19 it might appear that – despite God’s promise of victory over the iron chariots of the Canaanites – the Israelites were unable to defeat this enemy and their formidable war chariots. But there are several possible explanations for this apparent contradiction of God’s promise.
First, we should carefully consider the actual wording of God’s promise. In Joshua 17:18 the Israelites were told that the mountain country to its “farthest extent” would be given to them. This does not specifically say that the Israelites would be helped against the Canaanites beyond the mountain region. When we turn to Judges 1:19, we find that Israel could not drive out the Canaanites with their iron-armored chariots from the lowlands. In other words, the region in question was not the mountainous region of the Promised Land, but the flat coastal plain.
Another reason why there may be no conflict between the two verses is that Judges 1:19 was written some time after Joshua 17:18. God’s promise to drive out the Canaanites may have been fulfilled, but it clearly was not a promise in perpetuity. We know that Canaanites were able to move back into the land as time went on, after Israel had taken control of the area. So Judges 1 may refer to Israel’s failure to establish lasting control of the lowland areas.
We should always remember the principle of conditionality behind the type of promise made in Joshua 17:18. God promised the Israelites that he would assist them and be with them in battle as long as they obeyed him, but he also made it clear that he would withdraw his help if they turned from him. In fact, we find a specific reference to the failure of the Israelites to drive out the Canaanites from some areas in exactly this context in the Book of Judges:
“… I brought you up out of Egypt and led you into the land I swore to give to your ancestors. I said, ‘I will never break my covenant with you, and you shall not make a covenant with the people of this land, but you shall break down their altars.’ Yet you have disobeyed me. Why have you done this? And I have also said, ‘I will not drive them out before you; they will become traps for you, and their gods will become snares to you’” (Judges 2:1-3 NIV, emphasis added).
So, despite the original promise given to Israel in Joshua 17:18, we see that God rescinded his promise when Israel did not obey him. This is a principle we find repeatedly throughout the Old Testament, and it is provides a lesson for us today. We cannot claim the blessings God promises in his word if we are not willing to live according to that word.