The national witness which the Jews were called to bear to Jehovah as the One, Supreme, Holy and Righteons God, they could not bear till the spirit of His government had fully penetrated and pervaded their own national life. As those to whom were committed the oracles of God, they must receive the truth into their own hearts ere they could become teachers of others: they must themselves offer pure and acceptable worship ere their temple could become "an house of prayer for all peoples."
It was made evident at Mount Sinai that there was needed a preliminary period of discipline and proof ere the elect people could be brought into the land chosen for them. The tribes showed the impress, intellectually and morally, of their hard bondage in Egypt, and their unpreparedness for their high calling. The subsequent long wandering in the Wilderness — the punishment of their unbelief— resulted in the education of a generation in good degree obedient, and which Moses and Joshua could lead forward to take possession of their land. To take this possession was the first duty of the covenant people; but since Jehovah had chosen it, in virtue of His absolute lordship over all lands, and had given it to them, it was His own special work to settle them in it. But it was a work in which they must co-operate. It was necessary that those dwelling in it should be driven out, for their sins had been such as to draw upon them the just anger of God. How should this be done? His purpose did not demand their destruction, for they might voluntarily have left the land; but it did demand that they be driven beyond its boundaries. The land must be purged of its inhabitants who had defiled it. (Lev. xviii. 24-27; Deut. xviii. 12.) The promise of Jehovah to His people was, "the Lord your God shall lay the fear of you and the dread of you upon all the land," — a fear and dread springing from the knowledge of His presence with them, as shown in His mighty acts in their deliverance from Egypt, and during their wanderings in the Wilderness. Such was the effect of the destruction of the Egyptian hosts at the Red Sea, and of the signs — the pillar of cloud and of fire — that went before them in their march. (Exod. xiv., xv.) Their solemn entrance into the land by the passage of the Jordan dry-shod, showed to all its inhabitants that no obstacles of nature could hinder their progress. (Josh, hi. 13.) To these proofs of the presence and power of their God, was added that of the capture of Jericho, — a capture that showed strikingly the futility of all armed resistance. Nothing was needed but obedience and faith to enable Joshua and the people rapidly to complete their conquest, for these Divine interpositions foreshadowed what Jehovah would do for them if they trusted in Him. The victory over Amalek, their first enemy, was a type showing how they might prevail over all their enemies. (Exod. xvii. 8.) Had they been true to their calling, we may believe that there would have been such signal displays of His power, that none of the heathen tribes would have dared to contend with them, but, yielding to them the quiet possession of the land, would have sought new homes elsewhere. (Deut. ix. 3; Josh. ii. 9.)
But disobedience and want of faith speedily brought with them merited defeat. The courage of the Canaanites revived, and their fear of Jehovah gradually diminished. He did not, indeed, forsake His people, and they were in general victorious under Joshua; but the conquest of the land was very imperfectly effected, and this after a protracted and bloody struggle. They learned by a bitter experience, that without Jehovah's help their strength availed little, and that faith and obedience on their part were the necessary conditions of His interpositions.
This inability to drive out the idolatrous inhabitants, and their consequent cohabitation with them, was a sin the evil effects of which were seen in all their subsequent history. Because of this intercourse with the heathen, "the anger of the Lord was hot against Israel, and He gave them into the hand of their enemies." It is not necessary to recite the facts so distinctly stated in the books of Joshua and the Judges. Long periods of servitude and oppression, with occasional wonderful deliverances, and attempts at reformation under the leadership of the Judges, marked this stage of their history.
It can scarcely be questioned that the Hebrews were in some considerable degree infected with idolatry when they came out of Egypt, and thus were especially exposed to temptation from the idolaters around them. It is not, indeed, probable that the golden calf made by Aaron at Sinai was a copy of any Egyptian deity. (Exod. xxxii. 4.) It was rather a reminiscence of the Cherubim as placed east of Eden, a symbol of the Divine Presence. But, if not directly idolatrous, it was contrary to God's commandment, and showed that intercourse with the heathen around them could not fail to stimulate the tendencies to idolatry. Their safeguard was in driving the idolatrous tribes wholly from the land, and in the complete and permanent separation, through ceremonial laws, from the adjacent nations. Thus made "to dwell alone" till the spirit of their calling had taken possession of all departments of national life, they had been prepared to take their place among the nations, under Jehovah, and to bear their witness to Him as the One Righteous and Holy God.
The whole period from Joshua's death to Samuel, the tribes were without a head, and all their actions were marked by a want of unity. In their contest for the land each tribe acted for itself, and so with very partial success; and probably there was little of united worship. There was strong temptation to each tribe to have its own sanctuaries and high places; although there seems to have been a general recognition that the appointed worship was to be carried on at Shiloh. It is possible, also, that the old patriarchal priesthood long maintained a not altogether illicit existence by the side of the Aaronic priesthood, until experience of its tendencies to disintegration and idolatry led to the final execution of the Mosaic laws in their completeness.
During the long period of the struggle with the Canaanites for mastery, Jehovah could not dwell as King in His own land. Not till it had been taken into full possession, and been cleansed and sanctified as His dwelling-place, could the movable tent — the symbol of wandering—give place to the temple, — the symbol of permanent habitation. Till then Jehovah, dwelling in a tabernacle like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, "sojourned in the land of promise, as in a strange country." For a considerable time this tent was in Shiloh, where Jehovah manifested His presence. But both Psalmist and Prophet speak of the increasing apostasy of the people at this period, of their high places and their graven images, so that "He was wroth, and greatly abhorred Israel; so that He forsook the tabernacle of Shiloh, . . . and delivered His strength into captivity, and His glory into the enemy's hand." There could be no one central seat of worship, where all might go up, so long as idolaters ruled over the Hebrews in some parts of the land, or remained in other parts of it unsubdued. Thus it was that worship in the high places, not improbably of pre-Mosaic origin, was carried on and tolerated, — an abuse sure to lead, as it did, to great evil, and which it was most difficult in after-times to root out. It was not till later, when the whole land was conquered under David, and all heathen rule put down, that the temple could be erected at Jerusalem, and the promise of God be fulfilled, "Here will I dwell, for I have desired it." Not till this time was it possible for all to keep the feasts without molestation, and to fulfill at the one altar the prescribed rites of worship: hitherto the elect people had rather encamped in the land than possessed it.
But a change was at hand. The long discipline of suffering was producing a wholesome effect, which was especially manifested in a growing desire for greater unity, and in a deeper sense of their covenant relations to Jehovah. And we must not suppose that, in all the public disorders and religious confusion of these years, there was not much genuine piety, and true reverence and zeal for the law. There was, in general, purity in family life, and obedience to God's commands, and faith in the fulfillment of His promises. There were many, doubtless, who deeply felt the evils of their times, and who earnestly prayed for deliverance. And, before the time of Samuel, there were signs of a re-action, and of a turning again to Jehovah. The gift of prophetic utterance, which had been very rare, became more frequent. In the Spirit Hannah, the mother of.Samuel, prayed; and her utterances show how strongly, in this hour of national distress and humiliation, the sense of the holiness and majesty of Jehovah had impressed itself on the pious mind. (1 Sam. ii. 1-10.)