Judgment on Canaan
The ninth chapter of Deuteronomy begins Moses' third speech which he gave to Israel before he died and before Joshua led them into the Promised Land. This speech covers Deut. 9-13, and Ferrar Fenton gives it the title: Why Israel was Chosen.
Moses begins his speech this way in Deut. 9:1-3,
1 Hear, O Israel! You are crossing over the Jordan today to go in to dispossess nations greater and mightier than you, great cities fortified to heaven, 2 a people great and tall, whom you know and of whom you have heard it said, “Who can stand before the sons of Anak?” 3 Know therefore today that it is the Lord your God who is crossing over before you as a consuming fire. He will destroy them and He will subdue them before you, so that you may drive them out and destroy them quickly, just as the Lord has spoken to you.
When Moses says, “You are crossing over the Jordan today,” it is obvious that “today” does not literally mean that same 24-hour day. A “day” in Hebrew is similar in meaning to our English word, which has more latitude than 24 hours. Older people often speak of things that happened “in my day,” meaning in their life time. Likewise, a day can mean a thousand years (Ps. 90:4; 2 Peter 3:8). Moses uses the word in this case to mean “at this time.”
Giants in the Land
The sons of Anak (or the Anakim) were a giant race, as we have explained in Moses' first speech. They were reputed to be invincible in the days when brute strength was crucial in warfare, yet they were also extremely intelligent. When the Israelites first saw them, they felt like grasshoppers (Num. 13:33). But Moses reminded them that this was God's battle, and that God was “crossing over before you as a consuming fire.” Even giants are no match for a consuming fire, for the larger they are the more fuel they provide for the “fire.”
4 Do not say in your heart when the Lord your God has driven them out before you, “Because of my righteousness, the Lord has brought me in to possess this land,” but it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is dispossessing them before you. 5 It is not for your righteous-ness or for the uprightness of your heart that you are going to possess their land, but it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord your God is driving them out before you, in order to confirm the oath which the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. 6 Know, then, it is not because of your righteousness that the Lord your God is giving you this good land to possess, for you are a stubborn people.
The land of Canaan was God's gift to Israel, given by grace. Moses' emphasis sets forth the principle of grace in the law. The dispute and conflict between Israel and Canaan as to who was the rightful inheritor of the land was something that had been settled in the divine court. God had ruled in favor of Israel, not because of Israel's righteousness, but because of Canaan's wickedness.
Noah’s Curse on Canaan
This court case dated back to Noah's curse upon Canaan in Gen. 9:25-27. That curse put Canaan on “Cursed Time,” a kind of probationary period to allow time for the Canaanites to seek the Lord's mind and will and to repent. In such national cases, “Cursed Time” is a grace period of 414 years. This is always how the divine court makes its judgments, for the judgment of the law is not without grace and mercy. Repentance alters the outcome of the judgment.
So what happened after 414 years? Abimelech, the representative of Canaan in his day, apologized to Abraham for the behavior of his servants who had stolen the well that Abraham had dug (Gen. 21:25-32). While the Bible does not date this event, the book of Jasher does so in Jasher 22:3-5. For details, see also Secrets of Time, chapter 4.
The curse upon Canaan was that Canaan would be the servant of Shem (or “the God of Shem”). The text of Gen. 1:27 reads, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem; and let Canaan be his servant.” In other words, it was ruled that Canaan must submit to the descendants of Shem and to the God of Shem. After 414 years had passed, Abimelech conceded to Abraham's complaint and came to an agreement, a covenant made by oath. Abimelech did not become Abraham's servant, of course, for he remained as king of the Philistines and considered Abraham to be a guest in his land. Nonetheless, Abimelech's concession gave Canaan credit in the form of an extension of time. Canaan was given another 414-year cycle.
At the end of the second 414-year cycle, Israel came to the border of Canaan, and the kings of Canaan refused to submit to Joshua, the descendant of Shem and the leader of Israel. Their grace period had expired without repentance, and they continued to serve other gods, rather than to submit to the court decision of “the God of Shem.” The divine court reviewed their case and issued the decree to His enforcers to execute the original decree that had been issued through Noah.
God ruled in Israel's favor, not because of Israel's righteousness, as Moses was about to explain further, but because Canaan's grace period had expired without national repentance.
Ironically, Israel's rebelliousness itself gave Canaan its final 38 years of grace. When Israel refused to enter Canaan in Numbers 13 and 14, the Canaanites were spared for another 38 years (Deut. 2:14). But God had already accounted for this, because if Israel had attacked the Canaanites when they were supposed to do so, they would have brought judgment upon the Canaanites too soon. God intended that the Canaanites would be given their full 414-year grace period, which did not end until Joshua led Israel across the Jordan River.
Insofar as this divine court case was concerned, Canaan received its full grace period, and so they were without excuse. The Canaanites no doubt had kept records of their origins—as all nations did—and it is likely that the record of Noah's curse was buried somewhere in their archives. But either they had forgotten this, or they chose to ignore it in the interest of nationalism. Either way, God held them accountable for the actions of their forefather, Canaan.