What Does the Land of Canaan Symbolize?

For the past couple of days, I have been reading the book of Joshua. Joshua is the account of Israel finally entering the promised land, Canaan, after wandering in the wilderness for 40 years. When I first began reading the Bible, I thought Canaan symbolized heaven. So, we have a story of God leading his people of Egypt, the world or the earth, and into Canaan, heaven. In between, is the wilderness, our journey through this world once we are saved as we try to make it to heaven. I’m sure I’m not the only one that has believed this. But, as I have become more familiar with the story of the Bible, I believe something different now.

So, what does Canaan, the promised land, symbolize if it does not symbolize heaven?

Rest.

The Greek word for rest is katapauo. Almost every use of the word is in the book of Hebrews.

Hebrews 3.11 says, “As I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter my rest.'” This is actually a quotation of Psalm 95.11. This verse is about a people who have hardened their hearts and rebelled against God on their day of testing in the wilderness. Because the people always went astray in their hearts, God said they would not enter his rest. The writer of Hebrews goes on to ask who it was that rebelled? Was it not those led out of Egypt by Moses? Weren’t these ones with whom God was provoked? Weren’t these the ones whom God said they could not enter his rest?

Then, in Hebrews 4.8-10, the writer of Hebrews ties the idea of rest together with Joshua leading Israel into the land of Canaan. “For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day later on. So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his.” Joshua led the people into Canaan, but he did not give them rest because Israel did not cease from its works.

Even though those that rebelled in the wilderness failed to enter God’s rest, which is to say they died in the wilderness without entering Canaan, Hebrews 4.1 says, “the promise of entering his rest still stands.”

So, what is God’s rest then?

Hebrews 4.3-4 says, “For we who have believed enter that rest, as he has said, ‘As I swore in my wrath, “They shall not enter my rest,”‘ although his works were finished from the foundation of the world. For he has somewhere spoken of the seventh day in this way: ‘And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.'” This is a quotation of Genesis 2.2. The Lexham English Septuagint says, “God completed in the sixth day his works that he did, and he ceased on the seventh day from all his works.” The Greek word for ceased is the word katapauo, the same word the writer of Hebrews uses.

God’s rest is a ceasing from creative activity. God worked, or created, on the first six days, but he ceased, or rested, from creating on the seventh day. We know that God’s rest related specifically to God’s creative work not all of God’s work though. John 5.16-17 says, “And this was why the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because he was doing these things on the Sabbath. But Jesus answered them, ‘My Father is working until now, and I am working.” For Jesus and God, the seventh day, the Sabbath, was not a day of doing nothing, doing no work. They both still worked on the Sabbath. But, they no longer did creative work.

What is significant about creative work?

When you create something, you own it. It’s yours. You can do whatever you want with it.

On the seventh day, God ceased from that kind of work. God was now sharing his creation with mankind. He was making man a partner with him in taking care of the creation.

So, for you and me to enter God’s rest is for us to rest, or cease, from our own creative works. We are stop trying to make something that is our own, something that we can use for ourselves, and do with it whatever we please. Oh, we still have work to do. Lots of it. But, the work is to ensure that have everyone has a satisfactory portion of God’s creation. That is the concept of peace, shalom.

In Canaan, this was symbolized by each tribe receiving their inheritance of the promised land. And, no family was to lose their inheritance as all their land was to be restored to them every Jubilee. No one was ever to be without their portion. For the first Christians, this was fulfilled in Acts 2.32, 34-35, which says, “Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common…There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.”

They had entered God’s rest, Canaan.