God promised to give Abraham many descendants (Gen. 12:1–3), and over time, He began to fulfill His promise, giving Abraham children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. Eventually, some seventy descendants of Jacob—Abraham’s grandson whom God renamed Israel—went into Egypt, where they multiplied greatly (32:22–32; Ex. 1:1–7). The old covenant nation of Israel as we know it, however, did not come into being until God liberated the children of Israel from Egyptian slavery and constituted them as a national entity at Mount Sinai (Ex. 12–24). That exodus from Egypt took place in about 1447 BC.
Had the Israelites obeyed the Lord, they would have arrived in Canaan, the land God promised to Abraham (Gen. 12:1–9), soon after the exodus. Yet, when the Israelites arrived at the border of Canaan and sent men to spy out the land, they lacked faith that God would help them overpower the Canaanite forces and take possession of the territory. So, God determined that of the original generation of Israelites who left Egypt, only Caleb the son of Jephunneh and Joshua the son of Nun would enter the promised land, for only they believed that the Lord would give them Canaan (Num. 13:1–14:38).
Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, but God prohibited Moses from entering the promised land because of his sin at the waters of Meribah (Num. 20). So, God told Moses to commission Joshua to succeed him (27:12–23). Today’s passage tells us that after the death of Moses, God confirmed this call to Joshua once again, commanding Joshua to lead the people into Canaan (Josh. 1:1–5). When Joshua heard from the Lord, he and the Israelites were camped in the plains of Moab, just northeast of the Dead Sea and east of the city of Jericho on the other side of the Jordan River.
God’s commission to Joshua makes several key points. First, the land of Canaan was God’s gracious gift to Israel, not something that the people had merited (vv. 1–2; see Deut. 9:1–5). Second, that the land was a gift did not mean the people would possess it effortlessly. They would have to go into the land (“your foot will tread”) and fight against the Canaanites to possess their God-given inheritance (Josh. 1:3–5a). But third, the possession would be a consequence finally of their faith, not their fighting. To conquer Canaan, they first had to believe that God would be with them as He had promised (v. 5b).