I was planning on preaching on Deuteronomy 7:7-11, but verse 2 kept getting in my way. It is the kind of verse we Christians love to gloss over but the super-sceptics love to dwell upon. God’s people are almost ready to enter the Promised Land following their desert wanderings, but the question arises as to what should happen to the peoples who are already living in that land. Verse 2 tells us:
. . . and when the Lord your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy. (Deuteronomy 7:2)
Ouch, that does not sound much like the “Jesus loves you” that we are used to. In fact it sounds like the kind of thing that would get a nation into deep trouble at the United Nations. It has caused many people to wonder if this God is credible. Can we believe in a God who commands destruction without mercy? Shall we love the LORD or shall we condemn Him as unjust and unworthy of devotion?
First off, let me recommend Paul Copan’s book “Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God.” Some of what follows here is written there but with greater depth and clarity. Let us consider the following points:
Strong language is used to make a strong point. Overstatement was a common practice in Biblical times and is found in the Bible. We still do it today, such as when I state that the Toronto Maple Leafs are going to destroy every team that stands between them and the Stanley Cup this year. Obviously I am overconfident, but more obvious is that there really will be no “destroying” going on. The language of destruction is used to make a point about winning. Here in Deuteronomy 7:2 there is a strong point being made: The best chance God’s people have of staying in a close relationship with the LORD is to have nothing to do with the people already living in the land. It would be too easy to write up treaties and be assimilated into those peoples. But then how well could God’s people keep the Law, especially the ten commandments which begin with the call for the people to have no other gods beside the LORD? Indeed the point is not so much the elimination of people, but the utter destruction of an abhorrent religion:
But this is how you must deal with them:break down their altars, smash their pillars, hew down their sacred poles, and burn their idols with fire. 6 For you are a people holy to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession. (Deuteronomy 7:5-6)
If “destruction” is used to make a strong point, “driven out” better reflects the reality. The Bible itself sometimes asserts that the Canaanites will not be destroyed but rather “driven out.”
When the LORD your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations–(Deuteronomy 7:1 NIV emphasis mine)
When the Lord your God thrusts them out before you, do not say to yourself, “It is because of my righteousness that the Lord has brought me in to occupy this land” (Deuteronomy 9:4 emphasis mine)
Additionally, not having aircraft or motorized vehicles, ancient wars did not rely on the lightning quick shock and awe attacks of today. There was time for people to flee. In fact the inhabitants of Canaan show up in the Bible after the days of conquest, so they were not utterly destroyed in a genocidal way we might have expected from the command of verse 2. Indeed our passage assumes that God’s people will be rubbing shoulders with the Canaanites in the days to come:
3 Do not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, 4 for that would turn away your children from following me, to serve other gods. (Deuteronomy 7:3-4)
There is no need for commandments about intermarriage if the people are utterly destroyed.
The command to destroy the Canaanites must be read in the context of the entire Bible. There is the promise made to Abraham in Genesis 12 that all the nations of the earth would be blessed through him. There are the laws God had already given that were designed to protect foreigners who may be poor and vulnerable. There is the book of Ruth where a foreigner is welcomed into God’s people and even becomes the great-grandmother of King David. There is the book of Jonah which challenges God’s people to allow or even expect God to love their enemies. There is the entire trajectory of the New Testament, where Jesus dies not just for the Jew; “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16); where the Holy Spirit is given to people from any background; where looking forward “there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” (Revelation 7:9) One cannot read the entire Bible without getting the impression that God’s love stretches far and wide.
God had been very patient with the Canaanites, but his patience had run out allowing justice to be rolled out. When we hear about God’s people being told to destroy the Canaanites we might be under the impression that it would be like the nice people of Prince Edward Island being called to wipe out the nice people of New Brunswick. But ancient peoples were not that nice. In fact the rise of ISIS today gives us a glimpse of the kind of evil ancient tribal peoples could be capable of. Not too many of us would be sad to see ISIS destroyed. Actually ISIS displays better morals than the Canaanites for they know better than to sacrifice children in religious rites. The Canaanites had hundreds of years of descent into darkness, now it was time for God to express His justice through judgement. It is: “because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is dispossessing them before you.” (Deuteronomy 9:4)
God’s command to destroy the Canaanites should be read with this important truth in mind: God owes no person another minute of life. This is something we learn from the flood in Noah’s day which was not genocide, but the just judgement of God. The Bible teaches that the wages of sin is death, and in the flood the payment of those wages were brought forward. More accurately, those wages were no longer held back. God is holy. We are not. That anyone should live to see another day, another hour, another minute, is a sign of God’s grace and mercy. God would be just if even Noah and his family were not spared. They did not deserve life. None of us do. That we experience life at all is a sign of the grace of God.
That God’s people stood ready to enter the Promised Land was a sign of the grace of God. They did not show themselves worthy of the honour:
6 Know, then, that the Lord your God is not giving you this good land to occupy because of your righteousness; for you are a stubborn people. 7 Remember and do not forget how you provoked the Lord your God to wrath in the wilderness; you have been rebellious against the Lord from the day you came out of the land of Egypt until you came to this place. (Deuteronomy 9:6-7)
So why was God being kind to Israelites? It was because of love:
7 It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you—for you were the fewest of all peoples.8 It was because the Lord loved you . . . (Deuteronomy 7:7,8a emphasis mine)
Salvation begins, not with people and their righteousness, but with God and His love. Your salvation, and mine, begins not with our righteousness, but with God’s love.
And God was kind to the Israelites because of promise:
8 It was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 7:8 emphasis mine)
God had promised Abraham a blessing and that all the nations of the earth would be blessed through him. This wee bit of justice poured out on the peoples of Canaan was part of a plan that would lead to a whole load of grace being poured out and made available to the whole world. The death and resurrection of Jesus is the single greatest focus of God’s blessing. But it is a long journey from the promise of blessing to Abraham to the fulfillment in Jesus. The destruction of the Canaanites is part and parcel of that journey to blessing.
What kind of God is it that calls for the destruction of people? The same God that was ensuring that we need not face destruction: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1) God’s nurture of His people through dark and dangerous places and times is part of the unfolding of His grace so that we will not face condemnation when we turn to Him in repentance.
Shall we condemn God for working out His purposes of salvation? We have no right to condemn God. He has every right to condemn us. But out of love He has made reconciliation possible.
If God is for us, who is against us? 32 He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? 33 Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. (Romans 8:31-34)