“When the Lord your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction… You shall break down their altars and dash in pieces their pillars and chop down their Asherim and burn their carved images with fire. For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth.” (Deut 7:2, 5-6)
The Israelites were meant to be the hammers of God’s judgment on the abhorrent and violent behaviours of the existing nations of the promised land (Gen 15:13-16; Lev 18:24,27; Deut 18:10-12).
In Deuteronomy 7, Moses’ instruction to the Israelites about to enter that land is crystal clear: there must not be even a trace of its previous inhabitants, neither familial (v. 3) nor political alliances with them (v. 2), and no evidence of their pagan culture, human sacrifices or shrine prostitution (v. 5). The faith of unborn generations hung on their obedience (v. 4).
Israel’s single-minded devotion mattered. This passage before us does not focus on retribution, let alone theodicy, but on the Lord’s prophylactic against ongoing corrupting influences on his treasured people—it was God’s strategy for preventing spiritual disease.
While it might please some readers that the Israelites did not keep this command seriously, that belies something flaky in our Christian constitutions. We think the worst thing that can happen to someone is for them to die. But there are many worse things, not least of which is turning your back on God. The rest of the history of Israel lives out the heart-wish of many modern readers as Israel’s limp devotion to the Lord expressed itself in leaping between two opinions, syncretistically following other gods and forsaking their very own fountain of living water (Jer 2:4-13).
In Deuteronomy 7, the predictions of what would happen if the Israelites were to disobey God in the conquest are extremely serious. Moses emphasises, “the anger of the Lordwould be kindled against [them], and he would destroy [them] quickly” (v. 4).Why didn’t the Israelites fear God rather than people?
Despite the ethical questions that may be raised in the believer, there are real application questions of the new covenant. To what does this point for us? Is it a warning? And if so, of what kind? Jesus does not call us to conquer the land physically, but rather to take the gospel into all the world. Rather than God driving out the nations, we are a part of him gathering them in. Outside of Christ, I am nothing more than an idol-worshipping Canaanite.
Twenty years ago I had a busy week. I had to prepare a youth Bible study on Deuteronomy and a talk on Colossians 3 and as it turned out, my preparation was cut in half since they fit together so beautifully. I’m sure these links between the two books are just some of many:
- Moses prepares the people on the edge of the promised land to live for God (Deut 1-6)
- Paul prepares God’s people for living in our heavenly existence at Christ’s right hand (Col 3:1)
- The victories of Israelites have been rehearsed (Deut 2-3).
- Christ’s victory on the cross is celebrated (Col 2:9-15).
- The Israelites were holy people belonging to the LORD (Deut 7:6).
- All those in Christ are ‘God’s chosen ones, holy and loved’ (Col 3:12).
- Idolatry is explicitly forbidden for the Hebrews and was the focus of their demolition work (Deut 4:15-24; 7:5).
- Heart idolatry is in the target sights for Christians too (Col 3:5; cf. 3:10).
The strongest link is perhaps the most challenging: having seen God’s salvation, and preparing to enter God’s promised land, both Deuteronomy 7 and Colossians 3 contain this command to “kill ‘em all”. No treaty, alliance or trace of sin should remain. Take a look at Colossians 3:
Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. (Col. 3:5-8)
If God didn’t want idolatry to be a snare for the people of the old covenant, how much more does he want us to kill what will turn our hearts away from single-hearted devotion to the Lord? What must be conquered is, at the same time, ourselves and not ourselves. Who we used to be must be removed so we now live out what it means to be a people holy to the Lord, his treasured possession. The instruction is extreme: slaughter and complete destruction.
While many readers arc up against God’s commands for the Israelites to kill and drive out the wicked inhabitants of Canaan, the new covenant also challenges our modern Western sensibilities. The fixation is on authority, particularly to our own self-determination. People in our churches don’t mind obeying God’s truth when it what they wanted to do anyway, but to live seated with Christ, the killing will be intense.
Like the Israelites, our danger is half-hearted obedience to this command.
Some pornography has been removed, flirting toned down, some foul language has been curbed, some envy and covetousness has been dealt with. But just enough remains for us to return to when we are discouraged or tired of living God’s way. We look around and see our Christian neighbours are also just wounding sin, and so we reach a point of respectable comfort in sin. As Augustine described it, we treat sin as a mistress to be locked up in a cupboard, hidden away to the prying eyes of others, but to be used when we need it. Instead, we should put her out, throw away her phone number, and move house so she doesn’t know where we live. We should smash the mobile phone that has her contact info, and cut into pieces the sim card. Of course, I’m just paraphrasing Augustine.
Yes, we have a new Moses. He brings us to the promised land now by faith, and one day we’ll see it in all its beauty. Don’t forget to be brutal with your sin, or it will be brutal to you. God’s command now is just as savagely important as it was then.
Our removal of sin is also a prophylactic against the destruction of our faith. We don’t want our history to be the same as that of Israel, do we?
Originally published on Andrew Barry’s blog, The Bible A-Z,on 13 August 2018.