Check out the latest episode of the podcast: Conquest of the Land. You can find the podcast on Spotify, ApplePodcasts and Stitcher. Or go right to the website here: https://ancientpathwayspodcast.buzzsprout.com/
Pause: Do you think God has ever ordered the death of people? If so, do you think God still does today? Is your view of God one of primarily violence or of peace?
So far in our story, God has liberated the people from slavery in Egypt and entered into covenant relationship with them, giving them the Law as their obligation for how to live. The wider scope of God’s relationship with Israel is that through them all nations would be blessed, as was promised to Abraham. As a kingdom of priests, Israel would represent God to the nations so God could restore relationship with the entirety of creation. As God dwelled with Israel in the tabernacle, so one day God would be united to all creation and dwell with all.
But there’s a long way to go before we get there. First, Israel needs to survive and establish a nation. They need land. Throughout Exodus and on into Numbers we read of Israel journeying towards the land God promised them. Due to their sin of rebelling against God, they must wander into the wilderness for forty years! All those who left Egypt die before Israel enters the land. But by the time we get to Deuteronomy, we are prepared for a big step. God has led Israel to the borders of this new land.
The problem is that other people live in this land already. These are people with children and farms and their own gods and beliefs and rituals. God’s charge to the Israelites is shocking: exterminate them all. This command comes most explicitly in Deuteronomy 7:1-6:
“When the LORD your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations—the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you— and when the LORD your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, for they will turn your children away from following me to serve other gods, and the LORD’s anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you. This is what you are to do to them: Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones, cut down their Asherah poles and burn their idols in the fire. For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession.”
Deuteronomy consists of Moses’ farewell speeches to the people of Israel, which includes retelling the story of what God has done for them, reminding them of many of the Laws God has given, and emphasizing this command to destroy the people who live in the land. At the end of Deuteronomy, Moses dies. His successor is a man named Joshua, for whom the next book of the Bible is named. This book tells the story of the conquest of the land, putting the commands of texts like Deuteronomy 7 into action, and the body count is high. It is filled with the sorts of battles and violence that would make a fantastic Hollywood movie. But violence and battles at God’s command strikes us as questionable, if not just plain evil.
This is one of the parts of the Bible that often comes up first when skeptics or atheists talk about why they reject religion. Even for Christians, this section of the Bible is difficult. The God here seems incredibly foreign from the loving and forgiving Jesus of Nazareth whom our faith is centered around.
What do we do with such stories?
We cannot ignore the fact that God’s people massacre entire cities, believing God commanded them to do so. Christians have different interpretations of what exactly happened and how it relates to our faith in Jesus. These interpretations run the gamut: some scholars argues the stories are sort of mythological tales, even propaganda, that grew in the telling over the years, developing into stories to emphasize God’s power and Israel’s favor as God’s people. Other interpreters simply affirm these stories as “the Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it” and that if God commanded it then we just need accept it and move on. Between those views are others that seek to bring more nuance and balance by affirming that if they happened, perhaps they were not as violent as they seem at first glance or maybe God did not command them in the way it first appears but some Christ-centered nuance is needed. After all, in the passage above immediately after commanding the death of them all, they are commanded not to marry the residents of the land. How could they marry them if they were all dead? Sadly, we cannot get into all those options now. I have decided that I am going to put together a special episode next week that looks at a few of these options as I think such an episode could be helpful. For today, I think it will be helpful to compare two characters who appear in the book of Joshua: Rahab and Achan. Their stories reveal something to us about who God is and how God works.
Rahab was a prostitute in Jericho, the first city Israel was going to attack. We read her story in Joshua 2. Joshua sends two men to spy on the city. When the king discovers that the invading army has sent spies, he begins a search. The two spies take shelter with Rahab. She hides them from the searchers. Before she bids them farewell, she begs them to spare her and her family. She tells them that everyone has heard how God is blessing the Israelites. What is amazing is that she has very little understanding of Yahweh. She is the quintessential outsider. Yet she knows that the true God is with Israel and thus she wants to be with them too. In Rahab, we see some of the themes we have discussed coming to bear. Here is a woman of the nations whom God promised to bless in Abraham, desiring to join the family of God.
As the story continues, Joshua leads the Israelites to victory. Jericho’s walls come down and everyone within, except Rahab’s family, is killed. Importantly, the Israelites were commanded to not take any plunder in Jericho. Everything in Jericho was to be given up to God. Ignoring this command, a man named Achan saw a few things he liked and secretly took them (Achan’s story is in Joshua 7). The Israelites then moved on to a city called Ai. Thinking this city would be an easy victory, they send a small force which is quickly defeated. The people cry out to God, asking what is wrong. God responds by telling them that someone in their company has broken the command not to take things devoted to God. God tells Joshua to line up all the people and the guilty party will be revealed. It is not until Achan is picked out that he finally confesses. The process appears to take some time, so one cannot help but wonder if Achan would have received forgiveness if he had come forward sooner. But he did not and once his sin is revealed, his entire family is gathered to him. The rest of the Israelites stone them to death.
Its gruesome. Yet when we compare the characters in these two stories, it is revealing. Rahab helps the Israelite spies and asks for them to spare her family. She does not possess extensive knowledge of their God, all she knows is that their God is powerful, and she wants to be on their side. The lesson is that God accepts anyone, regardless of how small their knowledge or understanding is. God’s love is for all nations and will extend to any person of the nations who shows even a hint of desire to be known by God.
The flip side of this is the story of Achan. Achan was among the chosen people, he had seen many great works of God. But when he disobeys God, he is punished. The clear point to take away, for our purpose, is to beware of arrogance. Beware thinking that your status with God is found on where you were born or what church you go to. God shows no favoritism. God will accept the outsider and judge the insider as need be.
This reminds us that God did not choose Abraham and Israel due to any good thing they had done. God’s choice is an act of undeserved grace. While Deuteronomy 7 is the command to Israel to destroy the people in the land, a couple chapters later is the warning to not become arrogant. Deuteronomy 9:4-6 states:
“After the LORD your God has driven them out before you, do not say to yourself, “The LORD has brought me here to take possession of this land because of my righteousness.” No, it is on account of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is going to drive them out before you. It is not because of your righteousness or your integrity that you are going in to take possession of their land; but on account of the wickedness of these nations, the LORD your God will drive them out before you, to accomplish what he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Understand, then, that it is not because of your righteousness that the LORD your God is giving you this good land to possess, for you are a stiff-necked people” (Deuteronomy 9:4-6).
Once again, to emphasize, God did not choose Israel out of favoritism or due to anything they did to deserve it. God chose them out of love for the whole world. From Abraham on we have seen they are just as sinful as anyone else. God chose them and blessed them with the Law and his presence in order to reach people like Rahab. Of course, this does not remove the question of how such a God could command destruction. However difficult that question is though, we recognize that at least God is fair. If God is the perfect just judge, God holds Achan and God’s own people to the same, if not a higher, standard than the Canaanite nations or any other nation.
What does this mean for us as Christians? We Christians are like Rahab, outsiders who are adopted into God’s family. The early church leader and theologian, Paul, wrote his longest letter, Romans, to address how God could save these outsiders – Gentiles (non-Jews) – and still be faithful to the covenant to the Jews. It is some of the deepest theological writing in scripture. Romans 9-11 is the deepest part of this deepest of theological writings. It is tough stuff that makes your head spin. In the beginning of Romans 11, Paul speaks of the rebellion of the Jews against God, seen in their rejection of the Jewish messiah Jesus. It is important to note that Paul is writing as a Jew. We non-Jews are privy to an insider first-century debate between Paul and his fellow Jews. Paul is deeply saddened by his people’s rejection of the Messiah, but he holds out hope that his countrymen will see the beauty of salvation coming to Gentiles and will also return to God. Rather than seeing God as their special possession, Paul desires they celebrate the largeness of God’s love that encompasses both Jew and Gentile. Paul’s attitude to his fellow Jews, God’s chosen people, continues to be one of love and hope. But Paul gives a word of warning to all the Gentiles who are experiencing salvation and entering into God’s family in Jesus:
“If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, do not consider yourself to be superior to those other branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you. You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in.” Granted. But they were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but tremble. For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either” (Romans 11:17-21).
The word of warning is one that Achan ought to have heeded centuries before. Just because you find yourself in the community of God’s people, do not look down on those you consider outsiders. Do not think your new status gives you a privilege that makes you free to ignore God’s commands. God actually holds those on the inside to the highest standard; when judgment does come it begins with those who should have known better.
This begs another question: Do you think this should make us nervous? Can we know for sure that we are right with God? Must we be uncertain, thinking we are constantly in and out?
Disciples of Jesus are called to a high moral and ethical way of life. Our status with God is not based on our success or failure in obeying this call. Even when we fall short we have hope in God’s unfailing love. As 2 Timothy 2:11-13 states:
Here is a trustworthy saying:
If we died with him, we will also live with him;
if we endure, we will also reign with him.
If we disown him, he will also disown us;
if we are faithless, he remains faithful,
for he cannot disown himself.
If we disown him, he will disown us. Yet if we are faithless, he will remain faithful. We are called to live rightly and God’s judgment is real but so too is God’s forgiveness. In Jesus, we can even affirm that God’s grace is larger and wins out over God’s justice. I often hear Christians respond to the statement “God is Love” with, “God is also just!” While I agree God is just, it is clear that in the work of Jesus and the work of grace, God’s love and grace and forgiveness far outweigh God’s just. God is more forgiving and merciful than we can possibly imagine, and not just to us but to our enemies and others as well. We need not worry that anything we do can set us outside God’s love. Living in this love, we must remember to live in humility. God loves us not because of anything we have done but solely because of who God is and what God has done. Be humble and loving in our attitude towards those we see as outsiders and not to take pride in our status as insiders. Or, to hit the refrain we’ve repeated over and over – we are blessed to be a blessing, we are loved by God so we can love our neighbor.
Even Paul held out the hope that in the end, God’s love would extend to all people. He wrote in Romans 11:
25 I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers and sisters, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in, 26 and in this way[e] all Israel will be saved.
Our hope is all people will be saved. Our job is to love all people. We can leave any sort of judging to God. However we understand those violent passages in Deuteronomy and Joshua, we know that we are disciples of Jesus called to love others. Violence is off the table for us. Again, our job is to love all people and hope all, like Rahab, will be saved.
Questions and Action Points:
How would you answer someone who asks you about God’s commands to destroy people in Deuteronomy 7?
What are some things you are proud of? Who are some people you might be tempted to look down on? Why?
What are some steps you can take to grow in humility and to destroy your own pride?
Heavenly Father, in this greatest of all stories, there is so much we do not understand. How could a loving God command the slaughter of innocent women and children? What do we say to our skeptical friends who see this as just another example of intolerant and violent religion? God, amid our questions we are reminded of the truth that our clearest understanding of who you are comes in Jesus. Jesus of Nazareth is the human face of God, the second person of the Trinity, God in the flesh. We may be unsure of a lot, but we are sure of this. May we be reminded that you do not show favoritism and that we have done nothing to earn your love. May we be reminded of the big story from creation, through rebellion and your relationship to Israel that culminates in Jesus. Let us not get lost in the details. In the end, you are faithful and you, the only powerful and almighty Creator and Sustainer, allowed violence to be done to you on the cross rather than being violent towards humans. As we wrestle with questions, may we cling to your faithfulness in Jesus. Amen