1 “When the LORD your God brings you into the land that you are entering to take possession of it, and clears away many nations before you, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations more numerous and mightier than you, 2 and when the LORD your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction. You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them. 3 You shall not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, 4 for they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods. Then the anger of the LORD would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly. 5 But thus shall you deal with them: 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. 7:1-6)
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). The 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.
There must be no skerrick in the land of its previous inhabitants, neither familial nor political alliances with them, and no evidence of their pagan culture, human sacrifices or shrine prostitution. Israel’s single-minded devotion mattered. The faith of unborn generations hung on their obedience.
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, including turning one’s backs 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 others gods and forsaking their very own fountain of living water (Jeremiah 2:4-13).
However, the predictions of what would happen if the Israelites were to disobey God in the conquest should evoke great pathos to those who love the Lord. 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 that I saw such a link. I’m sure it is just one of many. My preparation was cut in half since they fit together so beautifully.
- 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 of these two chapters, Deuteronomy 7 and Colossians 3 contain this command to ‘kill ‘em all’. No treaty, alliance or skerrick of sin should remain.
5 Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. 6 On account of these the wrath of God is coming. 7 In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. 8 But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. (Col. 3:5-8)
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. 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?
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. Rather we should put her out, throw out 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 destroying our faith. We don’t want our history to be the same as that of Israel, do we?