In an age when global solidarity is highly valued, and so many are interested in a social gospel, there are many attacks and an outright rejection of various Old Testament passages.
There are many, including Bible believing Christians, who say that “the violence called for in Deuteronomy 7 contrasts sharply with the assertion that God is love.” (Biddle 136) A popular “solution” is to name Moses as the author of these commands, perhaps trying to protect God from seeming barbaric.
The behavior commanded on Deuteronomy 7:2 is widely considered not only unloving but also unchristian, leading many to neglect the study of the Old Testament as the inspired word of God or at least as still relevant to 21st Century Christians.
Was God angrier and meaner in the Old Testament or is the God of Deuteronomy 7 the same loving and just God that is present throughout the Scriptures?
Is the God of the Bible a God of love or a God of destruction?
A God of peace or a God of war?
We will embark on an in depth study of God’s command to “utterly destroy” found in primarily in the context of war and extermination. Since the occurrences range primarily from Deuteronomy through 2 Chronicles, Deuteronomy 7:1-5 seemed like the perfect place to begin our study for it gives a good description of what God intended for Israel to do. If you were to look up every occurrence of this verb you would see that the other texts deal with a summary of the Israel’s military conquest of the territory west of the Jordan under Joshua, and are all connected to this command.
The most common approach when dealing with Deuteronomy 7:2, is to make a brief applications such as “compromise leads to apostasy; therefore, avoid it” (Honeycutt 127), or “the covenant-treaty of the Lord with Israel excludes other treaties.” (Gebelein) Though such comments are true and important, they only scratch the surface of what this text has to offer.
Others have treated the command as a hyperbole or exaggeration meant to illustrate a high moral calling but never meant to be literally followed. The tendency is to simply label such comments as “strange anomalies and paradoxes” (New Interpreter's Bible) and move on without seriously attempting to harmonize it with the rest of Scripture.
Historical and Literary Context
One of the keys to gaining a clear understanding of a text is to study its context. Historically, the book of Deuteronomy describes the events that took place at the end of the Mosaic period, just before Israel enters into Canaan. This was a critical time for Israel because their future goal was dependent on their obedience and commitment to God.
Literarily Deuteronomy 7 and the command to “utterly destroy” come after a call to love the Lord God, found in Deuteronomy 6, and just before a warning to not forget the Lord, found on chapter eight.
Interpreting The Text
As we read this text we notice “a very strict caution against all friendship and fellowship with idols and idolaters.” (Henry) Because those who are taken into communion with God must have “no communication with the unfruitful works of darkness,” (Eph. 5:11) and God gave these orders to protect His people from this snare now before them. (Henry)
The Interpreter’s Bible states that Deuteronomy 7:2 describes the principle that everything belonging to foreign gods, including people and their possessions, was abhorrent to Yahweh and was therefore “devoted” to destruction. This interpretation may be okay, but the explanation that follows it is dangerous. The Interpreter’s Bible states that “if we are revolted by a command to exterminate the people of the land just because they worshiped other gods, our repugnance may be mitigated by the fact that it was never rigorously carried out.” (Buttrick 378,379)
In an attempt to mitigate our reaction to God’s command, the George A. Buttrick, highlights how the Canaanites lived side by side with the Israelites until the Exile and beyond. Such an approach to Scriptures encourages the reader to disobey God whenever she thinks He is being too harsh, in which case the reader no longer following God. The reader now becomes a judge of which parts of God’s massage are applicable to her.
You can’t highlight Israel’s high moral code while doing away with the “grosser features” (Buttrick 378-379) of God’s command to “utterly destroy” without giving any reasons for this position other then referring to it as “extreme” and “almost unbelievably harsh” (ibid) will of God.
The command is treated as a hyperbole meant to illustrate a high moral calling but never meant to be literally followed. We need to resist focusing on the New Testament and skipping to applications without putting forth a serious effort to understand the text in its historical and literary context.
It is true that to the modern reader the demands found on Deuteronomy 7:2 seem to contrast strangely with the preceding affirmations concerning the loving aspects of God and of obedience, and that the book of Deuteronomy presents the reader with a number of apparent strange anomalies and paradoxes. It is easy to call these teachings contradictory and move on, but a deeper study of the text goes a long way in doing away with many of these supposed “anomalies and paradoxes.” (New Interpreter's Bible)
In order to properly understand verse two it is important to pay attention to its context. In Deuteronomy 7:1, seven nations are named and “they are specified, that Israel might know the bounds and limits of their commission: hitherto their severity must come, but no further.” Therefore, Israel is not here authorized to treat every nation in this way. (Matthew Henry)
“The confining of this commission to the nations here mentioned plainly intimates that after-ages were not to draw this into a precedent” therefore, to use this text to justify similar behavior in the future under different circumstances is to misuse the Scriptures. (ibid)
The text is clear, Israel was not to take in anyone who belonged to any of the seven nations named by God. The members of those nations could not be tenants, tributaries, or servants. No covenant of any kind was to be made with them, and as we mentioned earlier no mercy may be shown them. This severity was appointed by God. The iniquity of the Amorites was now full.
There are some who want to rationalize that God chose such extreme methods because God prescribed it to a dispensation under which large numbers of beasts were killed and burned in sacrifice. The argument is that now that all sacrifices of atonement “are perfected in, and superseded by, the great propitiation made by the blood of Christ, human blood has become perhaps more precious than it was, and those that have most power yet must not be prodigal of it.” (ibid)
Are we to believe that human blood became more precious to God after Jesus’ death? Such dispensationalist position raises serious questions concerning God’s love towards sinners, and about our value before God. Henry’s suggestion that God loved people less before Jesus’ death on the cross is unbiblical. Are we to accept the idea that God is evolving and becoming more loving over time? Does the plan of salvation evolve throughout history making it easier and easier for people to be saved?
God’s command to “destroy them totally, that is, men, women, and children,” (Walvoord) has often been thought of as unethical for a loving God. However we need to keep several points in mind concerning these people.
The first point is that they deserved to die for their sin (Deut. 9:4-5). According to The Bible Knowledge Commentary, studies of the religion, literature, and archeological remains of those peoples reveal that they were the “most morally depraved culture on the earth at that time.” (Bible Knowledge Commentary) These peoples would even sacrifice children to their gods (Deut. 12:30-31).
Secondly, we must keep in mind that they persisted in their hatred of God (Deut. 7:10). If they had repented, God would have spared them as He spared the Ninevites who repented at the preaching of Jonah.(Johan 4:2) Nevertheless, it appears that these nations were not interested in repenting and changing their ways.
A third point to keep in mind is that the Canaanites constituted a moral cancer (Deut. 20:17-18; Num. 33:55; Josh. 23:12-13) When reading these texts we need to remember is that one day Jesus Christ will return and there will be a final judgment, and a condemnation of unrepentant sinners. This is a factor that many Christians forget. The wrath of God and the final condemnation of unrepentant sinners is a topic many avoid.
The key idea here is that there is no dichotomy between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament. The God of the Bible is the same God in both testaments, revealing Himself to us as a loving and righteous God.
“The command to engage in holy war is, of course, not applicable today since at the present time God is not working through one nation to set up His kingdom on the earth.” Nevertheless, we can learn from this text how ruthless we should be with sin in our own lives, not willing to make any treaties with it. (Bible Knowledge Commentary)
According to A Commentary, Critical and Explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments the relentless doom of extermination which God denounced against those tribes of Canaan in Deuteronomy 7:2 “cannot be reconciled with the attributes of the divine character, except on the assumption that their gross idolatry and enormous wickedness left no reasonable hope of their repentance and amendment.” (Jamieson)
After all, God also swept away the antediluvians (Genesis 6-9) and also utterly destroyed the people of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:16-19:29). Unrepentant sinners who filled up the measure of their iniquities have faced God’s wrath in multiple occasions.
As we see how God works throughout the Bible, we know that those living in the land at that time must have been hopelessly unrepentant idolaters and this command must have been a form of immediate divine judgment upon those who had sinned away their day of grace.
God gave the inhabitants of the land about 400 years to change their ways (Genesis 15:16; Exodus 12:40). Abraham had lived there and set up altars and was well known. (Genesis 13,14) When the Israelites finally come into the promise land, the people were aware of who they were and of the God they worshiped (Joshua 2:9-14).
Those nations were not being destroyed just because they were not Israelites, because if Israel was to behave in a similar way they would suffer a similar judgment (Leviticus 18:24-30 24). The judgment was based on the actions and wickedness of the inhabitants, not on their ethnicity or ignorance.
Those who do not understand the judgment of God do not understand the awfulness of sin.
Moreover, those who do not understand the sinfulness and awfulness of sin are the ones who argue that God was wicked to destroy these nations. If we understood the sinfulness of these pagan religions and the way these nations had resisted God, we would feel differently about God’s command. We need to read these texts keeping in mind the whole Bible and what it says about God as a context. If God sent Jonah, despite Jonah’s resistance, to warn Nineveh and eventually spared them.(Jonah 1-4) If God was willing to spare Sodom for the sake of 10 righteous people living there, and sent angels to deliver Lot and his family, even though they were not that willing to be saved (Genesis 18:16-19:29). If God sent His Son to die that we might live (John 3:16). Then, in the context of who God is, as revealed throughout the Bible, these people must have indeed been terrible sinners who sinned away their day of grace.
In our modern day we get upset when we witness injustices, and many shake their fists to the heavens asking why God does not do something about all the evil in the world. Yet on the times that God judges and destroys we then shake our firsts at heaven asking how He could do such a thing. If we want to have the freedom to make our own choices, that means some people will misuse that freedom. For God to make everyone nice people would mean limiting their freedom and thus make God a tyrant. Therefore, people have the freedom to chose their path, and also enjoy the consequences that company different choices.
God calls for love and commitment from those who want to follow Him. This is nothing beyond what married couples expect form their spouse. Except God knows the consequences that follow rebelion against His rules, He wants to protect us by inviting us to set ertain things aside. Deuteronomy 2 gives us an example of “spirituality that sets aside what is incompatible with God’s lordship, even to its apparent strategic disadvantage.” (Work) But it is not the only passage in the Bible that calls for us to set aside sin. Consider the following texts:
Matthew 7:16-21 - 16 You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? 17 Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Therefore by their fruits you will know them.
21 “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven.
Ephesians 5:11 - And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather expose them.
Covenanting, showing mercy, and or marrying members of those peoples, would destroy Israel quickly. Israel was a chosen people and through them the whole word would be blessed. A little bit of sin is all it takes, the enemy wants just a foothold in our lives, and from there he can work our destruction.
God gave those seven nations plenty of time to repent, from the time of Abraham to the time of Joshua. Rehab, a prostitute from Jericho was saved, because she believed (Joshua 6:17). Sadly however the majority preferred to stay and fight against God and His people. The same way Rahab was saved, I am sure anyone else who wanted to join Israel could have done so. I don't have time to cover it in this post but look into the stories of Tamar (Genesis 38:1-30), Rahab (Joshua 2:1-21), Ruth (Ruth 4:12-22; Hebrews 11:31), and Bathsheba (2Samuel 11:1-27). At least three of these women were not Isralites, and they are all mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus (Matthew 1:3-6), showing God's willingness to use both men and women, Jews and Gentiles.
The obedience and purity of Israel were important because the whole world would be blessed through them, we, the modern day children of God, are no different. Not that we are called to wage war against non-believers, but rather in the sense that when we sin, we too deprive others form blessings.
We know things are just getting worse. We know that Jesus is coming back soon. We know God’s grace will not be extended forever. There is a parable of Jesus recorded in Matthew 25 about 10 virgins. All ten knew the bridegroom was coming.Five were wise and prepared, five were foolish and were caught unprepared. The problem with the five foolish virgins is not that they were ignorant, but rather that they failed to prepare properly. The parable tells us that at a certain point the door was shut, and even though the foolish virgins wanted to come in to the wedding banquet, they could not because the door had been shut.
And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the wedding; and the door was shut. Matthew 25:10
Revelation confirms the teaching of this parable. In Revelation 22 we are told that there comes a time when people will continue on the path they have chosen and no one will change from that point on. The saved will remain saved, and the lost will remain lost.
He who is unjust, let him be unjust still; he who is filthy, let him be filthy still; he who is righteous, let him be righteous[a] still; he who is holy, let him be holy still.” Revelation 22:11
The idea of judgment is present throughout the Bible. Jesus himself describes it Matthew 25 comparing he process to a shepherd separating sheep form goats. In the end there are only two groups of people.
All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats. Matthew 25:32
The book of Revelation confirms this teaching with a different illustration on chapter 20 starting with verse 11 we read about a judgment, and books are opened, and once again we have two groups.
And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire. Revelation 20:15
This may seem harsh, or extreme, but it is necessary. Because there is one more scene described in Revelation that I would like to call to your attention.
And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.” Revelation 21:4
The former things need to pass away. For there to be no more death nor sorrow nor crying, the cause of death and sorrow and crying must be destroyed. Those who do not love God and have no interest in living in harmony with Him are allowed to die. If you want to live forever with God, today is the day to make that decision.
Today the door of mercy is still open.
Jesus died to save you, but you have to want to be saved. Jesus will not throw you into heaven by force.
If there is something separating you from Christ today, something keeping you from committing yourself fully to Him, make a decision right now not to allow it to stand between you and Christ anymore.
I make an appeal for you to make a serious decision for Christ, for you to make a commitment. To choose Jesus whenever the option comes up.
When you have to chose between Jesus and your boss, choose Jesus.
Between Jesus and your boyfriend or girlfriend, choose Jesus.
Between Jesus and partying, drinking, sexual immorality, infidelity to your spouse, lying and cheating, being an abusive person, choose Jesus.
You cannot afford to wait, to postpone it.
Those who repeatedly reject Jesus,
Those who come to church and learn but refuse to follow
Those who come to quiet their conscience but don’t live according to the light they have received.
Those who know, but for different reasons chose not to follow and choose to rebel, will be utterly destroyed.
There is no reason for anyone to be destroyed. There is no reason for anyone to be lost. Jesus died that we might live.
I ask that you stop rejecting Jesus, and make a real commitment.
Right now I invite you to close your eyes, and pray inviting Jesus into your heart and renewing your commitment to Him.
I just ask that you stop postponing. That you stop playing games. This is the most important decision you will ever make in your life, this is life. Do not reject life. There is no reason to. Humble yourself and receive God’s salvation and allow Him to bring the changes that He wants to bring about in your heart.
Deuteronomy 7:1-5 has a message of judgment, which is not new, for we have the account of the flood, and Sodom and Gomorrah among others in the Old Testament, and we also have mention of judgment at the end of times on both the Old and New Testaments.
Exodus 34:6-7 tells us that though we have a “compassionate and gracious God,” He “does not leave the guilty unpunished.”
The God of Deuteronomy 7:1-2 is not a different God, but the same one, this text only presents us with a facet of God many wish to ignore.
Summary and Conclusion
In conclusion, even though Deuteronomy 7:2 may strike many 21st Century Christians as an extremely harsh and unloving command given by God, a closer look at the text allows us to see the same God who is described in the New Testament. Deuteronomy 7:2 is often misinterpreted.
Though it is a harsh judgment from God, it is not the only one of its kind, for we also have the account of the Flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, as well as the final Judgment at the end of times. Our God is a loving God, but He is also a just God who will not allow iniquity to go on forever unpunished. Also when we look at the context and the use of “utterly destroy” we realize that Israel was not allowed to treat everyone in this manner.
These were specific measures given by God for a specific situation, this was judgment, and it was restricted to seven nations and a specific geographical location. Just because those peoples were facing judgment at that point it does not mean that they did not have opportunities to repent beforehand.
Overall, Deuteronomy 7:2 provides the reader with another facet of God’s character; the same loving, just, and unchanging God that we have in the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation.
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