ISRAEL’S CONQUESTS – THE MORAL QUESTION ( Part 3 )
Updated: May 14, 2021
We established that we need to get the big moral picture right. First, we recognize that God is sovereign over the earth and he has a right to set rules and regulations for those who live on the earth. As sovereign, he has authority over life and death on all who live on his earth. Our sense of right and wrong comes from God. And his exercise of sovereignty in judgement is with (1) patience, (2) mercy, and (3) even- handedness.
(1) Judgment with patience. God waited 400 years for the people of the Land to repent. (2) Judgment with mercy. He finds a way of redemption with every judgment. (3) Judgment with even-handedness. God treats Israel the same way he treats the enemies of Israel.
Leading up to the Conquest, God made Israel wait a long time because the sin of the inhabitants had not reached the level where judgment was required. The reason for clearing the land of the inhabitants was their own sinfulness, not Israel’s need for a homeland.
How God exercised sovereignty during and after the Conquest
The first point is that killing everyone is not killing everyone, it is a hyperbole. [Previous article]
2. What “total destruction” means
If total destruction does not necessarily mean killing everyone, then what does it mean? Here we try to get to an approximation of what it might mean.
Scripture tells us the objective of the Conquest was to take possession of the land by driving out the inhabitants (Deuteronomy 7:1). This suggests that if the inhabitants leave, they will not be killed. The reality is that some will leave and some will choose to fight to the death.
We have the description of a military campaign that explains what total destruction might mean. This was the massive defeat Israel suffered when they fought the Philistines under the leadership of King Saul. “When the Israelites in the valley saw that the army had fled and that Saul and his sons had died, they abandoned their towns and fled. And the Philistines came and occupied them.” (1 Chronicles 10:7).
This is a natural occurrence of events. When there is warfare anywhere, even in modern times, the civilians will flee when their military had lost. This results in the refugee situation that comes when there is war. When Saul’s army lost the fight, all the Israelites in the surrounding cities fled abandoning their cities. If an Israelite chooses to remain, he will be killed. The victors then take possession of the homes and wealth of the land as war booty.
This was described in the Conquest. “So I gave you a land on which you did not toil and cities you did not build; and you live in them and eat from vineyards and olive groves you did not plant.” (Joshua 24:13). If the Israelites practiced literal annihilation of everyone and obliteration of everything, they would not be living in the cities abandoned by the Amorites and eating from their vineyards and olive groves.
I like to suggest that “total destruction” refers to total evacuation of the cities that were conquered. There would be instances when there was a literal obliteration of the city by fire, as in the case of Jericho, but by and large, it was the occupation of cities abandoned when Israel won the victory.
3. The inhabitants were driven out because of sin
We see a pattern. God has made the earth and placed us on the earth and we are responsible for how we behave on his sovereign land.
This means that if God would remove the Canaanites from the land because of their sin, he would also remove the Israelites from the land because of their sin. We don’t like to think that way because we don’t want to be accountable to God.
In the case of the Canaanites, God wanted them to leave the particular land because of their sin. Death was not the only option. They could leave.
After Israel occupied the land, Israel became sinful and wicked like the Canaanites, and this happened really quickly. But God waited for them patiently. However, the Northern kingdom (Israel) did not have a single good king who loved the Lord. They sinned like the people before them and worshipped Baal. In 722 BC, God sent Israel into exile in Assyria. Judgment on the Southern Kingdom (Judah) was stayed till 586 BC, when God sent Judah into exile in Babylon.
But God would not leave the children of Abraham in their sin. He started a redemption plan to bring them back from exile. But that is another story. Our point here is that God is consistent with how he expects humans to behave. There is a moral law he expects of all who live on his sovereign earth. And when the sins of the people reach an intolerable point (which he does not tell us), he will remove the people from the land – regardless of whether they were Canaanites or Israelites.
4. The sin of idolatry is the underlying reason
Every nation was worshipping idols. When the Israelites turned to worshipping idols, God judged them. The Canaanites were not judged for their idolatry, but they were judged for their evil practices that came through idolatry. How do we understand this?
Idolatry is the root of evil. The Israelites were confronted for their idolatry, because they should know better. God placed a higher standard on Israel than other nations because the Israelites had been given revelation.
Idolatry is the root of evil because it is the way by which we replace the one true God with other gods in our life. God is our moral compass. Without the worship of the one true God who is holy, we look to our own desires and make them gods: happiness, wealth, health, comfort, pride, reputation, respect, etc. All the good things in life will cause us to do evil to get them. When the Israelites abandoned God for idols, they changed their compass from one that points to the holy God, to a compass that point to “my desires.”
Idolatry is not innocuous. It is the underlying reason for Israel’s fall.
5. One specific reason for judgment is sexual perversity
The modern definition of sexual morality has been drifting towards “consenting adults.” If two adults agree to do something, then, it is their business. While this does not yet apply to every sex act, we are fast getting there. The sovereign God on whose land we live disagrees.
Before Israel entered the Promised Land, this is what God told them specifically about sexual perversity and how it is tied to living in the Promised Land.
.....Leviticus 18 24 “‘Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, because .....this is how the nations that I am going to drive out before you became .....defiled. 25 Even the land was defiled; so I punished it for its sin, and the .....land vomited out its inhabitants. 26 But you must keep my decrees and .....my laws. The native-born and the foreigners residing among you must .....not do any of these detestable things, 27 for all these things were done .....by the people who lived in the land before you, and the land became .....defiled. 28 And if you defile the land, it will vomit you out as it vomited .....out the nations that were before you.
Human sexuality is God’s gift to us. It is for our pleasure and for our procreation. But we can turn a good thing into an ultimate thing, into an idol.
Sexual perversity stands as the case-in-point that calls us to account how we deal with pleasures in life. It makes us accountable to the pleasures in life. Be it food, drink, or comfort. There can come a point when these good things become ultimate things. If we pursue pleasure without restraint, pleasure becomes our idol, our false god.
Sexual perversity is a measure of idolatry to pleasure because anyone can indulge in it. Only the rich can indulge in certain pleasures. But the pleasure of sexuality, which is the great human equalizer on pleasure, can be enjoyed by anyone, and abused by anyone.
We should not think of sexual perversity as a stand-alone in judgment. It is only the apparent and easily identifiable idolatry to pleasure. It is much harder to say at which point food, drink or comfort becomes perverse. The commitment to pleasure without perversity begins with our sexuality.
When Israel became perverse in their search for pleasure, manifested in their sexual perversity, the Land “vomited” them at God’s behest.
6. Another specific reason is child sacrifice
.....Deuteronomy12 29 The Lord your God will cut off before you the nations .....you are about to invade and dispossess. But when you have driven .....them out and settled in their land, 30 and after they have been .....destroyed before you, be careful not to be ensnared by inquiring about .....their gods, saying, “How do these nations serve their gods? We will do .....the same.” 31 You must not worship the Lord your God in their way, .....because in worshiping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things .....the Lord hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as .....sacrifices to their gods.
The ancient world did not value children. The value we place of helpless children is from the biblical tradition. There was an epic fight for the lives of children so that today, children are not disposable things. The human sacrifice of children was totally unacceptable to God and one of the reasons why God disqualified the inhabitants of the Land was their child sacrifice.
Just as sexual perversity was the litmus test for the idolatry of pleasure, child sacrifice was the litmus test for greed. Children were sacrificed to demon-gods who were supposed to protect and prosper the people. This was repugnant to God. Sadly, we still do it to this day. If we abandon our children to prosper in our careers, we have sacrificed our children for wealth, only in a different way.
7. Because of Israel’s weakness
One surprising reason to me why God did not want any intermingling of the Israelites and the inhabitants is the weakness of Israelites.
.....Deuteronomy 20 16However, in the cities of the nations the Lordyour .....God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that .....breathes. 17Completely destroy them—the Hittites, Amorites, .....Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—as the Lord your God .....has commanded you. 18Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the .....detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin .....against the Lordyour God.
The call for the total destruction of those who would not leave the cities is motivated by the weakness of Israelites. The Israelites would not be able to “convert” them, but it will happen vice-versa.
The Canaanites/Amorites and their culture would be like an infection. There is not a possibility that the healthy will make the unhealthy well. The influence is only one way – the healthy will become infected unless they are isolated from the unhealthy. This is easily illustrated from the recent Wuhan virus. People who are well do not pass on their wellness; but people who are sick will pass on their illness. Drastic actions need to be taken to stop the contagion.
Scripture gives us the answer to the many questions we have. The question of the morality of Israel’s conquest is no exception. The answer can get a little involved at times, but the answer is there.
I am satisfied that God is consistent. He values us more than we value each other. And he has certain values that can be different from ours. But once we accept that God is sovereign and we are living on his sovereign earth, our train of thought will lead us to the right place.
Why do people object to the Conquest? Because God has placed in us the basic values of the worth of human beings, and the right to possession. That is, the right to life and the right to the means of life. At the same time, this moral value is used against the God who gives us these values. These values are good. But they are not the only ones in operation. People forget that God is holy, he is just, he is patient, and all these come into play when we sin against him.
God judges in sovereignty. And that judgment is done with great patience and mercy. To forget the God of love brings us to despair. To forget the God of holiness brings us to darkness. It is the love of God that creates and sustains us, and it is the same love that will not let humanity slide into darkness and despair because of our sin.
The destruction of sin is necessary for us to flourish. This is true at the individual level, and at the society level. The same love and mercy of God who brings holiness into our lives is at work in society. Let us receive his love and his holiness.
SOLI DEO GLORIA