Salvation Amidst the Slaughter
Few things create greater discord in the minds of both those who are followers of Jesus and those who are not as the depictions of war and judgement in the Old Testament. The apparent differences between the ethical behavior displayed in those portions of Scripture related to Israel’s battles; such as sections of Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and others; seems almost incompatible with the attitudes and behavior prescribed by Jesus in the New Testament. As difficult as these subjects can be, they actually present us with the opportunity to grow in our appreciation of who God is and the amazing work of redemption he’s doing. They offer us the chance to better understand God’s word in its context and within the flow of his redemptive work. Lastly, these types of passages invite us to enrich our awareness of God’s voice speaking both then and now to his people; to whom we belong in Christ Jesus.
So before we dive into Deuteronomy, let’s take a moment to place it within the greater scope of God’s redemptive plan. God creates heaven and earth, everything in it, and declares that it is good; that it is very good. He places humanity in the center of paradise itself, with only one restriction, that they refrain from eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which is really not an innocent or trivial matter. Eating from this tree is nothing less than an act of insurrection whereby they attempt to remove God from his rightful place of authority. It’s mutiny, and the penalty is death, but not in the way we might think. God doesn't line Adam and Eve in front of an angelic firing squad. He simply removes them from the primary place he had designed to share with them, to be with them. He removes them from the place of unending life. See eternal life was not not something humanity possessed in and of itself. It was the gracious gift and intention of God. Their sin so radically corrupted their nature that they were no longer fit to live forever. And so, humanity was removed from paradise, falling under the judgment of death.
Death, from that moment forward, affects and infects everything and everyone we know. It shows up in a variety of ways. Sometimes peaceful. Sometimes violent. Sometimes expected. Sometimes unexpected. It shows up for rich and poor alike; for young and old alike. It is no respecter of race, class, education, power, or prestige. As the old Irish saying goes, “When the chess game is over, the Pawn and the King go back to the same box.” Yet, despite its consistent presence and all of the ways it makes itself known, we just can’t come to terms with it. Intuitively, we know that we were intended for something more, and yet, the judgment of earthly death hangs over us all. But God is not content for death to be the end of the story.
So, Deuteronomy begins with all of creation under the judgment of death. From the first appearance of humanity to the present death is an inevitable part of reality. The genealogy in Genesis 5 with its emphatic repetition of “and he died” reminds that God’s initial warning was sound. Nevertheless, life is sacred to God. He created us in his own image, breathed life into us, designed us to worship him and to know him, and he longs for humanity to be renewed to the glorious life he intended. At this point in the story, God has already planted a seed through the people of Israel that will result in the reconciliation of all things to himself in and through Jesus. That seed begins with the patriarch Abram, and in Genesis 15 we read:
“As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him. Then the Lord said to him, “Know for certain that for four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions. You, however, will go to your ancestors in peace and be buried at a good old age. In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.
When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram and said, “To your descendants I give this land, from the Wadie of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates— the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites and Jebusites.”
God looks across the horizons of time to things more important and longer lasting than the span of an individual’s lifetime. Whatever God is doing with Abram turns out to be much bigger than Abram himself. He will not live to see this promise fulfilled, and yet he is intimately connected to the promise in such a way that we’re reminded that death itself is not the end. He will join his ancestors in peace and await the final fulfillment of all that God has imagined.
Life and death are everywhere, and God manages and orchestrates it as a master composer. In the mix between the judgment of death and the sacredness of life are countless numbers of men, women, and children who are at various times and seasons, either acting in accordance with what God has designed and intended for humanity, or they are revolting against him in such a way that their hostility, their violence and their bloodshed is like a plague upon the land. Their godlessness is a crime against creation itself. Both in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, God states this as the reason for removing the old inhabitants out of the land that he is now giving to Israel. They had defiled the land and therefore it had spit them out. It wasn’t because Israel was righteous, it was the wickedness of the nations before them. Deuteronomy 12:31 says “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 radius of their sin, and ours too for that matter, is much larger than we imagine. It effects entire communities and cities. It even violates the land. God tells Israel, if you do the same things as those before you, the same thing will happen to you. The land will spit you out. And down the road a few centuries, at a period of time known as the Exile, this is exactly what happens.
Despite all of this sin, death and bloodshed, God’s character never falters. Even in the face of peoples who radically oppose his design and intention for humanity to the point that they are destroying one another and defiling the land, God remains just as he said he was to Moses, “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty...” 400 years are given to the Amorites that their hearts might change. Who can say how many opportunities for repentance were given? Who knows how many messengers were sent? Nineveh was given 40 days to repent, to turn away from their sin. The Amorites were given 400 years. Despite all the time that is given, there is no expectation that they will change. Mercifully God waits until the land itself can no longer bear the strain of their sin.
When God speaks to Moses in Deut. 2:24, those 400 years are up. The sin of the Amorites has reached its full measure and they must be removed from the land. But remember, that is not the only thing that God is up to. As much as he is masterfully orchestrating death, he is also orchestrating life. God is not content to leave humanity under the judgment of sin and death. The seed he planted in Abram is entering into the second phase, as God fulfills his promise to establish this people as a nation. He could have chosen to remove the Amorites from the land any number of ways; through natural disaster, through famine or plague; they could have simply disappeared in the middle of the night. But at the heart of what God is saying in this redemptive story is that he will not always be out there in the distance separated from all that he has created. His intention is to dwell with and among his people. This was lost in Eden, but phase 2 of this seed begins foreshadowing the return of God’s presence to his people. Numbers tells us that God sent his angels in front of the armies of Israel. Deuteronomy 1 states that the Lord is going ahead of the Israelites and will fight for them even as he did in Egypt. He will not remain at a distant. He has joined his people and is fighting on their behalf; not because they are Israel, but because He is God. This is the outworking of his plan to return to his people; to restore what has been lost; to reconcile all things to himself in and through Jesus.
So, God says to Moses, “‘Rise up, set out on your journey and go over the Valley of the Arnon. Behold, I have given into your hand Sihon the Amorite, king of Heshbon, and his land. Begin to take possession, and contend with him in battle. 25 This day I will begin to put the dread and fear of you on the peoples who are under the whole heaven, who shall hear the report of you and shall tremble and be in anguish because of you.’ Moses listens to what God says, then does exactly what he’s supposed to do. He seeks peace. This is an important lesson for us. There is a distinction between who God is and who we are. God is the creator of all things that exist. He is the master conductor of life and death throughout the universe. If he decides to exercise judgment, he alone is able. You and I, and even Moses, whom God spoke to with a clarity and accuracy unlike others, are people. We have been given incredible and glorious gifts, but we are not God, and we are not intended to make decisions that belong to God alone. Moses knew that human life was sacred. He knew the value that God placed on human life, and the consequences when we take it. Even when war is inevitable, Moses seeks peace. I think any soldier, and any family member of a soldier who has witnessed the horrors of military battle will be the first to tell you that peace is better than war. This is why even now we should be offering prayer, support, and encouragement for our leaders and our troops. Our world is also filled with sin and violence. They face the realities of these conflicts in ways that we never have, and by God’s grace never will.
So Moses offers detailed terms of peace. He tells Sihon, “If you’ll agree to this, we will simply pass through. We will stick exclusively to the roads. We will pay for any and all food we eat, as well as the water we drink. We’ve done this before. We will be no trouble to you.” I think this is a genuine offer; the last opportunity for Sihon and the Amorites to repent before the Lord, but it doesn’t happen. In fact, the text tells us that God hardens his spirit and makes his heart obstinate in order to give him into the hand of the Israelites. Now the language of hardening hearts is problematic for some people. When we hear it, we assume something like mind control; or some other violation of the will. This is not what the text is describing. I like to think of this as something like omniscient provocation. You see God knows perfectly what is in the heart of Sihon. Sihon might accept the terms of peace with every intention of attacking the Israelites, and using the surprise to his strategic advantage. God knows his heart, and by hardening him, he provokes what’s already present in order to bring it to the surface. This is why I think there was a true opportunity for repentance when Moses offered peace. Had there been a change in Sihon’s heart, the hardening wouldn’t have been necessary. But God would allow no masquerading of intentions. No fleeting moments of self-preservation, only to be followed days later by revolt and violence. It kind of reminds me of that first battlefield scene in Braveheart. As the nobles ride out to delegate the terms of peace, Wallace rides out to pick a fight. You see he knew the real intention of the English, so he calls there bluff, and forces it into the open. This is what God is doing. He is ripping the masks off. Exposing the truth. He’s picking a fight because the hearts of the Amorites are evil, and judgement has finally come. This is just as it was with Pharaoh. And remember, the same thing will happen to the Israelites themselves.
So when Sihon rejects Moses’ offer of peace, God tells him to get ready to take possession of the land promised to Abram 400 years earlier. Sihon and his troops march out against Israel, but the Israelites literally wipe them out; man, woman, and child. The same kind of thing happens in Joshua 10. Verse 36 says:
Then Joshua and all Israel with him went up from Eglon to Hebron. And they fought against it 37 and captured it and struck it with the edge of the sword, and its king and its towns, and every person in it. He left none remaining, as he had done to Eglon, and devoted it to destruction and every person in it.
38 Then Joshua and all Israel with him turned back to Debir and fought against it 39 and he captured it with its king and all its towns. And they struck them with the edge of the sword and devoted to destruction every person in it; he left none remaining. Just as he had done to Hebron and to Libnah and its king, so he did to Debir and to its king.
40 So Joshua struck the whole land, the hill country and the Negeb and the lowland and the slopes, and all their kings. He left none remaining, but devoted to destruction all that breathed, just as the Lord God of Israel commanded. 41 And Joshua struck them from Kadesh-barnea as far as Gaza, and all the country of Goshen, as far as Gibeon. 42 And Joshua captured all these kings and their land at one time, because the Lord God of Israel fought for Israel.
Notice the phrase “devoted to destruction” and the totality with which its described. “...devoted it to destruction and every person in it; devoted to destruction every person in it; he left none remaining; devoted to destruction all that breathed, just as the Lord God of Israel commanded.” So, if we read this literally, then we would have to conclude that all of the people in these areas, Hebron, Debir, Negeb and the lowlands, have been killed. Joshua struck the whole land; left none remaining but devoted to destruction all that breathed. But, when we get to Judges chapter 1, which is the very next section in the chronicles of God’s redemptive work with Israel, this is what we read:
“After the death of Joshua...the men of Judah went down to fight against the Canaanites who lived in the hill country, in the Negeb, and in the lowland. 10 And Judah went against the Canaanites who lived in Hebron (now the name of Hebron was formerly Kiriath-arba), and they defeated Sheshai and Ahiman and Talmai.
11 From there they went against the inhabitants of Debir.
Apparently, they are still in the land. By conservative estimations only 20 years have passed since Joshua completely wiped out these people; devoted to destruction everything that breathes in these cities, and yet here they are again.
Something very similar happens in 1 Samuel 15, “This is what the LORD Almighty says: “I will punish the Amelekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came of from Egypt. Now go, attack the Amelekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.” Same pattern. The story goes on to tell us that Saul kills everyone except the king, Agag. We can only assume that Saul felt it was to his political benefit to keep Agag alive. As a result of his disobedience, Saul is rejected, and Samuel, the prophet, kills Agag himself. So again, the text reads “...Saul attacked the Amalekites all the way from Havilah to Shur, near the eastern border of Egypt. 8 He took Agag king of the Amalekites alive, and all his people he totally destroyed with the sword.” Yet, only a few chapters later, we’re told “8 Now David and his men went up and raided the Geshurites, the Girzites and the Amalekites. The people who Saul (with the help of Samuel) totally destroyed in chapter 15 are back in chapter 27.
Now, I know we like to think that people in the ancient world were terribly inferior to us, but I can assure you, there were brilliant minds then as much as there are now. They simply didn’t have Edison helping them make all the cool toys that you and I have. So, to assume that a people as linguistically and philosophical sophisticated as ours own, who also knew the Scriptures forwards and backwards by memory; to assume that they simply didn’t recognize these apparent contradictions is absurd. Why weren’t they alarmed by the inconsistencies? Because they understood how language was used in the ancient world.
The repetition of these phrases functioned like some type of formulaic literary device; a cultural saying of sorts; like when we say someone “threw us under the bus.” What we mean is that someone publicly shared something we wished had stayed private, putting us at a disadvantage while putting themselves at an advantage. What we don’t mean is that we were literally thrown under a bus. We might communicate the definition a little differently, but the majority of us understand what’s being said. When we start suggesting that things like this show up in the Bible, many of us begin to wonder why God would do this kind of thing. Why would he say something he didn’t really mean? The simple answer is because this is exactly how we communicate. We prefer to speak this way, and as long as we understand the context, we have little trouble discovering the meaning. For instance, when a football coach tells his team “When we get out there, I want you to hit everybody on the field.” The team understands at least two things: 1) this does not mean to hit every literal person on the field; 2) that the team should tackle whoever has the ball. When God says to devote a people to destruction and to kill anything that breathes; the ancient Israelites knew two things also: 1) that this did not literally mean to kill everything that breathes; 2) that this did mean to drive out the enemy by any means necessary either taking the spoils for themselves or leaving it behind as an act of faithfulness to the Lord. Some of the most ethically difficult passages in the Bible are using some form of hyperbole or exaggeration. But don’t misunderstand what I’m saying. This was judgement. It was all the horrors of war, violence, and bloodshed. This was God orchestrating life and death because of the plague of sin unleashed upon the land and its inhabitants. But it was more than that, as well. This was grace mercifully waiting 400 years not merely to remove a people from the land, but for God to rejoin his people in the land. This was Israel entering into covenant with her creator and rediscovering what it meant to be human, and to be in the presence of God.
It’s hard to imagine that soon enough, they too would turn their backs on God. The judgement that was once on the nations would find its way to Israel as well. Over and over again God removes sin from the land, and every time the sinfulness of the human heart brings it back. Always leading to death. Always separating from God. Always forfeiting what it means to be human; created in the image of God. But remember God is the one masterfully orchestrating life and death. His plan is to restore all that’s been lost by reconciling all things to himself in and through Jesus. His plan is to draw close to each and everyone of us. Closer than we would have ever imagined. And so, in phase 3, he does just that. As the gospel of John tells us, the Word, who was with God and was God, became flesh and lived among us. In Christ, God becomes one of us. He identifies with every level of our humanity and our weakness. He is tempted in every way that we are, but he stays true to who God is, to what humanity is meant to be. Through all the temptations, he remains completely free of sin. That’s why he’s come; not only to rid us of the sin in the land, but to rid us of the sin in the heart. When John sees him coming, he boldly declares, “Behold, the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”
Despite all the rebellion; the sin, the death, and the judgment happening in this story, in our story; there is a consistent movement toward something greater; something more wonderful than we imagined. This constant, continual thread of God’s immeasurable mercies; his unfailing love reaching out to us in the midst of our chaos. All those moments where it seemed that only sin and death were increasing, grace was increasing all the more. You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. The same kind of people whose godlessness was an offense to creation itself. The same kind of people whose rejection of God was nothing less than insurrection and mutiny. The same kind of people who were under the judgment of sin and death. The same kind of people as the Canaanites and the Israelites. The same kind of people as you and me. For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all. God, through Jesus the Son, entered into time and space, put on flesh and blood; the one who created and designed all things, who is in and of himself perfect in judgment, and righteousness, and holiness, gave himself over to death on our behalf. At the cross when death laid hold of the One who is life himself, it overstepped its bounds. Though the sins of us all had been placed upon him, he had committed no offense, not the smallest infraction. Death had no claim upon him, and is even now collapsing on top of itself in the wake of its error. The vindication of Jesus means the end of all his enemies. The last enemy to be destroyed is death."Then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Who can fathom the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God? How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!
So, I urge you, friends, in view of God’s mercies, in view of all that we've heard and seen, repent. Confess boldly that Jesus is the Son of God; and believe that by his death and resurrection we have been freed; and you will be saved. Receive by faith the incredible gift of life as you were designed to live it. Re-imagine what being human means in light of God’s love for you and his intended purposes for you. Re-imagine your world as one willing to walk in the undeniable hope and peace contained in the gospel of Jesus’ resurrection. God is orchestrating life and death, but is moving the all the parts and pieces toward life, from grace to more grace, from glory to more glory. In Christ, God is with us. Not out there in the distance. Through Christ, the Spirit resides within us. We are not as we once were and all the world is changing as a result of resurrection. God is reconciling to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven by making peace through Jesus’ blood shed on the cross. This is the song of a new creation, and you and I have been invited to sing and play along, participating and improvising in the key of Jesus. Sometimes we can hear it and see it. With something like a baptized imagination, as complex as the ending of all wars and as simple as loving our neighbor; two things which have much more in common than we realize.
As the band comes up, and we prepare our hearts for communion, I want us to pray right where we are about a couple of things. 1. I want you to ask The Lord, "Am I ignoring the opportunities of grace and mercy you’re sending my way?" If so, I want you to ask him for the courage to repent where you sit, right now. They’ll be people available to pray with you after communion if you like, but start right now. 2. I want you to ask that The Lord would give you the imagination to see how your work, your school, or your home can take one step closer to becoming a place of powerful witness of the kind of world God is remaking in Jesus. Let’s pray.