A persistent question in the Old Testament and through these chapters dealing with the forming of the nation of Israel is why all the destruction? Why is there the command from God to wipe out the opposing nations?
A change of perspective may help us understand what is happening a bit more clearly. We tend to view the battles as between Israel and the surrounding nations. While that may appear to be what is going on outwardly, there is a more intense battle going on underneath and that is a battle between God and those who are idol worshipers. In the land of Canaan there is a particularly ugly form of idol worship which involved fertility “gods and goddesses” and the practice of child sacrifice. Both elements of this kind of idol worship devalued life, family, and marriage. God would have no part with this kind of worship which preyed upon the people.
Whenever idol worship appeared among the people of Israel, God is uncompromising in declaring His Judgement upon it. You will remember at Mt. Sinai thousands of those God had delivered from slavery died because they worshipped the golden calf. In a similar vein, when someone from the surrounding nations turns away from idol worship to worship the One True God, they were accepted into the nation. In the cases of Rahab from Jericho and Ruth from Moab, they were not only accepted into the people, but became a part of the sacred line that leads not only to King David, but Jesus as well.
God’s war is not with the nations as such, but with the practice of idol worship. Let’s remember God’s ultimate goal, announced first to Abraham. God wants to raise up a Holy People who would in turn bless (influence) the surrounding nations so that all might turn to God and life.
We have already seen isolated examples, more than are recorded undoubtedly occurred as well. This ultimate plan becomes revealed in Jesus Christ and then the ministry of the church as well. Jesus is born within the people of Israel, but His ministry was also to Gentiles who responded in faith. We see this element take on a sustained effort through God’s calling of Saul / Paul to ministry among the Gentiles. And the Gentiles responded in increasing numbers.
While we see this full unfolding of the plan most clearly in the New Testament, we can see it also in the Old Testament. God is consistently declaring himself as Lord of all, and He acts so that all the nations might perceive that He is God and there are no others. The plagues in Egypt was a clear declaration of who was God and who was not! In Cecil DeMille’s movie the Ten Commandments, there were some Egyptians who also came with the Hebrew to Mt. Sinai to worship God.
Those who persist in idol worship will face destruction sooner or later, because sin is destructive. Remember idol worship’s main focus was to placate the gods so that they would do what you wanted. The individual was the one trying to control and was the center of their own world. In other words, idol worship, gets back to putting self at the center again just as back in the Garden of Eden. On the other hand, God is the Creator, who enters into relationship with us, but He is Lord and we are not. He loves us, but that love must be returned for their there to be a relationship. Failure to return His Love is to remain in love only with yourself. Self-centeredness is the ultimate definition of sin, because it breaks all relationships, not only with God, but with others as well. It is the I in the center of sin.
Sin will always take you further than you wanted to go. Sin is turning your back on the life offered by God in order to worship that which is false. God’s call is turn away from the false and come to life.
You see the clash here in these chapters of the Old Testament is not just between people’s, but around a very basic understanding of life and life’s purpose. That clash is going on big time in our culture today. Only relationship with God and our worship of Him leads to life! And as much as God wants to give life to all, we must accept it and live into it, if it is become a reality for us. To persist in our own way leads only to destruction sooner or later.
There is a battle going on for the hearts and minds of people and the consequences of that battle mean life or death. That is how serious our task is in spreading the gospel, the Good News, to those who live in a bad news world.
All the war and destruction we see in the Old Testament is a reminder of how serious this battle is and what the consequences of our decisions are!