There are times, when the plain words of Scripture are, shall we say, less than comfortable. Many of these “uncomfortable” verses revolve around the commands for Israel to drive out the inhabitants of the land ADONAI is giving them. A couple of weeks ago in Parashat Matot/Massai we read,
But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, whoever you allow to remain will become to you barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides. They will give you trouble in the land in which you will be living.Numbers 33:55
While this warning is pretty straight forward, it is still uncomfortable. HaShem is warning Bnei Israel to “drive out the inhabitants of the land” if not “they will give you trouble.”
In last week’s parasha, Eikev, we read similarly troubling words,
You will devour all the peoples ADONAI your God gives over to you. Your eye is not to pity them. You are not to serve their gods, for that would be a snare to you.Deuteronomy 7:16
Other modern translations are more blunt, stating, “you shall consume all the peoples…” (NASB) or “you’ll make mincemeat of all the peoples…” (The Message). The passage in Numbers 33 commands Bnei Israel to drive out the people of the land and warns them what will happen if they don’t drive the inhabitants out from among them. The Deuteronomy 7 passage goes beyond the command and warning in Numbers, charging Bnei Israel to totally annihilate the Canaanites after they have crossed the Jordan and taken possession of the land. At least seven times we are told in the books of Joshua and Judges, that various tribes could not or did not drive the people out and they remain to this day.
In this week’s parasha, Re’eh (Deuteronomy 11:26 – 16:17), we are once again confronted with the command to possess and dispossess the land,
These are the statutes and ordinances that you are to make sure to do in the land that ADONAI, the God of your fathers, has given you to possess—all the days that you live on the earth. You must utterly destroy all the places where the nations that you will dispossess served their gods—on the high mountains and on the hills and under every green tree. You are to tear down their altars, smash their pillars, burn their Asherah poles in the fire and cut down the carved images of their gods, and you are to obliterate their name from that place.Deuteronomy 12:1-3
A few verses later in the same chapter, we read the reason Bnei Israel is to eradicate the Canaanite gods and places of worship,
…be careful not to be trapped into imitating them after they have been destroyed before you. Do not inquire about their gods, saying, “How do these nations serve their gods? I will do the same.” You are not to act like this toward ADONAI your God! For every abomination of ADONAI, which He hates, they have done to their gods—they even burn their sons and daughters in the fire to their gods.Deuteronomy 12:30-31
HaShem is not only a jealous god, who will not share allegiance with other deities, he is also a holy and righteous God, who will not tolerate the defiling, abhorrent and abominable worship practices of the Canaanites (cf. Exodus 34:14). Hence, Bnei Israel was to completely remove the idolatress inhabitants of the land and to destroy all of their places of worship, so Bnei Israel would not be tempted to follow in their footsteps.
In the past, I justified the harshness of these commands in light of the numerous warnings in the Torah and Prophets against idolatry. However, recently I came across a book edited by Stan Gundry (Show Them No Mercy: 4 Views on God and the Canaanite Genocide, Zondervan, 2003) that gave me pause, prompting me to consider these passages in a different light. Never in all the times I have read about Israel’s entry and conquest of the land promised to the patriarchs, had I considered the action an act of genocide. The word genocide is not in Scripture. A Jewish-Polish lawyer, Raphel Lemkin, first coined the word in 1943 from two Greek words “genos” – race or tribe and “cide” – to kill. Therefore, genocide is the attempt at the complete extermination of a group of people because of their race, religion, nationality, or ethnicity. So, while the action appears to follow the classic definition, it would be anachronistic to claim that Bnei Israel, at HaShem’s command, performed an act of genocide on the Canaanite people. Nevertheless, the fact remains that HaShem’s commands and Bnei Israel’s actions, however incomplete they were, are highly offensive to the “social justice” minded sensibilities in our modern society.
So how do we deal with these “less than comfortable” words of Scripture? How does one answer questions or accusations concerning HaShem’s character and Bnei Israel’s subsequent actions? I must admit that I do not have a definitive answer, nor do I think that there is one. But here are a couple of thoughts.
First, in the Scriptures, HaShem does not justify or even defend his actions, rather he states plainly that “…My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways.” It is a declaration of ADONAI” (Isaiah 55:8). This is not meant as a copout, rather as a simple statement of fact. HaShem created the universe; He sets the rules and parameters. Our responsibility is to choose whether we will follow his direction or not.
Second, returning to last week’s parasha, Eikev, Bnei Israel is told exactly why the Canaanites are being handed over to them.
After ADONAI your God has driven them out from before you, do not say in your heart, ‘It is because of my righteousness that ADONAI has brought me in to possess this land.’ It is because of the wickedness of these nations that ADONAI is driving them out from before you. It is not by your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart that you are going in to possess their land. Rather, because of the wickedness of these nations, ADONAI your God is driving them out from before you, and in order to keep the wordAdonai swore to your fathers—to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. So you should understand that it is not because of your righteousness that Adonai your God is giving you this good land to possess—for you are a stiff-necked people.Deuteronomy 9:4-6
This proclamation is actually pretty humbling. Three important take-aways from this passage are:
First, it is not Bnei Israel’s righteousness that caused HaShem to drive out the inhabitants of the land, but the wickedness of the Canaanites and the other nations in the land—granted He used Bnei Israel to accomplish his plan, but it was still his plan and activity.
Second, Bnei Israel possessed the land solely because of the promise made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and not due to their own merit.
Third, HaShem clearly states that Bnei Israel was being given the land to possess because of ADONAI’s righteousness, not their own—after all, Bnei Israel is called a stiff-necked people.
So, just as HaShem used the nations of the world to exercise his judgment on Bnei Israel later in history, He used Bnei Israel to bring judgment on the inhabitants of Canaan.
Third, the Scriptures I shared above are not to be used to justify bringing judgment, justice, or jihad on those who are steeped in wickedness and sin. All of these passages clearly show that it is HaShem’s choice to execute judgment and justice, and to do so in his timing. In light of this, it is good to remember Yeshua’s words to his talmidim, “the times or seasons which the Father has placed under his own control” Acts 1:7 are in fact in his control not ours. It is also important to remember that just because HaShem commanded something once, does not mean that the same command is to be applied in all situations. Bnei Israel discovered that doing the right thing at the wrong time can have dire consequences (see Numbers 14:39-45).
Lastly, the compiler of Proverbs offers words of shalom in situations where HaShem’s words are uncomfortable, “Trust in ADONAI with all your heart, lean not on your own understanding.” (Proverbs 3:5). We do well to trust in the plans and purposes of HaShem, whether we understand them or not.
* Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are from the Tree of Life (TLV) Translation of the Bible. Copyright © 2015 by The Messianic Jewish Family Bible Society.