Monday: Psalms 69-70 & Deuteronomy 7.1-26

From Mark Booker

Psalm 69: This cry of an innocent sufferer points to Jesus. He is hated without cause (v4, cited in John 15.25). He is consumed by zeal for the Lord's house, for true worship (v9a, cited in John 2.17). He receives the reproaches of those who reproach Yahweh upon himself (v9b, cited in Romans 15.3). And yet, God's salvation will set him on high (v29), so high that "every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father" (Philippians 2.10-11). This deliverance revives the hearts of those who seek God (v32). 

Psalm 70: Another cry for help. The contrast between verses 4 and 5 is beautiful and fundamental: God is great! but I am poor and needy. 

Deuteronomy 7.1-26: The difficulty of this passage for us is that as Israel goes into the Promised Land they are commanded to devote the nations they dispossess of the land to complete destruction (v2) - herem. In verse 16 they're told to 'consume all the peoples that the LORD you God will give over to you." The herem texts (see also Deuteronomy 20.16-18) have constituted a moral challenge for Christian readers of Scripture throughout the history of the church. They force us to wrestle with how the God who we know in Jesus could command something like genocide? This question is not only hard for us, but it's regular fodder for opponents of Christianity.

A friend of mine wrote his doctoral dissertation at Oxford dealing with the herem texts (he has an essay on Deuteronomy and the herem texts in this volume), so I'm afraid a short reflection (and the brief attention I gave to this in the sermon yesterday) will be woefully inadequate!

That friend frames the challenge of these texts in this way. We want to affirm the following three statements:

  1. God is good.
  2. The Bible is true.
  3. Genocide is atrocious. 

Yet, if God commanded genocide, then it seems we have to give up or modify one of these three statements which we want to uphold as true. 

So what can we say in response? First, here are two general observations:

  1. A key principle in approaching challenging texts as people of faith is to remain humble and trusting. If God's word confounds us, we assume that the problem is with us or with our limited understanding and not with God. That doesn't mean we can't ask hard questions (why would God command genocide?) but we ask them from faith, not from a place of the righteous judge who has put God in the dock.
  2. We always let what is clear and central shape our understanding of what is less clear and peripheral. We know who God is (his heart, his character, his purposes) through the cross of Jesus. He is fundamentally a God of mercy and love who has gone to great lengths to offer life to the world. Our reading of Deuteronomy 7, or any other biblical text, must be colored by what we know of God in and through Jesus.

Here are a few specific observations that may be helpful. In general, following Augustine and many interpreters (e.g. Calvin) after him, these generally address the third statement (about genocide) that we want to affirm, by explaining, in some way, how we can begin to understand God's unique command in this particular situation:

  1. The key reason for God's command is to preserve the holiness of Israel. The clear implication is that if the nations remain, their gods will become a snare to his people (v16). Their subsequent history shows that this was not an invalid concern; this is, in fact, what happened.
  2. The paramount importance of Israel's holiness, which drives the commands of 7.2 and 7.16, is because they are God's 'treasured possession' (v6) who carry forward his missional purposes. This is massively important, not just for Israel but for the world. The term 'treasured possession' implies the personal and special possessions of a king as differentiated from everything else which the king also owns. This term takes us back to its use in Exodus 19.5, another passage like this one that features Israel's election, where we read that Israel would be a 'kingdom of priests' (Exodus 19.6). That is, Israel would have a mediatorial role of God's truth and grace to the nations. They were entrusted with the revelation and truth of God for the sake of the world. For the world's sake, then, their unique role was to be preserved. So God's concern for the holiness of Israel that drives his command to destroy these nations cannot, paradoxically, be separated from his concern for the nations. He is preserving the unique role of Israel for the sake of the world at this particular moment in their history.
  3. All nations that opposed Israel in the Old Testament were subject to God's judgment. This was true of Egypt by God's direct intervention (see Exodus 14-15) as well as of the Transjordan kings, Sihon of the Heshbon (Deuteronomy 2.26-37 - see 2.34) and Og of Bashan (Deuteronomy 3.1-11 - see 3.6) in which Israel was the agent of God's judgment. Nations that stood in the way of God's purposes for Israel were brought under judgment. They were resisting God. 
  4. The fact that God's ultimate purpose for the nations is to be blessed through Israel does not prohibit God from bringing judgment on particular nations (or people - we think of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5, for example) at any particular moment in history. God's judgment is a part of God's love for his world, the outward expression in history (and at the end of history) of his loving commitment to eradicate this world of evil. God's judgment on the Canaanites isn't arbitrary but, as we are told in Deuteronomy 9.5, is because of these nations' own wickedness. This evokes memories of Genesis 15.16 which indicates that God's people cannot take the land yet because "the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete." The command for Israel to destroy these nations is not simply because they will be a snare but it is because the wickedness of these nations has reached the point that God brings judgment upon them (through Israel). That changes these commands from arbitrary violence to judgment against people within a moral framework. 

One final observation: in the light of Jesus' call to love our enemies (Matthew 5.44), no Christian person(s) can ever legitimize violence against others on the basis of these texts (as, sadly, has been done in Christian history). We serve a God who died for his enemies and who calls us to be like him. Our struggle is not against "flesh and blood but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness" (Ephesians 6.12). 

These observations do not end the discussion, but I hope they are helpfulWe continue to wrestle with how to understand these herem texts and as we do so we stand in continuity with the church throughout its history that has wrestled with them as well, from Origen to Augustine on up to the present.

In the end, what we can and should do, when confronted with this challenge, is to acknowledge the limitations of our own understanding, to point people to the clarity of who God is as revealed in Jesus, and to reaffirm and testify to our experience and convictions about each of these three statements:

  1. God is good
  2. The Bible is true
  3. Genocide is atrocious.