Gleanings from the Bible: Deuteronomy

I am not going to get into a discussion as to whether Deuteronomy is to be ascribed to Moses (with a postscript added about his death) or to those who returned from Exile over four hundred years before Christ, except to note that there are some noteworthy arguments for both positions.

What is of concern is, in that on the brink of the Promised Land with the second reminder of the law, we have the commands of God to execute judgement on the inhabitants of the land – which from our perspective looks a lot like genocide (Deut 9:1-3)!

Let me make some observations about this ‘invasion’.

  1. It is easy for us, those who live in relatively peaceful circumstances with a well- developed justice system and numerous options for dealing with criminals, to judge earlier societies (and even current ones existing in different circumstances from ours) through the lens of our own experience.
  2. I note that the inhabitants of Canaan worshipped gods in ways which are universally abhorrent, notably including the horrific sacrifice of children! (Deut 12:31)
  3. Despite the evils perpetrated through these religions it is also obvious that they had a seductive influence on the Israelites, demonstrated through the era of the Divided Kingdom (see 1 & 2 Kings). Israel, who was supposed to be a good example of God’s good laws to the surrounding nations, allowed the surrounding nations to entirely corrupt her.
  4. Today we recognise the concept of a “Just War,” one feature being a conflict waged in defence of others. We also recognise (though this has proven less easy to justify in practice) that a pre-emptive strike may save more lives in the long run. The commands in Deuteronomy, to kill the inhabitants of Canaan can only be justified if they are from the Creator God who knows all things and is God of all nations. They are not an excuse for power hungry conquerors. Rather they were specific commands, for a specific purpose, at a specific time!
  5. During the conquest of Canaan it is interesting to see that there was still mercy for individuals who put their trust in the God of Israel.
  6. I note then the way in which God’s commands to Israel are circumscribed (this includes all God’s commandments not just those concerning war):-
    1. Israel was not to fail to keep the commands, nor to add to them! (Deut 4:2)
    2. By keeping God’s commands Israel would demonstrate the greatness of God (Deut 4:6-8).
    3. Israel is warned that judgement also awaits her if she steps out from under God’s rule. (Deut 4:25ff)
    4. God’s desire is to see his people prosper. (Deut 5:29)
    5. God’s love for Israel was not because they were numerous but out of faithfulness to the promises given to their forbears. (Deut 7:7-9)
    6. The reason for the invasion:-Deut 9:4-5 NIV  After the LORD your God has driven them out before you, do not say to yourself, “The LORD has brought me here to take possession of this land because of my righteousness.” No, it is on account of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is going to drive them out before you. It is not because of your righteousness or your integrity that you are going in to take possession of their land; but on account of the wickedness of these nations, the LORD your God will drive them out before you, to accomplish what he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
    7. Deuteronomy 20 gives some specific instructions concerning war and should be understood in the light of the other observations made here.

A Few Other Notable Laws

  • The Cancelling of debts and the exhortation to give generously in order to reduce poverty (Deut 15).
  • The freeing of servants and provision for them (Deut 15)
  • The exhortation to follow justice (Deut 16:18-20)
  • The “eye for an eye” law limiting revenge and acting as a deterrent (Deut 19:16-21)

There are, of course, many more laws because “Deuteronomy” is literally the second (account of the) law. Some of the laws I have mentioned before. They presented a code which was head and shoulders above the laws of the city kingdoms Israel would replace and a limitation on the excesses of behaviour that existed generally. But they also presented a challenge, a choice between life and death. To choose life was to keep God’s law and teach it to one’s children, but death and destruction came through neglecting, not just the law but more importantly, God who had instituted it for their survival and prosperity. The history of Israel reveals the outworking of those choices, as does the history of the world!

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