Thoughts of a Living Christian

Musings of an amateur theologian and hopeful writer

Deuteronomy 7

Introduction

Deuteronomy 7 is a difficult passage to understand. Its themes and exhortations seem initially shocking. The command to destroy the Canaanites totally, and the labels ‘detestable,’ and ‘abhorrent’ imply a terrible genocide. Contemporary readers would find difficulty in seeing God as a God of love in this passage. However, this essay seeks to argue for this very understanding. The essay argues that this passage does, in fact, teach God’s love. The allusions to war and genocide do not contradict this core message. The essay shall initially exegete the passage, dividing the passage into three sections: vv.1-5, 6-15, 16-26. The focus of these sections will be analysing such things as the understanding of the seven nations and their destruction, the removal of idols and religious paraphernalia and treaties. Following this exegesis will be a theological reflection, wherein the essay shall probe the difficult question pertaining the purported justification of a ‘holy war.’ The essay shall conclude with a discussion on how this passage should be discussed within a contemporary, post-modern culture.

Exegesis

On a brief reading of this chapter, it is easy to come to the conclusion that it is callous. However, with the surrounding chapters is an admonition to remember God’s love and to cherish his gracious election. Furthermore, as Brueggemann asserts, “The intention of the chapter is to take deliberate steps so that the coming generation will choose covenant with YHWH.”[1] God has chosen his people, who must give themselves totally to him. Thus, idolatry is prohibited.[2] The chapter must be read as one unit, due to literary and conceptual themes and is carefully structured, centred on vv. 11-12, reference to the commandments, and is bordered by reference to Israel’s distinctive nature.[3] The emphasis of this passage lies in relationship; YHWH’s love toward Israel, and Israel’s response to YHWH.[4]

An area of exegetical contention lies in the specifics of the nations. Brueggemann argues this text was written no later than the eighth or seventh century, hence these seven nations are long extinct, “Thus the list of seven nations is an archaic slogan that represents, in context, any alien culture with its religious temptations for Israel.”[5] This seems, in some way, a scapegoat. However, his thesis is supported by Rofé who, after a long analysis of the text, concluded a second stratum of Deuteronomy was added during Josiah’s time, which includes this passage.[6] Furthermore, Kline and Cairns argue for a metaphorical reading; “The seven specified here possibly is a figure for completeness.”[7] Hence, it is likely these were not literal nations, but simply an allusion to God’s requirement of total purging.

This purging, known as the ban, was intended to keep Israel safe from idolatry. However, these nations were not simply ‘cleared away,’ but “stayed and became integrated into Israel…In this theological retrospect, the Deuteronomic writer is tacitly acknowledging that fact and tracing Israel’s apostasy to these indigenous influences.”[8] In other words, this purported later author, perhaps around the Exile, has accredited Israel’s present apostasy with this earlier influence of Pagan nations. Vv. 2-3 include prohibitions of treaties and marriages, which casts doubt on the command to annihilate all the Canaanites. Furthermore, Exodus 23 and Leviticus 18 reveal a different portrait of the entrance into the land; the Canaanites ‘disappearing’ in the former, and being ‘vomited out’ by the land in the latter. Thus, Brueggemann’s argument for an allegorical reading of the nations seems most likely.[9]

Brueggemann further regards this text as “articulation of Israel’s distinctiveness,” which begins with destroying “seductive alternatives.”[10] The alters, sacred stones and Asherah poles in v. 5 refer to Baal worship. The pillar identified a locale where a deity could be contacted, and often had male associations, even portraying a phallic symbol. The Asherim was the corresponding female symbol representing the fertility goddess. Hence we can surmise these images represented a setting for fertility rites.[11] Thus, as Miller argues, “the ban is grounded in the insistence on no accommodation to the religious practices of the inhabitants of the land.”[12] This is further insisted by the prohibition on marriage or treaties. Craigie helpfully states,

The Israelites were bound primarily by the berîṯ (covenant, treaty) with the Lord, and though this was a religious bond, it was also a political bond, for it set aside Israel as a distinctive nation among other nations. To make a treaty with other nations would indicate a lack of faithfulness on the part of the Israelites to their suzerain God. Likewise, the Israelites were forbidden to undertake a marriage alliance them; although there may be a prohibition of mixed marriages between Israelites and non-Israelites implicit here, the specific prohibition probably has in mind the forging of political treaties by means of marriage. This course of action, as with the making of a treaty (v. 2), would be an indication of compromise and could lead to a disruption of the covenant faithfulness to the one God…Thus both prohibitions (vv. 2-3) have in mind the preservation of the covenant relationship with the Lord by forbidding any relationship that would bring that first and most important relationship into danger.[13]

Involved in marriages was commonly the acceptance of one another’s religion. Hence, the need for covenantal faithfulness to YHWH is paramount. Israel’s relationship with YHWH certainly is the “most important relationship,” and thus they must respond in absolute obedience; exterminating other religious options and cultic installations ensured chaos would not swallow up this relationship and other religions did not tempt them away.[14]

Verses 6-15 make up the core of this passage, the focus being the Holy God’s election of Israel for covenantal relationship. The people are called to be “holy to the Lord your God,” which “here means separated for and belonging to” YHWH.[15] In other words, as holy people, they are YHWH’s exclusive property. Furthermore, they are not called to be holy, but are holy.[16] This separated them from other peoples and practices, further reflected in the assertion that “God has chosen you out of all the peoples of on the face of the earth” (v. 6).[17] They are also called YHWH’s “treasured possession,” meaning they are more valuable than all the other nations. As Brown states,

Moses knew that the only true God had made a unique covenant with his Israel, his greatly valued people. It was not that God lacked compassion for other nations or cared nothing for them; his universal sovereignty and unlimited love are amply illustrated elsewhere in this book. He deliberately chose Israel, however, to be a special instrument of his purposes in the world.[18]

The phrase “set his affection (v. 7) comes from the verb implying a strong physical desire a man would have for an attractive woman. Thus, YHWH’s intimate love is evident.[19] This intimate love is, however, not based in any excellence on Israel’s part; there is nothing about the people that would cause YHWH to choose to love them. In fact, they were “the fewest of all peoples.” Why then does YHWH choose them of all people? Because he loves them. Cairns labels this a “wonderful tautology: God loves because God loves!”[20] They are holy people, not because of inherent merit, but because of divine election.[21] Hence, this passage is warning against pride.[22]

The passage then includes requirements of the people; God’s chosen nation is to be obedient in response to his gracious election. According to Brueggemann, “The relationship is grounded in free grace, but it operates according to symmetrical expectations in which there is no easy, assured forgiveness.”[23] Continual obedience, however, does not imply achieving merit, but rather maintains the proper covenant relationship. Their health and prosperity depended upon such obedience. YHWH would be their ‘fertility God’ over and above the Canaanite gods, and would provide no agricultural setbacks. The terms ‘grain,’ ‘wine,’ ‘offspring,’ and ‘young’ are also names of Canaanite deities, but, as Chritsensen argues, the people were likely unfamiliar with these terms.[24] The point is that there is no other god who the Israelites need; YHWH can and will provide everything. However, the people must reciprocate this covenantal faithfulness. The “horrible diseases you knew in Egypt” is likely a reference to diseases such as elephantiasis, skin boils, eye and bowel afflictions, among others, which were common in Egypt.[25]

Verses 16-26 then return to the command to destroy everything in Canaan, and to destroy the land’s inhabitants. Israel is threatened by these people and their religion, “because they will talk Israel out of the obedience that is the prerequisite to its prosperity in the land of promise.”[26] Yet the focus is not on Israel’s strength, but on YHWH’s. They cannot allow their enemy’s strength to cause them to forget their Lord’s power, who should be their focus. They were to remember the miraculous signs and wonders that YHWH performed in Egypt and expect a repetition of such marvellous events, so long as they trusted him. This same God who rescued them from Egypt is to war on their behalf.[27]

Furthermore, verse 20 implies that YHWH has many possible courses of action, thus emphasizing the totality of his might.[28] The exact meaning is unclear however, particularly in reference to the ‘hornet’ (Cf. Exodus 23:28). Craigie argues it should be understood to refer to the inability of the Canaanites to find a hiding place from God.[29] Kline, alluding to it being understood as a symbol for Pharaoh’s power, argues it should be read as a reference to “the terror of God which, descending on Israel’s foes, produced panic and rout.”[30] Cairns argues for a reference to nature itself fulfilling YHWH’s purposes.[31] Of the three it is difficult to discern which is correct. It is likely the phrase is deliberately ambiguous, simply referring to YHWH’s absolute faithfulness to and power to achieve his promises. Thus, it could be one of these three, or it could be none, something which only YHWH knows.

Verse 22 reveals a slow conquest, wherein gradual growth and control will occur, while the Canaanites become less and less numerous and powerful. This avoids the danger of the “land returning to a primitive state of natural anarchy.”[32] To destroy a name completely, furthermore, was a common ancient Near East curse, meaning total annihilation, even out of history annals. The reason for this is to avoid idolatrous worship and contamination. Israel was to stay away from and remove anything abhorrent that would eventually destroy Israel.[33]

Theological Reflection

This chapter has certainly been seen by many as an abhorrent affront to modern sensibilities. Today, especially in a post-modern society, tolerance and acceptance are a must and anyone demanding genocide is deemed inhuman. One needs only look at Hitler to see brutal nationalism. According to Christensen, “The command to ‘utterly destroy them’ (7:2), without showing any mercy, is simply more than most people today can accept. Such language suggests fanaticism and intolerance.”[34] Furthermore, Millar regards, “These chapters have been dismissed as indefensible, vicious nationalism, which can have no relevance in the modern world. This is a pity, because such sentiments do justice neither to the wider Deuteronomic context nor to the passages themselves.”[35]

It is important to note that this is not historical recounting, but theological preaching. The author is urging Israel to obedience. However, this obedience is not “brutal free-for-all” but carefully controlled and “a unique command of the God who owns not only the land, but the whole earth.”[36] The command to destroy nations is not primarily a reference to warfare, but rather a recognition of the temptations of the Canaanite lifestyle and culture will face the Israelites, temptations which the author clearly believes will lead the nation to absolute destruction – the exact opposite reason YHWH saved the people from slavery in Egypt. The influence of this pagan nation must be purged.[37] Earl furthers this argument,

Deut 7 is concerned with the preservation of Israel’s distinctive identity in a way that encourages the transparent manifestation of the relationship between YHWH and Israel that is characterized by love. The preservation of this identity is developed in terms of the separation from idols and of the avoidance of relationships with non-Israelites, relationships that are assumed to lead to idolatry, since relationships of this sort entail allegiances that compete with allegiance to YHWH, compromising Israel’s relationship with YHWH, leading to diminishment and death.[38]

Furthermore, as Christensen argues, the text is to be read poetically. It is an expression of YHWH’s holiness. YHWH’s holiness – then, as today – demands an absolute avoidance of evil.[39] Thus, the call is to Torah obedience and the author admonishes avoidance at all cost of any cultural accommodation.[40]

In today’s society, pluralism is often not merely accepted, but applauded, observes Mann.[41] The concept of a single religious authority, let alone one brought about through genocide, is obviously one that causes many to shudder. This is especially so in an age where secularism and atheism is growing rapidly. Firstly, as this essay has argued above, the passage does not command absolute genocide. Rather, it is exhortation that the nation avoids any temptation that will lead to apostasy and thus destruction. Secondly, pertaining to religious pluralism and tolerance, how a Christian relates to a post-modern world is particularly difficult. How should one convince others that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, when they may simply respond by saying their truth is their truth and entirely up to them. This is a digression, but the point is clear, should we take the avoidance of temptations as seriously as this text argued the Israelites should?

Cunliffe-Jones argues,

Apart from the question of humanity, the issue which it raises for us is the relation between principle and human relationships in daily life. Loyalty to God is of course of the greatest importance, and we cannot expect never to give offence in doing this. But it is possible to offend against the corporate life of mankind by insisting unnecessarily on religious principle, and by failing to recognize that Christ and non-Christian share a common life in which both must, within limits, work together.[42]

In other words, sole loyalty to God and preaching the need for loyalty to this one God will cause offence in today’s culture, but the offence should not be in the way we present the Gospel, but from the cross of Christ itself. When we focus on religious principle that we become judgmental and separated from the world, we fail to see that we are, in fact, in this world and thus must work with the world. Cairns, quoting Matthew 5:43-45 implores that what is required is not a total elimination, but a transformation, of the enemy.[43]

Conclusion

In conclusion, Deuteronomy 7 is a magnificent exhortation for the Israelites to recognize YHWH’s holiness and to obey by keeping his commands. Inherent in keeping these commands is the rejection of all other possibilities, hence these temptations must be destroyed. This chapter, bordered by the admonitions to destroy these temptations is centred on the loving and gracious election of Israel. Initially, this passage may seem callous and harsh, but is a poetic recounting of YHWH’s love, and the covenantal relationship between the two. God is mighty to save a nation that is not great by any standard. He faithfully keeps the promises he made to the Fathers. He demands faithfulness from his people; obedience will result in blessing, but disobedience will result in curse. To avoid this curse, the people must remove any temptation.

In today’s culture, it is vital to teach this passage of not justifying any form of war. Though the passage may have been used historically to justify such wars as the Crusades, but the focus should remain on the Lord. We must understand God’s faithfulness through a Christological lens to the cross. God still loves his people absolutely faithfully, enough that he would send his Son. This passage can so easily be misinterpreted. But it absolutely must be read in terms of God’s faithfulness and gracious love.

Bibliography

Brown, Raymond. The Message of Deuteronomy. Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1993.

Brueggemann, Walter. Deuteronomy. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001.

Cairns, Ian. Deuteronomy. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992.

Christensen, Duane L. Deuteronomy 1:1-21:9. Nashvill: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2001.

Craigie, Peter C. The Book of Deuteronomy. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1976.

Cunliffe-Jones, H. Deuteronomy. London: SCM Press Ltd, 1971.

Earl, Douglas. “The Christian Significance of Deuteronomy 7.” Journal of Theological Interpretation 3, no. 1 (2009): 41-62.

Kline, Meredith G. Treaty of the Great King: The Covenant Structure of Deuteronomy: Studies and Commentary. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1963.

Mann, Thomas W. Deuteronomy. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995.

McConville, J. G. Deuteronomy. Leicester, England: Apollos, 2002.

Millar, J. Gary. Now Choose Life: Theology and Ethics in Deuteronomy. Leicester, England: Apollos, 1998.

Miller, Patrick D. Deuteronomy. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990.

Miller, Patrick D. The Way of the Lord. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2007.

Rofe, Alexander. Deuteronomy. London: T&T Clark Ltd, 2002.


[1] Walter Brueggemann, Deuteronomy (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001). 93.

[2] Patrick D. Miller, Deuteronomy (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990). 111; Thomas W. Mann, Deuteronomy (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995). 64. Evidently, this is an extension of the second commandment.

[3] J. G. McConville, Deuteronomy (Leicester, England: Apollos, 2002). Contra. Duane L. Christensen, Deuteronomy 1:1-21:9 (Nashvill: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2001).

[4] Douglas Earl, “The Christian Significance of Deuteronomy 7,” Journal of Theological Interpretation 3, no. 1 (2009). 43 – “Deut 7 gives content to Deut 6:4-5, understood in terms of the preservation of this relationship and thus of the identity of the “elect” community. This is expressed here primarily in terms of unswerving allegiance to YHWH as life is lived with reference to torah.”

[5] Brueggemann. 94.

[6] Alexander Rofe, Deuteronomy (London: T&T Clark Ltd, 2002). 6.

[7] Meredith G. Kline, Treaty of the Great King: The Covenant Structure of Deuteronomy: Studies and Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1963). 68. Cf. Ian Cairns, Deuteronomy (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992). 89.

[8] Cairns. 89. Cf. Rofé. 125.

[9] Cf. Earl. 44; Peter C. Craigie, The Book of Deuteronomy (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1976). 177.

[10] Brueggemann. 94. Cf. Craigie. 179; Christensen. 156 – “The paraphernalia of worship among the foreign peoples in the land was to be totally destroyed, so as to remove all temptations to follow pagan religious practices.”

[11] Cairns. 89.

[12] Patrick D. Miller, The Way of the Lord (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2007). 85.

[13] Craigie. 178-179. Cf. Mann. 65; Raymond Brown, The Message of Deuteronomy (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1993). 105.

[14] Brown. 106; Rofe. 13; Brueggemann. 95; Mann. 65; Kline. 68. Cairns. 90.

[15] Brueggemann. 95.

[16] Brown. 103-104 – “They must be what they are.”

[17] Cf. Craigie. 179.

[18] Brown. 107. Cf. H. Cunliffe-Jones, Deuteronomy (London: SCM Press Ltd, 1971). 64; Miller. Deuteronomy. 111 – “To be God’s special possession is to be holy to the Lord, set apart from others for the Lord’s service.”

[19] Miller, Deuteronomy. 112. Cf. Cairns. 90.

[20] Cairns. 91. Cf. Miller, Deuteronomy. 112.

[21] Craigie. 179. Cf. Cunliffe-Jones. 64.

[22] Cairns. 90. Cf. Brown. 104; Kline. 68-69; Christensen. 156 – “God chose them not because of any inherent superiority, but because he loved them. It was a matter of grace.”

[23] Brueggemann. 97.

[24] Christensen. 164. Cf. Brueggemann. 98; Cairns. 91-92; Craigie. 180.

[25] Craigie. 181; Christensen. 164. Furthermore, Rofe argues, “Deut 7.15 hints that God redeemed Israel from Egypt where they knew ‘all manners of illness and evil diseases’…But the text is a promise for the future, not a resume of benevolent acts of the past,” (p. 227).

[26] Brueggemann. 98.

[27] Kline. 69; Craigie. 181.

[28] Cf. Brueggemann. 98-99.

[29] Craigie. 182.

[30] Kline. 69.

[31] Cairns. 94.

[32] Craigie. 182. Cf. Christensen. 164-165.

[33] Christensen. 165; Cunliffe-Jones. 66. Cf. Brueggemann. 99.

[34] Christensen. 157.

[35] J. Gary Millar, Now Choose Life: Theology and Ethics in Deuteronomy (Leicester, England: Apollos, 1998). 156.

[36] Ibid. 156.

[37] Ibid. 157.

[38] Earl. 46.

[39] Christensen. 157, 166 – “The strong language of the concluding verses (Deut 7:25-26) bears witness once again to the demands of holiness in our relation to God. We must shun the very appearance of evil.”

[40] Brueggemann. 100.

[41] Mann. 65.

[42] Cunliffe-Jones. 63-64.

[43] Cairns. 92.

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