‘Holy War’ Deuteronomy 3: 1-11 February 9, 1992
v. 1 The Conquest of Bashan took the Israelites off their route somewhat, as they went north of the point where they would cross the Jordan into Canaan. From a military point of view the conquest of Bashan was necessary to protect Israel’s right flank as she crossed the river for her main assault on the cities of Canaan. History records that several other armies conquering Palestine from the same direction proceeded on the same military principle.
v. 6 the word ‘destroy’ in the NIV is the Hebrew term which means to dedicate or devote something to God, sometimes in a very positive sense — such as when objects were devoted for use in the temple and its worship — but more often it refers to the compulsory devotion of something which impeded or hindered God’s work. In that case the thing was devoted to utter destruction. That is the idea here.
Last time, we considered Deuteronomy 2:24-37 and spoke in general terms about ‘hard sayings,’ two of which were contained in that text. One of those hard sayings, the record of the utter annihilation of the population of Heshbon, is repeated in the text we just read, but now in regard to the kingdom of Bashan. In v. 6 we read that the Israelites utterly exterminated that people: men, women, and children.
I want this morning to consider this hard saying for itself and ask the question directly: What are we to think of this? How can we apply this portion of Holy Scripture to our own living as Christians today? What are we to make of the utter annihilation of an entire people, adults and children together? There are many people, even in the church, who wish to make nothing of this whatsoever! They either will not think about it or face it, or they make no bones about their unwillingness to be directed in their faith and life by such a text as we have read this morning.
Earlier in this century, G. Bromiley Oxnam, a prominent Methodist leader, alluding to passages such as this one, did not hesitate to say that the God of the OT was a dirty bully. Bible believing Christians recoil from a blasphemous remark like that. Additionally, it is perfectly plain that such severity of judgment is a NT doctrine as well. But many Christians nevertheless find a narrative like the one we read alien, strange, forbidding, and, if the truth be told, wish it were not in the Bible.
But are they right to feel that way or is it rather that they have not thought deeply enough and clearly enough to understand and appreciate the Word of God at this point? After all, the Bible says over and over again that the judgments of the Lord are righteous altogether and in the Psalms especially God is often worshipped for his judgment. Indeed, that he is coming to judge the earth, is a matter of joyful expectation for the people of God.
I want to examine this narrative of the destruction of Bashan in greater detail. And I want to demonstrate to you that, here too, even in such ferocious destruction as this, the judge of all the earth has done right.
In the first place, it is essential to a true estimation and appreciation of this history to realize that this destruction of Bashan is, in fact, God’s judgment, God’s doing. Israel is only his instrument. This point is made in v. 2, where it is made clear that in the campaign against Og, Moses and Israel were acting on orders given them by the Lord himself. It wasn’t Moses’ idea to destroy the women and children; that was a direct order from the Almighty.
But, this fact is still more clearly set out later in Deuteronomy when the laws governing Israel’s warfare are laid down. In chapter 20 vv. 10-15 we learn that generally in warfare Israel was to observe rules of warfare that protected non-combatants from harm. Indeed, even combatants, should they surrender, were to be spared. What is more, elsewhere in the OT God condemns nations for the brutality with which they wage war and their mistreatment of captives. Only in specific cases, as we read in 20: 16-18, was the Israelite army not to leave alive ‘anything that breathes.’
In respect both to the specific instructions Moses was given at the time and to the general instructions God gave Israel for waging her wars, Israel did precisely as she was told by the Lord God when she exterminated the population of Bashan. Therefore, whatever we may at first think about what Israel did, we are forced to reckon with the fact that it was God who ordered this, the Judge of all the earth who does right! The God of light in whom there is no darkness at all. That should make any Christian stop and think very carefully before he or she finds fault with what was done to the kingdom of Og of Bashan. If God did it, it must be right. Ponder; think; how was it right and why?
Second, it is essential to a true estimation of this history and this act of God, destroying men, women, and children, to appreciate the full wickedness of this people. This had always been an idolatrous and crudely sinful people. Centuries before this they had been notoriously evil in their ways. But God had been patient with them, as he always is. He had endured their unbelief and the ugly corruption of their life for hundreds of years. Indeed, he consigned his own chosen people, Israel, to live in bondage in Egypt for four hundred years, in large part because he was unwilling to move against these Amorite peoples until the cup of their iniquity was full to the brim. So he told Abraham, in Genesis 15:16, some 600 years before Moses moved against Og king of Bashan. The iniquity of the Amorite, he told the father of the faithful, is not yet full.
Well, now it was full! Full to the brim! Full past God’s patience, past his willingness to tolerate it a moment longer. The point is assumed here more than stated. But Christians who know that the judgments of the Lord are just and righteous altogether will know that the wickedness of this people must have been very great to be judged as severely as it was. And so the Lord says it was in Deuteronomy 9:4, where he clearly says that God is dispossessing these nations of their lands and giving them to learn, not because Israel is righteous, for she is not, but because these nations were so appallingly wicked!
Kenneth Kitchen, the British scholar, who is one of the leading authorities on the ancient near eastern world, has written about this culture that it appealed to the bestial in human nature in a very direct way. Not only were their gods, their substitutes for the true and living God, particularly violent and vicious, bond-slaves to sensual desires of every kind, and generally utterly unworthy of the worship of men, their worship of them was not only idolatrous but utterly debauched. Cult prostitution and fertility rites were a major feature of what they called ‘worship.’ Whether child sacrifice was also a feature, has not been certainly established, though if not, it would eventually have appeared, as we know it did later. The Canaanite gods were nothing if not vicious, fiendishly savage. One of the goddesses of their pantheon, Anat, is represented in one recently unearthed document, laughing with joy over the dismemberment of young and old alike, gleefully collecting the heads, and then the hands.
Christians, who by the Word of God are able to see the larger picture, should be able to see even in the utter extermination of the population of Bashan, a measure of the mercy and goodness of God. Into what life would those children have been raised? Many of the girls to a life of cultic prostitution, used like animals for the pleasure of male so-called worshippers and so-called gods. Many of the boys to a life of utter corruption and cruelty in which they would spend their years piling up judgment for themselves. If stripes there must be, let them be few rather than many!
But, in view of the corruption and the filth of this culture, surely we Christians today, who wish God to visit judgment upon much that we see happening around ourselves at this moment, are the last who can complain about what God did to the citizenry of Bashan. How often in our hearts are we today, in this culture, infuriated with an anger and an impatience that comes, at least in its pure part, from the Lord. The director of an abortuary who poses as a champion of women’s rights; the pornographer who clothes himself in the freedom of speech; the klan member or skin-head who makes the Savior’s cross his symbol and wraps himself in the moral superiority of Christianity; the high-flying capitalist who makes conspicuous consumption into a virtue; the parent abandoning his or her children with one pious self-justification or another; the politician pandering to an audience that knows full well it is being lied to and doesn’t any longer mind; the TV preacher bilking credulous folk of their money and all in Jesus’ name; and on and on it goes.
Every day’s newspaper is full of the lightning progress American culture is making along the path the Apostle Paul said leads any culture to death and to the wrath of God: first comes the suppression of the truth which is known about God; then the worship of the creature rather than the creator; then cruder forms of sin make their public appearance, sexual promiscuity, for example, which are, in time followed by still more degraded forms as lust requires more and more for its satisfaction, homosexuality being the prime example Paul uses in Romans l :26ff. Then, finally, comes the public approval of those practices which have become so commonplace. Does that sound familiar? It is exactly the process which we have witnessed in our land over these past several decades. And we are now well into its latter stages.
I saw on the airplane several days ago a newspaper article announcing that large U.S. law firms are now actively recruiting homosexuals lawyers. Another article suggested that, statistically speaking, four American women out of five will suffer some form of sexual assault in their lifetime. The biggest recent discussion in American sport is whether our most celebrated fornicator and carrier of a sexually transmitted disease should participate in the NBA’s all-star game. And not one I heard who spoke about his participation expressed any concern for the wickedness of his life or the divine judgment which has befallen him.
The signs of the full measure of the wickedness of American culture are absolutely everywhere, some brightly lit in neon, others less obvious but no less indicative of the true state of the moral and spiritual life of this people. I sat near the rear of an airplane Friday evening flying from Atlanta to Minneapolis. The plane was completely full, some 140 people aboard. As it happened, we were half an hour late leaving Atlanta and so equally late arriving in Minneapolis. Many people, of course, had connections to make with other flights and were worried about whether there would be sufficient time for them to make their next flight. The stewardess made an announcement to that effect — it is done as a matter of course, I have heard such an announcement before, — but she made a real effort to gain people’s sympathy for those who were concerned about making their connection to their next flight. She asked if those who were terminating their travel in Minneapolis or who had plenty of time to make their connections — which would have been most of the people on that plane — would kindly remain in their seats until those who had planes to catch in a hurry could get off. Some of those folks with tight connections, of course, were in the back of the plane. As I said, I too was in the back of the plane and so was afforded a chance to see what transpired. When I walked up the aisle, the stewardess’ announcement not withstanding not one single person had remained in his or her seat. The plane was empty. A small illustration of the selfishness of American people, perhaps, but it could be multiplied and magnified a thousand times over.
There has been great wickedness in our culture for a long while. But only recently has the pace of corruption increased so dramatically with such ugly and frightening results. It was more than 500 years between the time the Lord first commented on the great sinfulness of the Amorite peoples and the time of his ordering them destroyed. What measure of wickedness will we reach as a culture if the Lord should, in his patience, permit us to endure unjudged, for another fifty years or a hundred years.
The Canaanites were still further [in wickedness] than we have got, hard as that may be to believe. Their evil more appalling, their idolatry more disgusting, their cruelty more depraved and degrading. Sooner or later one must either wish that evil judged or make peace with it. And with great evil, wise people realize that no half measures will do. It must be destroyed root and branch so that it cannot rise again. People in our day and time who mourn and fear what is becoming of our culture should be the last ones to question the righteousness of God in his destruction of the population of Bashan.
Third and finally, it is essential to a true estimation and appreciation of this history to recognize the danger which this nation and this culture posed to the faith and the life of God’s people, his church. It is a matter of great importance which the NIV translation obscures, unfortunately, that the word rendered ‘destroyed’ in v. 6, is in fact a technical term and means, more precisely, ‘devoted’ — separated for a holy use. It is true that these people were devoted to destruction, but when it is merely said that they were destroyed, it is not made plain that they were destroyed precisely to further, to foster the interests of the Kingdom of God. They were destroyed because they stood in the way of God’s good purpose. That is the sense of that word, which is used, after all, in much more positive ways in the OT to refer to things which are consecrated to the service of God. This people served the purpose of God in their annihilation.
If you ask how that could be, the answer is near at hand. In the laws governing Israel’s warfare, given in Deuteronomy 20, the Lord says plainly why he wants certain peoples ‘devoted’ in this way, especially the peoples who would be Israel’s neighbors, if left to live in the land Israel was to occupy and possess. Inv. 18 he gives
the reason: ‘Otherwise — that is, if you don’t extenninate them — they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the Lord your God.’ It was to keep Israel from catching the moral and spiritual diseases of these peoples that God ordered them destroyed. God knew that a pure, devout, and faithful church could not long exist if thoroughly mixed with a radioactively wicked, corrupt, and sensually powerful culture.
As it happened, Israel did not destroy all of these peoples, and their influence did terribly corrupt the people of God to the spiritual death of vast multitudes of them. And what happened then, has happened over and again in the history of the church. The early church in the NT epoch was finally corrupted by the alien and evil culture around her and it is the same story being repeated today.
Can you think of any aspect of the life of the church of the Lord Jesus Christ which is not now being profoundly corrupted by the corrosive influences of the wicked culture in which we are now living? The sexual ethics of Christians have been profoundly subverted by our culture. A recent poll paints the horrifying picture of most professed evangelicals, Bible-believing Christians, who are single, divorced, or widowed, nevertheless accepting for themselves and practicing sexual relationships outside of marriage. Homosexuality is more and more widely approved by evangelicals, and you can expect to see that trend continue in the next several years.
The financial ethics of Christians have equally been corrupted by contact with this culture. Christians too are living more and more on borrowed money, find themselves incapable of resisting the allure of goods and pleasures which can be had now and paid for later. The number of Christians using money responsibly, giving to the Lord’s work with an appropriate generosity is growing smaller by the day. Ask any director of any Christian organization that depends upon gifts for its work and he or she will tell you that Christian work is depending more and more on fewer and fewer people.
And in every other way our culture is infecting the church. The way many Christians worship, the way they spend their time, the things that matter deeply to them, the forms of their entertainment, the attitude they have toward other people, in these and many other ways, American Christians are to a very great degree becoming more American and less Christian. And, perhaps, in nothing so much as in their inability to discern evil, to feel a proper revulsion and horror at it, and to fear it anymore. God is not surprised, nor should we be. Those who object to God’s ordering the destruction ofBashan, root and branch, must finally be those who are willing to see the church in our day, our own church, lose its way and finally its life because a virulent culture was allowed to infect it.
Three things to remember about the destruction of Bashan. It was God’s judgment, Israel was only carrying out his orders. It was judgment visited upon a virulently and viciously wicked people, toward whom God has shown an extraordinary patience. And it was ordered for the sake of the church and her protection from just those same sins which would certainly infect and destroy her also ifBashan were allowed to remain unmolested at her border. These may all be hard facts, but facts they undoubtedly are. Sin, the virulence of human evil, death, apostasy, and the judgment of God: these are real things and no Christian thinks rightly about the world or the works of God who does not give these facts their due.
To those who are troubled by what God ordered done to Bashan, I say that sin, death, and judgment are troubling things, without a doubt. Sensitive Christians should be as troubled by them as the Lord himself is, as the Scripture often enough reminds us. He is no Anat, gleefully carving up human beings. He does not desire the death of the wicked… But he knows, far better than we do, what wickedness is, what it does, and what it brings, and how it grows, and what its deadly issue must finally be.
God’s judgment of Bashan is a reminder to us of what God thinks about human evil and what, therefore we should think about it too; and it is further a reminder of what God knows must happen if that evil infects the church. We who see it happening before our very eyes should worry less about how to justify God’s judgments and much more about whether the church of the Lord Jesus Christ in North America can survive in any strength without the Lord’s judgment falling upon our culture, and falling fast and hard upon our culture.
From being repelled by God’s judgment, we should pray that he might send it before the American nation and the American church together have sunk forever under his wrath. If we cannot see that to be a very real possibility, then we neither believe the Bible nor the evidence of our own eyes. Long before this, American Christians such as you and I should have learned to pray as the deeply spiritual have always prayed: ‘Rise, 0 Lord, and judge the earth.’ And long before this we should have understood how it is that ‘the wrath of the Lord
against men brings him praise.’ [Psalm 76:1OJ What Deuteronomy 3:1-11 teaches us is that the Lord’s bride cannot survive coexistence with culture which infects her with deadly germs at every contact. When the Lord comes in judgment against wickedness, it will be to save her, and loving her as he does, he will come — however patient he may be toward the wicked — and when he comes he will devastate her enemies. A Christian living in the real world, who rightly estimates the real dangers and real consequences of sinful influences and who can still feel something of a proper revulsion for the wickedness all around us, should pray for that day and welcome it. The fact that so few of us really and feelingly do, says a great deal about us and none of it good.