Numbers 21:1-3

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Remember now, the forty years in the wilderness are almost over. The time alloted to cleanse Israel of its unbelieving adults is over. Our attention now turns to the Promised Land, to Canaan, which this new generation of Israelites will occupy now that their faithless fathers and mothers have grown old and died. In a way we begin in some formal way the story of the next generation of Israel here in chapter 21.

We have in the few verses we are to read tonight the account of Israel’s first victory over the Canaanites. It is made the more significant for occurring at the same place where, almost 40 years before, Israel was defeated by the Canaanites when she attempted to force her way into Canaan after the Lord had condemned her to remain in the wilderness (14:45). One scholar entitles this short section: “The Second Battle of Hormah.” [Ashley, 398] This successful engagement thus serves as a pledge of the successful conquest of Canaan that was soon to begin. [Wenham, 154]

Text Comment

If this Arad has been accurately identified, and there is some question about that, it was a large town some 17 miles south of Hebron. The identification, even the meaning of “Atharim” is unknown.

The first skirmish goes badly for the Israelites, turning the incident into a test of their faith. In all likelihood the earlier generation of Israelites would have been completely undone by the initial setback and would have begun complaining that they never wanted to leave Egypt in the first place, whining about dying in the wilderness, and repeating all the other complaints they were so ready to make when matters became difficult. This generation, however, responds in a much better way. They turned to the Lord, they devoted themselves to Yahweh, and they reengaged the enemy.

The troops of ancient armies were not typically salaried. They were paid by being given a share of the booty. To dedicate all the booty to the Lord was, therefore, an act of selflessness.

The term the NIV renders “totally destroy” and the ESV “devote to destruction” is the Hebrew term herem, a synonym in some respects of the Greek term anathema. Both can mean curse, but the Hebrew term specifically refers to the practice of setting apart or devoting land, animals or persons to God. Something so dedicated was removed from human use and consecrated to God. It is used in this way of sacrifices, for example. But in regard to war it meant leaving to God the fruits of the victory; not claiming any for oneself. In effect, this meant the total destruction of the people or places put under such a ban. [de Vaux, Ancient Israel, 260] Later, you remember, Achan violated the law of herem and Israel was defeated at Ai and Achan subsequently executed. Achan had stolen from the Lord! Later King Saul similarly failed to devote to destruction the Amalekites and their property (1 Sam. 15) and paid a steep price for it.

The point Israel was making in taking this vow was that since the battle was the Lord’s and since he would give the victory, the spoils belonged to him.

Hormah, as I said, was the site of Israel’s earlier defeat, as we read in 14:45.

Now we face here a great problem, one of the scandals of our faith, using the term “scandal” in its technical sense of discredit brought upon our religion by conduct unbecoming on the part of its advocates. A scandal in this sense is conduct that causes others to lose respect for our faith and may even cause a lapse of faith in some Christians themselves. And here we have behavior that many have found through the ages simply scandalous. I am referring to the total destruction of the population of a town or city such as Arad as well as the town itself. To many, and in particular, to many in our time, such behavior is nothing short of grotesque. It is the evil of genocide with this difference: we are expected to believe that God actually approved it. He was pleased when men, women, and children were put to the sword. Is this not precisely what the Nazis did to the Jews? Is this not morally in every way the behavior that is equivalent to the holocaust?

Many commentators do not hesitate to characterize this behavior as barbaric, primitive, and utterly indefensible by modern standards of morality. A typical remark by one reads: “There is, thankfully, no archeological evidence that this program of annihilation was ever implemented…” [Alter, The Five Books of Moses, 916]

Most of us, I suspect, have at one time or another cringed, at least internally, in reading of the mass destruction of a population by the Israelite army. We have not wanted to visualize what was involved in the systematic extermination of an entire population. When we come to Joshua and its account of Israel’s conquest of Canaan, this is, as you remember, a regular occurrence. So what are we to do with this as 21st century Christians? This is our Bible. This is the Word of God. We cannot say, surely we cannot say that Israel’s practice here was nothing more nor less than murder; not when v. 3 makes so clear that the Lord himself blessed Israel for doing what she did. We cannot say that this is a barbaric ethic when it is the law of God that required it. So what do we say?

Well, let me say several things by way of clearing the objection and removing the scandal in the first place and applying this history to our present situation in the second.

First, it is worth our noting that the practice of herem or total devotion was not Israel’s customary law of war-making. She did not, as a rule, annihilate her enemies even when she triumphed over them. This practice of utterly destroying a population was reserved for the conquest of the Promised Land and the peoples whom Israel was to supplant and replace in Canaan. In the rest of her battles she was required to abide by the requirements of just war-making: there were often captives taken, and formal treaties defined the new situation brought to pass by Israel’s success in battle. There is something very different about the battles she fought with the Canaanite peoples.

Second, there were very specific reasons given for this particular treatment of the Canaanites.

  1. In the first place, they were to be destroyed for the uniquely ugly life they lived. In other words, their destruction was an act of divine judgment; Israel simply happened to be the instrument in the Lord’s hand. Remember, as far back as Genesis 15:16, Abraham was told that Israel would have to wait to take possession of the Promised Land precisely because “the sin of the Amorites had not yet reached its full measure.” As is so often the case in the Bible, the Lord is found doing more than one thing at a time, he is found accomplishing more than one purpose in some particular event. Here he is giving Israel the land he promised her but he is also visiting punishment upon a particularly wicked people. Remember, the Lord judged the wicked world in Noah’s day with a flood that killed men, women, and children. In the case of Sodom and Gomorrah, cities notorious for the ugliness of their behavior, fire and brimstone suddenly ended the lives of the entire population of those cities. What we have at Arad is that divine judgment once more, but this time using a human instrument. In the final analysis, one can protest the destruction of the Canaanite population of Arad only if one is likewise unwilling to accept the righteousness of God’s judgment of human sin as we have it at the flood or at Sodom. The fact that the Lord waited patiently and made Israel wait, even suffer for some years as slaves in Egypt because the iniquity of the Canaanites was not yet to the point that it required such draconian judgment is only further proof that what was eventually done was that and nothing but that: divine judgment against guilty and deserving sinners.
  2. In the second place, Israel was commanded to destroy the Canaanite population because of the threat it posed to Israel’s own spiritual life. The rationale for this practice of destroying the Canaanite population is given in Deut. 7:1-6. There we read, in part:

    “…when the Lord your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them and show them no mercy…. For they will turn your sons away from following me to serve other gods, and the Lord’s anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you.”

    In other words, the Canaanite culture posed such a deadly threat to Israel’s faith that it had to be exterminated. In a few chapters we will see how powerful the draw was when, passing through Moab on their way to the Promised Land, Israel was distracted and lured into sexual sin by the people of that place. Bad as the Moabites were, the Canaanites were worse. The destruction of the Canaanites was, as history would sadly prove, essential to Israel’s spiritual life. The fact that Israel did not destroy the Canaanites was to prove her ruin.

Stepping back and taking in the Bible’s theological understanding of human life, the entire practice takes on new meaning and significance. Everything must be judged differently if hell is admitted to be a real place and eternal punishment a real destiny for human beings. Just as the occupation of the Promised Land foreshadowed the inheritance of heaven for believers, so the slaughter of its former inhabitants foreshadowed the judgments of hell. [Duguid, 260] If the destruction of vicious sinners is necessary to prevent you and your children falling into hell, suddenly the Israelite’s practice of exterminating the Canaanites doesn’t seem implausible at all.

This conclusion is confirmed by two facts also often forgotten in discussions of Israel’s practice of herem toward the Canaanites. First, it is everywhere, as here in v. 3, the Lord himself who actually destroys the Canaanites. Israel may be his instrument, but it is always carefully said that the victory and the total destruction is the Lord’s own doing. In Exodus 23:23, in promising Israel the conquest of the Promised Land, we read Yahweh saying,

“I will be an enemy to your enemies and will oppose those who oppose you. My angel will go ahead of you and bring you into the land of the Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hivites and Jebusites, and I will wipe them out.”

The Lord, so far from seeking to be let off the hook for the extermination of the Canaanite population, again and again takes upon himself the responsibility for it. And second the same draconian punishment is meted out to Israelites who compromise with the Canaanite way of life. Achan and his family were utterly destroyed after he violated Israel’s commitment totally to destroy Jericho. And the Israelite who dallied with Canaanite idolatry or the Canaanite lifestyle was likewise to be destroyed. Later Israel, the northern kingdom, would be destroyed and later still Judah sent into exile – after many men, women, and children had died – precisely because they had come to live as Canaanites. The herem is not a racial pogrom; it is not ethnic cleansing; it is two-prong effort to judge an evil people and to keep the people of God alive in a spiritually deadly environment.

Now I want to bring this up to date. The narrative of Israel’s destruction of the population of Arad can seem to concern events far, far away from us. But it is not so. Let me tell you something about the Canaanites. Our impression of them, I suspect, is not at all accurate. The Canaanite culture that Israel encountered as she entered the Promised Land was, in fact, a culture very like our own in interesting and impressive ways. [The following taken largely from K.N. Schoville, “Canaanites and Amorites,” Peoples of the Old Testament World, 157-182]

The Canaanites were exceptional engineers. They built large, fortified cities whose features betray the ability to move massive amounts of material in the construction of walls, gates, ramparts, and so on. They developed sophisticated systems for the draining of water. They built huge temples and palaces some of which have been unearthed by archeologists.

They were also skillful artisans who produced beautiful jewelry in gold, silver, and semi-precious stones, built furniture decorated with inlaid ivory and bone, and sculpted in both stone and metal. They knew how to cast bronze mirrors, weapons, and tools. Molds have been discovered indicating that they knew how to standardize production of materials manufactured in quantity. Their pottery was well-known in the ancient world for its beauty and its quality. They used a fast potter’s wheel and fired at high temperature to produce ceramics that were both beautifully thin and exceptionally strong.

They were some of the most enterprising merchants of the ancient world. In fact, by the time of the prophet Isaiah, the word for Canaan or Canaanite could also mean “merchant” or “trader.” They sent their product around the Mediterranean world and were wealthy enough to import luxury products from elsewhere. A fourteenth century B.C. Egyptian tomb painting depicts Canaanite ships unloading cargo. So they were people of sophisticated technology, world-wide commerce, and educated taste.

But none of that was their greatest achievement. Caught between the cumbersome writing systems of Mesopotamian cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphs, it was the Canaanites who invented the simplified form of writing that was destined to take over the world: the alphabet. Our ability to read and write by means of the letters of an alphabet that can be arranged to form any number of words is traceable directly to the genius of the Canaanites. Indeed, it seems clear that to some significant degree, the Hebrew language, in which the largest part of Holy Scripture was originally written, was deeply influenced by the literary legacy of the Canaanites. In Isaiah 19:18 Hebrew, the language of Israel, is actually referred to as “the language of Canaan.”

In other words, in comparison with the other peoples of their time, the Canaanites were successful, sophisticated, and inventive. They were worldly-wise. They fit into the cultural landscape of the Ancient Near East. They left their mark on the world.

But their religious viewpoint was, of course, thoroughly pagan. They worshipped a pantheon of gods, capricious in their nature, headed by El and including Baal and Dagon, Canaanite gods known to us from the biblical narrative. Indeed there is nothing in the biblical account of Canaanite religion that is not confirmed now by other sources of information. By the acts of their worship they sought to actualize or set in motion the natural order that was thought to be subject to the whim of the gods. In such worship, sexual relations were commonplace, acts thought to stimulate fruitfulness in nature. Sex between persons, hetero and homosexual, between humans and animals, gifts given to the gods in hopes of securing favor, all of this was commonplace in Canaan. So, apparently, was the offering to the gods their own children. Child-sacrifice is explicitly said to have been Canaanite practice at this time in Deut. 12:31.

“You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way; for every abominable thing that the Lord hates they have done for their gods, for they even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods.”

Much of the rest that Israel is forbidden to do in the Law of Moses, was specifically mentioned precisely because it was the practice of the Canaanites among whom Israel was to go.

In other words, the Lord was not much impressed by the technological or literary or commercial accomplishments of the Canaanites. He was rather deeply offended and angered by their abysmal theology and their systematic violation of God’s will for human life and by their murder of their children. This is not what he created human beings to be and do! Their worldly success made their moral depravity that much worse.

At the last, there is a bitter irony in the accusation by Americans and western Europeans that the Israelite annihilation of the Canaanites was a reprehensible form of genocide, akin to the holocaust perpetrated against the Jews by the Nazis. It sounds at last as a form of self-defense; an argument full of self-interest. For the fact is, Western civilization has become a Canaanite culture, highly sexualized in the worst way, pagan in its view of God and man, and willing to sacrifice its children for the sake of its gods: personal peace and pleasure.

I was reminded of something the other day that I had forgotten. Joseph Mengele, one of the most infamous of the Nazi war criminals was known at Auschwitz as the “Angel of Death” for his lethal “scientific” experiments on prisoners. He took turns with other doctors greeting the trainloads of internees and as they disembarked determining which would be sent directly to the gas chambers and which to the work camp. When it was reported that one wing of a prison block was infected with lice, Mengele had every one of the 750 women housed there gassed. Mengele occupied his time with other numerous acts of cruelty under the guise of medical experimentation and the advancement of knowledge. These included the vivisection of infants; the castration of boys and men without the use of an anesthetic; and the administering of high-voltage electric shocks to women inmates under the auspices of testing their endurance. On one occasion Mengele even sterilized a group of Polish nuns with an X-ray machine, leaving the women horribly burned. Mengele’s experiments also included attempts to change eye color by injecting chemicals into children’s eyes. Once he burned several Jewish prisoners in a gigantic oven to test how long it would take for the human body to get first, second and third degree burns at certain temperatures. He also tested how much force it would require to break a (living) human skull. He was given absolute power over other human beings and that power corrupted him to an absolute degree.

After the war Mengele escaped to Argentina and evaded discovery and capture until his death in Brazil in 1979. What I had forgotten was that during his years in Argentina Mengele made his living as an abortionist. We have become Joseph Mengele! “We have met the Canaanites and they are us.” In our land today, the procedure called partial birth abortion is generally permitted and is soon going to be legal everywhere. In this procedure the cervix is dilated, the doctor uses an ultrasound and forceps to grasp the baby’s leg. The doctor or abortionist pulls one or both legs out of the birth canal, causing what is fairly referred to as the “partial birth” of the baby. The doctor subsequently extracts the rest of the baby, usually without the aid of forceps, leaving only the baby’s head still inside the birth canal. An incision is made at the base of the skull, scissors are inserted into the incision and opened to widen the opening, and then a suction catheter is inserted into the opening. The brain is suctioned out, which causes the skull to collapse and allows the baby’s body to pass more easily through the birth canal. Justice Souter, in striking down a ban on the procedure in Nebraska several years ago argued that the barbaric nature of the procedure did not disqualify it because the same argument could be made against any abortion. We are accepting of the barbarity of abortion, he said, and so, in effect, a little more barbarity shouldn’t matter.

What is American culture? Sophisticated technology in the service of a great deal of the most debased, cruelest, and most worthless of human activity. Human beings made in God’s image living their lives in ways that are the most profound betrayal of the will of God and of their own nature as human beings created in God’s image. That was Canaan and that is America in the 21st century.

What is the lesson of Numbers 21:1-3? It is this stark, brutal fact. That if the living, holy Majesty in heaven, the creator of heaven and earth and of every human being, did not scruple to destroy a society that lived as the Canaanites did or as the Sodomites did, he will not scruple to destroy Western civilization for precisely the same reasons. Nothing seemed less likely to the Canaanites than that an upstart people, recently slaves in Egypt, should dispossess them of their land, their wealth, and their culture. As it happened it took Israel only a matter of weeks, or some months at the most, because God was with them to accomplish his will, only part of which was to give Canaan to Israel. The other part was to give the Canaanites exactly what they deserved.