Deuteronomy 20:16-17

One of the greatest threats to our planet today is the Holy War. Militant Fundamentalists—both Muslim and Christian—are so convinced that they are absolutely correct in their doctrine, uniquely blessed by God, and the sole vehicle for God’s vengeance on a sinful world, that they are willing to wage war in God’s name.

When we come to a passage like Deuteronomy 20:16-18 and Deuteronomy 7, it becomes easier to understand why these groups feel justified in their violent attitudes. In both passages, God commands His people to utterly destroy the Canaanite people. That means that the men of Israel were to swoop into the land of Canaan and mercilessly kill all men, women, and children that were living in that region.

How does that make you feel about God?

Truthfully, everything in my being wants to skip over this passage and get to the love. That is one of the reasons why it is important to read through the whole Bible systematically. We have to deal with these issues. We must deal with the questions: “How could God order the murder of children?” “My God would never annihilate a whole race. Isn’t that genocide? Isn’t that what Hitler did?”

 Here are some things to keep in mind:

  1. This is the story of Israel, not the entire world. This is an underdog story where one group of people who had known nothing but oppression at the hands of a large, violent empire is led from bondage to freedom. God was delivering them from oppression and leading them to a place of peace. The Canaanites were bigger and stronger than they were. Humanly speaking, there was no possible way for Israel to defeat the Canaanites.
  2. God had a story going on with the Canaanites, too. They had rejected Him centuries before. The annihilation of the Canaanites was a consequence for their rejection of God, not a cultural preference on the part of the Israelites.
  3. The Canaanites had had 400 years to come back to a right relationship with God. 400 years is a very gracious waiting period and an ample window of opportunity for reconciliaton. This was the day of reckoning.
  4. This “holy war” was a one-time-only mandate, and not a justification for any country to annihilate their enemies for their own selfish gain. In other words, there are no real “holy wars” today.
  5. God was protecting His people because He knew that if the Canaanites, being thoroughly given over to paganism, were spared and allowed to infiltrate the ranks of the Israelites, then their idolatry would spread like a cancer and destroy the nation.

 The message of Jesus gives us a corrective lens for these types of passages. Jesus destroyed the idea that one nation was special to God and that every other nation was worthless. Jesus helped us realize that the real battle is not between physical nations, but was an internal battle of the heart, against destructive attitudes that tear us away from God and each other.

In light of this, we can learn a very important lesson from these two passages on war. As we have discussed before, Israel’s journey from Egypt to the Promised Land can be easily seen as an allegory for every person’s spiritual journey to the heart of God. The Promised Land represents our heart. In our natural self we are infected with the sin, shame, blame, greed, lust, etc. that was the result of our separation from God. God’s desire for us is to be set free from all that garbage and to live in an undistracted, focused existence in His Presence. God’s instructions to the Israelites on how to wage war on Canaan will be helpful for us on how to wage war on the strongholds of sin that are in our heart.

  1.  Don’t think you can do the fighting. The Canaanites are giants and, if you are operating in your own strength, will clean your clock. Let God go ahead of you. It is His battle not yours.
  2. Obedience to God’s plan is the key to your successful victory. Don’t focus on your enemy (don’t fixate on your addiction or chant “I will break this habit, I will break this habit”). Focus on the life-giving truth of God’s word, love Him and obey His word, and that will insure your victory.
  3. Don’t leave any survivors. As we will see with Israel, they did not obey God and allowed some of the nations to remain. As Moses predicted, this mistake came back to bite them in the behind. In our hearts it is easy to allow God to come in and wipe out the really ugly sins. Who wants those anyway? But there are some sins that are very beautiful. We like them. They make us feel special and bring us comfort when things get difficult. As difficult as it is, we must allow God to utterly destroy those “cherished sins” because, if we do not, they will wrap their spidery roots around the depths of our heart and completely short-circuit our relationship with God. It is better to let God wipe it out now than to have to go through the intense open-heart, root-canalish surgery of getting it out later.

What is your cherished sin that is begging you to stay in the land of your heart? Don’t let it fool you. It doesn’t love you, it only wants to devour your soul. Let God flush it out with the truth of his grace.

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