Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Show Them No Mercy: The Conquering of Canaan

"When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are entering to take possession of it, and clears away many nations before you, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations more numerous and mightier than you, and when the Lord your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction. You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them." ~ Dt. 7:1-2 (Emphasis added)

In a few previous posts about the imprecatory psalms, I have written about some of the troubling statements in Scripture. A few weeks ago I wrote a short article for a Bible study I lead. We are studying Judges and studying Judges requires talking about the conquering of the land of Canaan, which is another troubling part of biblical history. Below is what I wrote:

What about the "holy war"? How does "show them no mercy" (Dt. 7:2) square with Jesus' teaching? The main problem here is that we do not have a high enough view of God's holiness. As Christians, we have encountered the grace of God in Jesus, which allows us to enter into God’s holy presence with boldness (He. 10:19-25), because of the promise that we are being remade after the pattern of that same holiness. But, in that grace, we may sometimes forget what that holiness looks like to someone who is not so covered. God is a consuming fire (He. 12:29), a purifying power that cannot abide the unholy to remain in His presence without destroying it. God, however, is also a gracious God who does not desire the complete destruction of the works of His hands, who holds back the consuming fire like a dam holds back a flood. The Conquest of Canaan is best understood as a profound and temporary in-breaking of God’s holiness into an unholy world for a specific redemptive purpose.

In creation, God created the world and humans holy. We fell from that holiness and therefore incurred the wrath of God. God's holiness consumes unholiness just as light consumes darkness. Only God can stay the consumption for a time. God, in His grace, has temporarily suspended His full wrath until the Day of final judgment, otherwise Adam and Eve would have been consumed and sent to hell on the spot. Common grace, God's forbearance of final judgment, became a part of the world in which we live.

This has bearing on the Conquest. The ethics of the Conquest are ultimately those of a completely holy and good God calling the rebellious people, the illegal aliens on His property into account. And, since the Fall affects all of us as equally as it affected the Canaanites, the implication is that we all deserve, always and everywhere, what they got then and there in Canaan from the Israelite armies. In light of this reality, we must admit that the shear fact that the Conquest was confined to only one very geographically limited area at only one point in human history is a sign of God’s mercy.

What? A sign of mercy? Yes; one of its purposes is for us to see what must be the inevitable result of our current standing with God as a race. The ethics of the Conquest can be seen as a type of what are called "intrusion ethics" (a term coined by Meredith Kline)—a temporary intrusion into history of the ethics of the final judgment, i.e. that moment when God finally brings the created order to account so that He can restore it to its original state of holiness. That is to say, the Conquest reveals in history, however briefly, what the end of history will look like when God returns in glory to reclaim in total His land, the eschatological (end-times) Promised Land. This is what is called Old Testament typology/study of "types." A type is an Old Testament event or person pointing to an eschatological/end-times reality (we are in the end times and have been since Pentecost, cf. Acts 2:14-24). Just as the OT Promised Land (a type) ultimately points to the eschatological reality of the new heavens and the new earth, the Conquest (another type) points to the eschatological judgment where God ultimately punishes evil (2 Pt. 3:10), the punishment He stayed at the Fall, and creates the new heavens and the new earth. One purpose of seeing such a thing in history is, therefore, to bring us to repentance, so that we might be spared that fate when the Day arrives. Not only will have God given humanity the whole of their history of time to turn back to Him, He will have also made it abundantly clear by the Conquest what is to come. But, still many "stiffen their necks" against Him.

All of this has profound ramifications for how we square the goodness of God, as we have encountered it in Jesus, with the severity of God, as we see it in the Conquest. In many respects, they are two sides of the same coin. They both show the extreme lengths to which God must go in order to get humanity's attention. The sad history of Jesus' rejection before His own people only reinforces the point that humankind's fallen hearts are so hardened that we cannot respond to God, even when He comes in meekness. Such a sorry state of affairs, such a clear example of our rebellion, makes the extreme ethics of the Conquest seem all the more justified. Further, it illustrates with vivid clarity how, in not getting always and everywhere what the Canaanites got then and there, humanity as a whole has seen merciful forbearance (common grace) on God’s part.

If we assume, as all Christians ought, that God is the sole creator of all that is, seen and unseen, it is not a leap to give to Him the authority to decide when that created order has gone right and when it has gone wrong (Ro. 9). When we truly grapple with the magnitude of our rebellion against God’s infinite, eternal, and unchangeable holiness, we must concede that we have dug the proverbial hole underneath us. In that light, the intrusion of God’s holiness into our thoroughly unholy world makes events like the Conquest a sad inevitability. The further problem arises that even our own sense of "goodness" has been undermined by our rebellion. Seeing through the broken lens of our sinfulness, it is often difficult to see how what seems to be the severity of God towards humanity is in fact consistent with His eternal goodness. In both respects, our current condition impairs us from easily understanding the Conquest. However, when we have laid the foundations of intrusion ethics and God’s great holiness, a clearer picture of the Conquest as a type of final judgment, and other parts of the Bible, emerges. 

Perhaps a typological chart would be helpful when thinking about OT types and end-times realities:
Old Testament Type
Eschatological Reality
The Exodus
Christ’s redemption
The wilderness wandering
This present life
The Promised Land
The new heavens and the new earth
The conquest of the Land
The Final Judgment
King David
King Jesus
Solomon’s kingdom
Jesus’ rule in the new heavens and the new earth

Hope this helps you wrestle with the ethics of the Conquest of Canaan. May be it something that allows you to see God's majesty for clearly, for His glory and your good. 

By His Grace,

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