Israel & the Road Home—Theological, Canonical, and Contemporary Significance (Pt. 1)

Posted: December 8, 2014 in Uncategorized

Now that we have walked through the passage and considered what has happened, we need to take some time to consider how the events of Deuteronomy 2:26–31 matter theologically and canonically. Then we will turn our attention to how this text matters for us today (i.e. contemporary significance). In short, the next few posts will ask why we should read this passage carefully (and why write a paper on it!!).

Theological Significance

The Lordship of Yahweh—This text portrays the lordship of Yahweh over all the lands of the peoples. Even before Israel is called to cross the Arnon and take possession of the land of Sihon, they are commanded to pass through other lands without contending with the inhabitants. As Jim Hamilton notes, “Yahweh’s authority to give Israel the land he has promised is stressed when he tells them not to contend with those whose land he is not giving them…”[1] The fact that some lands are off-limits by God’s decree and others are fair game by the same decree is evidence of his universal lordship.[2]

That Yahweh is lord of all lands is made clear in numerous other texts in the Bible. Genesis 1 begins by recording God’s creation ex nihilo (Gen. 1:1). The Psalmist sings, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Ps. 19:1). And Nehemiah declares, “You are the LORD, you alone. You have made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them; and you preserve all of them; and the host of heaven worships you” (Neh. 9:6). From beginning to end, Yahweh is the sovereign of the universe and the lord of every land (see also Ex. 20:11; Rom. 1:20; Col. 1:16).

The lordship of Yahweh over all the lands of the earth “is not an abstract teaching.”[3] It should serve to strengthen the resolve of Israel to enter into the land. Hamilton writes, “He has allotted Israel’s portion to them. This should make Israel confident as they cross into the portion allotted to them by Yahweh, the Lord of all.”[4]

The Wars of Yahweh—Given the hardening of Sihon’s heart and the war that resulted, this text is often hard to reconcile with the idea of a loving and gracious God. In 2:34 Israel is called to initiate חרם (2:34). That is, in accordance with the law of חרם (Deut. 20:10–18), the Amorites were devoted to complete destruction (cf. Josh. 8:22; 10:28; 11:8).[5] They were now objects of conquest.

The wars found in the conquest narratives have often been referred to as ‘holy wars.’[6] With the amount of bloodshed involved in these events, how are we to make theological sense of the material? Daniel Block offers six priciples that are meant to help the reader think through Yahweh’s wars:[7]

  1. As the divine Commander-in-Chief, Yahweh identifies the military target.
  2. Yahweh initiates the war.
  3. Yahweh determines the strategy for war.
  4. Yahweh accompanies Israel into battle.
  5. Yahweh engages in psychological warfare, controlling the disposition of the enemy towards himself and toward Israel, so that ultimately his objectives are achieved.
  6. Yahweh delivered the enemies and their lands into Israel’s hand.

This list provides a helpful starting point for thinking through the ‘holy wars’ that Israel engaged in during their conquest of the land. However, a few more points may be asserted to help the reader come to terms with the war against Sihon in our present passage and the destruction of others in later passages (e.g. 3:1–8). First, all people have rebelled against God and deserve death (Ps. 51:5; Rom. 3:23; 6:23). Second, the Amorites were descendants of Canaan (Gen. 10:15–16), who was cursed by God (Gen. 9:25). Israel would return to their land when the iniquity of the Amorites was complete (Gen. 15:16). This seems to suggest that the day of reckoning had come for this cursed people. Third, terms of peace were offered to the cities that Israel sought to besiege (Deut. 20:10­–15). War is declared only when the terms of peace are rejected, as is the case in our present passage. Finally, because he is Creator of all, “God can do anything he wants with anyone and be right in doing so.”[8]

Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility—This text is an example of the tension that runs throughout the storyline of Scripture. The Bible consistently holds that God is in control of everything that comes to pass. As the Westminster Confession of Faith states, “God from all eternity did by the most and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass…”[9] This sovereign control of Yahweh is not restricted to natural phenomenon as the wind or the waves. His control and ordination extend to the willful creatures he has created (e.g., Ezra 1:1; Neh. 7:5; Prov. 21:1; Acts 4:28).

At the same time the Bible never presumes that God’s sovereignty over the hearts and actions of men has nullified moral responsibility for their actions. Furthermore, the reality that God is sovereign over events of history does not negate the need for human action. The Bible simply states that God is sovereign and man is responsible. Sihon was unwilling to allow Israel to pass through his land. He willingly made that choice. However, God stood as sovereign over his heart and caused it to be obstinate. Furthermore, the land of the Amorites had been given over to Israel, and yet Israel must strike down the Amorites and take possession. God was sovereign and Sihon was responsible. God had ordained that the land was Israel’s, but Israel must war against Sihon and his people.[10]

[1] Hamilton, God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment, 121.

[2] Though spatial limitations prevent it, a discussion of Yahweh’s control over the human heart is also evidence of universal lordship (cf. Prov. 21:1).

[3] Schreiner, The King and His Beauty, 85.

[4] Hamilton, 121.

[5] The Hebrew חרם carries the idea of dedication and exclusion. Something can be dedicated as sacred, or excluded in a certain sense. Koehler & Baumgartner note that the Hiphil form means to “put under ban,” or “devote to complete destruction.” The present passage is listed as one instance that contains this idea of חרם (Ludwig Köhler, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Study ed.; Leiden ; Boston: Brill, 2001), 353-54). This is clearly an instance of חרם meaning the total annihilation of the Amorites. There were “no survivors,” whether it be “men, women, and children” (2:34).

[6] Block, Deuteronomy, 95.

[7] This list is adapted and summarized from Block, Deuteronomy, 96.

[8] Ibid. 98.

[9] The Westminster Confession of Faith. 3d ed. Lawrenceville, Ga.: Committee for Christian Education and Publications, 1990, III.1.

[10] J. I. Packer refers to the tension between divine sovereignty and human responsibility as an example of antinomy (Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, 25–26). That is, these two concepts appear to be a contradiction. However, there is no need to see the ideas as a contradiction. The idea of God’s sovereignty fits well with the idea of human responsibility when compatibilistic free-will is affirmed. That is, since the will is not naturally constrained to one decision or another (i.e. the willful creature is not coerced by forces outside itself and thus against it’s will), but does what it wants to do, then it is responsible for its actions. If the willful creature were naturally constrained towards a decision (e.g. someone holding a gun to your head and forcing you into a decision you did not want to make) then moral responsibility would be abolished. For extended treatments of this subject see D. A. Carson, Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility: Biblical Perspectives in Tension (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2002); Richard A. Shenk, Wonder of the Cross: The God Who Uses Evil and Suffering to Destroy Evil and Suffering (Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2013); Jonathan Edwards, An Inquiry into the Modern Prevailing Notions of That Freedom of the Will: Which Is Supposed to Be Essential to Moral Agency, Virtue and Vice, Reward and Punishment, Praise and Blame (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria, 1996).

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