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D'varim/Deuteronomy 7:2 ... you shall certainly destroy them; you shall not cut a covenant with them and you shall not show them favour.
These commands come as part of the instructions regarding the seven peoples who are currently inhabiting the Land before the Children of Israel take possession.HaShem will deliver them up, intermarriage - for either gender - is completely forbidden and all the symbols and places of the pagan religions are to be obliterated. Such a total expunging of the seven peoples, which today would be roundly condemned as ethnic cleansing, is a hardening of the previous instructions given at Mt. Sinai - "I will deliver the inhabitants of the land into your hand, and you will drive them out before you" (Shemot 23:31, NASB) - that the people are simply to be driven out of the Land. The hardened instructions are repeated later in Moshe's monologue: "in the cities of these peoples that the L-RD your G-d is giving you as an inheritance, you shall not leave alive anything that breathes. But you shall utterly destroy them" (D'varim 20:16-17, NASB).
The verb , here used in the Hiphil stem, has a range of meanings from "proscribe" to "consecrate" and is often used to describe the action of killing (if necessary) and destroying something as part of a religious offering. Without any mention of the divine and as HaShem specifically forbade any form of human sacrifice, the formal translation "devote to destruction" can be safely shortened to simply "destroy". However, the text uses the technique of following an infinitive absolute form with a command form of the same verb - "to destroy, you shall destroy" - which is usually translated using the English words "surely" or "certainly", or an adverb indicating the completeness of the action. Modern translations use "completely" (CJB), "utterly" (NASB, NRSV), "totally" (NIV).
Archaeology, on the other hand, can produce little evidence for a mass destruction of Caananite cities in Israel in the early Iron age as Israel entered the Land. A few cities were certainly completely destroyed, but the archaeological record seems clear that the scorched earth policy commanded here was not followed on a widespread basis. Tigay notes in the JPS Torah Commentary (see Excursus 18, pages 470-472) that there are two major means of reconciling practice with the text. The ancient rabbis used interpretation: they claimed that the command was not unconditional - if the Caananite people of a city would convert to Judaism, then they would be spared. Modern commentators, relying on a late date for the writing of the Torah, suggest that the authors noticed the absence of any significant Caananite-identifying population and read back the destruction policy as a means of explaining what they saw in their day.
The last word in the verse - - is discussed at some length by the rabbis of the Talmud (b. Avodah Zarah 20a). By offering different vocalisations (that is, changing the vowels, which are not present in the consonantal text) they came up with three possible meanings. Using the pointing we now have, the word can be derived from the root - to encamp - the rabbis deduced the principle that it is forbidden to transfer ownership of any part of the Land to idolaters to prevent them maintaining a permanent holding or presence among Israel. By deriving the word from the root - to obtain grace or favour - possibly with the vocalisation , the rabbis deduce that it is forbidden to speak well of idolaters or their practices. Lastly, with the pointing , the rabbis teach that free gifts may not be extended to idolaters.
We can apply the same principles to our lives as believers and our attitudes to sin. Should we tolerate sin in our lives? Rav Sha'ul seems quite clear: "What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace might increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?" (Romans 6:1-2, NASB). He adds, "But now you also, put them all aside: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive speech from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, since you laid aside the old self with its evil practices, and have put on the new self who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him" (Colossians 3:8-10, NASB) and "Among you there should not even be mentioned sexual immorality, or any kind of impurity, or greed; these are utterly inappropriate for G-d's holy people" (Ephesians 5:3, CJB).
This seems like quite a tall order, but the text shows us how this can be done. We are told to completely destroy them; we must have a zero tolerance policy towards sin. No covenants are possible; we cannot reach an accommodation with sin - only doing a little bit on Tuesday afternoons, but not at any other time; we must not attempt to rationalise our sin - "it was the lesser of two evils", "it didn't hurt anyone else" - or excuse our behaviour - "it was the only way to get the job done on time", "the boss insisted". Following the three rabbinic ideas helps us to put this into practice. Never give quarter or territory to the enemy; don't allow him any footholds in our lives, all sin must be confessed, all past habits of sin must be renounced and given up, any idols - you know, that little green jade statue on the mantlepiece, or your old martial arts costume - must be surrendered and destroyed. Don't speak well of sin, or longingly about the things you can no longer do; apart from misleading anyone who hears you, it is only one step away from convincing yourself that they aren't so bad after all. No free gifts, no offering hostages or give aways; don't put yourself in situations where you might be compromised - being alone with members of the opposite sex other than your spouse, children or siblings.
As members of the Kingdom of G-d, we are called to a higher standard. It is not negotiable or to be taken lightly. Sha'ul leaves no room for doubt: "Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body that you should obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to G-d as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to G-d" (Romans 6:12-13, NASB).
Further Study: Joshua 11:11-15; Ephesians 4:17-24
Application: How are you doing in the battle to purge sin and its effects from your life? Are you holding firm or has some compromise crept in? Attack is the best form of defence, so why not call up headquarters right now and get stuck in!
© Jonathan Allen, 2010
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