The passage today is a hard one to read. It’s also a hard one to understand. God says he is going to go before the Israelites like a devouring fire, and utterly destroy the people in the land, because of their wickedness. God’s judgement is a fearful thing. He is not a tame God, as CS Lewis writes in the Chronicles of Narnia.
To some degree I can understand the justice of God in judging nations that were as wicked as the ones in Canaan. People who don’t know the particular circumstances of what is going on in these nations are always appalled when they find out.
The Amalekites, who are specifically named for destruction in the passage, offered their babies on a specially designed altar as burnt offerings to the god Molech while they were still alive. They also practised torture as a public entertainment, and engaged in all manner of perverse sexual acts as part of their worship to their gods. I might seem extreme to us for God to wipe out every man, woman, and even child in his judgement of them. What we see, though, when Israel fails to utterly destroy the people in the land as God had commanded them to in Deuteronomy 6, is that they become a constant thorn in Israel’s flesh throughout subsequent history, and lead the people into idolatry, and away from God.
What I am more offended by, and yet incredibly grateful for, is that God doesn’t treat his own people with the same kind of judgement when they sin. God tells his people that it is not because of their righteousness that He is giving them the promised land, but because of the wickedness of the nations who live there currently. In fact, Moses tells them that they are a stiff necked people, and just as worthy of God’s judgement rather than his favour, because of their own wicked and sinful actions. He reminds them of how, when he was up the mountain with the Lord, getting the 10 commandments, they too burned sacrifices to an idol which they had made with their own hands, and that at that time, God had wanted to destroy them too! The only reason He hadn’t, Moses says, was because he had interceded for them. Even after that, they disobeyed God, and because of this, that entire generation (including Moses himself), with the exception of Joshua and Caleb, were not allowed to enter the promised land, and died in the wilderness.
I’m offended by this because God chooses to forgive the Israelites while they are still sinners, not because He chooses to judge the Amelekites and Canaanites while they are still sinners.
I’m also grateful for it, because He forgives me while I am still a sinner. This doesn’t offend me at all!
So what is the difference between the Amelekites and Canaanites and the Israelites? It’s the fact that Moses interceded for them. He expressed remorse on their behalf, and pleaded with God for their forgiveness.
Could or would God have done this had the Amelekites repented? That’s a difficult question to answer, but consider another nation that God was going to wipe out for their sin as you consider it.
In the book of Jonah, we read that God tells the Ninevites that in 3 days He is going to utterly destroy them. He doesn’t give them a repentance clause (“If you repent, then I won’t wipe you out”) like he does over and over again to the Israelites. He simply sends Jonah to them to tell them that in three days, He will utterly wipe them out. The Ninevites respond by putting on sackcloth and ashes, totally repenting of their sins, and so God relents and forgives them. (This, incidentally, offends Jonah big time!)
I think that had the Amelekites and Canaanites repented, God would have worked out his plan for His people differently. God’s plans are not thwarted by human actions. God loves a genuinely repentant and contrite heart, no matter whether it beats in a Babylonian breast, a Canaanite breast, or and Israelite one. He desires reconciliation with all of His children, and the story of the prodigal son teaches us that He waits with a Father’s love for us to return to Him.
My take away and challenge from these verses today is found in chapter 10:12-13:
“And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to observe the Lord’s commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good”