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Bible Commentaries

Layman's Bible Commentary

Deuteronomy 7

Verses 1-26

Safeguarding the Covenant Relationship (7:1-26)

After having set forth God’s basic requirements in chapters 5 and 6, the author now considers the practical dangers to the observance of these requirements which the conquest of the land will pose. In this section two fundamental counsels are offered: be separate or holy (7:1-16, 25-26) and be unafraid (7:17-24).

The first will involve utter extermination of the nations inhabiting the land. They are to be given no quarter: no political intercourse (vs. 2; "no covenant with them"); no marital intercourse (vs. 3); no religious intercourse (vss. 4-5, 25-26). The reason for the policy of extermination and nonintercourse is clearly stated: "they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods" (vs. 4).

The precise number and exact identity of the ethnic groups in Canaan at the time of the Conquest is unknown. Seven are listed here (vs. 1). In other passages the numbers are: two (Genesis 13:7; Genesis 34:30), three (Exodus 23:28), five (Exodus 13:5; 1 Kings 9:20), six (Exodus 3:8; Exodus 3:17; Deuteronomy 20:17; Judges 3:5), seven (Joshua 3:10; Joshua 24:11), and ten (Genesis 15:19-21). The basic groups appear to have been the Canaanites (chiefly along the seacoast) and the Amorites (chiefly in the hill country), with other groups here and there.

All had been assimilated more or less into the culture of the Canaanites, including the latter’s polytheistic fertility religion centering in the worship of the high god El, his dramatic storm-god son or grandson, Baal, and their fecund and bloodthirsty consorts (Asherah, Anath, Ashtoreth). As givers of fertility, these deities and others were worshiped in orgiastic rites of a most debased character. Worship was carried on at "high places" (see 2 Kings 23:5; 2 Kings 23:8; Jeremiah 2:20) and in elaborate temples.

Archaeologists have uncovered Canaanite places of worship. At Megiddo an elaborate altar for burnt offering, dating about 1900 B.C., was found. It consisted of a circular platform of large stones, some six feet high and twenty-nine feet in diameter at the base. Stone steps led up the side. At their foot lay burned animal bones. Other objects at these places of worship included a sacred tree or post, apparently the symbol of the goddess Asherah (these posts are called "Asherim" in Deuteronomy 7:5), and a sacred stone pillar, perhaps the symbol of the male deity El or Baal. Images of El and Baal, cast from copper and overlaid with gold and silver leaf and others cut in relief on large blocks of stone, have been found. Clay plaques depicting a nude fertility goddess, holding lilies in her outstretched hands and with a serpent draped around her neck, were used in homes as fertility amulets. These may be referred to in 7:26.

The reason for the extermination of the Canaanites is said to be God’s election of Israel to be his especially prized people, a people set apart ("holy") to God out of all the peoples on earth (7:6-11). The Hebrew root lying behind the word "holy" means basically a "cut" or a "separation," and in the Old Testament the word is used of places, things, and persons which are separated from the sphere of ordinary life and dedicated to the deity. By virtue of their relationship to the deity they are characterized by a mysterious supernatural potency. In the Old Testament the word often suggests not the opposite of unclean but the opposite of profane. The Hebrew words for the male and female cult prostitutes of Canaanite religion mean literally "holy men" and "holy women" (Deuteronomy 23:18; 1 Kings 14:24; Hosea 4:14), for they are set apart from ordinary people for a special function in relation to the deity. In other passages a moral element is to be seen in the term "holy" (for example, Isaiah 6:1-5; Psalms 15:1; Psalms 24:3), as is the case in the New Testament. The one who belongs to God belongs to a God of moral perfection, who has acted in the history of Israel and in Jesus Christ in such a way as to make possible man’s ultimate moral perfection (Romans 6:19; Romans 6:22; Ephesians 1:4-7; 1 Thessalonians 4:3). In Deuteronomy 7:6-11 the meaning of "holy" is basically "separated," though the moral emphasis is not wholly absent. Israel’s holiness involves obedience to God’s laws, and in Deuteronomy these laws often require relationships and conduct of a highly ethical character.

The second fundamental counsel here is: Be unfraid! (7:17-24). Two reasons for fearlessness are offered: the remembrance of what God did at the time of the Exodus from Egypt; and the certainty that that "great and terrible God" is still in the midst of his people, giving victory to them in seemingly impossible circumstances.

This section states clearly the traditional concept of "holy war," as reformulated by the Deuteronomic writers. In the period of the Judges the tribes were banded together for the carrying on of cultic practices and defense against their enemies. After consultation of the Deity to ascertain his readiness to help and save, trumpets were blown, the victory cry was raised, the men of war were consecrated, a priestly blessing was uttered, and the warriors plunged into the battle with reckless abandon, confident that God would send a great panic ("confusion," vs. 23) on their enemies. This would lead to blind self-destruction. This may be what is meant by the Hebrew word translated by "hornets" (vs. 20). Thus the victory would be gained not by force of arms but by God’s miraculous intervention. What was needed, therefore, was faith in God, not in the arm of flesh.

That this conception of God and the reckless abandon that accompanied it led to fantastic victories over militarily superior forces is abundantly attested in the books of Joshua and Judges. And that the destruction of the corrupt Canaanite civilization led to certain consequences favorable to the spread of ethical monotheism in the world can scarcely be denied.

But we must beware of eliminating from the decision to exterminate the inhabitants of the land the element of human choice. The Israelites chose to do what they did. The consequences which flowed from their choices, like the consequences of all human decisions, were made by the Lord of history to serve his redemptive purposes. As God brought good out of the choice of the Assyrian and Chaldean kings to overrun and subjugate Israel, it turned out that even Israel’s bloody wars—which must be seen in themselves as the evil they really were—were made by God to serve his purposes. God makes the wrath of men to praise him. Men are free to choose, but they cannot determine the consequences, immediate or ultimate, of their choices.

In reading the stories about Israel’s past it must therefore be remembered that the human element in decisions has been swallowed up in the realization after the events that God effected consequences beyond human deserving or expectation. Thus even the choice is assigned to him. Exterminating wars can hardly be attributed without qualification to the instigation of the God of Jesus Christ!

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"Commentary on Deuteronomy 7". "Layman's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lbc/deuteronomy-7.html.