Saturday Nov 21, 2020

Deuteronomy 2:24-37

     The main point of this pericope is that God began to deliver Israel’s enemies into their hands to defeat them as they advanced toward the Promised Land. In this section God directed His people to begin to take the land and drive out the residents north of the valley of Arnon, saying, “Look! I have given Sihon the Amorite, king of Heshbon, and his land into your hand; begin to take possession and contend with him in battle” (Deut 2:24). And God would go ahead of His people, informing them, “This day I will begin to put the dread and fear of you upon the peoples everywhere under the heavens, who, when they hear the report of you, will tremble and be in anguish because of you” (Deu 2:25). Originally, Moses offered to travel through the land of Kedemoth peacefully, telling Sihon king of Heshbon, the Israelites would stay on the highway and pay for any food or water his people were willing to sell (Deut 2:26-29), but the text informs us that “Sihon king of Heshbon was not willing for us to pass through his land” (Deut 2:30a). Sihon’s rejection of peace meant he brought judgment upon himself. Moses then provides the divine side of the reason, saying, “for the LORD your God hardened his spirit and made his heart obstinate, in order to deliver him into your hand, as he is today” (Deut 2:30b). God, in His omniscience, knew Sihon and his people were hostile and hopelessly unrepentant, and He decided to dispense judgment, first by hardening the king’s already hostile heart, and then by military defeat. Before the military fighting began, the Lord told Moses, “See, I have begun to deliver Sihon and his land over to you. Begin to occupy, that you may possess his land” (Deut 2:31). The Amorites were enemies of God and His people and were “a nation of hopelessly unrepentant squatters who had to be removed from the lands promised to Israel’s forefathers (cf. Gen 15:16; Ex 3:8). Thus, the command was to engage Sihon, king of the Amorites, in battle and liberate the land that he illegitimately occupied.”[1] Moses then reveals what follows, saying, “Then Sihon with all his people came out to meet us in battle at Jahaz. The LORD our God delivered him over to us, and we defeated him with his sons and all his people” (Deut 2:32-33). After defeating them, Moses states, “So we captured all his cities at that time and utterly destroyed the men, women and children of every city. We left no survivor” (Deut 2:34). The Israelites took the cities and animals that remained after the conflict (Deut 2:35). From Aroer to Gilead, “there was no city that was too high for us; the LORD our God delivered all over to us” (Deut 2:36). Victory was considered a sign of God’s blessing. But they could not take land that God had not approved, as Moses said, “Only you did not go near to the land of the sons of Ammon, all along the river Jabbok and the cities of the hill country, and wherever the LORD our God had commanded us” (Deut 2:37).

A Brief Consideration of Holy War:

     Deuteronomy 2:34 mentions, for the first time in this book, the subject of holy war. The words “utterly destroyed” translate the Hebrew חָרָם charam, which in this passage connotes something “devoted to destruction.”[2] Leon Wood states, “Usually ḥāram means a ban for utter destruction, the compulsory dedication of something which impedes or resists God’s work, which is considered to be accursed before God.”[3] Eugene Merrill comments:

  • "Nothing is more integral to the waging of holy war than the placing of conquered lands and their peoples under ḥērem. This noun, derived from the verb ḥāram, “to exterminate,” refers to a condition in which persons and things became the personal possession of the Lord by virtue of his inherent sovereignty and his appropriation of them by conquest. They could either be left alive and intact (Lev 27:21, 28; Josh 6:19) or eradicated (as here; cf. Num 21:2–3; Josh 6:21). In the passage at hand, it seems that the physical structures of the cities themselves were spared and that only the populations were decimated."[4]

     Though the idea of holy war can be difficult for us to digest (which in this context includes putting children to death), several things should be considered. First, the command was from the Lord Himself (Deut 2:34; 7:1-2; 20:17). Because God is omniscient (Psa 139:1-6), He knew the situation completely. Because the Lord is perfectly righteous (Gen 18:25; Psa 7:11), His command was just and fair. And, because God is gracious and patient (Psa 103:8), His command to execute the Canaanites was not reckless. Divine judgment meant God had determined the Canaanite culture was not reformable. Second, the Canaanites were by no means innocent. Rather, they were antitheocratic and hostile to God and His people and comprised the most corrupt culture in the world at that time. For hundreds of years the Canaanites practiced gross sexual immorality, which included all forms of incest (Lev 18:1-20; 20:10-12, 14, 17, 19-21), homosexuality (Lev 18:22; 20:13), and sex with animals (Lev 18:23; 20:15-16). They also engaged in the occult (Lev 20:6), were hostile toward parents (Lev 20:9), and offered their children as sacrifices to Molech (Lev 18:21; 20:1-5; cf. Deut 12:31; 18:10). Third, God had been gracious to the Canaanite people for four hundred years (Gen 15:14-16), giving them ample time to turn from their sin. Though God is very gracious and slow to anger (Psa 145:8-9), this does not last forever and eventually His righteous judgment falls upon those who deserve it (Deut 9:4-5). Fourth, Moses offered Sihon, King of Heshbon, peaceful terms if he would let the Israelites pass through his land, even offering to pay for whatever food and water they consumed, but Sihon rejected Moses’ offer and therefore brought judgment upon himself and his people. Fifth, the Amorites could have moved out and avoided the conflict by settling in another area. Sixth, God could have destroyed the people Himself, like He’d done in the global flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, and Egypt; however, it was His will the Canaanites be removed by military means and as a test of obedience to His people. Seventh, those who turned to God would have been spared, like Rahab and her family (Josh 2:1-14). Eighth, the killing of the Canaanite children may have spared them from growing up in a corrupt and hostile culture, “For if the child died before reaching the age of accountability it is likely that his or her eternal destiny would have been made secure in heaven.”[5] Ninth, this is the only time in the Bible and history that this command was given and was never repeated to other generations. Tenth, God’s command for holy war is not applicable for Christians, for God is not working to establish a theocratic kingdom on earth as He was through Israel.

     God warned Israel that if they failed to execute His judgment upon the Canaanites, they would become a corrupting cancer that would infect them (Deut 20:17-18; cf. Ex 23:33; Josh 23:12-13). Israel’s actions would have a direct impact on future generations. We know historically that Israel failed to obey the Lord (see the book of Judges), and the corrupt culture spread among God’s people, who themselves began to practice all the evil things God hates (Deut 12:31). Because Israel eventually became corrupt, He then destroyed and expelled them from the land by means of military defeat from their enemies. This happened when the ten northern tribes of Israel fell to the Assyrians in 722 BC and when the two southern tribes of Judah fell to the Babylonians in 586 BC.


[1] Eugene H. Merrill, Deuteronomy, vol. 4, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1994), 98–99.

[2] Ludwig Koehler et al., The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1994–2000), 354.

[3] Leon J. Wood, “744 חָרַם,” ed. R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1999), 324.

[4] Eugene H. Merrill, Deuteronomy, 102.

[5] Jack S. Deere, “Deuteronomy,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck, vol. 1 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 276.

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