OCCUPYING HOLY LAND REQUIRES EXTREME EXTERMINATION OF THREATS TO COVENANT WORSHIP
These final marching orders issued by God to His elect nation Israel through His chosen leader Moses show that God doesn’t mess around when it comes to spiritual threats. The older generation had failed in their calling to possess the promised land. Now a new generation is prepared on the banks of the Jordan to cross over and obey God’s directives and receive His gracious gift. But the military campaign required to possess the holy land includes very severe measures. The Canaanites must be conquered and driven out of the land or they will seduce Israel into some type of syncretistic adultery. In addition the objects associated with idolatry and the shrines for pagan worship must be completely destroyed. Only then will God’s blessing be assured.
Gordon Keddie: Israel was called by God to be the instrument of his judgment upon peoples whose sin he had deemed to have “reached its full measure” (cf. Genesis 15:16; Exodus 23:23; 34:11-14; Leviticus 20:22-24). It is important to interpret and apply this law with sound biblical proportion. . .
The destruction of Canaan points to the inevitability of the last judgment and, while that must warn those who have ears to hear to “flee the wrath to come”, its true application stops with the starkly simple point that God is just and his justice will not be denied.
Timothy Ashley: Regulations for Living in Canaan — The promised land has been Israel’s goal throughout the book of Numbers. It is only fitting, therefore, that the last section of the book (33:50–36:13) deals specifically with settlement in Canaan. Many of the themes that are mentioned here are developed in the deuteronomistic literature (Deuteronomy, Joshua–Kings). In a way, 33:50–36:13 anticipates and introduces this deuteronomistic literature.
The section breaks down into two groups of three laws each, carefully introduced by the clause “and Yahweh spoke to Moses” (wayeḏabbēr YHWH ’el–mōšeh, 33:50; 34:1, 16; 35:1, 9; cf. 36:6) and surrounded by the phrase “on the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho” (be‘areḇōṯ mô’aḇ ‘al–yardēn yerēḥô, 33:50; 35:1; 36:13).
Robert Rayburn: Remember, Israel is now encamped on the Plains of Moab, awaiting Moses’ death and the command to advance into the Promised Land. These final chapters in Numbers wrap up the preparations for the Conquest. The chapter . . . concludes with some specific instructions for Israel once she has entered Canaan.
(:50) PROLOGUE – FINAL COMMAND TO CONQUER AND DISTRIBUTE THE PROMISED LAND INTRODUCED
A. Divine Mandate
“Then the LORD spoke to Moses”
Gordon Keddie: First of all, it was a law for Israel from God. There is no evading the fact and therefore no reason to be squeamish about what it required. We are not superior to God. Our justice is not fairer than his. We have no reason to be embarrassed by his destruction of reprobate peoples.
B. Geographic Setting
1. Plains of Moab
“in the plains of Moab”
2. Across the Jordan from Jericho
“by the Jordan opposite Jericho,”
C. Verbal Instructions
I. (:51-53) RADICAL COMMISSION TO UTTERLY CONQUER AND POSSESS CANAAN
“Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them,”
God speaks to His people through the channel of His prophetic servant.
A. (:51) Engagement of the Military Campaign to Possess Canaan
“When you cross over the Jordan into the land of Canaan,”
Jeff Stephens: first of all we have the challenge to take possession of the land. That seems to be the key theme. For the word to take possession/yarash is used several times. The thought in v.51 is not if they cross, but when they cross as they will. The crossing is a certainty because God said they would and He has given the land to them. The word is a participle — implying the ongoing process of the crossing and the purpose of the crossing, namely to enter the land.
B. (:52) Elimination of Threats to Covenant Worship
1. Drive Out the Inhabitants so They are No Longer a Threat
“then you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you,”
R. K. Harrison: Idol worship was strictly prohibited (Ex. 20:4-5), and for this reason it was impossible for Israel to contemplate peaceful coexistence with idolaters. They had to be dispossessed, because their land was God’s gift to His people and must be occupied as such. Before He could rejoice in it, the territory would have to be sanctified by the presence of the kingdom of priests and holy nation that He had established by His covenant with Israel. The subsequent history of the nation shows tragically the extent to which they were unable or unwilling to fulfill these commands.
Jeff Stephens: Secondly, there is the manner in which they are to take the land, it is summed up in four verbs that are all causal in effect. They indicate the responsibility for taking possession of the land by driving out the inhabitants and destroying any trace of their idolatry lies with the people of Israel. It was a personal and corporate activity — corporate in scope and personal in practice. Everyone had to do their part and everyone’s part impacted the success of the whole. Just like a team. If one member fails in doing their job the whole team fails. So while the first verb is hifil-dispossess the inhabitants of the land as a corporate, national endeavor it also has personal specific actions like destroying specific images etc. So then we move to the process or manner of taking possession of their inheritance as indicated by these four verbs. . .
The word drive out/yarash-means to take possession of or dispossess. It is not just to displace, like when an object is placed into water it displaces a certain amount of water, in other words the water and the object cannot occupy the same space. In this case as the people push into Canaan the inhabitants must at the same time be either pushed out or killed, resulting in Israel increasingly occupying the land area at the same time removing or forcing out the previous inhabitants. The word is also translated inherit. For an inheritance to take effect the owner has to die in order to pass the land to the heir. Which implies the original owner (Canaanites) had to die. Or if we note God is the owner, obviously He cannot die, but someone must die in His place, in this case the Canaanites. God, as the owner, gives over what He had loaned to the Canaanites for a time and until He was ready to pass the land on to His children, Israel. So then taking possession, inheriting, being the necessary first verb in the sequence of verbs requires the act of the heir to actually take possession. And so the command to take possession necessarily follows the act of crossing into the land.
2. Destroy Their Idols so They are No Longer a Temptation
a. Their Figured Stones
“and destroy all their figured stones,”
b. Their Molten Images
“and destroy all their molten images”
3. Demolish Their Worship Shrines so They are No Longer a Distraction
“and demolish all their high places;”
Raymond Brown: There was no room for syncretistic worship whereby they could acknowledge their unique Lord and also pay their respects to idols. All their carved images and cast idols must be destroyed, and the invaders must demolish all their high places with their pornographic Asherah poles. Baalism was a fertility cult, maintaining that worship of its god would guarantee an abundant harvest. To procure such benefits its worshippers used shrine prostitutes and indulged in degrading sexual practices at these high places. But the Israelite people had entered into a covenant with their God, and a prohibition of adultery was part of the Decalogue’s covenant agreement.
The worship of Baal was not only erroneous but offensive to Israel’s holy God. Its corrupting influence would have a destructive effect on God’s people unless they had the will to deal drastically with those immoral shrines as soon as they conquered the land. In addition to its offensive sexual connotations, Baalism included the practice of child sacrifice, yet another breach of the commandments: ‘You shall not murder.’ Preaching to the community before they crossed the river, Moses warned them about Canaan’s ‘detestable ways’. Their rituals were physically brutal as well as morally depraved, and the Israelite invaders were to root out such barbaric practices. In order to accomplish this punitive destruction, the Israelites were assured that ‘the LORD your God will drive out those nations before you’.
The Christian believer has something to learn from this divine command. There can be little progress in holiness without a radical rejection of sin. Jesus made that clear in his teaching and the New Testament writers applied his message to life in their morally damaging first-century world. Ours is an even more depraved society; the call to holiness is a divine imperative, not an optional invitation.
Jeff Stephens: The third verb is pluck down, exterminate, demolish/samad. This word always means to destroy or annihilate and is always used in passages dealing with vengeance or the judgment of God. It usually is the result of sudden catastrophe as in warfare. They are to demolish the ‘high places’ bamah. These were worship areas usually a structure of some sort like a platform or even could refer to a building such as a sanctuary or an altar. These were normally placed on the heights like ridges or hills. These would have been supplied with the corresponding idols and stone pillars, etc. It would have been like a temple or shrine. These were the places of worship. So then as they entered the land they were to destroy the images, idols of metal, stone, wood, the places of worship and the even the imaginations or thinking behind all of these gods. They were to destroy anything that would cause them to worship something other than God.
This verse clearly depicts and instructs the total elimination from our lives of anything that competes with God for our worship.
J. Ligon Duncan: God is commanding the children of Israel to wipe out every potential rival to His rule in their hearts and to the purity of their worship and service of Him.
It’s so important to understand that this continues to be a New Testament principle, although it’s applied in a very different way. Our warfare is not against the peoples and the others who are idolaters in the land as much as it is against the world and the flesh and the devil and their temptation of us to follow in their way. So, for instance in Romans 12:2, the Apostle Paul calls us not to be conformed to this world, but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. Or, Paul in II Corinthians 7:1 will remind us of the call that God has issued to us not to emulate the ungodly around us but to walk in purity of life. And again he does the same thing in Ephesians 4:1 and in verses 17-19, where he calls upon us not to live like the Gentiles around us, but to live in godliness. And of course the Lord Jesus Christ made the same point in His own teaching when He reminded us that if there was anything that tempted us to infidelity towards God, that we were to deal with it severely and radically. And so He could say, “If you right hand offends you, cut it off and cast it away. If your right eye offends you, pluck it out and cast it away.” This is a demand for an uncompromising approach to sin.
C. (:53) Emancipation of the Land for Permanent Possession as Promised
1. Possession of the Land by Force
“and you shall take possession of the land and live in it,”
2. Promise of the Land Gift Fulfilled
“for I have given the land to you to possess it.”
II. (:54) RENEWED COMMITMENT TO GRANT THE LAND AS A DISTRIBUTED INHERITANCE
A. Distribution Sovereignly Controlled by the Lord
“And you shall inherit the land by lot according to your families;”
Ronald Allen: The manner of the distribution of the land was to be by lot, with the assurance that the lot would not be by chance but by the disposition of the Lord. In this way the people would be able to take possession of the land as a lasting inheritance.
Raymond Brown: The negative command about the eradication of evil is followed by a positive one concerning the distribution of the newly conquered land (53–54). Although the land was God’s gift (53), without clear instructions the allocation of tribal territory might provoke serious disharmony and rivalry. It was a unique experience for these nomads to possess their own land, and some guidance had to be given regarding equitable distribution.
B. Distribution Based on Size of the Tribe
1. To the Larger
“to the larger you shall give more inheritance,”
2. To the Smaller
“and to the smaller you shall give less inheritance.”
C. Distribution Irrevocable
“Wherever the lot falls to anyone, that shall be his.”
D. Distribution Tied to Tribal Identity
“You shall inherit according to the tribes of your fathers.”
III. (:55-56) REVERSING CAVEAT = OBEY OR SUFFER A SIMILAR FATE
A. (:55a) Failure Will Have Consequences
“But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you,”
B. (:55b-56) Consequences Will Be Severe
1. (:55b) Recurring Opposition
a. Severe Pain
“then it shall come about that those whom you let remain of them
will become as pricks in your eyes and as thorns in your sides,”
R. K. Harrison: two different Hebrew words for “thorn” are used. The expressions describe something that could disable and irritate the chosen people culturally and especially spiritually.
Timothy Ashley: As the splinter or thorn is small but sharp and can cause more than discomfort, including infection and (in the eyes) blindness, so even a small remnant of Canaanites will cause great problems in Israel’s future. It therefore will be foolish to allow the Canaanites to remain in the land.
Ronald Allen: images that Joshua uses in his farewell address; see Josh 23:13.
b. Severe Trouble
“and they shall trouble you in the land in which you live.”
2. (:56) Reversing of Fortunes
“And it shall come about that as I plan to do to them, so I will do to you.
Gordon Keddie: Here again, a general principle is dramatically demonstrated: if we are not killing sin, it will be killing us. This is where mortification of sin comes in (not in 33:50-53). Our sin will find us out, of we do not deal with it faithfully.
Raymond Brown: The problem blighted the spiritual life of God’s people across the centuries, right up to their enforced exile to Babylon. At that time, this crucial warning came to tragic fruition. In order to rid them of offensive idolatry and syncretistic worship, the Lord did to his people what he had planned for the Canaanites: he expelled them from the land. From bitter experience, his people learnt that God keeps his word, both in benevolent promise and threatened judgment.
Dennis Cole: What lay ahead for the nation on this last stage of the journey on the victory march to the Promised Land was a challenge of faith. Faithfulness like that which was depicted of the nation in Numbers 1–10 would result in their experiencing the fullness of God’s blessing in the land flowing with milk and honey. Unity and harmony, celebration and worship, would be theirs. But if they rebelled against God as that first generation did in Numbers 11–25, then discord and disparagement would be their woeful conclusion to the story. The words were ominously prophetic.
Charlie Garrett: The very fact that they have failed thus far calls into question their future in Canaan. History is often the best gauge of future performance. Further, the Lord tells them exactly what the consequences for failure will be.
Ronald Allen: These words, at the end of the travel itinerary, are most threatening indeed! For the present – that is, the time of the writing of the Book of Numbers – the outcome is uncertain. But the prospects are good. The second generation has fully replaced their erring fathers and mothers. The land lies before them as they wait I the final staging area. There is the Jordan. Over yonder is Jericho, the firstfruits of the land. And with them is the eternal Yahweh!