When Israel came up from Egypt and went into the Promised Land, they took up residence in a land formerly owned by thoroughgoing pagans. God’s people lived in houses built by pagans, cultivated fields cleared by pagans, and harvested orchards and vineyards planted by pagans. Moreover, all these things were dedicated to pagan gods by the previous inhabitants, a fact which seems to have caused Israel no concern at all.
Israel was able to take all these ‘pagan’ things from their previous pagan owners with a clear conscience for the best of all possible reasons: God told them to go and take the Land. For some people, it seems odd that God didn’t have them raze everything and start over from scratch, so that they would owe absolutely nothing to the pagans who had held the territory before them. God had other ideas.
That’s the way it works in the Kingdom of God. As Solomon put it several centuries later, “A good man leaves an inheritance to his children’s children, but the wealth of the sinner is stored up for the righteous” (Prov. 13:22). That transfer of inheritance from the wicked Canaanites to righteous Israel came with strict instructions not to get caught up in the various abominations of the peoples of the land, especially their many idolatries. In fact, although they were allowed to take over the fields, houses, cities and so on, there was one thing Israel was required to destroy absolutely: “You shall burn the carved images of their gods with fire; you shall not covet the silver or gold that is on them, nor take it for yourselves, lest you be snared by it, for it is an abomination to Yahweh your God, nor shall you bring an abomination into your house, lest you be doomed to destruction like it. You shall utterly detest it and utterly abhor it, for it is an accursed thing” (Deut. 7:25-26).
Burn the idols; don’t even go through the ashes looking for the gold that melted off. Don’t bring that junk into your house if you don’t want to be destroyed along with it. It isn’t worth it — set it on fire and walk away.
In order to grasp the lesson here, we have to understand the nature of Canaanite religion. In the ancient world, there was no separation between religion and the rest of life. The hearths would be dedicated to the appropriate goddess; the potter’s shop would have been blessed in the name of the patron god of the trade; fertility rites were performed in the farmers’ fields every spring to guarantee a good harvest; every house, in fact, would have its household gods. Yahweh did not tell Israel to destroy everything that had been consecrated in the name of some pagan deity — they would have had to destroy the very dirt under their feet! Rather, He told them to destroy the idols themselves, and take everything else as a gift from Him.
What gave Yahweh the right to offer an Israelite family a house devoted to a pagan deity, as if it were His to give? It really was His to give. The very heavens and earth are His; there is nothing that He cannot give as a gift.
In fact, the land was already theirs, because He had already given it to them in principle, centuries earlier. More than four hundred years before, their father Abraham had walked through Canaan, and God told Him, “Everywhere the sole of your foot touches, I will give you and your descendants.” The land belonged to Israel for the service of Yahweh, but in the intervening centuries pagans had taken up residence. With the pagans came idols, and as Paul later told the Corinthians, “An idol is a demon.” After Abraham, the devil walked the land, claiming it for his own everywhere he left his cloven hoofprints.
But he is the father of lies, and his claims of ownership were lies, too.
- During their centuries-long task of retaking pagan territory, Israel failed often. What were the temptations that troubled them? How might those same temptations trouble us today?
- Do you think it’s really possible to take back “enemy territory” and remain faithful to God?
- If so, what areas do you see that are “enemy territory” and need to be taken back? Is there a particular area that you feel called to retake?