I hadn’t remembered the passage correctly. In the story of the call of Moses, God spoke to the future prophet from the burning bush.
I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. . . . I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey. (Exodus 3:5, 7-8a)
I remembered that part of the story. God’s identification with people suffering in cruel bondage is good. Deliverance from oppression is good. The hope of living in a good land with plentiful resources is good.
And, as I have come to appreciate over the last many years, God’s faithfulness to his covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is very good. God identifies with the enslaved Israelites (or “Hebrews” as the Egyptians called them) as “my people” in verse 7 because of that covenant. The good and spacious land of verse 8 was the land God promised to Abraham beginning in Genesis 12.
Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your land and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. Genesis 12:1
So Abraham went, and as he wandered through the future land of Israel,
The Lord appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” (Genesis 12:7)
God later made the same promise to Jacob.
“I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring. (Genesis 28:13)
In the Biblical story, the promise of a certain piece of land was central to God’s covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
So Exodus is not about deliverance, freedom, sustenance and homeland as abstract human goods. Rather, it is about God’s continuing to unfold the covenant promises that he made to his chosen people. However, that’s not what I failed to remember about God’s call to Moses from the burning bush.
What usually went in one ear and out the other was what came next in verse 8:
I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. (Exodus 3:8)
I hadn’t paid attention. Someone else was already living in the good and spacious land flowing with milk and honey. If the Israelites were going to possess the land, something would have to be done about the Canaanites.
As I looked back at Genesis, it turns out that this element of the story isn’t exactly new. As early as Genesis 12, just before God told Abraham that he would give him the land on which he was standing, the author of Genesis notes,
At that time the Canaanites were in the land. (Genesis 12:6b)
Where Genesis 12 only implies that Israel will become a threat to the Canaanites in the future, the covenant ceremony of Genesis 15 is more direct.
On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebusites.” (Genesis 15:18-21)
God is going to give Israel land that is already occupied by other people. There is substantial overlap between the lists of to-be-displaced nations in Genesis 15 and Exodus 3. In fact, Genesis 15 directly foretells the future story of the Exodus.
As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram. And behold, dreadful and great darkness fell upon him. Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.” (Genesis 15:12-16)
Here, God’s reason for displacing the people of Canaan is their iniquity. For the most part, however, the authors of the Torah simply speak of Israel’s conquest of Canaan as a sign of God’s covenant favor, without any particular reference to evil on the part of the previous inhabitants. Perhaps it is simply implied that the entire Gentile world falls under God’s judgment.
Exodus 3:8b looks past the conflict with Pharaoh, past the plagues and the Passover (each troubling in their own way), past the drowning of the Egyptian army in the sea, past the journey through the wilderness with its own battles, to the battle for the conquest of Canaan. As the story unfolds, it is those who are not eager to fight the Canaanites – disheartened by the report of the twelve scouts or spies in Numbers 13-14 – who are responsible for God keeping the Israelites in the wilderness for forty years. An entire generation dies in the desert. Of that generation, only Joshua and Caleb, who championed the cause of fighting the Canaanites, enter the Promised Land.
Later, when the author of Deuteronomy 6:4-5 gives us Israel’s great confession (the shema yisrael) and the greatest commandment (according to Jesus), he brackets this text with allusions to the promise of Exodus 3 – deliverance from slavery to a land flowing with milk and honey, and a reminder that the land once belonged to others.
Hear, Israel, and be careful to obey so that it may go well with you and that you may increase greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, just as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, promised you. (Deuteronomy 6:3)
When the Lord your God brings you into the land he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to give you—a land with large, flourishing cities you did not build, houses filled with all kinds of good things you did not provide, wells you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant—then when you eat and are satisfied, be careful that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. (Deuteronomy 6:10-12)
Let me repeat myself. In the Biblical story, the promise of a certain piece of land was central to God’s covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And there were Canaanites in the land.
The violence of the Old Testament appears to be a topic of frequent discussion among Christians, with most of the focus being on the books of Joshua, Judges and I/II Samuel. One needn’t turn to the most gruesome passages of the conquest narrative, however, to find material that is troubling to Christians. Exodus 3 is a reminder that displacement of the Canaanites is an integral part of the covenantal story. As early as Genesis 12, the narrative foreshadows the coming warfare to secure and hold the land of God’s promise.
What does this mean for Christians? God’s covenant with Israel included both the explicit promise that Abraham’s offspring would bless the world’s people and the implicit promise that they would conquer some of those same people at the point of a sword. It seems impossible for me to separate one part of the covenant promise from the other.
Does this mean that armed warfare with unbelieving nations is still God’s means for accomplishing his covenant purposes? Of course not! On the same Sunday on which we read the story of the burning bush, we also read that Jesus told his followers that he “must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” (Matthew 16:21) Jesus is not Joshua, although they bear the same name. He doesn’t lead an army of armed tribesmen to eradicate the evil Canaanites. Rather, he offers his life for many, for the forgiveness of sins and the consecration of a new covenant. He wins his battle with a bloody cross and in an empty tomb. The extermination of evil does not come with the annihilation of an ethnic group at the point of a sword, but when “the Son of Man comes with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done.” (Matthew 16:27)
Because of what Jesus did, Christians are to live differently now. In that same Sunday’s epistle reading, Paul wrote:
Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:17-21)
The story of Jesus, however, doesn’t make sense unless you start with Abraham. We are God’s people, members of God’s kingdom, blessed to be a blessing. This is the promise to Abraham. Like Moses and the Hebrews, we look forward to possessing the land of promise, the good and spacious land flowing with milk and honey, from which all evil is banished. We give thanks that God identifies with us and joins with us in our suffering and we look forward to the defeat world’s oppressive and destructive powers. The fulfillment of this promise, however, waits the coming day of our Lord Jesus Christ. We only anticipate that day in our life together in Christ’s church by the power the Holy Spirit.
And as a final note, let me say that I don’t find any need to distance myself from the full story of Israel. Roger Olsen has argued (with reference to the “genocidal” passages):
If I believe that God ever commanded the slaughter of an entire people group, including all the children, then I don’t see how it is possible to argue with assurance that God never does that today.
I find that argument unpersuasive. As I previously asserted, the violent displacement of “people groups” is implicit in the “land” component of God’s promise to the patriarchs, even apart from the genocidal passages.
Let me make an argument by way of an analogy. The covenant with Moses explicitly required the slaughter of certain animals for ritual sacrifice. Would one argue that if God ever commanded the slaughter of a bull and the ritual destruction of its meat on an altar, then you can’t rule out that he might also do so today? The entire arc of Biblical history would say otherwise. The requirement for a myriad of sacrifices has been eliminated by Christ’s one offering of himself. Jesus fulfills this particular theme of salvation history in a way that both transforms and overthrows the previous way of understanding it.
That same sacrifice has also obviated the need to secure and hold on to a piece of land with the power of human violence. Again, Jesus both fulfills and overthrows the “take possession of the land and purify it from evil” theme that dominates the Old Testament. In Jesus, “the land” and the means of possessing it are transformed. Violence in defense of the innocent may still be necessary in this world, but it no longer advances the ultimate cause of God’s kingdom. We’re past that now.