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D'varim/Deuteronomy 2:34 And we took all his cities at that time and we devoted every city
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Our text forms part of the battle report of the Israelites against Sihon, king of Heshbon. The battle starts a few verses back when Moshe reminds the people thatHaShem told them, "Behold, I have begun to give Sihon and his land over to you. Begin to take possession, that you may occupy his land" (D'varim 2:31, NJPS). After the statement that HaShem gave Sihon over to them and that they defeated him and his people, our text reports that all the cities and settlements were captured and devoted to destruction, before the conclusion that "there was not one city too well fortified for us to capture - ADONAI our G-d gave all of them to us" (v. 26, CJB). Stephen Sherwood points out that "the statement that no citadel was too high for the people contradicts that of the murmurers in 1:28 that the Canaanite cities were fortified to the heavens. Once the people trusted in YHVH, no fortress could withstand them."1
Modern sensibilities are uncomfortable with the idea of total destruction: the cities together with "men, women and children" (v. 34) as the report tells us. The Hebrew root , to proscribe, place under the ban, devote to destruction, turns a military conquest into a holy war. WhatIf(Left, Targum_Onkelos) changes the Hebrew verb , "and we devoted", to the Aramaic , "and we destroyed", to clarify the meaning. Richard Elliott Friedman explains that "in contexts that do not have to do with war, the Hebrew word refers to something that is devoted to G-d. In contexts of war, as in this verse, it refers to the rule, in divinely commanded wars only, against taking spoils or slaves, but rather destroying all of these and thus dedicating them to the deity. The point: the war is not for profit."
Contemporary commentators are alert to the level of partnership or collaboration on display in this battle. Patrick Miller sees "a clear interaction between divine intention and control of history and human response to conform to or resist that purpose",2 while Peter Craigie observes that, "the people did not sit back and observe the acts of G-d; they entered the battle and experienced the presence of G-d in their active obedience and commitment."3 Christopher Wright speaks of an "unselfconscious linking together of divine will and human action"4 - as if HaShem has decided it will happen and all the Israelites have to do is put it into practice - and Walter Brueggemann explains that "the coupling of YHVH's actions and Israel's action is a characteristic Israelite statement of theological synergism in which the two actions by two agents are connected and intertwined"5: HaShem and the people make it happen together, neither quite works without the other.
It seems as if Israel could - and did - take and do everything; just look at the string of verbs in the passage: we defeated (v. 33) ... we captured (v. 34) ... we devoted (v. 34) ... we left (v. 34) ... we kept (v. 35). This looks like an early example of Isaiah's famous voicing of HaShem's words to the exiles in Babylon: "No weapon that is formed against you shall prosper; and every tongue that accuses you in judgment you will condemn. This is the heritage of the servants of the L-RD, and their vindication is from Me, declares the L-RD" (Isaiah 54:17, NASB). "The previous generation had squandered their opportunity to take the land because they were intimidated by tall people and tall cities," Wright says, "Now their offspring discovered that height was no hindrance to the hand of God and a people moving in obedience."6
However, as Tanakh tells us, it didn't stay that way. Israel had been clearly warned that "if you do not obey the L-RD your G-d to observe faithfully all His commandments and laws which I enjoin upon you this day, all these curses shall come upon you and take effect ... The L-RD will drive you, and the king you have set over you, to a nation unknown to you or your fathers, where you shall serve other gods, of wood and stone" (D'varim 28:15,36, NJPS). Because of their sin and idolatry, Israel lost ground until the day when they themselves went into exile - cast out of their own land. First the land on the east of the Jordan, then a swathe of the Galilee, then the northern kingdom until, finally, the southern kingdom of Judah fell to the Babylonians as Jeremiah spoke: "Lo! I proclaim your release -- declares the L-RD -- to the sword, to pestilence, and to famine; and I will make you a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth" (Jeremiah 34:17, NJPS).
Luke starts his second book, the book of Acts, with the amazing statement, "In the first book ... I have dealt with all that Yeshua began to do and teach" (Acts 1:1). Yeshua began the work of restoring the world, but has not yet finished. He defeated the enemy for the first time in the wilderness, when - unlike Adam and Eve before Him - He refused the temptations offered to Him. Three years later, He defeated the enemy again on the cross, when He gave His life as an atonement for sin. Just three more days and He defeated the enemy for the third time when He broke the power of death itself by rising from death to live for ever. Rav Sha'ul writes - citing Psalm 68 - that when Yeshua ascended to heaven, "He led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men" (Ephesians 4;8, ESV). Yeshua led the powers and principalities of this world, the spiritual forces of wickedness, in his victory procession to demonstrate His authority over them and their submission to Him.
Luke also reports the words of the Jews from the synagogue in Thessalonica when they were offended at Sha'ul and Silas preaching about Yeshua in the synagogue, "These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also ... they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Yeshua" (Acts 17.6-7, ESV). The proclamation that Yeshua is Lord brought many to faith, many who recognised that the claims of Caesar were impossible. Even though the new believers were model citizens, obeying the laws, paying their taxes and keeping the peace, the affirmation of Yeshua as Lord turned the world upside down. Within just a few short years, there were disciples all the way from Jerusalem to Rome and many other places, all proclaiming that Yeshua is Lord and being prepared to die rather than give Him up. This stood the traditional Roman system of allegiance to Caesar on its head: Caesar was only a man; Yeshua is the very Son of G-d. How similar this sounds to the ancient Israelite battle report: "at that time!"
Sha'ul goes further and tells us that we have been divinely empowered and equipped to take ground and advance the kingdom of G-d in this earth, declaring the grace and mercy of G-d to forgive sin and calling men everywhere to repent and receive the good news of the kingdom. He writes, "For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Messiah" (2 Corinthians 10:4-5, ESV). Notice the word Sha'ul uses: 'destroy'. We are to destroy, devote to destruction, give no ground to and refuse to negotiate with, arguments and opinions that raise themselves up against G-d. In the same way that Yeshua defeated the enemy in the wilderness, we are to defeat the accuser by "the word of our testimony" (Revelation 12:11) speaking out the word of of God which "is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit" (Hebrews 4:12, ESV).
Nevertheless, in these days, the witness and distinctiveness of those called to be followers of Yeshua has been marred by sin: by our worldliness, by sins of adultery and financial misconduct within the Body of Messiah, by denying and twisting the word of G-d, by compromising truth and standards, by accepting and blessing those things that G-d calls an abomination. Because of these and other sins, we have lost ground; we have lost credibility and - most importantly - we have lost the presence and power of G-d in our midst. The world has turned us upside down and we are rapidly finding ourselves in a state of exile: excluded from any positions of power and influence within society and becoming a laughing-stock or an irrelevance among the people. Just like the ancient Israelites conquered by the Babylonians, "our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off" (Ezekiel 37:11, ESV).
What can we do to reverse the decline, to restore the power of the gospel and the name and reputation of Yeshua in these days? Nothing short of a radical return to our roots - the absolute lordship of Yeshua, the unchanging truth and relevance of the Word of G-d, the power of the Spirit and a call to holy living before our G-d - can bring about the revival we seek. Yeshua has begun His work of saving and restoring the world; He is still calling His people to join with Him in that work - a theological synergism as we start once more to challenge the world over its conduct, values, ethics and morality. This work is not for the faint-hearted and, from our position in exile until Yeshua returns, will look quite different from the organised structures and buildings of Christendom. We can, however, be sure that Yeshua will be working alongside and within us by His Spirit as we follow His command to "seek first the kingdom of G-d" (Matthew 6:33, ESV)!
1. - Stephen Sherwood, Berit Olam: Studies in Hebrew Narrative and Poetry - Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2002), page 247.
2. - Patrick D. Miller, Deuteronomy Interpretation (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), page 21.
3. - P. C. Craigie, The Book of Deuteronomy, NICOT, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1976), page 117.
4. - Christopher J. H. Wright, Deuteronomy (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2012), page 39.
5. - Walter Brueggemann, Deuteronomy Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2001), page 41.
6. - Wright, 39.
Further Study: Mark 10:29-30; 1 Timothy 4:6-10; Revelation 3:1-6
Application: Are you shocked by the way the gospel and kingdom of G-d seem to have fallen into disrepute around our very ears? Take a few moments today to cry out to G-d and ask Him to show you how you can partner with Him to restore the name of Yeshua in these days.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2023
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