Struggles of Israel Meditations: 3. Approaching the Land
Deut 1:7,8 “Break camp and advance into the hill country of the Amorites; go to all the neighboring peoples in the Arabah, in the mountains, in the western foothills, in the Negev and along the coast, to the land of the Canaanites and to Lebanon , as far as the great river, the Euphrates . See, I have given you this land. Go in and take possession of the land that the LORD swore he would give to your fathers–to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob–and to their descendants after them.”
Wars on the Way: We have seen Abraham getting drawn into a battle, and we saw the Amalekites attack Israel on their way to the Promised Land, but thereafter there appears no fighting for forty years – apart from the Amalekites driving Israel away from the Promised Land as discipline from God for disobedience (see Num 14:45). But as Israel eventually, after forty years, make their way north, they encounter various ‘nations’ and it is instructive to note how they were guided by God through them.
Israel a Threat? I wonder how you might have felt as a king over a small nation or big tribe, and you find this massive group of somewhere between one and two million people turning up on your border? However, perhaps a more important issue is how Israel felt, what their intentions were, and the instructions that come from the Lord.
See Moses’ words recounting what had happened: “the Lord said to me, 3 “You have made your way around this hill country long enough; now turn north. 4 Give the people these orders: ‘You are about to pass through the territory of your relatives the descendants of Esau, who live in Seir. They will be afraid of you, but be very careful. 5 Do not provoke them to war, for I will not give you any of their land, not even enough to put your foot on. I have given Esau the hill country of Seir as his own. 6 You are to pay them in silver for the food you eat and the water you drink.’” (Deut 2:2-6)` Mount Seir is to the south east of the Dead Sea. It is important to understand the geography here up the east side of the Dead Sea: to the south is Edom, (the area referred to above), north of them is Moab and north of them Ammon, west of which dwelt the Amorites at the city of Heshbon, and then further north still, Bashan.
Peaceful Approaches: The instructions given above to Israel in respect of Edom indicated they were clearly not to be provocative and indeed they were to pay for resources taken. First in respect of Edom: in Numbers 20 we see Israel seeking to pass Edom in a very peaceable manner and when Edom reject them, they carefully skirt the land (see Num 20:14-21). However a little way along the way we find (Num 21) the Canaanite king of Arad, who lived in the south, saw them coming, attacked them and took some of them prisoner (v.1) and so Israel retaliated and destroyed them. After this they appear to have turned east to skirt round the south end of the Dead Sea and then make their way north, avoiding Edom. Second, as they near Moab, the Lord instructs them, “Do not harass the Moabites or provoke them to war, for I will not give you any part of their land.” (Deut 2:9) Third, as they continue and approach Ammon, “When you come to the Ammonites, do not harass them or provoke them to war, for I will not give you possession of any land belonging to the Ammonites.” (v.19)
Two Battles: On the west side of Ammon is the city of Heshbon and there they ran into trouble. First came instructions from the Lord preempting what was about to happen: “See, I have given into your hand Sihon the Amorite, king of Heshbon, and his country. Begin to take possession of it and engage him in battle. 25 This very day I will begin to put the terror and fear of you on all the nations under heaven. They will hear reports of you and will tremble and be in anguish because of you.” (Deut 2:24,25) The reality of it working out is seen in Numbers: “Israel sent messengers to say to Sihon king of the Amorites: 22 “Let us pass through your country. We will not turn aside into any field or vineyard, or drink water from any well. We will travel along the King’s Highway until we have passed through your territory.” 23 But Sihon would not let Israel pass through his territory. He mustered his entire army and marched out into the wilderness against Israel. When he reached Jahaz, he fought with Israel.” (Num 21:21-23) Israel simply defeat him! See v.24-26
But they still have to go north to find a crossing point on the Jordan to go into the Land: “Then they turned and went up along the road toward Bashan, and Og king of Bashan and his whole army marched out to meet them in battle at Edrei.” (Num 21:33) The Lord encourages them (v.34) and they defeat Og (v.35) We are also told that Bashan and his people were also (like Sihon) Amorites (Deut 3:8).
A Seduction: While Israel are on the Plains of Moab, at Shittim to the east of the Jordon getting ready to cross and enter the Land, women turn up who are both Moabites and Midianites: “While Israel was staying in Shittim, the men began to indulge in sexual immorality with Moabite women, 2 who invited them to the sacrifices to their gods.” (Num 25:1,2 – see also v.6) The Midianites were mostly nomadic but settled in areas of Moab and were closely allied with Moab (see Num 22:4-7), so it is not surprising that God’s condemnation for this act of seduction is largely on the Midianites (see Num 31) which eventually involved the death of Balaam (see v.8) who had advised the enemy, after he had not been able to curse Israel, to seduce them in this way (see Num 31:16). Some of the men of Israel (we aren’t told how many) went with these women (as Balaam suggested they would) and as a result the anger of the Lord was poured out with a decree that the Midianites be destroyed in battle – see Num 31. Although there does seem to be victory over them, they do appear again later in Israel’s history as a thorn in their side (see Judg 6 & 7) and were obviously not utterly destroyed.
Consequences: We would do well to understand something that arises again and again in the life of Israel. Every now and then, after an episode of blatant sin, there is a strong and violent judgment following. The naïve wonder why this is so. Consider God’s purposes for Israel. He has created them as a unique nation which, elsewhere, I have suggested is for three purposes. First to reveal Him to the rest of the world, second to reveal the sinfulness of mankind even in such a nation as this, and third, to create a nation that will eventually create a ‘God-environment’ into which His Son can eventually come. Again and again, the very existence of Israel, as this holy nation, comes under threat as the enemy, as we said earlier, sought to bring them down by deception, temptation or outright attack. Such threats to the life of Israel are threats to the very plan of God instigated from before the foundation of the world to use Israel in this way and bring His salvation to the Fallen World. That is how serious it is!
Recap: So what have we seen in this study?
- Israel making their way peaceably up the east side of the Dead Sea in preparation for entering the Land near Jericho,
- the Lord telling them NOT to harm Edom, Moab or Ammon
- attacks on Israel by the king of Arad and then two kings of the Amorites, who Israel then defeat,
- finally having the war against the Midianites who, on Balaam’s advice had sought to completely undermine Israel and lead them into idolatry.
Thus we have seen three protected peoples and then three peoples who opposed them. The battles against them were not instigated by them but in each case were entirely defensive actions to preserve themselves from their enemies. We should not naively wonder about the extent of such fighting – which includes wiping out whole peoples, because it was a case of destroy or be destroyed, as we have observed more than once in World War Two in our own time. Now we have dealt with the advance up the east of the Dead Sea, we are ready to consider the actual taking of the Land.
And Us? Lessons to be learned? We need to read our Bibles carefully, to enable us to understand the realities of just what happened in these times, to avoid making inaccurate assessments. Living in this fallen World, it is sometimes necessary to choose the lesser of two evils. War is never good but unfortunately in the face of sinful activities of others, is necessary to protect our loved ones. God does not encourage physical war but when it is necessary He calls us to act as civilly as possible. Spiritual warfare is an ongoing necessity.