Deuteronomy 2: The Warrior God

 Deuteronomy 2: 1-25 ‘Here There Once Were Giants’

(After you has stayed at Kadesh as many days as you did) we journeyed back into the wilderness, in the direction of the Red Sea, as the LORD had told me and skirted Mount Seir for many days. 2 Then the LORD said to me: 3 “You have been skirting this hill country long enough. Head north, 4 and charge the people as follows: You are about to pass through the territory of your kindred, the descendants of Esau, who live in Seir. They will be afraid of you, so, be very careful 5 not to engage in battle with them, for I will not give you even so much as a foot’s length of their land, since I have given Mount Seir to Esau as a possession. 6 You shall purchase food from them for money, so that you may eat; and you shall also buy water from them for money, so that you may drink. 7 Surely the LORD your God has blessed you in all your undertakings; he knows your going through this great wilderness. These forty years the LORD your God has been with you; you have lacked nothing.” 8 So we passed by our kin, the descendants of Esau who live in Seir, leaving behind the route of the Arabah, and leaving behind Elath and Ezion-geber.

When we had headed out along the route of the wilderness of Moab, 9 the LORD said to me: “Do not harass Moab or engage them in battle, for I will not give you any of its land as a possession, since I have given Ar as a possession to the descendants of Lot.” 10 (The Emim– a large and numerous people, as tall as the Anakim– had formerly inhabited it. 11 Like the Anakim, they are usually reckoned as Rephaim, though the Moabites call them Emim. 12 Moreover, the Horim had formerly inhabited Seir, but the descendants of Esau dispossessed them, destroying them and settling in their place, as Israel has done in the land that the LORD gave them as a possession.) 13 “Now then, proceed to cross over the Wadi Zered.”

So we crossed over the Wadi Zered. 14 And the length of time we had traveled from Kadesh-barnea until we crossed the Wadi Zered was thirty-eight years, until the entire generation of warriors had perished from the camp, as the LORD had sworn concerning them. 15 Indeed, the LORD’s own hand was against them, to root them out from the camp, until all had perished.

16 Just as soon as all the warriors had died off from among the people, 17 the LORD spoke to me, saying, 18 “Today you are going to cross the boundary of Moab at Ar. 19 When you approach the frontier of the Ammonites, do not harass them or engage them in battle, for I will not give the land of the Ammonites to you as a possession, because I have given it to the descendants of Lot.” 20 (It also is usually reckoned as a land of Rephaim. Rephaim formerly inhabited it, though the Ammonites call them Zamzummim, 21 a strong and numerous people, as tall as the Anakim. But the LORD destroyed them from before the Ammonites so that they could dispossess them and settle in their place. 22 He did the same for the descendants of Esau, who live in Seir, by destroying the Horim before them so that they could dispossess them and settle in their place even to this day.23 As for the Avvim, who had lived in settlements in the vicinity of Gaza, the Caphtorim, who came from Caphtor, destroyed them and settled in their place.) 24 “Proceed on your journey and cross the Wadi Arnon. See, I have handed over to you King Sihon the Amorite of Heshbon, and his land. Begin to take possession by engaging him in battle. 25 This day I will begin to put the dread and fear of you upon the peoples everywhere under heaven; when they hear report of you, they will tremble and be in anguish because of you.”

Sometimes when people ask me, “What does the bible say about this?” they assume that the Bible only speaks with one voice or has one answer and as a pastor I have to be sensitive to the situation the person is asking from how I answer the question. If the person is at a safe place where they can deal with the dialogue and variety of perspectives that emerge from the sixty six books collected together to form the Bible that many Christians use (Catholics and Orthodox would also include some additional books like Baruch, Wisdom of Solomon, 1&2 Maccabees and others as a part of their cannon) and I typically can do this in a way that allows the person to enter the questions of the people of God and their interaction with God. There are times of trauma and crisis where a person needs an immediate and certain answer to hold on to. Whether Deuteronomy emerges from its narrative context, where Moses is addressing the people of Israel prior to entering Israel, or as many scholars believe the trauma of the Babylonian exile, where all the things that once defined them have been taken away, it speaks from this need of an immediate and certain answer. For the author of Deuteronomy there are some bedrock truths that they want their readers in a situation of crisis to understand: God has been faithful, God is powerful and will act on their behalf and their previous defeats prior to entering the promised land were due to the unfaithfulness of their ancestors. There is strength and there is danger to this level of certainty and I will deal with the danger and the need for the broader perspective of scripture in the second half of this chapter.

Map Showing the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah in the 9th Century BCE

Map Showing the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah in the 9th Century BCE

The narrative that Deuteronomy leads us into has the people journeying peacefully through the lands of Seir, Moab and the Ammonites. Rather than approaching from the south as was done in chapter one the people move through these lands peacefully to approach from the east. There are a few really interesting things that the narrative highlights and the first is that there are other people who have land that has been given to them by the LORD. The descendants of Lot, who are distant kin according to Genesis; Esau, who are closer kin according to Genesis, both have land that has been entrusted to their heirs and even though these descendants of Lot and Esau presumably do not know the LORD, the LORD has enabled them to overcome whatever prevented them from coming into possession of the land. A new player is also introduced into the narrative, the Caphtorim who come from Caphtor, who are not mentioned in Genesis as having any link with the Hebrew people, instead they will become the Philistines who will factor into the later story of Israel, but as the prophet Amos will later state they too have a place given by the LORD:

                Are you not like the Ethiopians to me, O people of Israel? Says the LORD.
                Did I not bring Israel up from the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor
                And the Arameans from Kir? Amos 9:7

And in the midst of the fear the people on this journey must be facing, Moses in the narrative reassures them over and over again that the LORD is not merely their tribal God but something much more. The LORD was able to bring them out of Egypt and settle all of these people because their LORD is a God above all gods.

The other side of this is that the narrative also lets us know that Israel is not the only people that the LORD is concerned with. As Walter Brueggemann says, “there are other communities on the horizon of YHWH’s specific beneficence. Israel’s entitlement gives it no permit to disrupt the entitlement of another people by YHWH.” (Brueggemann, 2001, p. 35f) This beneficence may or may not have been well received, but in the narrative the people journey onward peacefully through these lands. For the time being the most important thing is not their approval or disapproval but their obedience.

In the midst of this journey they have been provided with everything they have needed. They have the resources to pay for food and water for this part of their journey. They were able to barter for what they would need because, as throughout their sojourn in the wilderness, the LORD had provided for them. Another aspect of the LORD’s control in this narrative is the disposition of the people towards Israel. They are afraid and it is the LORD that has made them afraid but it is a fear that allows them to pass through the land without resistance rather than a fear that resorts to fighting and conflict. They walk through the lands of these former giant slayers and the giant slayers are afraid of them.

In Deuteronomy 1 their ancestor’s confidence failed when there were rumors of giants in the land.

The people are stronger and taller than we; the cities are large and fortified up to heaven! We actually saw there the offspring of the Anakim!” Deuteronomy 1. 28

The route prior to entering the conflict in the land leads them through the lands that were once possessed by related groups of giant people who were numerous but are no more. There were once giants here but the LORD worked with these other peoples to drive them out and if the LORD protected them, how much more will he protect the people who have this specific covenant with the God who took them out of Egypt, through the wilderness and now again to the precipice of the promised land. The narrative has done everything it can to build confidence and trust among the people as they prepare for the conflict ahead.


Deuteronomy 2: 26-37 The Defeat Of King Sihon And The Slaughter Of The People Of The Land

26 So I sent messengers from the wilderness of Kedemoth to King Sihon of Heshbon with the following terms of peace: 27 “If you let me pass through your land, I will travel only along the road; I will turn aside neither to the right nor to the left. 28 You shall sell me food for money, so that I may eat, and supply me water for money, so that I may drink. Only allow me to pass through on foot– 29 just as the descendants of Esau who live in Seir have done for me and likewise the Moabites who live in Ar– until I cross the Jordan into the land that the LORD our God is giving us.” 30 But King Sihon of Heshbon was not willing to let us pass through, for the LORD your God had hardened his spirit and made his heart defiant in order to hand him over to you, as he has now done.

31 The LORD said to me, “See, I have begun to give Sihon and his land over to you. Begin now to take possession of his land.” 32 So when Sihon came out against us, he and all his people for battle at Jahaz, 33 the LORD our God gave him over to us; and we struck him down, along with his offspring and all his people. 34 At that time we captured all his towns, and in each town we utterly destroyed men, women, and children. We left not a single survivor. 35 Only the livestock we kept as spoil for ourselves, as well as the plunder of the towns that we had captured. 36 From Aroer on the edge of the Wadi Arnon (including the town that is in the wadi itself) as far as Gilead, there was no citadel too high for us. The LORD our God gave everything to us. 37 You did not encroach, however, on the land of the Ammonites, avoiding the whole upper region of the Wadi Jabbok as well as the towns of the hill country, just as the LORD our God had charged.

One of the earliest heresies the early Christian church has to deal with was the followers of Marcion (more on Marcion and some of the early heresies of the church here) who could not reconcile the warrior God presented here and in many other places throughout the scriptures with the God he had come to know in Jesus Christ. Marcion approached the scriptures from a Greek perspective and wanted everything to line up systematically and give us easy answers. There can be great strength in a unified vision and a common cause but we also know all too well the dangers of such absolutism. This is a passage that will offend and I think should offend us and make us ask questions and go back to the scriptures and the dialogue they present and many other passages as we discern what God’s calling is for us at any given time. There are many places in the Old Testament where God seems to call for genocide and this is one. There are also many times where Christians have felt justified in their attempts to wipe out another people or persecute them because of a different religion or a different culture. I wrestled with this question much earlier when I was going through the book of Esther here.

We have the scriptures we have and as uncomfortable as this passage may be it is a part of our scriptures and our stories. I would rather wrestle with what is uncomfortable than ignore it. The image of the warrior God can be a great source of strength for people who are oppressed. Luther’s ‘A Mighty Fortress’ comes out of this picture of God and it is not a coincidence that the narrative that many of the preachers of the civil rights movement went back to was the people of Israel being led by the warrior God out of Egypt and to the promised land. I served for five years as a soldier prior to beginning my training for ministry and we live in a different time but the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan opened our eyes again to the challenge of close warfare. In contrast with the conflict in 1991 where it was a maneuver war fought primarily with airpower and artillery and armored vehicles firing at long range, in both Iraq and Afghanistan this long term conflict involved infantry and non-uniformed combatants in close quarters with urban populations. This is a type of conflict that quickly becomes ugly and distasteful, there is no glory in this type of war and many of the technological advantages become neutralized. I think if nothing else these conflicts have reminded us that war is an ugly, brutal and costly thing in lives and longer term psychological damage. The experiences of the Holocaust, Bosnia, and Rwanda have reminded us of what genocide looks like. We come to passages like this where the people strike down men, women and children leaving no survivors and it makes us wonder why, and that is a question we cannot answer satisfactorily.

I also worry about inscribing our values on the lives and times of ancient peoples. As I have told my congregation many times, “we are offended by the violence of ISIS when they behead people, but we need to understand that in the ancient world beheading was an honorable death. We should be horrified by it now, but it also reflects where our world has come.” The ancient world was a brutal place and the scriptures are a part of that world and will reflect that world. The God of Israel is a loving God but not a controllable one. Perhaps a line from the chronicles of Narnia fits here, when Lucy is wondering about Aslan she asks if he is safe, and the response is ‘Safe! He is a lion, of course he is not safe, but he is good.’ And perhaps that may be all the resolution we can come to as we approach the LORD as presented throughout the Exodus narrative. The LORD is good and passionate and hears the people but they never mistake the LORD is safe and perhaps as we go through the narrative we need this side of the LORD’s presence which complements our too easy accommodation to a God who is safe and doesn’t intervene in our world.

Approaching the scriptures is not easy. To hold together the God who hardened the heart of King Sihon , like Pharoah, and prevented peace here with what St. Paul labels God as the God of peace (Romans 15.33) is challenging and some would say impossible. Others will need to come up with systems to contain what God is like, but the God of scriptures always challenges any easy answers. This is a part of the mystery of faith and the journey of faith that we make with God. There will be times where we understand and times where we don’t but as a part of the people of this story and the story of the cross I pray for the wisdom to pray for both the people of Israel and the people of Sihon, to love my neighbor and my enemy. This is one of the many images of God that I have come to know, but for me it is not the dominant one.

5 thoughts on “Deuteronomy 2: The Warrior God

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