The book of Deuteronomy, particularly in chapters 1-11, is about Israel’s preparation for a new life in a new land. In this article, I will first give context for Israel’s reasons for conquering in the land. I will also demonstrate why God allows the Israelites to use violence to conquer the land. I will then argue that although the book presents Israel’s right to remain in the land, it is conditional upon proper worshiping habits, particular views of God, and obedience to the covenant.
The first part of the book of Deuteronomy, also known as the “prologue” (Van Seters, 19), calls upon the Israelites to conquer the land God had promised them earlier in the Hebrew Bible, particularly in the book of Genesis (Gen 13:14-17, 15:12-21, 28:13-14, New Revised Standard Version). The theme of a “promised land” is significant not only in that it recurs throughout the Torah, but also in the fact that it “permeates all parts and levels of the book” of Deuteronomy (Van Seters, 19). This is the main reason Israel conquers the land, because the Israelites believed it belonged to them, in a sense. According to Deuteronomy 1-11, the seven nations to be conquered were “the Hittites, the Gergashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites” (Deut 7:1).
These nations were different from the Israelites in that they worshiped multiple gods, and thus God allowed for their violent removal. This suggests that the author(s) of Deuteronomy viewed the Israelites as more worthy of the land than any other nation. John Van Seters, in his chapter “The Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy)”, discusses the first eleven chapters of the book of Deuteronomy in the context of two basic themes: the “Promised Land,” and “Election and Covenant” (Van Seters, 19). Both of these themes are useful to look at when considering Israel’s occupation of the land and the reasons behind it. Van Seters interprets the passage as presenting the seven nations (mentioned above) as “unworthy peoples” in God’s eyes. He infers, “It was because of their evil ways that God eliminated them and replaced them with the Israelites” (19). It is clear in Deuteronomy that this was in fact the case: “It is because of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is dispossessing them before you” (Deut 9:4). A reader can even get the sense that the Israelites are simply a tool in the process of God’s greater goal, and the only reason they have been promised the land is because “the LORD loved [them]” (Deut 7:8). The book of Deuteronomy does not give any indication of the type of human beings the Israelites were, so they were not worthy, “chosen peoples” because of their overall goodness, but because of an obedience to God. This obedience is also the only indication of a difference between the Israelites and the seven nations.
Chapters 7-11 in particular highlight the importance of obedience and the consequences of rebelling. God’s promise to Israel is conditional upon this obedience, and as Van Seters points out, “if the Israelites behave in the same way as the former inhabitants, then they too will forfeit the land” (Van Seters, 19). In chapter 8, it is clear the consequences are much worse: “If you do forget the LORD your God and follow other gods to serve and worship them, I solemnly swear that you shall surely perish” (Deut 8:19).
It is clear in the previous passage that God is presented in this text as a violent and fearful figure. Furthermore, God not only allows for the removal of the seven nations, but also allows his “chosen people” to act violently on His behalf. John Joseph Collins, in his article “The Zeal of Phinehas: The Bible and the Legitimation of Violence” discusses Deuteronomy 7:1-6 as a description of the consequences of worshiping other gods besides YHWH. Even Israelites may be legitimately killed if found to worship other gods (Collins, 8). He describes the book of Deuteronomy as ironic in the sense that one minute it tells the Israelites to be compassionate to slaves, while the next it commends the slaughtering of the seven nations (9). Empathy does not apply to all people; there is a hierarchy at work with God above all, followed by those who obey Him, and at the bottom, essentially worthless, are those who do not.
In conclusion, the prologue of Deuteronomy clearly portrays Israel as more worthy of the than the other seven nations. This level of worthiness is essentially a cause of an obedience to God alongside His promise to the ancestors, which is a key commonality within the first five books of the Bible. God’s promise, however, is not set in stone and is conditional in the fact that those who stray from obeying the covenant will “perish.” Deuteronomy is one of the most violent books of the entire Hebrew Bible, and ironically, an obedience to God is the cause of this violence. Overall, the first eleven chapters of the book of Deuteronomy contain valuable information of the lives of the Israelites, their attitude toward others, and above all, their attitude toward God.
Attridge, Harold W. (ed.) The HarperCollins Study Bible: Fully Revised and Updated. New Revised Standard Version. Genesis – Deuteronomy. pp. 3-309.
Van Seters, John. “The Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy).”Found in The Hebrew Bible Today: An Introduction to Critical Issues. Edited by Steven L. McKenzie and Patrick Graham. Westminster John Knox Press. Kentucky: 1998.
Collins, John Joseph. “The Zeal of Phinehas: The Bible and the Legitimation of Violence.”Journal of Biblical Literature 122 no 1. Spring 2003, p 3-21.