Getting off to a good start, God opens the chapter by telling the Hebrews to “utterly destroy” the current inhabitants of Canaan.

God tells the people that he will “[clear] away many nations before you […] seven nations greater and mightier than yourselves” (v.1). Later, he tells them that “it was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love upon you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples” (v.7).

Given that the last census (taken in Numbers 26) gave us over 600,000 men over the age of 20, the idea that the Hebrews were the “fewest of all peoples” is… scary. It would have meant that Canaan was crawling with people, even by modern standards (the current population of Israel is only about 8 million, and that’s with modern agricultural practices and trade to sustain a higher number).

It’s been clear from the beginning that the accounts have been hyperbolising, but what’s interesting is the tension between wanting to build the Hebrews up as being great and many, and wanting their subsequent victories to seem miraculous. The result is that their number is impossibly large, but they are also the least among the nations around them!

Utterly destroy them

Anyways, back to the story. So God is going to clear aside these seven nations, and he’ll “give them over” to the Hebrews. The Hebrews, in turn, are to “utterly destroy them; you shall make no covenant with them, and show no mercy to them. You shall not make marriages with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons.” (v.2-3).  The reason for this, of course, that it would lead the people towards gods other than God.

Moses and the Burning Bush, Biblia [Bible de Vivien, dite Première Bible de Charles le Chauve]

Moses and the Burning Bush, Biblia [Bible de Vivien, dite Première Bible de Charles le Chauve]

This is, obviously, a rather troubling passage. Anyone who can read about the ordered genocide of seven nations and not take pause is working with a very questionable moral compass. A natural reaction is to minimize the effect of the words through contextualizing or reinterpretation.

Brant Clements argues the following:

It might be good to keep in mind that Deuteronomy was written well after the time it portrays. The woes of Israel and Judah were seen as punishments for the people’s apostasy. From the Deuteronomist’s point of view, had the original inhabitants of Canaan been utterly annihilated (they weren’t), The Isaraelites [sic] would not have lapsed into the worship of idols.

In other words, this isn’t a commend for what will happen, but rather a scribe’s idea of what should have happened to avoid a current situation. The people in question would long since have been dead from unrelated causes.

And there’s certainly worth in this line of argument. The “kill them all” theme certainly has its precedents in heroic literature, and I’ve heard more than a few discussions about what, say, the UK should have done at the end of World War I to pre-empt the second war.

That mode of thinking is understandable, and certainly common, though I’m much more in favour of the Evil Baby Orphanage tactic.

Tim Bulkeley, by contrast, argues that this is a failure of translation. Obviously, I am completely unqualified to properly judge this assertion, but it’s an interesting one. According to him, Deut. 7:2 should read something more like “you will certainly ban them.”

To bolster his argument, he points out that the immediate context of the line doesn’t really fit with the “exterminate them all” wording:

The first clue that the English translations are wrong, if they mean – as I understand them to – that the Israelites are to wipe these seven nations out, is that they are commanded to make no covenant with them. One cannot make covenants with the dead.

Indeed, the whole remainder of the section goes on to forbid the making of covenants and intermarriage – something that would take on an entirely more necrophilic meaning if they had indeed be commanded to kill them all.

In this interpretation, the command would instead mean, as Bulkeley puts it, “to have nothing whatever to do with them.” Bulkeley’s own translation of the passage would be:

and when the LORD your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must completely cut yourselves off from them, you shall make no covenant with them and nor offer them grace.

There are, of course, rather serious negative implications for the “cut them off completely” interpretation, but it’s far better than the “kill them all” one. And all the arguments that try to excuse or minimize the latter apply equally to the former, since an Israelite population that had not intermarried and intermingled with the Other would also not have been led towards the gods of the Other.

Finishing up the obvious concern for theological infidelity, God commands the people to “break down their [the people of Canaan] altars, and dash in pieces their pillars, and hew down their Asherim, and burn their graven images with fire” (v.5).

Idol Recycling

The rest is more of the same: God totally loves the Hebrews, good things will happen to them if they follow the commandments, and all their enemies will be totally crushed.

The chapter ends with a warning not to “covet the silver or the gold” that is on the local idols. They should be burned with fire, not taken as spoils. It’s unclear, however, whether the metal can be repurposed once it’s been melted down.

The language of the whole chapter is rather interesting, talking about idols as “accursed” and generally treating the worship of other gods like an infectious disease – something that can be caught through contact with the infected.