A Native of the Land: Deriving an Ethic of Intercultural Relations from Exodus, Part 5

Having dealt with God and the Egyptians, the focus now must shift to the lesser known cast off characters quietly populating the pages of Exodus. There are a number of other tribes and nations scattered throughout the book whose relationship to God is on the surface level at least troubling.

On several occasions God either orders Israel to wholly eviscerate these groups, or tells Israel he himself will drive them away. While these proclamations are shocking and seemingly not a constructive place to start for modern intercultural relations, a closer inspection reveals that like the Egyptians, they are targeted not for ethnic differences but because they are a threat to Israel’s worship of the true God as well as a stumbling block to the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant.42

In order put the denigration of these peoples into context, it is necessary to work backwards looking at the patriarchal promises themselves. The land of Canaan is sworn by God to be the future property of all of Jacob’s sons in Genesis 50:24, Jacob in Genesis 28:13, Isaac in Genesis 26:34, and first to Abraham in Genesis 15:18.43 It is on this basis, the people of Israel upon leaving Egypt viewed Canaan as justly theirs and were prepared to wage violent military campaigns against its current occupants. Why however does God choose Israel to have it instead of another? While obviously an immensely complicated question, the answer is in part found even further back, God’s original revelation to Abram. Here, in Genesis 12:1-3, God declares to Abram that the nation which will proceed from his loins will be a blessing to, “all the families of the earth.” The Israelite occupation of Canaan then is not about empire building, but about the progress of redemptive history. Nothing, therefore, can be allowed to stand in the way as several stubborn and sinful tribes attempted to do. This is not to say these passages are not troubling, certainly they are. Why God allowed this course of action instead of another is a subject for a different post. I”m only here pointing out that the basis for their destruction is not, according to the text, ethnically motivated.

Six Palestinian tribes, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites are mentioned four times in passing throughout the course of the book, Exodus 3:8, 13:5, 33:2, and 34:11. In almost a formulaic manner, God himself declares his desire to dispatch these “pesky heathens” in order that Israel might possess the land. With only these verses, one might be left wondering exactly what it is these tribes have done to deserve such a smiting. Thankfully, the situation is made crystal clear in Exodus 23:20-33. This passage, the conclusion of the Book of the Covenant is succinctly summarized by verse 33, “They shall not dwell in your land, lest they make you sin against me; for if you serve their gods, it will surely be a snare to you.” The presence of the Canaanite tribes alongside of Israel would lead Israel to forsake the true God and thus thwart God’s plan of redemptive history, the Abrahamic covenant. Once again, as with the Egyptians, cultural differences only matter to God so far as they impede one in worshipping him.

In addition to the ill-fated tribes in the Promised Land, Exodus records in 17:8- 15 the unusual saga of Israel’s encounter with the tribe of Amalek. This is not a tribe occupying turf in Palestine, yet it solicits perhaps the fieciest display of God’s fury in the book. After Israel narrowly defeats the Amalekites in a vicious wilderness battle, God proclaims to Moses he will, “utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.”44

Why such an unforgiving verdict on a tribe not of Palestine’s league of injustice? The answer may lie in Psalm 83:4-7 where Amalek is listed along with other nations who plotted to completely annihilate Israel when Israel was at its weakest point.45 Therefore, for whatever reason the Amalekites resolved to spend their entire existence killing off Israelites and thus according to the Psalmist, God’s redemptive plan would never be safe as long as sword bearing, Amalekite lungs drew air.46

In summary, Israel’s dealings with some outsiders after leaving Egypt are decidedly harsh. Again however, the motivation for this mindset is not racial superiority, but the survival of the Abrahamic covenant and God’s ultimate salvific work. The enemies of Israel do not have to remain such, but are free to repent, and as will be demonstrated next time, join the covenant community of Israel and worship the one, true God.

There is no question these passages are difficult to read and it’s ok to be honest about that. But we must remember they are not the final word.

Peace,

Ben

Footnotes:

43) Jeffery L. Townshend, “Fulfillment of the Land Promise in the Old Testament,” Bibliotheca Sacra 142 no. 568 (1985): 322.

44) Exodus 17:14

45) Alan M. Langer, “Remembering Amalek Twice,” Jewish Bible Quarterly 36 no. 4 (2008): 253.

46) Ibid., 253.

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