Hear, Israel: You are now about to cross the Jordan to go in and dispossess nations greater and stronger than you, with large cities that have walls up to the sky. The people are strong and tall—Anakites! You know about them and have heard it said: “Who can stand up against the Anakites?” But be assured today that the Lord your God is the one who goes across ahead of you like a devouring fire. He will destroy them; he will subdue them before you. And you will drive them out and annihilate them quickly, as the Lord has promised you. After the Lord your God has driven them out before you, do not say to yourself, “The Lord has brought me here to take possession of this land because of my righteousness.” No, it is on account of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is going to drive them out before you. It is not because of your righteousness or your integrity that you are going in to take possession of their land; but on account of the wickedness of these nations, the Lord your God will drive them out before you, to accomplish what he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Understand, then, that it is not because of your righteousness that the Lord your God is giving you this good land to possess, for you are a stiff-necked people. – Deuteronomy 9:1-6
This is a challenging passage. I have reflected and prayed most of the day over it and I am still not sure what God is telling me here. In this passage we have the warrior God, with more in common with Mad Max than Jesus. The duel nature of God, as the lion and the lamb, remains both mysterious and amazing to me. There is a tension between the God of this passage who tells the Israelites to cross the Jordan River and dispossess great nations; and Jesus who told His followers to give their cloak even when only a shirt was required of them (Matthew 5:40).
There is also an interesting twist here in that God tells the Israelites that the “gift” of the Promised Land will come at the expense of those who currently own it; not as a reward for the Israelites but as a consequence of the wickedness of the Anakites. The details of what the Anakites did and why God calls them “wicked” is their story — not the Isrealites story. God makes it clear that the Isrealites do not deserve it and have not really earned it, but they will benefit from the consequences of the poor choices of the Anakites. We don’t know what the poor choices were, but we can infer from nearby passages that it probably had something to do with having other gods in place of God.
There are consequences for not following God, as we saw in the case of Moses and Aaron. They did not get to go to the Promised Land. What God seems to be saying here is that there are other nations and people who will also have consequences for their not following God, but ultimately that is their story with God.
Why is this verse hard? Part of me thinks everyone should have a chance and God is not being “fair” to the Anakites, but of course I do not know their story. I think this sort of thing happens to Christians and Christian communities as well. I think sometimes we pass judgement on our fellow Christians without knowing their story and what God is doing in their life. Perhaps we can build healthier Christian community by sharing our own story and learning about other peoples stories.
For God there are many stories going on at once. Sometimes God may need to send storms and hardships into our lives and the lives of others to get our attention. The Anakites would certainly have perceived the invasion by the Isrealites as a very big storm in their lives. I think maybe God’s main point here is that the Isrealites need to focus on faithfully following God and take care of their ongoing story with God rather than focus on the wickedness and defeat of the Anakites.
Prayer: God help us to focus on faithfully following You and our story with You; and help us to learn the stories of others.