It is easy for us to point the finger of accusation to ancient Israel for their fickle way in which they did or did not serve God. Let’s look at some of their behavior then reflect on our own behavior and see if our excuses are really any different than theirs were.
Reading the record
As you read Joshua and Judges, look specifically for either specific excuses given for not following the commandments God gave them or the hidden excuses that they might have made to follow their own path. Part of the difficulty in reading these books is that the history that is laid before us is not strictly chronological in nature. For example, Joshua dies in the last chapter of the book of Joshua. The first chapter of Judges happens after Joshua’s death, but the second chapter of Judges happens BEFORE Joshua’s death. As a supposed “history”, this narrative is more concerned with events and people’s behavior than dates. This is not the sort of narrative we are used to. Our culture tends to get confused when a story is not clearly marked as to what happens when in the story.
Here is a paragraph from the Come, Follow Me Old Testament manual on page 94.
One perspective common to all the Old Testament historical books is the perspective of the children of Israel, God’s covenant people. Their faith in the Lord helped them see His hand in their lives and His intervention in the affairs of their nation. While secular history books don’t tend to see things this way, this spiritual perspective is part of what makes the Old Testament historical books so valuable to those who are seeking to build their own faith in God.
What I get out of the above quote is that when we read the Old Testament we need to be looking more for the lessons they might have wanted to be demonstrated, rather than for the strictly historical chronological chain of events. This means that sometimes things won’t be in the order in which they happened. Sometimes we may have the same story told by more than one person, and with a different perspective. The book just doesn’t tell us who, exactly, is telling the story, nor when there is a change of storyteller, and hence, a change in perspective.
This unique cultural way of telling a story gives us the opportunity to spend time reflecting on the people’s motives, their thought processes, and what their social situation was from generation to generation that apparently affected their personal choices in life. All of these things affect their decisions to keep the commandments they had been given or to ignore them and do something else. It is these very decisions that drive the narrative throughout most of the Old Testament.
Even during the life of Joshua, the Israelites were guilty of disobeying God’s commandments. We aren’t talking here of the choice of offering they presented to the priest, or how they kept the Sabbath day. We are talking about not carrying out God’s directive to kill their enemies, leaving none alive. He knew what would happen to the people if they didn’t follow His instructions to them completely. Here are the verses in Judges 2:1-4. (I am guessing that when the angel mentioned in these verses “spake these words unto all the children of Israel,” that the angel was actually only speaking to the leaders of each of the tribes who had been gathered together. If not then the angel would have had to be speaking to every person, no matter where they were located all along the the length of the country. His words might also have been like the words of King Benjamin in the Book of Mormon. Benjamin couldn’t be heard by everyone at once, so he had his talk written and taken to all the people, so they could respond to his questions. Something to think about and trifle over.)
1 And an angel of the Lord came up from Gilgal to Bochim, and said, I made you to go up out of Egypt, and have brought you unto the land which I sware unto your fathers; and I said, I will never my with you.
2 And ye shall make no with the inhabitants of this land; ye shall throw down their altars: but ye have not my voice: why have ye done this?
3 Wherefore I also said, I will not drive them out from before you; but they shall be as thorns in your sides, and their gods shall be a unto you.
4 And it came to pass, when the angel of the Lord spake these words unto all the children of Israel, that the people lifted up their voice, and wept.
I love the question at the end of verse two. Was that a rhetorical question? We are certainly never given the answer to the question. All the Lord is asking is why? His commandments were not difficult, but they were very specific. Why, when He was so clear with them, did the people decide to do something else. And it wasn’t just one tribe who violated God’s commandments, but most of them left people alive to live among them. They made them pay tribute for being left to live their lives among the Israelites. Is that so bad? Does it matter that God said to kill them utterly?
What are some of the possibilities as to why the Israelites would not kill each group of people completely? Here are some possible reasons.
- The Israelites might have seen some “good” in the people, and couldn’t bring themselves to kill them all. Surely, they thought to themselves, God only wants us to kill the most wicked. This was the same reasoning of Zeniff in the Book of Mormon, and the reasoning that got all of his people enslaved by the Lamanites for multiple generations.
- Perhaps they remembered God’s words to them that they were not to be ruled over by other countries, but they could rule over others, so they used this opportunity to put the conquered people under tribute. It enlarged their own purses, and put them in a position to be in power over others, unlike their ancestors who were slaves in Egypt.
- Perhaps they were tired of fighting and wanted to just settle their affairs and move on with life?
- In the case of the Canaanites, some of them had advanced weapons, iron chariots, and lots of them. The Israelites were afraid of them, more of the Canaanites than of God, so they left those with the chariots alone, and only required tribute.
There could be many more possible reasons for why Israel continued to let their enemies live when they were expressly told to kill them.
Why were they supposed to kill them?
The short answer is, because the people were ripe in iniquity and ready for destruction. Ripe in iniquity means they only thought evil continually. They were past feeling, meaning they could no longer be positively affected by the Holy Ghost. They were just plain evil people. God wanted them gone. If the Israelites weren’t there to do it, He would have sent in natural disasters, plagues, fire from heaven, destroying angels, something! But He had waited more than 400 years for them to get to this state of wickedness before sending in His covenant people to replace them by killing them.
We sometimes have difficulty with the concept that God requires people to die, but this is the pattern that was set up, no doubt from before the earth was created. All wicked nations are either killed by other wicked people, by natural disasters, or by the direct hand of God. Once we have lost our ability to repent and be better than we are, we have permanently failed the test of mortality, and the test ends with our death. Those living in the land that God promised to the family of Abraham were ripe in their iniquity, and God had told Abraham that it would take more than 400 years before they would reach that point, so Abraham’s descendants would have to serve in bondage to the Egyptians until it was time to destroy those currently living in Abraham’s Promised Land.
Can you see why the Lord would be upset with Israel for not destroying these people completely? Every person they left alive only prolonged that person’s evil ways and their devotion to false gods and practices that were an abomination to the Lord. And worse yet, those they left alive acted as a poison to God’s people to draw them away from Him and into serving those same false gods. These are the gods mentioned time and time again of Baal and Ashtaroth.
We don’t know the precise reasons Israel chose to let them live, even when the Lord had told them exactly what would happen to them if they did. It boils down to the Israelites believing more in their own judgment than in God’s. They accepted their own wisdom and ignored the wisdom of God.
Are we really so different from ancient Israel? How many members of the Church support practices of the world, like abortion, that the Lord calls an abomination? How many of us find reasons why the Sabbath should be treated like the holiday the rest of the world makes of it? How many of us have found reasons for using our sacred funds for Fast Offerings and Tithing for entertainment on the Sabbath or for recreational vehicles, or even to just pay bills?
We may not know exactly why the ancient Israelites “went a whoring” after the gods of their day. But we can figure out why we do something. The question is, are we still claiming to be on the Lord’s side while trying to serve Mammon as well? The Lord cannot bless us, either individually, or collectively, unless we are faithful to the commandments we have received. We can lie to ourselves, to our Bishop, or anyone around us, but we cannot lie to the Lord. How much effort do we put into understanding why we do what we do each day?
God will bless us as we keep His commandments. He will give us strength to be delivered from our sins and addictions, and to find comfort in our times of distress. We just need to remember that all blessings are based or predicated on laws that must be obeyed to receive the hoped for blessing. As we read the accounts of Israel’s behavior in the Old Testament, we have the opportunity to hold up the mirror of comparison to see if we are living up to our privileges, or if we are using the same kinds of excuses to ignore the commandments we read about in their story.
People are people. Human nature hasn’t changed since Adam and Eve walked the earth. The only difference is in the choices each person and each generation chooses to make, whether to be obedient or not. What our excuse is for disobedience is unimportant, for the outcome of disobedience will always be the same.
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Thank you for your help in understanding the the Old Testament.