Now that I’ve finished my three-part series on the Conquest of Canaan (and given you all ample time to digest its many tasty morsels), I want to briefly address something here in a more informal setting at which I only hinted there. The content of those three articles (which you can find here, here, and here) was pretty heavy on the biblical theology and exegesis; it was noticeably lighter on the perennial “so what?” This was in part owing to the extreme difficulties in dealing with the narratives in question. The applicability of the Conquest of Canaan is not palpably clear to the average reader of the Bible or even, if I may be honest, to the trained exegete. That said, let me offer some points in brief that my help us to understand what the Conquest of Canaan means for us today.
In the articles themselves, I mentioned two ways in which the Conquest matters. The first is in its bold vision of the gravity of human sin. There really are few narratives in the Bible that illustrate our tragic condition with such potency as the Conquest. In an age that is short on judgment and correspondingly full on mercy, these narratives are hard to swallow for precisely this reason. But without such a vivid mirror for our own sin as the Conquest, we are liable to forget that second thing about the Conquest I said mattered: the extreme lengths to which God will go to redeem his wayward creatures. I articulated this point at length there, so I will only say it again here briefly: the gruesome spectacle of the Cross makes absolutely no sense if we do not understand that our current condition required nothing less for our restoration. It is worth reflecting for a moment on the sad reality that when God came to reconcile us to himself in meekness and humility, our collective response as a race was to subject him to the most horrific invention of torture ever devised by the warped mind of man, and that publicly! Without sin, in all its gravity, the Cross makes no sense. All of this challenges how “merciful” we are really being to each other in our day, for how merciful is mercy really when there is no judgment?
This observation about the Cross in relation to the Conquest brings to mind a few other points I did not mention explicitly in the articles.
The first is this: our God is mighty to save. At few other points in Israel’s national history is God’s mighty hand more clearly manifest than in the Conquest of Canaan. In the Conquest, Israel witnessed as their God struck whole nations with fear, tore down mighty city walls, and vanquished an entire people. In our age when miracles seem so scarce and the critics of the supernatural seem so ubiquitous—even, tragically, among our own number, these stories remind us that our God is a God who acts mightily and indisputably in history. It is this history which finds its climax on the Cross of Calvary. But I would go further: this history finds its climax in what happened next. God left his tomb as he left death itself, utterly empty. Lest we forget that our entire faith depends on God showing up with power in human history, we should turn to Paul’s own words on the subject, “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain… but in fact Christ has been raised from the dead!” If we are united to him in baptism, then this is our history as well, acted out so clearly on the world stage for all to see. In the trivialities and burdens of our daily lives, let us not forget about our true story.
The second is similar: because we know that God himself shows up in history, we know that he has taken a keen personal interest in restoring us. Unlike the abstract and distant deity of the Enlightenment deists who wants us merely to use our endowed reason to good effect, or the cold transcendent God of Islam who wants submission above all else, the God of the Christian is a God who cares intimately about the plight of his people. In Jesus, this instinct of God we see illustrated in the Conquest, to come personally into our space, is brought to its ultimate expression. God is among us in the very flesh. And he does not come thus with pomp and ceremony, separated from us like a distant king in a palace. He comes in poverty and meekness, just like the vast majority of the human race. Most miraculous of all, he comes to die as we die. This is the extent of his personal commitment to us. When our lives get bogged down with stress, drama, and tragedy, let us not forget that our God is very near. He knows about our troubles and about our very selves, and he cares.
Finally, as our God has taken a keen personal interest in us, we are called to take a keen personal interest in him. This interest is expressed chiefly in one of the key aspects of the Conquest itself, Israel’s call to be holy as God himself is holy. It was God’s holiness that I said was the fundamental conceptual foundation of the entire Conquest story. God is a holy God, and he is calling us back to himself, in history and very personally, for no other purpose than that we should participate in his holiness with him. This is the greatest challenge of the Conquest narratives, and it is correspondingly the greatest challenge of the Christian life. We are called to be a holy people as God is holy. So often our churches avoid talking about sin and judgment to the predictable effect that we forget all about the Church’s vocation to be holy. We often simply let sin slide, thinking that we are being compassionate and understanding. It is this mentality that Christ wants to spit out of his mouth! In our day, we express the ethics of the Conquest not by utterly vanquishing evildoers themselves, but by utterly vanquishing evil in ourselves. (This, of course, is how such a harsh ethic towards sin is prevented from becoming a hypocrisy-filled hate-fest; we know in the Cross that it is us who are the evil ones. It is us who need to be restored to holiness.) Further, this call to renunciation of sin is just as radical in the New Testament as it is in the Old: Jesus tells us to cut off our very hands and gouge out our very eyes if they lead us to sin, and Paul calls his churches to put to death the old flesh with its evil desires. These are harsh words indeed, but I suspect their ethical foundation is the same as that of the Conquest. To be holy in this world requires that we not grant evil any quarter whatsoever; it is to be totally and utterly destroyed. Fortunately, we have the mighty gift of the Holy Spirit to help us, who unites us with Christ and energizes us unto holiness by allowing us to participate in Christ’s own. But lest we receive this grace cheaply, let us not forget at what cost we have received it, the terrible price of our rebellion toward which the Conquest can only point dimly, the blood of our blessed Savior. This is indeed how intensely God wants us to be holy. Let us not respond to his fabulous personal offer with flippancy. Let us be a holy people, as he is our Holy and Mighty God.