However, in the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—as the Lord your God has commanded you. Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the Lord your God.
The passage above may seem a strange place from which to speak about the holiness of God but it teaches a very important lesson which we do well to hear and act upon.
The context relates to Israel going to war as they take possession of the Promised Land. It begins by establishing that the army which will lead the conquest must be fully committed vs. 1-10, followed with instructions relating to cites that accept an offer of peace v.11, resulting in the inhabitants being subject to the Israelites as forced labour. The consequences of refusing peace is to be annihilation of every living thing with the inanimate being kept as spoil vs.12-14. The rider here is that this is what is to be done with the cities that are outside the borders of Canaan v.15
However there must be complete destruction of all that belongs to the inhabitants of the land. vs.16-17
Such an instruction is a sticking point for many today (even some believers) as it seems cruel and unjust but if we have a proper understanding of what it means to say that God is Holy then the reason becomes clear.
As Paul sets out so clearly in Romans chapter1, all mankind has received sufficient revelation of God to be able to respond to him correctly but the Canaanite tribes had chosen instead to do ‘detestable things in worshipping their gods’ and so were under God’s wrath. Along with this God knew that even his own people, redeemed from Egypt by his powerful hand, would be very easily drawn to absorb such detestable ways unless all trace of them was removed.
Israel was chosen to be God’s special people Exodus 19.5-6 and in order to be such they were as James puts it ‘to keep themselves from being polluted by the world’ James 1.27. So God’s instruction to Israel was that they were to remove from among them anything that would tempt them away from their true worship of him. God is, as Habakkuk reminds us when he says of God ‘Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrong.’ Habakkuk 1.13, absolutely holy and in the light of this,this seemingly (to us) drastic action, was to enable God to dwell among his people and if followed was to make his people fit, along with the sacrificial system, to be in his presence.
God remained holy throughout for that is his very nature but the people failed time and time again.
God still calls his people today to holiness and that must involve shunning those things that prevent this happening. Tragically we still fall short however we try but the ‘blood of Jesus Christ covers all our sin’ and enables us to be seen as holy by the holy God. So Peter’s injunction in 1 Peter 1.15 ‘Just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written “Be holy, because I am holy.’ is possible through Jesus.
But the challenge is still there, that as the Israelites were to destroy the inhabitants of Canaan, because otherwise their holiness would be compromised, so we must shun ‘all that is not holy, all that is not true.’
Let us seek after holiness so that our lives point to the God we serve, who alone is Holy