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Scorched Earth Policies

Deuteronomy 20:16-18
“But the cities of these peoples that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance, … you shall devote them to … destruction … that they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices that they have done for their gods, and so you sin against the LORD your God.”

As a preface, understand that the argument I’m about to make in defense of Moses’ discomforting reiteration of God’s command here is seemingly the sort that political propogandists make. It sounds like the type of invective one nation makes against another in order to justify war. The sort that caused a Roman to see a Carthaginian not as a brother but as wickedness embodied, or a Spanish conquistador to treat indigenous Aztecs as savages. Because it’s easier to enslave and abuse and persecute a fellowhuman if we convince ourselves that he or she is something other than us, right? Something lesser. Something baser or beastly or even demonic. Morally speaking, it’s easier to justify fighting a boogeyman than a brother, which is precisely what propogandists and rhetoricians have continually done. They’ve turned all mortal wars into moral ones.

In a very condensed nutshell, that’s why skeptics of Christianity read Scriptures like Deuteronomy 20:16-18 not as a page of holy writ but as a page out of mankind’s worst and most widely-used playbook. Yet, with that objection as a preface, consider two aspects of Moses’ command here that make it distinctly different in kind, quality, and measure from the pernicious sort of propaganda mentioned above. First, Moses doesn’t resort to libel in any way. Never. No name-calling, no racial slurs, no demeaning of ethnic difference, no hyperbolic caricatures of theses Canaanites. They aren’t abominable because of their skin color or their headdresses or their cultural norms but solely for committing gross idolatries against the God of heaven (which leads them to all manner of abominable vices). And secondly, whereas the stories of man’s so-called ‘holy wars’ are marred in every chapter by rapes and tortures and castrations and sadistic, demonic bloodlust, God’s are emphatically not.

Canaan is a scorched earth long before God’s people arrive. A land of hellfire and brimstone, where devils are lauded and lies are promulgated and justice is perverted. Effectively, God doesn’t send Israel to kindle hell’s fire, but to put it out.