26 “And I sent messengers from the Wilderness of Kedemoth to Sihon king of Heshbon, with words of peace, saying, 27 ‘Let me pass through your land; I will keep strictly to the road, and I will turn neither to the right nor to the left. 28 You shall sell me food for money, that I may eat, and give me water for money, that I may drink; only let me pass through on foot, 29 just as the descendants of Esau who dwell in Seir and the Moabites who dwell in Ar did for me, until I cross the Jordan to the land which the LORD our God is giving us.’
30 “But Sihon king of Heshbon would not let us pass through, for the LORD your God hardened his spirit and made his heart obstinate, that He might deliver him into your hand, as it is this day.
31 “And the LORD said to me, ‘See, I have begun to give Sihon and his land over to you. Begin to possess it, that you may inherit his land.’ 32 Then Sihon and all his people came out against us to fight at Jahaz. 3334 We took all his cities at that time, and we utterly destroyed the men, women, and little ones of every city; we left none remaining. 35 We took only the livestock as plunder for ourselves, with the spoil of the cities which we took. 36 From Aroer, which is on the bank of the River Arnon, and from the city that is in the ravine, as far as Gilead, there was not one city too strong for us; the LORD our God delivered all to us. 37 And the LORD our God delivered him over to us; so we defeated him, his sons, and all his people. Only you did not go near the land of the people of Ammon—anywhere along the River Jabbok, or to the cities of the mountains, or wherever the LORD our God had forbidden us.
– Deuteronomy 2:26-37
Many critics of the Bible, are in truth only critics of passages that they don’t face honestly (i.e. in light of the context of the narrative-whole to which the passage belongs, that narrative-whole’s relation to the entire book in which it is situated, and the Bible as a whole). And the above quoted passage is one such text that many have used as a proof-text in their accusations against God. “God is cruel” is one accusation. “God is bloodthirsty” is another. “The Old Testament God is different than the New Testament One” is yet another. But their claims are not substantiated by the passage in the least, for what we read here is not the random, murderous, blood-lust driven command of a crazed God calling Israel to war against other nations for no just reason. Rather, what we see is a purposeful judgment made by God through Israel. Moving back a few verses, to the beginning of the chapter, we read:
“4 And command the people, saying, “You are about to pass through the territory of your brethren, the descendants of Esau, who live in Seir; and they will be afraid of you. Therefore watch yourselves carefully. 5 Do not meddle with them, for I will not give you any of their land, no, not so much as one footstep, because I have given Mount Seir to Esau as a possession.
8 “And when we passed beyond our brethren, the descendants of Esau who dwell in Seir, away from the road of the plain, away from Elath and Ezion Geber, we turned and passed by way of the Wilderness of Moab. 9 Then the LORD said to me, ‘Do not harass Moab, nor contend with them in battle, for I will not give you any of their land as a possession, because I have given Ar to the descendants of Lot as a possession.’”
16 “So it was, when all the men of war had finally perished from among the people, 17 that the LORD spoke to me, saying: 18 ‘This day you are to cross over at Ar, the boundary of Moab. 19 And when you come near the people of Ammon, do not harass them or meddle with them, for I will not give you any of the land of the people of Ammon as a possession, because I have given it to the descendants of Lot as a possession.’”
God, as Sovereign Creator and King, was exercising His right to allot land to whom He wished, and take away land from whom He wished. Israel’s job was not to simply ravage whatever land they came across, but to follow God’s commands in executing justice. How do we know this? Well, a few chapters later, when Moses is speaking to the Israelites about their soon entrance into Canann, he says:
4 “Do not think in your heart, after the LORD your God has cast them out before you, saying, ‘Because of my righteousness the LORD has brought me in to possess this land’; but it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is driving them out from before you. 5 It is not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart that you go in to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD your God drives them out from before you, and that He may fulfill the word which the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. 6 Therefore understand that the LORD your God is not giving you this good land to possess because of your righteousness, for you are a stiff-necked people.
7 “Remember! Do not forget how you provoked the LORD your God to wrath in the wilderness. From the day that you departed from the land of Egypt until you came to this place, you have been rebellious against the LORD. 8 Also in Horeb you provoked the LORD to wrath, so that the LORD was angry enough with you to have destroyed you.
The people of Canaan were being ousted because of their wickedness, not because the Israelites were somehow inherently better. God was judging those Gentile nations through Israel, showing Himself to be the just judge of wicked nations, and at the same time showing Himself to be true to His covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Deuteronomy 2 is not about the socio-politco-military-cultural superiority of the Israelites – it is about the Holy character of God. God will not let sin go unpunished; and God will not lie or break His Word. Israel deserved to be destroyed just as much as the nations they were about to drive out, but God had mercy upon them.
God would have been just in destroying both the Jewish nation and the Gentile nations for their grievous sins against Him, for
“10 As it is written:
“ There is none righteous, no, not one;
11 There is none who understands;
There is none who seeks after God.
12 They have all turned aside;
They have together become unprofitable;
There is none who does good, no, not one.”
13 “ Their throat is an open tomb;
With their tongues they have practiced deceit”;
“ The poison of asps is under their lips”;
14 “ Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness.”
15 “ Their feet are swift to shed blood;
16 Destruction and misery are in their ways;
17 And the way of peace they have not known.”
18 “ There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
Only a man who proudly thinks himself to be innocent, or righteous enough to “inhabit the land,” so to speak, can confidently assert that God is unjust for commanding the destruction of a nation. For even Moses understood that the Israelites should have been destroyed for their rebellion. It is solely by the completely undeserved kindness of God that any one of us is still breathing. And it is only by the grace of God that you or I can escape the inevitable judgment that awaits all who, like the nations whom God was driving out before Israel, break the Law of God, approve of those who break the Law alongside them, and reject Christ.
Was God gracious? Yes. Was God merciful? Very much so. And He still is.
Just as God would not let sin go unpunished, He still will not. All have sinned and fall short of God’s perfect standard of holiness, and all deserve to be judged as harshly as the inhabitants of Heshbon. However, just as God was faithful to His covenant and could not break His Word or lie, even so He is faithful to His Word and tells us that:
“He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.”
God is Sovereign and perfectly just in His call to eliminate rebels; but He is infinitely gracious in calling rebels to repentance. God, in His justice and mercy and grace, sent His own, truly innocent Son to suffer His holy wrath in place of those who would come to faith in Him.
There is no injustice with Him.