Because of what the Israelites had learned in Egypt over their 400 years of captivity, Yahweh had a deconditioning project to accomplish with them. They had been in the midst of a pantheon of pagan gods and gotten used to deities whose image they could see. The verbal history of their people had probably taken on something like mythic proportions, i.e. that of a God who was Spirit and who didn’t have any graven images to represent Him. He was something far removed from their everyday experience. This was a long-term problem with the Hebrew people. They constantly wanted to turn to idols and to worship what they deemed as more real that this unseen God who spoke to Moses.
Undeterred, Yahweh showed them through His miraculous acts and provision that He was greater than all the Egyptian gods they’d known. Yet, they had extremely short memories and were particularly obstinate about wanting what they likely conceived of as “the real thing,” i.e. a god represented by a visible idol. To help them in their mental turnabout, Yahweh gave them the Ten Commandments and carried out the consequences of their breaking His Law with severe judgments. He wanted to pour out upon His love upon His children, but because of their hard hearts had to resort to a carrot and stick approach. That showed up in Leviticus 26 with the declaration of God’s blessings for obedience and punishments for disobedience.
Upon the advent of the Israelites crossing the Jordan River to enter the land Yahweh had promised them, He spoke through Moses to relay the following message in Numbers 33:52:
“then you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you and destroy all their figured stones and destroy all their metal images and demolish all their high places.”
This was a three-pronged command. The Israelites were to:
- Drive out the inhabitants of the land
- Destroy all idols of pagan gods
- Demolish the worship areas to these gods that were typically erected in high places
The inhabitant of Canaan were a combination of human and Rephaim, i.e. descendants of Nephilim. They had to be eliminated so that the Israelites wouldn’t cross-breed with them and risk contaminating their blood with non-human DNA. There was no true God but Yahweh; He wouldn’t allow any double-mindedness among His people. He could not have them drawn to the remembrance of pagan gods by exposure to idols. Similarly, Yahweh had instructed His children that He resided in the Most Holy of Holies; there alone could He be worshiped. The high places were altars to other gods and had to go.
Yahweh warned the Israelites of the dangers of not adhering to His Word, making it very clear in Numbers 33:55-56 what would happen if they didn’t:
“But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then those of them whom you let remain shall be as barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides, and they shall trouble you in the land where you dwell. And I will do to you as I thought to do to them.”
By allowing the land’s inhabitants to remain, they would constantly trouble the Israelites. They would prevent God’s people from fully realizing their inheritance. Worse, by His people not removing the land’s inhabitants as commanded, God would bring the punishments due to the pagans upon His own children. The Israelites would never know the peace and prosperity that God intended for them.
How does this concept apply to Christians today?
The inhabitants of our land are the many besetting sins that plague us. The flesh is always weak and prone to temptation. This includes such things as the pursuit of wealth, power, even friends or family as they become our highest goal. Our gods are the many baubles we enjoy by living in a land of ease and comfort. These baubles might be playthings we turn to in our leisure or people whom we admire to the extent that we idolize them. These are the barbs and thorns that trouble us in this land because they keep our focus on anything but God.
Are we any different from the ancient Israelites in this matter? Not at all. We tend to go where our eyes and hearts lead us. What we do may seem good, but if Jesus isn’t at the center of our lives, just like with the Israelites, we face trouble in the land.
And what is that trouble? If we follow pagan ways in disobedience to God – even as Christians – the punishment due to those who despise God will come round to us. How can they not? If not obedient, we are in rebellion. A people in rebellion will never know the true blessings of the Lord.
We have to drive out those pesky inhabitants of the land; we have to eliminate the sins that cause us to stray. God has made the way for us to accomplish this. He sent His Holy Spirit who dwells within every believer. When we listen to Him and do as He commands, our conscience will guide us. We will walk in righteousness. And, we will please God.