Exodus 23:20-33 Three Questions to Ask

Preached on Sunday 31st October 2010

Click here to download the Bible study in PDF format.


READ Exodus 23:20-33

QUESTION 1: Does this passage (and the Bible) sanction genocide?

NO, it certainly does not!  But we need to understand what’s going on in passages like this one.

Exodus 23:20 says, “See I am sending an Angel ahead of you to guard you along the way and to bring you to the place I have prepared.”   The place God had prepared for his people was a land to live in which we know as the Promised Land, Israel.

READ Exodus 23:23 Who did the land belong to?

READ Exodus 23:31 What was the extent of the land?

The invasion of the land of the Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hivites and Jebusites is known as the conquest of Canaan; we read about it in the book of Joshua.

But was this genocide?  The dictionary says, “Genocide is the murder of a whole group of people, especially a whole nation, race or religious group.”  The Jewish holocaust in WW2 brought genocide into sharp relief; and there have been other modern examples such as Rwanda and the Balkans.  People read about the conquest of Canaan in the Bible and immediately see genocide.  This, they say, means that the OT God is monstrous, and tyrannical.  As Christians we know this is untrue, but we are unsure what to say.  How do passages that call for utter destruction of one’s enemies square, for example, with the teaching of Jesus to love one’s enemies?

THINK about this question and discuss it (if you are in a group.) Have you ever heard this accusation about the conquest of Canaan?

Five truths help us to interpret the Biblical conquest of Canaan.

1. The command (to completely destroy their enemies) was only given twice in the entire 1500 year history of the Hebrew Bible: the conquest of Canaan and the conflict with the Amalekites during the reign of Saul.

So is it true to caricature the God of Israel as a warmonger ordering all enemies everywhere to be destroyed?

2. The command was specific.  The order to exterminate their enemies was only directed toward a handful of specific nations (Amorites, Hittites, etc.), and not all nations.  For example, the Philistines are not included.

READ Genesis 12:3. Is God’s plan to bless all nations through Israel, or annihilate all nations through Israel?  How is God’s plan fulfilled in the New Testament? READ Matthew 28:19.

3. The Torah (the first five books of the Bible) commanded the Hebrews to love aliens (that is, foreigners.)

READ Deuteronomy 10:19Exodus 23:9.  What sort of behaviour do you think the Israelites were to show towards ‘aliens’?

4. The command for destruction was sometimes directed towards Israel itself.  READ Joshua 7:25-26. Achan brought home some spoils of war that were supposed to have been destroyed.  The result was Achan and his family were destroyed.  This seems harsh to us, but how does it show God doesn’t play favourites?

5. The command was against wicked nations under God’s judgment.  Even with points 1-4 above, we can’t fully understand the conquest of Canaan without understanding the context.

READ Genesis 15:12-21

Way back in Genesis we see that God said He would use Israel as an instrument to judge the Canaanites, once they had become evil beyond all hope – this is what it means when it says “the iniquity of the Amorites” (i.e the people group the Canaanites belonged to) will be “complete.”  God doesn’t arbitrarily destroy innocent people.  Roughly how many years does it take before God brings his final judgment? (Genesis 15:13)

READ Deuteronomy 9:4-6. Did God bring his people into the land because they were righteous, or because the inhabitants were wicked?

The Israelites may have been a stubborn people, but the Canaanites were utterly wicked, steeped in idolatry and the occult.  They regularly sacrificed their babies to their false gods.

How do you feel when justice is done to wicked people, like child abusers?

It is clear from reading the Bible that God doesn’t allow sin to go unchecked forever.  We should be thankful for this.  There comes a time when God says enough is enough. Even Jesus said there was an unforgivable sin, blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. (Matthew 12:13).

READ Genesis 6:5-6

How does God feel about bringing his judgment?

Putting an end to sin and the endless suffering it brings is an act of God’s mercy, and is how the Bible interprets the conquest of Canaan.

QUESTION 2: Who is the Angel in this passage?

Angel stories fascinate us.  But who or what is this angel in Exodus 23?

READ Exodus 23:20-21 again.

1. Some say this angel was human angel or messenger, and the likely person is Joshua who led God’s people into the Promised Land.  Augustine saw that Joshua is another name for Jesus.  So when it says in Exodus 23:21c, “My Name is in him,” it is prophetic of Jesus who leads us into the inheritance of the heavenly Promised Land.

2. Some say this angel was, well, an angel, a supernatural being.  The psalmist said, “He will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways” [Psalm 91:11].  Hebrews 1:14, “Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?”  Those are wonderful promises for us.

3. There’s also a third possibility.  This angel is so closely associated with God that we get the feeling he may be more than an angel.  God’s Name, which refers to the revelation and attributes of God, is in this angel.  Many Christians have thought the angel is the pre-incarnate Son, the second person of the Trinity.

Who do you think this angel is?  Which is the most likely option?

Whoever this Angel really is, he points us to Christ.  By looking at the following verses, find out in what ways is the Angel in Exodus 23:21-22 is like Jesus?

READ Matthew 28:20John 14:2Hebrews 1:3Luke 9:35Colossians 1:14.  Have you experienced Jesus in your life in any of these ways?

QUESTION 3: What spiritual lessons can we learn from this passage?

1. The battle is the LORD’s

Exodus 23:22 says, “If you listen carefully to what he says and do all that I say, I will be an enemy to your enemies and I will oppose those who oppose you.”   Obedience brings victory.  We are in a spiritual battle.  It’s not a flesh and blood battle; it’s a spiritual battle, “against the powers of this dark world and the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realm” [Ephesians 6:12].  We have two powerful weapons for this warfare, the word of God and prayer.  There are many times when we feel the pressure of this spiritual battle, but let’s just consider one example.  Scientist Richard Dawkins has written a popular book called “The God Delusion.”  He says:

“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving, control-freak, a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, [filicidal, pestilential] megalomaniacal, sado-masochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

Well, we should discern a deep seated hatred here and a wildly untrue interpretation of the Bible. However if a friend or work colleague, who has read the book, says, “I think God in the OT is bloodthirsty”; or, “he’s an ethnic cleanser”; or, “he’s a jealous petty God,” etc., does it rock your faith?

Do you know the word of God, the Living Word of God, Jesus Christ our Lord well enough in your knowledge and experience and prayer life to rebut these lies?  We are in a spiritual battle.

Discuss your experiences of the spiritual battle we are in.

2. Victory comes little by little

READ Exodus 23:29-30

Our spiritual progress is little by little and we don’t progress without a struggle.  God sometimes does instant miracles, (e.g. delivering a person from drugs etc.) but even then spiritual progress is little by little.

Sometimes we get disheartened.  We would love to see more happening.  But less can be more.  It was true for Jesus.  He ministered to multitudes; he healed them; cast out demons; all exciting instant stuff.  But it wasn’t the multitudes who turned the world upside down.  It was the 12.  It was the 12 Jesus spent his time with day in and day out, in the nitty-gritty hard work of Christian discipleship.  And progress was slow; it was little by little; two steps forward and two steps backwards; then maybe one step forward.  It was painfully slow progress; but it was a long term strategy, and he knew it would reap a harvest.

Do you get disheartened by slow spiritual progress?  How do these verses encourage you to keep going?

3. There’s no room for compromise

READ Exodus 23:32-33

There are many ways we can compromise in our personal lives.  But there’s no room for compromise with sin.  Halloween is an example.   I hope we don’t allow our children to get involved in this demonically inspired activity, or for that matter get involved ourselves.  But it can be hard.  We don’t want to spoil the fun.

Or we can compromise in our witness, especially with friends from other religions.  We kid ourselves that the important thing is faith, whereas the important thing is who we have faith in.

Have you compromised in your actions or in your conversations with others?



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