But in the cities of these peoples that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall devote them to complete destruction, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, as the LORD your God has commanded, 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.
When Israel made war with the nations that lived in the Promised Land, God commanded them to give no quarter. If those people fled before the army of Israel arrived, there was no need to pursue, but if they remained to fight, then every man, woman, child, and beast was to be killed.
That sounds extraordinarily harsh, but we must remember two things about God’s relationship to mankind:
First, God owns every one of us. He designed us, he created us, and he judges us. He is entirely within his rights to destroy us or rescue us by any means he chooses. Remember that you are the Ranger, not the Ford Motor Company. What right does a created thing have to demand anything from its creator?
Second, God knows our hearts better than we do. He knows what we have done and what we desire to do. The people of Canaan had engaged in such abominable religious practices that not even the most innocent babies among them had escaped guilt. Personally, I can’t even imagine what that looks like, and I don’t want to spend a lot of time trying to either, but God said it many times, so we can be assured that it is true.
But what about Rahab? She was one of those people that were to be devoted to complete destruction, but she was spared and even became an ancestor of Messiah Yeshua. How can we reconcile these two seemingly incompatible facts?
Immediately after the passage quoted above, Moses related God’s instructions concerning trees that might surround a city which Israel has besieged. Although it looks like an afterthought tacked onto the rules of war, there’s a reason it’s placed where it is.
When you besiege a city for a long time, making war against it in order to take it, you shall not destroy its trees by wielding an axe against them. You may eat from them, but you shall not cut them down. Are the trees in the field human, that they should be besieged by you? Only the trees that you know are not trees for food you may destroy and cut down, that you may build siegeworks against the city that makes war with you, until it falls.
Okay, but what does that have to do with Rahab? As the passage says, “Are the trees human, that you should besiege them?”
No, they aren’t. In fact, trees can’t in themselves be righteous or sinful, clean or unclean. This is one reason the rabbis give for why sukkot should be built of branches, and not hides.
On the other hand, Scripture often uses trees as a metaphor for people. The righteous are upright trees. Powerful men are cedars or oaks. Weak men are small trees or shrubs living in their shadows. Israel is an olive tree. Gentile believers are wild olive branches grafted into the tree of Israel.
Consider especially the parables Yeshua told about trees.
Speaking to the Pharisees and Sadducees, Yeshua said,
Bear fruit in keeping with repentance…Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
Speaking of false prophets, he said,
Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.
When he encountered a fig tree that bore no fruit, he cursed it, and it died:
And seeing a fig tree by the wayside, he went to it and found nothing on it but only leaves. And he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once.
There are other examples, and in every one of them, the point Yeshua was trying to make was never about trees or edible fruit, but about people. Those who produce no good fruit for the kingdom were never part of the kingdom in the first place and will be cursed, cut down, and burned. Those that produce good fruit will be spared and tended so that they will bear yet more fruit.
This is the truth of Rahab that is hinted at in Deuteronomy 20:16-20: Even among the pagan Canaanites there can be found a few good trees baring good fruit. Rahab was just such a tree. When she saw the Hebrews coming, she recognized the power that was with them, the great Deliverer of Israel who destroyed all their enemies before them. She declared herself for Adonai and Israel and against Canaan, and she immediately began to bear good fruit by protecting the two spies who hid on her rooftop.
If, in the course of marching across Canaan and driving out the Hittites, Perizites, et al, the Israelites should encounter a rare good tree, baring good fruit, in a forest of the spiritually dead, God said they *must* spare that tree and make it one of their own.
Rahab and the good trees of the besieged cities of the Promised Land are you and me, the believing gentiles, who hear the good news of the Kingdom of Heaven encroaching on the Kingdom of Death, and who repent, declaring our allegiance to the King of Israel.
If we repent of our sins, submit to the One who conquered death, and commit to obeying his law, we are the good trees who are spared and the wild olive branches grafted into the cultivated tree of Israel. No longer gentiles at all, but joint heirs with Yeshua, as Paul said, with one God, one King, one Nation, and one Law.
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