Don’t Do As They Do

29 “When the Lord, your God, cuts off before you the nations whom you go in to dispossess, and you dispossess them and dwell in their land, 30 take care that you be not ensnared to follow them, after they have been destroyed before you, and that you do not inquire about their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations serve their gods?—that I also may do the same.’ 31 You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way, for every abominable thing that the Lord hates they have done for their gods, for they even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods.

32  “Everything that I command you, you shall be careful to do. You shall not add to it or take from it. – Deuteronomy 12:29-32 ESV

Cultural assimilation was always going to be a threat to the Israelites, and Moses knew it. That’s why he spent so much time warning them to completely destroy the nations who occupied the land God was giving them. He was fully aware that the very presence of the Canaanites would cause a problem for the Israelites, tempting them to adapt and adopt their ways.

Even if the Israelites obeyed God’s commands and completely destroyed every last Canaanite living in the land, Moses knew that the vestiges of their culture would remain. The Israelites would find themselves living in cities and homes that had once belonged to the Canaanites, and the vestiges of their culture would be ubiquitous. That’s why Moses had warned the Israelites: “When you drive out the nations that live there, you must destroy all the places where they worship their gods—high on the mountains, up on the hills, and under every green tree. Break down their altars and smash their sacred pillars. Burn their Asherah poles and cut down their carved idols. Completely erase the names of their gods!” (Deuteronomy 12:2-3 NLT).

Any pagan altars that were left standing would act as magnets to the people of God, tempting them to see these former worship sites as somehow possessing divine power and sacred significance. And that would lead the Israelites to adopt these locations as their own and result in unacceptable worship of the one true God. And, once again, Moses went out of his way to ensure that the Israelites did nothing of the kind.

“Do not worship the Lord your God in the way these pagan peoples worship their gods. – Deuteronomy 12:4 NLT

While Moses would not have been familiar with the old saying, “curiosity killed the cat,” he would have certainly understood the gist of its meaning. There is pervasive propensity within humanity to take the easy road or, to put it another way, to go with the flow. The path God had prescribed for the Israelites was a radically different one and it required that they live according to a distinctive set of standards. Their God was not like any of the man-made gods worshiped by the Canaanites. He was holy, all-powerful, fully righteous, and sovereign over all. And, unlike an idol, God actually existed. He was not the figment of man’s imagination or the product of his creative abilities. God had made man, not the other way around.

But Moses had a firm grasp on human nature and understood just how susceptible his fellow Israelites would be to following the ways of the Canaanites. Which is why he warned them:

“Do not inquire about their gods, saying, ‘How do these nations worship their gods? I want to follow their example.’” – Deuteronomy 12:30 NLT

God was not going to tolerate any form of compromise when it came to their worship of Him. There would be no borrowing of pagan customs or worship styles. God was not going to allow the blending of pagan practices or the bending of His rules. There was nothing worth adapting or adopting from the Canaanite religions because they were marked by immorality and stood opposed to the very will of God.

“You must not worship the Lord your God the way the other nations worship their gods, for they perform for their gods every detestable act that the Lord hates.” – Deuteronomy 12:31 NLT

This wasn’t a matter of style. It was all about holiness. Moses made it very plain that the Canaanites were ungodly and unholy, having used their worship of their false gods to commit reprehensible and detestable acts that included offering their own children as human sacrifices to their god, Molech.

And, in spite of the warnings of Moses, the people of Israel would ignore his warnings and, rather than separating themselves from the pagan practices of the Canaanites, they would adopt and adapt their rituals as their own. In fact, hundreds of years later, Josiah, the king of Israel, would attempt to revive the worship of Yahweh by cleansing the land of its pagan shrines and reforming the immoral worship practices of the people.

The priests who had served at the pagan shrines were not allowed to serve at the Lord’s altar in Jerusalem, but they were allowed to eat unleavened bread with the other priests.

Then the king defiled the altar of Topheth in the valley of Ben-Hinnom, so no one could ever again use it to sacrifice a son or daughter in the fire as an offering to Molech. He removed from the entrance of the Lord’s Temple the horse statues that the former kings of Judah had dedicated to the sun. – 2 Kings 23:9-11 NLT

Long after the reigns of King David and his son, Solomon, the kingdom of Israel would be split into the northern and southern kingdoms, a result of the unfaithfulness of Solomon. He would end his reign as Israel’s king by setting up shrines to the false gods of his many wives and concubines. And, as punishment for his infidelity, God would divide his kingdom in half, creating the two nations of Israel and Judah. And a succession of kings would rule over each, most of whom continued to display an open disregard for God’s sovereignty and holiness.

The very thing Moses feared and had tried to prevent would end up taking place. Rather than eradicate the presence of the false gods of the Canaanites, the people of God would assimilate their pagan worship and ways. And the results would be devastating. Eventually, God would punish the unfaithfulness of the northern kingdom of Israel by sending the Assyrians to destroy their cities and take them back to their land as slaves. And the fall of Israel would be followed by the devastating destruction of Jerusalem and the southern kingdom of Judah. This time, it would be King Nebuchadnezzar and his Babylonian forces who would serve as God’s instruments of judgment. The city of Jerusalem would be ransacked, the temple of God would be destroyed, and the people would be cast from the land of promise and become slaves in the land of Babylon.

This would all be a result of their refusal to heed the warnings of Moses. He had plainly told them, “So be careful to obey all the commands I give you. You must not add anything to them or subtract anything from them” (Deuteronomy 12:32 NLT), but they would fail to take him seriously. Each succeeding generation would follow a path of religious compromise and cultural assimilation. Rather than remaining set apart and distinct from the nations around them, the Israelites would choose to blend in and borrow from the Canaanites. They would adapt and adopt and, in so doing, would seal their future fate.

Moses had said, “Don’t do as they do,” but the Israelites believed they knew better. Adapting and adopting made sense to them. There was no need to reinvent the wheel if they could simply borrow from the cultures around them. Accommodation would make assimilation that much easier – or so they thought. But their assumptions would be proven wrong. God demanded a people who were dedicated to standing out, not blending in. He had set them apart as His own, and He required that their lives reflect their status as His chosen people.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson