20 “Behold, I send an angel before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared. 21 Pay careful attention to him and obey his voice; do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgression, for my name is in him.
22 “But if you carefully obey his voice and do all that I say, then I will be an enemy to your enemies and an adversary to your adversaries.
23 “When my angel goes before you and brings you to the Amorites and the Hittites and the Perizzites and the Canaanites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, and I blot them out, 24 you shall not bow down to their gods nor serve them, nor do as they do, but you shall utterly overthrow them and break their pillars in pieces. 25 You shall serve the Lord your God, and he will bless your bread and your water, and I will take sickness away from among you. 26 None shall miscarry or be barren in your land; I will fulfill the number of your days. 27 I will send my terror before you and will throw into confusion all the people against whom you shall come, and I will make all your enemies turn their backs to you. 28 And I will send hornets before you, which shall drive out the Hivites, the Canaanites, and the Hittites from before you. 29 I will not drive them out from before you in one year, lest the land become desolate and the wild beasts multiply against you. 30 Little by little I will drive them out from before you, until you have increased and possess the land. 31 And I will set your border from the Red Sea to the Sea of the Philistines, and from the wilderness to the Euphrates, for I will give the inhabitants of the land into your hand, and you shall drive them out before you. 32 You shall make no covenant with them and their gods. 33 They shall not dwell in your land, lest they make you sin against me; for if you serve their gods, it will surely be a snare to you.” – Exodus 23:20-33 ESV
After giving Moses the content of the Book of the Covenant, God assured His chosen leader that he would not be alone. The task of leading the Israelites would not be an easy one and the added responsibility of administering the law of God was going to make Moses’ job even more difficult. So, God informed Moses that he would have divine assistance.
“I am sending an angel before you to protect you on your journey and lead you safely to the place I have prepared for you.” – Exodus 23:20 NLT
The Hebrew word for angel is מַלְאָךְ (malʾakh) which means “messenger” or “angel.” This was not the first time that God had employed an angel to serve as protection for His people. When the Israelites first departed Egypt, they were confronted by Pharaoh and his army at the western shore of the Red Sea. With their backs against the unpassable sea and their eyes looking at the 600 chariots of Pharaoh bearing down on them, the people panicked and began to complain to Moses about their dire predicament. But God responded by placing His angel between the Israelites and the Egyptians.
Then the angel of God who was going before the host of Israel moved and went behind them, and the pillar of cloud moved from before them and stood behind them, coming between the host of Egypt and the host of Israel. And there was the cloud and the darkness. And it lit up the night without one coming near the other all night. – Exodus 14:19-20 ESV
We are not told whether the angel was visible to the human eye, but his presence held off the Egyptian forces all during the night, giving the Israelites time to cross the parted Red Sea. And in the morning, when the Egyptians attempted to pursue their prey, ‘the waters returned and covered all the chariots and charioteers—the entire army of Pharaoh. Of all the Egyptians who had chased the Israelites into the sea, not a single one survived” (Exodus 14:28 NLT). And the remaining Egyptians who had not pursued the Israelites watched in horror as their comrades drowned in the waters of the Red Sea, and they responded in fear.
“Let us flee from before Israel, for the Lord fights for them against the Egyptians.” – Exodus 14:25 ESV
There are those who believe that this angel was actually the Lord Himself. Moses describes the defeat of the Egyptians as having been the work of Yahweh.
…just before dawn the Lord looked down on the Egyptian army from the pillar of fire and cloud, and he threw their forces into total confusion. He twisted their chariot wheels, making their chariots difficult to drive. – Exodus 14:24-25 NLT
In the book of Joshua, there is another incident involving a divine being. On this occasion, Joshua encounters what appears to be an armed soldier.
When Joshua was by Jericho, he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, a man was standing before him with his drawn sword in his hand. And Joshua went to him and said to him, “Are you for us, or for our adversaries?” And he said, “No; but I am the commander of the army of the Lord. Now I have come.” And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshiped and said to him, “What does my lord say to his servant?” And the commander of the Lord‘s army said to Joshua, “Take off your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy.” And Joshua did so. – Joshua 5:13-15 ESV
Whether these appearances are divine manifestations of God Himself or references to angelic beings is impossible to tell. But God is clearly telling Moses that he will have divine assistance and guidance along the way. He will not be alone in his administration of the law and his leadership of the people of Israel. But this “angel of the Lord” must be obeyed.
“Pay careful attention to him and obey his voice; do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgression, for my name is in him.” – Exodus 23:21 ESV
This angel would serve and act on behalf of God, bearing the full weight of Yahweh’s name. So, Moses and the people were expected to obey the angel as they would the Lord. And if they did, they would enjoy God’s blessings.
“…if you are careful to obey him, following all my instructions, then I will be an enemy to your enemies, and I will oppose those who oppose you.” – Exodus 23:22 NLT
The angel would lead the people to Canaan, then provide them with victory over the nations that occupied the land. But God expected His people to completely annihilate the Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hivites, and Jebusites. They were to clean house, purging the land of all its former occupants. There was to be no compromise or concessions made. And God gave His reasons for demanding the total extermination of the Canaanite population.
“You must not worship the gods of these nations or serve them in any way or imitate their evil practices. Instead, you must utterly destroy them and smash their sacred pillars.” – Exodus 23:24 NLT
God knew that if the Canaanites were allowed to live, they would lead the Israelites astray. Their pagan practices would become a temptation to God’s people, causing them to stray from their covenant commitment to Him. God would later reiterate this command as the people prepared to enter the land of Canaan.
“When the LORD your God hands these nations over to you and you conquer them, you must completely destroy them. Make no treaties with them and show them no mercy. You must not intermarry with them. Do not let your daughters and sons marry their sons and daughters, for they will lead your children away from me to worship other gods. Then the anger of the LORD will burn against you, and he will quickly destroy you. This is what you must do. You must break down their pagan altars and shatter their sacred pillars. Cut down their Asherah poles and burn their idols. For you are a holy people, who belong to the LORD your God. Of all the people on earth, the LORD your God has chosen you to be his own special treasure.” – Deuteronomy 7:22-26 NLT
God demanded undivided allegiance from His people. In return for their faithfulness, He would bless them beyond belief. He would make them fruitful and prosperous in the land.
“I will bless you with food and water, and I will protect you from illness. There will be no miscarriages or infertility in your land, and I will give you long, full lives.” – Exodus 23:25-26 NLT
And He promised to drive all the inhabitants from the land. Despite their military superiority, the nations of Canaan would prove no match for the Israelites. But God would not eliminate them all at once. The process of conquering and occupying the land would take years. That would prevent the land from becoming desolate and overrun by wild animals. It would take time for the Israelites to acclimate to their new surroundings, so God provided a strategy that would allow their occupation of the land to take place over time.
“I will drive them out a little at a time until your population has increased enough to take possession of the land.” – Exodus 23:30 NLT
But in time, the Israelites would find themselves the proud possessors of the land of promise. God would give them the entire land of Canaan, “from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea, and from the eastern wilderness to the Euphrates River” (Exodus 23:31 NLT). But within this vast and fertile territory, God expected His people to serve Him alone. There would be no place for unfaithfulness and no room for the false gods of the Canaanites.
“Make no treaties with them or their gods. They must not live in your land, or they will cause you to sin against me. If you serve their gods, you will be caught in the trap of idolatry.” – Exodus 23:32-33 NLT
God promised victory but demanded obedience. He offered to bless His chosen people but they were obligated to remain faithful to Him alone. And since the eradication of the Canaanites would take time, God knew that His people would face a constant temptation to compromise their convictions by assimilating the false gods of their pagan neighbors. Intermarriage with the occupants of the land would sound appealing and profitable. Adopting the ways of the Canaanites would make good sense. And peace treaties would always be more attractive than the prospects of war. So God laid down the law. He completely prohibited any thought of compromise on the part of His people. They were His chosen people and they were expected to live distinctively different lives from the rest of the nations of the world.
“…you are a holy people, who belong to the LORD your God. Of all the people on earth, the LORD your God has chosen you to be his own special treasure.” – Deuteronomy 7:26 NLT
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.