“You shall make no covenant with them and their gods. 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 23:32,33)

A primary purpose for God settling Israel in the land of Canaan was so that the blessings of His covenant could take root, flower, and spread the fragrance and fruit of redemption to all the nations. The blessing of all the families of the earth was a central feature of God’s covenant with Abraham from the beginning (Genesis 12:1-3), and it remained a central component of His plan for His people, even as the Lord directed them to displace the sinful nations who occupied the land He intended for them.

As Israel gathered at Mt. Sinai to receive the Law from God, together with their marching orders for the conquest of Canaan, God’s directives concerning how they were to conduct themselves in relation to the pagan cultures around them could not have been clearer. So sinful, wicked, violent, and disgusting had the pagan peoples of the land become — “abomination” is the adjective God most commonly uses concerning them — that God determined to expel them all from His land and give it to His chosen people, Israel (cf. Genesis 15:13-16). Israel was strictly forbidden from retaining any of the cultural and religious trappings of the people they were about to dispossess (Deuteronomy 12:1-5). They were commanded to follow a path of holiness, an agenda of righteousness, justice, and peace that would make them stand out among the surrounding nations and cultures.

But the purpose of this call to différence was ultimately to attract the pagan nations by the beauty of holiness. Just before entering the land the people were told to expect that their altogether different way of life would cause their neighbors to wonder at and admire them (Deuteronomy 4:1-9). In a much later generation, the prophet Micah envisioned a day yet to come, “in the latter days” (cf. Acts 2:16-17), when the nations of the world, seeing the loveliness of God’s Law lived out in His people, would exhort one another to make their way to the people of God, there to learn how to possess this difference for themselves (Micah 4:1-5).

So the conquest of the land was but a foreshadowing of a larger conquest of the nations, reserved for the last days, which the Lord taught His people to envision and pursue — a conquest that would be achieved by their remaining a distinctive people, in pursuit of a different agenda, with a different ethic, cultus, and worldview. This is the day Jesus proclaimed when He described His followers as a city set on a hill, the salt of the earth and light of the world, a people who, by their good works, would show the glory of God to the world (Matthew 5:13-16).

In the divine economy the way to conquer the world is not to imitate it, but to separate from it unto holiness, righteousness, goodness, and truth, and, by these, to become a people, filled with the presence of God and His shalom, who are a blessing to their neighbors and the joy of the whole earth (Psalms 48:1-3). God’s words to Israel at Mt. Sinai could not be clearer.

Rejection of Différence
There can be no doubt that God called Israel to be different from the nations they were preparing to displace. They were not to take into their midst anything of the idolatrous and sinful practices of people of Canaan, or to allow the Canaanites to continue residing in their midst, for to do so “will surely be a snare to you.” The experience of Israel throughout the Old Testament demonstrates over and over that the rejection of différence in favor of accommodation, adaptation, and conformity to pagan ways was destructive of national well-being and made the people of Israel, not the conquerors of the world, but its slaves.