In Reading Deuteronomy, Stephen Cook has already shown how the Israelite occupation of the Transjordan was conceived in Deuteronomy as a battle, not against actual Canaanite people and tribes, but against mythic, even occult, forces.
In Deuteronomy 7:16 we have another appalling call for ethnic cleansing
You must destroy all the people whom the Lord your God is about to deliver over to you; you must not pity them or worship their gods, for that will be a snare to you.
Once again Cook denies that this command was meant literally. After all, if this came from Josiah’s time, it was at least 600 years after the actual time of Moses. Canaanites no longer had armies or kingdoms within the land. Deuteronomy is relying on a Near Eastern combat myth so that chaos and death are God’s true enemies and the Canaanite pagans stand for these more mythic enemies. The listing of seven tribes in 7:1 is a symbolic listing of evil forces arrayed against Israel. This emphasizes the point also made in 7 and 17 that Israel is puny compared to the powers over against it.
But, according to Cook, these powers are the powers of Sheol that hate God (v. 10). A standard feature of cosmic combat myth and poetry is the intervention of a divinity to cause a stunning, unexpected turn-around. This is exactly what we get in 7:23.
I was interested in the “hornets” v. 20 says God sends against Israel’s enemies. According to Cook, this is too literal a translation. The word actually signifies the “awful dread” associated with God as a divine warrior. Its result is a panic that disables God’s enemies.
In his discussion of chapter 7, Cook says:
In this canonical context, Deuteronomy 7 aims to vindicate the truth of the Shema over against all of Israel’s fears about their own internal security. The Israel of King Josiah’s day must learn to trust the Lord, not rely on military treaties, strategic maneuvers, and empire building. Israel must not divinize doctrines of national security; the terror of Death must not reign; Assyria can be no cause for fear.
Most of this quote would also serve as a summary of Jeremiah’s message. So I suspect that Cook has interpreted Deuteronomy 7 through the lens of Jeremiah. That is not necessarily bad. Deuteronomy and Jeremiah are indeed close in many ways. That is probably part of what Cook means by “canonical context” here.
However, I don’t think this interpretation solves all the problems about the seeming annialationism of Deuteronomy 7. In the Near East annihilation was often literal even if described in mythic language. King Mesha of Moab, for instance, in a royal stele spoke of annihilating an Israelite army. Even allowing for exaggeration and mythic language, Moab and Israel fought an actual war and actual people were annihilated.
The Bible has no moral qualms about the sudden mass death of an Assyrian army, although God is the one who killed them according to 2 Kings 19:35. This is part of the Deuteromonistic History. So one would have to think that the compilers of Deuteronomy did not have any semblance of our political correctness.
Nevertheless, Cook does have several good points that do mitigate some of our modern concerns. There is a mythic background to the language, and you can align it somewhat with Jeremiah’s critique of militarism. However, Jeremiah’s message is also in a context. So you can’t use it as a blanket critique of the use of force.