Chapters 20-23 of Exodus record all of the covenant laws that God has thus far given to Moses. The Ten Commandments are the most important of these laws, but the subsequent texts build on the foundation of the Ten Commandments, providing more detail. At the end of these laws, we come to Exodus 23:20-33.
In this section of Exodus 23, God repeats (from Gen 15) and expands on his promises to the Israelites regarding their entrance into Canaan, the Promised Land. This section also concludes the Covenant Code that God has shared with the Israelites over the previous chapters.
In verse 20, God introduces an angel that will guide them to the land and also protect them along the way. As we read along further, we learn that this angel is actually God himself.
In verses 21-23, God reminds the people of Israel to pay attention to what the angel (God) commands. If they listen and obey, God will “wipe out” the Canaanites, but if they disobey, God will not forgive their rebellion. The success of the Israelites in the Promised Land is dependent on their obedience to God. The other implication of these verses is that the Israelites have no hope of conquering the land without God’s direct and mighty intervention. They are too small of a nation to accomplish this task on their own.
In verse 24, we see God repeating and emphasizing the importance of the First and Second Commandments. The Israelites will be tempted to worship the gods of Canaan, to adopt their religious practices, so God is warning them again not to do this. In fact, in the next two verses, God promises to bless the people of Israel with food, rain, fertility, and long life, if they will only worship Him.
Why would Israel be tempted to worship the Canaanite deities? Douglas Stuart explains in Exodus: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture (New American Commentary):
The answer is that once settled in Canaan, they would surely desire agricultural success, which in the ancient world was generally attributed to proper involvement of the deities in the agricultural process through worship. In general, ancient peoples believed that the gods could do anything but feed themselves. Humans therefore had the job of raising food for the gods, which was then ‘sent’ to them through the offerings humans gave in the presence of the gods’ idols.
What part did the gods have in this process? They caused the crops to grow and the flocks and herds to multiply. The ancient farmer thought that the gods were absolutely essential to the agricultural process and that the way to involve the goodwill of the gods on behalf of one’s farming was to worship them. The essence of worship was providing food for them in the form of sacrifices. When Israel would arrive in the promised land, the temptation to plant as the Canaanites planted, to cultivate as they cultivated, to harvest as they harvested, and to worship as they worshiped would be almost irresistible since all these were thought to go together as part and parcel of farming in any given locality.
Verses 27-30 expand on God’s promise to “wipe out” the Canaanites. Here we learn what God means by this promise. God’s intention is to drive the inhabitants out of the land, little by little, over a period of years. The Israelites will be conducting a mere mop-up operation, because God will be doing the heavy lifting during the conquest.
Verses 29-30 explain that God must drive the people out slowly because the Israelites are not numerous enough to inhabit the land. The land will become desolate and overrun with wild animals if the Canaanites are driven out too rapidly.
Verse 31 reminds the reader again of the borders of the Promised Land, The Red Sea (northern tip of the Gulf of Aqaba) on the east, the Mediterranean Sea on the west, the Negev desert to the south, and the Euphrates River to the north.
Finally, in verses 32-33, God again warns the Israelites not to worship the gods of Canaan. If they allow the Canaanites to live among them in great numbers, they are sure to adopt the worship practices of the Canaanites.
Douglas Stuart summarizes the meaning of these verses: “Without Yahweh, they were nothing, could do nothing, and would end up as nothing. With him leading and them following obediently, however, all would fall properly into place, and their purpose as a people would come to fulfillment.”