A New York Times article recently described the Islamic State’s persecution of Christians in Iraq and Syria as “a slow-motion genocide.” Atrocities such as beheadings, burnings, crucifixions, and mass burials (sometime of live victims) defy human comprehension. Islamic mujahideen (holy warriors) smile at the camera, waving flags and holding up AK-47s, proud of their brutal accomplishments. One does not have to be a Christian to be sickened by such horrors.
In this cultural moment, with daily reports of genocide throughout the world, the question of Canaan’s destruction under the ministry of Joshua occasionally enters the conversation: “How could the God of Scripture command the violent slaughter of an entire society?” In other words, doesn’t the Old Testament practice of ḥerem (Hebrew word meaning “to place under a ban” or “devote to destruction”) amount to genocide? How can we reconcile this history with our belief that “God is love”?
Destruction of Canaan
The Hebrew term ḥerem, Walter Brueggemann notes, “refers to the religious requirement that everything that Israel captures or gains in war—booty as well as people—is to be ‘utterly destroyed,’ offered up to YHWH in conflagration [destruction by fire] or some other mode of killing (thus acknowledging YHWH to be the real victory in a war).” In this way, the practice of ḥerem sought to ensure the Lord’s complete sovereignty (Deut. 20:16-18). For the current inhabitants of the Promised Land (i.e., Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites) the options of enslavement or treaty were not available. Men, women, children, and cattle—everything that breathed, was to be destroyed.
Why did God give this command? As the text explains, it was so that “they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices that they have done for their gods, and so you sin against the Lord your God” (Deut. 20:18).
Do you find this command disturbing? If so, you’re not alone. While there are historical and theological differences between the Lord’s command for Israel to enact ḥerem and the Sharia-like violence of Islamic mujahideen, we recognize some similarity: an effort to exterminate other humans who think and behave differently from one’s own sacred tradition. How can believers in the God of Abraham—Christians and Jews alike—possibly explain, much less vindicate, what appears to be wanton violence motivated by religious xenophobia (fear and/or disdain for other ethnicities)? There are no simple explanations. However, features of the narrative and wider redemptive history must be considered before reaching a conclusion that questions the moral character of God.
First, the Lord’s command to enact ḥerem was preceded by a long period of divine patience and longsuffering in the face of Canaanite wickedness (gross forms of idolatry, immorality, and injustice, including the sacrifice of children). Thus, the Lord said to Abraham in Genesis 15:16, “the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.” According to Leviticus 18:24ff. and 20:22, Canaanite iniquity had defiled the land to the extent that it “vomited out its inhabitants” and “punished it for its sin” (18:25). Therefore, “on account of the wickedness of the nations” (Deut. 9:4), the Lord would finally extend his hand of judgment.
In addition to restraining his judgment over the course of many centuries (from the time of Abraham to Joshua), the Lord initiated Israel’s campaign of ḥerem with a striking example of his redemptive grace for the Canaanites: the story of Rahab. This woman, arguably furthest from the Lord (a Canaanite prostitute), is not only saved from judgment, but even drawn into the family of God to such a degree that she becomes a great-grandmother of King David, the Jewish monarch through whom Messiah Jesus would eventually come. Right up to the end, God displays his desire to lovingly embrace Canaanites who turn toward him in faith.
In view of the wider theological and historical context, we find that the conquest of Canaan was in fact not motivated by xenophobia. It was, rather, driven by the necessity of God’s holiness. Because the Promised Land was intended to showcase the beauty of this holiness—a place where the world would find purity, wholeness, and truth (“shalom”)—it was necessary to eliminate every form of paganism that would threaten such life. This, once again, is the reason given in Deuteronomy 20:18, that “[the Canaanites] may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices that they have done for their gods, and so you sin against the LORD your God.”
Meaning of Israel’s Conquest
These observations help us to see that ḥerem was fundamentally concerned with consecrating the land for God’s purposes. You might say that it constituted Israel’s worship. A cursory reading of Joshua’s early chapters makes this point, where, for instance, we see the Israelites setting themselves apart in religious purity (3:5), joining the priests in faithful procession behind the Ark of the Covenant (3:3-4), undergoing circumcision (5:2-9), celebrating the Passover (5:10-12), and following the “commander of the army of the LORD” (5:13-15). Such activity defines Israel as worshipers devoted to preparing the Promised Land for God’s glory.
At this point of our explanation, readers will likely divide based on their theological convictions. Among Christians and Jews who accept the biblical portrait of a holy and sovereign God (with the prerogative to stand in judgment upon his rebellious creatures), there is the capacity to understand why the Lord eventually executed ḥerem (while no doubt still remaining uncomfortable with the thought). All sinful behavior provokes divine judgment (for God’s holiness requires him to address rebellion; see Nahum 1:3). Such judgment is often a long time coming (what theologians call “common grace”) but come it must (2 Cor. 5:10). If someone cannot accept the notion of judgment or hell, he will likely have a problem with God’s judgment of Canaan.
To understand why God commanded Joshua to destroy the Canaanites, you might think of it this way: the divine justice awaiting humanity on the last day effectively confronted the Canaanites in a particular moment of history, an extraordinary moment (not to be repeated) that foreshadows the final day of reckoning of all humanity (1 Cor. 10:11). This is where Jesus enters the picture.
Role of Jesus
So how do Christians—men and women whose lives are defined by the person of Jesus Christ—apply the biblical teaching of ḥerem? One option is to drive a wedge between the wrathful deity of the Old Testament and the Prince of Peace who walks through the pages of the New Testament. This option, however, will not suffice, since we understand God’s character to be the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb. 13:8). Ironically, it is here, in what appears to be the point of disconnect (the love and peace of our Savior Jesus), that we find the reason why ḥerem is relevant for today.
The final word of the prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible (and the last word of the English Old Testament) is the word ḥerem: “lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction” (Mal. 4:6). The Old Covenant record concludes by anticipating destruction, the so-called “Day of the LORD” (Mal. 4:5) when God enters human history to powerfully save and judge (Is. 13:6; Ezek. 13:5). Various images are used to describe this Day of the Lord, including shaking of the heavens and the earth (Is. 13:13; Ezek. 38:19; Hag. 2:21-22; Joel 3:16), darkening of the sky (Is. 5:30; Ezek. 32:7-8; Zeph. 1:15), and the day of the Lord’s sacrifice (Zeph. 1:8).
This is where we find the good news. Jesus came in fulfillment of Israel’s end-time hope: “The kingdom of God has come near,” he proclaimed (Mark 1:15). And as his life took shape, Jesus—the ultimate Joshua—would destroy the ultimate enemy of God—Satan and his minions—in a new ḥerem. No longer limited to the soil of Palestine, however, King Jesus would reign over all the earth in true righteousness and justice.
But how did Jesus win this victory? Unlike Joshua, not by putting wicked people to the sword. The one to feel the point of a sword was a Jewish woman named Mary, Jesus’s mother, whose soul was pierced at the sight of her son’s crucifixion (Luke 2:35). What exactly did she observe? She watched the sinless Savior die, perfect spotless righteousness, the great unchangeable I AM, the King of glory and of grace. Yes, amid a darkened sky (Matt. 27:45), and trembling earth (Matt. 27:51) the Lord’s sacrifice was completed (John 19:30).
Through his death and resurrection, Jesus “disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them” (Col. 2:15). Christ’s death secured our pardon, enabling us to face the final day of judgment with confidence. We realize that while we were enemies of God on account of sin, no better than the morally bankrupt Canaanites, we were reconciled by the death of his Son (Rom. 5:10). Yes, like Rahab of old, dead in our trespasses and sins, we became alive in Christ by grace. There is therefore no room for boasting. None of us can feel proud of ourselves. All we can do is acknowledge the One who has saved us, worshiping him and proclaiming God’s foreign policy to the world: “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Rom. 10:13).