When the LORD your God brings you into the land that you are entering to take possession of it, and clears away many nations before you, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations more numerous and mightier than you, and when the LORD your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction. You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them. (Deut. 7:1-2).

This is one of the most morally troubling passages in all of Scripture. It also happens to be one of the most frequently heard objections to the Christian faith today. God spoke these words to the Israelites as they were encamped on the plains of Moab and about to cross the Jordan River into Canaan. God had promised this land to their ancestor Abraham around 500 years earlier (Gen. 15:18-21), but it would be their responsibility, under the leadership of Joshua, to clear out the local inhabitants and take possession of the land. And it’s not simply forced eviction we are talking about here; it’s the slaughter of entire nations, down to the last man, woman, and child. Bible scholars call this ḥerem warfare. The Hebrew word means “to devote something to total destruction.”

Law and Lawgiver

Non-Christians often point to the Old Testament’s ḥerem laws to reject Christianity altogether. A God of love and justice, they say, could never command genocide, and therefore he must not exist. Ironically, the unbeliever’s moral criticisms presuppose a transcendent source of morality. It makes no sense to say that the ḥerem laws are unjust unless there is an objective standard of justice to which they must conform. But this is precisely the thing that the unbeliever loses in denying the existence of God. You cannot have moral laws without a moral Lawgiver.

Even so, many who acknowledge God’s existence still have trouble accepting the morality of Scripture. Some Christians have responded by driving a wedge between the Old Testament and the New, claiming that Jesus’s ethics improved upon the brutal practices of ancient Israel. But this sort of response does not fit with Jesus’s own view of the Old Testament. After all, he spoke approvingly of the destruction of Sodom, a pagan city that also included men, women, and children (Luke 17:28-29). Further, he said that Scripture cannot be broken (John 10:35).

So for those of us who confess the authority of both the Old and New Testaments, we are faced with a number of challenging questions: How do we reconcile the ḥerem laws with the rest of Scripture’s teachings on justice and compassion? And how are Christians supposed to apply the ḥerem laws today? What place should they have in our preaching and practice?

Slaughter of Innocents?

To answer these questions, we must understand the place of the ḥerem laws in the history of redemption. Israel had a unique calling as God’s chosen covenant people. Their task was to prepare the way for the arrival of the Messiah. Therefore, Israel’s own mission foreshadowed Jesus’s mission in a number of ways. Their purity laws pointed to the holiness demanded by God. Their sacrificial laws pointed to our need for atonement. And their laws concerning ḥerem warfare pointed to God’s just judgment against sin. In all of these respects, Israel’s laws were signposts to the spiritual realities behind Christ’s redemptive work for us.

This is why it is so important for us to get our doctrine of humanity right. If we see humans as being basically good or innocent, then of course we will react with indignation to the Bible’s ḥerem laws. However, if we take the Bible on its own terms, we will recognize that all humans are born guilty and corrupt. This was especially true of the Canaanite societies steeped in abominable practices like child sacrifice and cult prostitution. OT scholar Tremper Longman summarizes this point well:

We must point out that the Bible does not understand the destruction of the men, women, and children of these cities as a slaughter of innocents. Not even the children are considered innocent. They are all part of an inherently wicked culture that, if allowed to live, would morally and theologically pollute the people of Israel.[1]

Longman goes on to cite OT scholar Meredith Kline, who proposes a theory of “intrusion ethics.” Scripture tells us that the punishment for all sin is death (Gen. 2:17; Rom. 6:23), and ultimately every unrepentant sinner will have to face God’s judgment. However, according to Kline, sometimes we get snapshots of God’s final judgment “intruding” into the flow of history, foreshadowing the reality to come. The ḥerem laws of the OT were an example of this intrusion.

Mercy Triumphs over Judgment

Although these laws express God’s judgment, they also show us God’s mercy in several important ways:

  • It was merciful for God to protect the Israelites from idolatry. In Deuteronomy 20:18, God gave Israel an explicit reason why it was necessary to wipe out the Canaanites: “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.”
  • It was merciful for God to limit the scope of the ḥerem laws to only those pagan nations within the borders of the promised land, rather than extending to all nations, including Israel. All mankind is equally guilty in God’s eyes. We are only alive due to God’s grace, and every breath we take is a merciful gift from him. 
  • It was merciful for God to allow the Canaanites to remain in the land as long as they did. In Genesis 15:16, God told Abraham that his descendants would have to remain slaves in Egypt for 400 years before taking possession of Canaan, “for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.” So God was patient in dealing with the Canaanite nations, waiting until they reached the point of no return.
  • It was merciful for God to allow individual Canaanites to repent and join the people of God. The classic example is Rahab, the prostitute who helped the Israelite spies in Jericho and swore allegiance to the Lord (Jos. 2). Rahab was later held up as an example of faithful obedience in the New Testament (Heb. 11:31; Jas. 2:25) and even included in the genealogy of Jesus (Matt. 1:5).
  • It was merciful for God to bring an end to the ḥerem laws (as originally applied) with the coming of Christ. In Matthew 15:21-28, we read the story of Jesus healing the daughter of a Canaanite woman. Scholars generally agree that Matthew wrote his Gospel to a Jewish audience. Any Jewish reader would have recognized that this Canaanite “dog” didn’t have a right to live; in fact, her very existence testified to Israel’s failure to submit to God’s law. And yet Jesus showed her grace. He even commended her for her faith! This was just a glimpse of the full inclusion that Gentiles would enjoy in the church post-Pentecost (Acts 10-11).

Now that Christ has come, the way in which we understand and apply the ḥerem laws has radically transformed. The judgment that they foreshadowed was demonstrated decisively on the cross of Christ, who received the full measure of God’s wrath for the sins of his people. Thanks to his obedience unto death, our own sins are forgiven, and we can now stand in God’s favor by faith alone.

Continuing Herem

But the war is not over. God’s enemies were dealt a crushing blow through Christ’s victory on the cross, but they will not finally be defeated until Christ returns to establish everlasting justice on earth. In the meantime, we are still called to do battle, but not as Israel did. Longman writes:

The war against the Canaanites was simply an earlier phase of the battle that comes to its climax on the cross and its completion at the final judgment. The object of warfare moves from the Canaanites, who are the object of God’s wrath for their sin, to the spiritual powers and principalities, and then finally to the utter destruction of all evil, human and spiritual.[2]

So the ḥerem laws still apply, but in a spiritual sense rather than a physical sense. Our enemies are the demonic forces that hold the world in captivity to sin, and our weapons are now prayer, preaching, and evangelism. The apostle Paul described this spiritual warfare in Ephesians 6:12: “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” The battle may be fierce, but we remain confident that God’s justice will ultimately prevail.

[1] Tremper Longman, “The Case for Spiritual Continuity,” in Show Them No Mercy: 4 Views on God and Canaanite Genocide, ed. Stanley Gundry (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), 173-74.

[2] Ibid, 185.