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18 & 19 May 2024 (Pastoral Page) THE ISSUE OF HEREM (OR UTTER DESTRUCTION)

By Snr Ps Beh Soo Yeong

Many Bible readers have wondered or even objected to the annihilation of Canaanites in the book of Joshua. What kind of God would command the wholesale killing of entire cities, including women and children? Understandably, it is perhaps hard for some to reconcile the God of love with such seemingly disturbing and repulsive acts.


This article, therefore, seeks to help us make sense of this wholesale killing and to appropriate this concept into our modern life in a relevant and biblical way. In Joshua 6.18, the Israelites were instructed to keep away from the devoted things i.e. herem (Hebrew). In the verb form, herem means to totally destroy, or the “irrevocable giving over of things or persons to the Lord, often by totally destroying them.”[1] These are sacred things devoted to the LORD that the Israelites must keep away from.


However, was herem really necessary? To answer this question, we must first suspend our own judgment based on our own modern sensibilities and seek to understand the Ancient Near Eastern context in which ancient Israel existed. First, it should be noted that this practice of total destruction was not unique to Israel. Many of the nations around Israel would totally destroy cites and people after they have conquered them. “All wars waged by a country were ‘holy wars’, dedicated to the glorification of its deity and the extension of the deity’s reign.”[2]


Second, it should be noted that herem has a deeper meaning and significance as compared to the surrounding nations. Israel’s battles were divine wars, waged only upon God’s instructions and directions and with God himself. When the Israelites wage war against a nation/ people upon God’s commands, God will fight the battle. Not all cities were to be destroyed regardless. Only the Canaanite cities were to be utterly destroyed. Those that were not in Canaan were to be given an offer of peace, and to be spared if peace was accepted. Even if peace was not accepted, and war was waged and won, the women, children and livestock would be spared and taken as plunder (Deuteronomy 20.10-18).


Third, the Canaanite cities were designated for herem, mainly because of their wickedness and sinfulness (Deuteronomy 9.4-5), and not because of the righteousness of Israel. Already we are told way back in Genesis 15.16 that the Amorites were already sinful, although their sinfulness has “not yet reached its full measure.” There would be a time when the Israelites would return to take the land and punish the Canaanites on God’s authority—the time of Joshua. We are also told that the sins of the Canaanites included incest, adultery, child sacrifice, bestiality, and homosexual sins (Leviticus 18.3-30), which “by the standards of most cultures…were particularly heinous.”[3] These sins contradicted the nature and character of God, and Israel was warned to never be engaged in them.


Besides, unlike Rahab and the Gibeonites who switched allegiance from their deities to worship the LORD and were spared (albeit through guile and deception), the Canaanites did not repent or seek mercy. While we are told that “it was the Lord himself who hardened [the Canaanites’] hearts to wage war against Israel, so that he might destroy them totally, exterminating them without mercy” (Joshua 11.20), it was plausibly due to the Canaanites’ continual rebellion against and their stubborn resistance to the LORD, just like the Pharoah in Egypt during the ten plagues (Exodus 9.12; 10.1, 27; 11.10).


Fourth, not only was herem necessary as a punishment for the wickedness of the Canaanites, it was also needed to maintain the religious purity of Israel. Throughout Deuteronomy and Joshua, the Israelites were told to utterly destroy the inhabitants so that Israel would not be influenced and contaminated by their idolatry and wickedness (Deuteronomy 7.1-6, 23-26; 20.16-18; Joshua 6.17-19). God intended for them to be kept pure as his treasured possession (Deuteronomy 7.6). To be sure, herem was also to be applied to Israelite towns—all people, livestock, towns and plunder—who have gone astray to worship other gods (Deuteronomy 13.12-18). The defeat at Ai and the subsequent destruction of Achan and his family clearly showed that God meant business and he would have no double standards for the Israelites. Unfortunately, we know that Israel subsequently did not obey the LORD completely to utterly destroy the Canaanites, which led to their idolatry and wickedness (Judges 2.10-13). In Psalm 106.34-39, we are given a vivid picture of the sins of Israel—idolatry, child sacrifice etc—the very same sins committed by the people of Canaan.


Therefore, while it may seem cruel and inhumane for God to command the destruction of the Canaanites, we must be careful not to prejudge these actions according to our 21st century human perspective, for God’s ways are higher than our ways and his thoughts higher than our thoughts (Isaiah 55.8-9).


At the same time, we need to consider how we should and should not appropriate the concept of herem in our time, so as to apply the word of God wisely and faithfully. We should remember that the command to the Israelites “to annihilate the Canaanites were specific in time, intent, and geography.”[4] In the Old Testament, God was calling and forming a people who would be a light and blessing to the nations around them. The divine way to do that was by saving them and giving them his law and commandments so that they would live in a radically different way from the nations. He would give them the covenant, the land that he promised and the law that they would abide by, so that the nations will know of this God of the covenant, the land and the law. Unfortunately, because of their disobedience and rebellion, Israel would eventually be punished and exiled to foreign lands.


What Israel failed to fulfil is now fulfilled in Christ, the new Israel and the Son of God. He would wage war against his enemies, not humans since he came to seek and save the lost, but against sin, evil, Satan (and his minions), and death. Through his sacrifice on the cross and resurrection from the tomb, he defeated Satan, sin and death. Our salvation and blessings no longer hinge on land or lineage, but on Christ’s saving work on the cross.


Therefore, Hess says it well, “The earthly army that Christ leads introduces the other focus of holy war: the engagement of Christians in a lifelong spiritual struggle against the powers of sin and evil (2 Corinthians 10.3-5; Ephesians 6.10-18). This war also requires the total extermination of the enemy. It allows for no involvement with sin but demands a complete separation from it.”[5]


This is what we are fighting against, not the unsaved whom we are called to win to Christ through God’s love and  truth, but against our sinful being, “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6.10-18). How do we wage this battle? Through the power of the Holy Spirit, in our complete surrendered devotion to God and commitment to the army of the Lamb as his disciples.



Further reading: Some have argued that herem is equivalent to genocide. Here is an article for us to understand and differentiate the two:

[1] Howard, D. M., Jr. (1998). Joshua (Vol. 5, p. 180). Broadman & Holman Publishers.

[2] Hess, R. S. (1996). Joshua: An Introduction and Commentary (Vol. 6, p. 47). InterVarsity Press.

[3] Howard, D. M., Jr. (1998). Joshua (Vol. 5, p. 185). Broadman & Holman Publishers.

[4] Howard, D. M., Jr. (1998). Joshua (Vol. 5, p. 186). Broadman & Holman Publishers.

[5] Hess, R. S. (1996). Joshua: An Introduction and Commentary (Vol. 6, pp. 50–51). InterVarsity Press.14)

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