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.