On the חרם (ḥerem) of the Canaanites…

I’ve been thinking a bit about the matter of חרם warfare in the Old Testament and spent some time over the last few days reading through the essays in the book Show Them No Mercy: 4 Views on God and Canaanite Genocide (Zondervan, 2003).  This was an interesting collection, though was also a somewhat dissatisfying one for me.

Though there are distinctions between the views of Eugene Merrill, Daniel Gard and Tremper Longman, by and large they were handling this difficult subject in fairly similar ways.  The responses by these three scholars to each others’ essays showed a large amount of overlap to their positions.  (The overlap between Gard and Longman was the greatest.)  The real contrast, however, was with the essay of C.S. Cowles who argued for such a radical discontinuity between the OT and NT on this point that he believes that God’s word was actually disobeyed when the Israelites engaged in חרם.  The way Merrill, Gard and Longman responded to Cowles (and the way Cowles responded to the them) indicated substantial disagreement.

While Cowles’ position was incredibly problematic, he more than the others faced the difficulty of these text most transparently.  Though I felt Longman and Gard gave the most satisfying answers to the problem, their approaches sounded very detached and clinical in dealing with this problem.  Their shape of their presentations would have been strengthened had they empathized more with just how horrific are these scenes from scripture when God commands men, women and Children be put to the sword.  (Note: there is another literary proposal relevant to this matter, curiously not explored by any of authors.  I’ll take that up in a moment.)  Nevertheless, that did not distract from the satisfactory content of their presentation.

Longman’s essay began to wrap things up with these excellent paragraphs:

I argue that there is both continuity and discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments on the issue of ḥerem warfare. The God of the Old Testament is not a different God from the God we encounter in the New Testament. Nor did God change his mind. 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.

Indeed, it must be said that those who have moral difficulties with the genocide in the conquest of Canaan should have even more serious difficulties with the final judgment. In the latter, all those who do not follow Christ—men, women, and children—will be thrown into the lake of fire. The alternatives to embracing this picture are either rejecting the biblical God or playing the Marcionite game of choosing those Scriptures that suit us, or perhaps treating the final judgment as a metaphor for total annihilation. However, even the latter is not a pleasant thought and still raises issues about how a loving God can exercise any kind of penalty toward the wicked.

Show Them No Mercy, Loc. 3002-3011.  (Sorry, I purchased it in Kindle!)

After drawing in the “divine intrusion ethic” articulated by Meredith Kline (see The Structure of Biblical Authority, pgs. 161-67), Longman writes these very wise and important words:

While perhaps the case can be made from their own texts that the Canaanites were evil, I do not think it can be shown that they were more evil than the Assyrians or the Israelites themselves. Here, like Job, we are left unanswered as to why suffering comes to one and not another.

Show Them No Mercy, Loc. 3020-3022.

This is indeed a skandalon, a great stumbling block for scoffers and a great and terrifying mystery for believers.  Had Longman devoted more time to unpacking the contents of these three cited paragraphs, his presentation may have been even more compelling, perhaps even for Cowles himself.

As I mentioned earlier, I was surprised that nobody cited K. Lawson Younger’s Ancient Conquest Accounts: A Study in Ancient Near Eastern and Biblical History Writing where he discusses the language of complete annihilation in a variety of ancient literature.  (This book was published in 1990.)  Expressions like “he struck down all the inhabitants with the edge of the sword,” “utterly destroying the men, women and children of every city” and “we left no survivor” Younger describes as “syntagms” or literary constructions which are intended to be read hyperbolically, not woodenly.  In the edited book Divine Evil?: The Moral Character of the God of Abraham, Nicholas Wolterstorff makes a key aspect of his argument the claim that these so-called “texts of terror” don’t cause quite the problems that people read into them.  He writes:

Over and over in the book of Joshua we find the line “and they slew all the inhabitants with the edge of the sword.”  Suppose one asked some present-day high school basketball player how his team fared in the game they played the night before, and suppose he says, “We slaughtered ’em, wiped ’em out, just like coach told us to.”  What can one conclude from that comment about how his team treated their opponents and how their coach wanted them to treat their opponents?  Very little.  That their coach fired them up to win the game and that they did.  That’s about it.

“Comments on ‘What About the Canaanites?'” in Divine Evil?, pg. 284.

Thus (according to Wolterstorff) the literal way of reading these texts is to read them as hyperbole, telling us not that the Israelites killed women and children in obedience to a divine decree to do so, but rather that they successfully defeated a given city.  I must admit that there are things that appeal to me about this approach, as well as things that make me uncomfortable with it.  It provides a nice answer to the difficulty of killing Canaanite babies: the Israelites didn’t do it because they weren’t commanded to do it.  This approach also avoids the numerous problems of Cowles’ approach.

But on the other hand, it is hard to know whether these syntagms are easily understood in such a non-comprehensive and non-destructive way.  If they were at the time of Moses and Joshua, they aren’t anymore.  Modern-day genocidal maniacs have at times cited these biblical accounts to justify the entire extermination of a people group (e.g., Jews, Tutsis and Armenians, to name only a few).  What is more, Longman is right; the utter destruction of the wicked at the end of the age (be they men, women or children) is no more pleasant of a thought than the destruction of Canaanite men, women and children.  There really seems to be no way around that one.

This is a staggeringly difficult question, at least when you avoid detached, exclusively theological answers and try to imagine what this might have actually looked like on the ground.  And though several answers have been given attempting to solve this difficulty, none will be entirely satisfactory.  Remember those words of Longman cited above: “Here, like Job, we are left unanswered as to why suffering comes to one and not another.”

We believe that God is good, just, holy and righteous.  We believe that the killing of the Canaanites does not conflict with this.  But how exactly this is the case is hard to know.


Note – two other books which also wrestle through this topic are:

Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God (Baker, 2011).

Christopher J.H. Wright, The God I Don’t Understand: Reflections on Tough Questions of Faith (Zondervan, 2008).

R. Andrew Compton
Christ Reformed Church (URCNA)
Anaheim, CA

4 thoughts on “On the חרם (ḥerem) of the Canaanites…”

  1. Thanks for this. Such a difficult topic. When I was a young Christian, I never gave it a second thought. Now the only thought I have is that this shows that none deserve life. Life is a gift given to the underserving, and the final judgment will square the accounts. Still, there is no humanly-satisfying way to see this. God is the all-powerful Other who loves us, or…

    There are many things I believe to be true, and many of them, I don’t like.


  2. Helpful comments, especially from Tremper Longman. Though it is certainly legitimate to understand idioms and turns of phrase in context and to avoid an over-literalizing of terms, Wolterstorff’s solution is weak, because of the contrast in the law of Moses itself between cities located within the promised land and cities outside the land, where peace terms were to be offered leading to capitulation; that would seem to imply that capitulation is not an option for the cities in the promised land. “Show no mercy” also seems to be an inept way to say show mercy to some but not others.
    Retribution is one theme in herem: in fact, God tells Abraham that his descendants cannot yet inherit the land (wait four hundred years) because “the iniquity of the Amorites is not full”; i. e., they aren’t bad enough yet.
    Another theme is contamination: Psalm 106:37 says the people of Israel “sacrificed their sons and daughters to demons” because they mingled with the nations and adopted their customs; so it seems it was a matter of either 1) obey the Lord God and destroy the Canaanites, or 2) destroy your own offspring by assimilating to the Canaanite worship. Was there a third way, viz., not destroying the Canaanite mothers and children, but also not adopting the februation practices of the Canaanites, though the Canaanite mothers would teach their children to sacrifice their own grandchildren? Neither Moses nor the Psalmist mentions a third way. For in the third way, the Canaanite women children and old men (if, as we would prefer, non-combatants would be spared) would have to renounce their gods. This was virtually inconceivable, since, in the event, the people of Israel themselves failed to renounce the Canaanite gods.
    These were awful scenes, I am sure, and I agree we must not ignore the horror on the ground. Yet here again I cannot suppress the taste of an element of hypocrisy here; I am impressed that, while the Mosaic law admittedly falls short of our modern, northern Atlantic, post-enlightenment ideals, it is certainly ahead of our modern practices. No generations have shed more blood than the last three; enlightened countries have been among the worst; and if Joshua and the people shed blood in total destruction of selected settlements, our modern societies with massive bombing and unrestricted abortion wipe out far more people with far less justification. Of course, I do not assume that readers of these posts are advocates of these practices, but you see my point when the issue is raised as a stock response to the Bible-believing Christian.


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