G.K. Beale on the חרם (herem) of the Canaanites

It’s been a few weeks since I (Andrew) posted last.  After the busyness of Christmas, I spent a week in the Midwest visiting family.  I intended to write a post or two, but wound up with the flu!  Well, I’m back home and back at it.  Thanks again to Shane who is the backbone of this whole blog operation!

When I arrived home, G.K. Beale’s new little booklet The Morality of God in the Old Testament (in the Christian Answers to Hard Questions series) had arrived in the mail.  As I’ve been doing some reading on the question of the חרם of the Canaanites, I was pleased to see that Beale recently tackled the subject, albeit in short booklet form.  I thought I’d draw attention to this nice little text by sharing a few interesting paragraphs:

God’s Command to Annihilate All the Canaanites because of Moral Uncleanness Was Part of a Unique Redemptive-Historical Commission to Purify the Promised Land as a Sanctuary

A number of scholars have established that the garden of Eden was a sanctuary.  Adam was commissioned to be a king-priest to keep out uncleanness and then to expand this garden sanctuary into the outer regions of the earth until the Eden temple filled the entire earth.  Adam failed in his commission by allowing an unclean snake into the interior of the garden temple.  Noah was given the same commission, and he likewise failed.  Israel was then given the commission to be “a kingdom of priests” (Ex. 19:6) and to enter the Promised Land and  make it into another garden temple by completely cleansing it from the uncleanness of the Canaanites.   Just as Adam was to keep the Eden sanctuary clean and then later Israel’s individual priests were to keep the temple completely clean from defilement, so the Israelite warriors were to wipe out the Canaanites and purify the land, since it was to be pure like the sanctuary of Eden and Israel’s temple.  Israel, as a corporate Adam, was to do was Adam had been commissioned to do but did not do.  In fact, the Promised Land is referred to at points throughout Scripture as being “like the garden of Eden” (or “like the garden of the Lord”) (see Gen. 13:10; Isa. 51:3; Ezek. 36:35; Joel 2:3).

Against this background, God’s command to Israel to exterminate Canaanite uncleanness was a commission to wipe out every aspect of impurity.  Just as Israel’s priests in the Jerusalem temple were to keep out every bit of uncleanness, so was Israel as a nation of priests to purge every bit of defilement from the land as a temple.  This is why every idolater, whether old or young or male or female, ideally had to be killed or driven out from the land.  Again, this was a unique and unrepeatable commission, which in no way applies after the epoch of Israel’s theocracy.

(pgs. 10-11)

Though the booklet is short, it does open some interesting conversations about this topic.  I appreciate Beale’s use of the word “ideally” because it recognizes how rampant idolatry remained even in the promised sanctuary-land after Joshua and throughout Israel’s subsequent history.  Not every strand of Beale’s argument is equally convincing (e.g., his appeal to God’s sovereignty needed more exploration), but this is nevertheless a worthy little treatment of this most difficult topic!
R. Andrew Compton
Christ Reformed Church (URCNA)
Anaheim, CA