Is the Bible Violent? Genocide in the Old Testament. p.2

II. The Ban as “Cultic Purification”

Deuteronomy 7:2 says they must employ the herem on the people in the land of Canaan when they fight them.[1]  He then goes on in vv. 3-4 and gives reasons as to why the Israelites are to totally destroy them.  It says, “Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, for they will turn your sons away from following me to serve other gods, and the LORD’s anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you.” [emphasis mine].  God did not want the Israelites to worship anyone except for Him alone.  This was stated very explicitly in the first commandment when God said, “You shall have no other gods before me,” (Exodus 20:3).  Because of this, God did not want other nations to influence who Israel worshipped.  Israel could not share the Promised Land with the Canaanites because Israel might be tempted to worship Baal and no longer worship God.[2]  King Solomon is a good example of a person who was wise and had the desire to follow the Lord God, but because he married foreign women, they led him astray and he worshipped other gods.[3]

The Canaanites were under the ban because they worshipped other gods, so when the Israelites started to worship other gods they would become under the ban also.  When God was making a covenant with Israel he said in Exodus 22:20 says, “Whoever sacrifices to any god other than the LORD must be destroyed.”  The word “destroyed” here is the Hebrew word for herem.[4]  When someone takes an object God designates with the ban then that person acquires the status of the ban also.[5]  This happens because an object that is under the herem describes a quality inherent to that person or thing.[6]  Because that object has that inherent quality, when someone tries to take that object, that person inherits that quality and comes under the ban also.  This is shown in the story of Achan.  In Joshua 7, when Achan stole some spoil from the city of Jericho he had to die because once he came into contact with the banned material he came under the ban also, along with his family since they were in contact and associated with him.

For this reason the herem was viewed as “an instrument of cultic purification.”[7]  God knew that the only way that the Israelites would have any chance to stay pure in their devotion to Yahweh was to put away the things that would be a hindrance to them.  This meant that the Israelites would have to totally destroy every person that worshipped other gods so they could not entice the Israelites to follow after their gods.  This was even the case if it involved a tribe of Israel.  When an Israelite city started to worship other gods it was to be treated as a Canaanite city by the rest of Israel.[8]  This happened in Joshua 22 when Reuben, Gad, and half of Manasseh built an altar on the east side of the Jordan.  When the rest of the tribes found out they had built an altar, they joined forces and were ready to go to war against their brothers because they thought their brothers were being unfaithful to God.[9]  The ten tribes were not going to let their brothers follow other gods because as v. 18 says they were afraid God’s anger would be against Israel for turning from the Lord.  When the tribes found out that the altar was only a monument and they were still faithful to Yahweh, they backed down.  Stern sums up the ban-as-“cultic-purification” up by saying:

According to Deuteronomy, idolatry within that sacred land was worse than the act of killing – even the mass killing – of idolaters, because the existence of idolatry there nullified the very right of Israel to possess it (7:1-4, 12:29-13:19, 17:1-7).  Moreover, the existence of idolatry (that is religio-cultural syncretism) in the land would eventually bring about the destruction of the Israelite polity and its people.  The death, therefore, of any and all idolaters, whether Israelite or foreign, was enjoined upon the nation upon the pain of its own destruction.[10]

            However, the ban was not the only option for the Israelites to stay culturally pure.  The ban was to be put into place for those who did not want to leave the land of Israel and continue to worship their gods.  God first and foremost wanted the Israelites to drive out the people of the land.  Notice, God says he was going to drive out the people, before the Israelites entered the land he told them to drive out the inhabitants, and as they were reflecting back on their conquest they recognized they did not drive out the people.  So, before, during, and after the conquest the Israelites were told and knew they were supposed to drive out the people.  Here are a few verses:

– God said he would drive out the inhabitants:  Exodus 34:11, “Observe what I command you this day. Behold, I will drive out before you the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites.”

– Before the Conquest:  Numbers 33:55, “But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then those of them whom you let remain shall be as barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides, and they shall trouble you in the land where you dwell.”

– Reflection upon how they did in the conquest:  Judges 1:19-21, “And the Lord was with Judah, and he took possession of the hill country, but he could not drive out the inhabitants of the plain because they had chariots of iron. 20 And Hebron was given to Caleb, as Moses had said. And he drove out from it the three sons of Anak. 21 But the people of Benjamin did not drive out the Jebusites who lived in Jerusalem, so the Jebusites have lived with the people of Benjamin in Jerusalem to this day.”

            Since the Israelites main goal was to drive out the Canaanites it helps us to understand what is happening.  The Israelites were not ruthlessly hunting down every person, they were not blood thirsty warriors looking to ransack villages.  The Israelites were trying to drive out this wicked and evil people.


[1]In connection with this verse Cohn says that the purpose behind the extermination was so that the Israelites would not be influenced by the people, so they were allowed to keep the spoil for themselves.  Haim H. Cohn, “Herem,” Encycolpedia Judaica, (Jerusalem:  Keter Publishing, 1996) 8:345.

[2]Gottwald, 304.  He also believes that the Canaanite worship is in and of itself not wicked because that is how God told them to worship (Deuteronomy 32:8).  The reason it becomes wicked is because Israel is so fickle in her worship, she might be influenced to worship Baal.  “Canaanite ‘wickedness’ in Deuteronomy means primarily the insidious appeal of Canaanite worship to Israel.”  Thus the Israelites had to be “morally and religiously sanitized by herem,” (304).

[3]1 Kings 11:4-6

[4]Charles Sherlock, The God Who Fights:  The War Tradition in Holy Scriptures (Edinburgh:  Rutherford House, 1996), 69-70.

[5]Philip D. Stern, The Biblical Herem:  A Window on Israel’s Religious Experience (Atlanta:  Scholars Press, 1991), 114.

[6]Brekelmans, 475.

[7]Gangloff, 18.

[8]Gottwald, 297.  cf. Deuteronomy 13:12-15.

[9]In this text the word herem is not used, but the idea is present.

[10]Firestone, 107.

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