Is the Bible Violent? Genocide in the Old Testament. p.3

III.  The Ban as Judgment

The issue becomes clearer when one realizes that when Israel engaged in war, it was not done hastily or haphazardly, but they engaged in warfare because God was using Israel to judge the other nations for their wickedness.[1]  God spoke to Israel in Deuteronomy 9:5 and said, “It is not for your righteousness or for the uprightness of your heart that you are going to possess their land, but it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD your God is driving them out before you.”[2]  The author of Deuteronomy is careful to point out that God gives moral reasons for driving out and exterminating the nations.[3]  Since God is the creator of the universe, He is the foundation of these moral laws and that “whatever qualifies as ‘divine’ punishment must be understood as punishment that is appropriate and/or required by the ultimate standards of conduct and justice.”[4]  In Genesis 18:16, God speaks to Abram and tells him that his descendants will come back to this place but not now because “sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.”  It seems that God wants to make it clear as to why the other nations are being driven out as outlined in Deuteronomy 9:5.  God wants there to be ample cause for Israel to destroy the other nations.  Amos 1:3 declares, “Thus says the Lord, “For three transgressions of Damascus and for four I will not revoke its punishment, because they threshed Gilead with implementsof sharp iron.”[5]  In connection with this verse, Wood says that God will punish Syria not because of specific religious reasons, but because they broke commonly accepted norms of justice.[6]

Other nations had this idea of divine punishment also.  Surrounding nations thought that if they were to do something morally wrong such as break an agreement they would get punished by one of their gods.  Mursilis was a Hittite king (1340-1310 B.C.) who was stricken by a national plague for 20 years.  He asked the Storm-god if the plague was because his father, who ruled before him (1375-1340 B.C.), broke an agreement that was made with the Egyptians.[7]  He thought that the gods were punishing him for something that his father had done wrong.[8]  Also, in the Ancient Near East not only were gods seen as punishing nations, but some nations saw fit to punish other nations for wrongs they had committed.  In Mesopotamia Ush, the ruler of Umma invaded the boundary of Lagash.  Breaking the boundary treaty made Ningirsu made, so he made war against Umma to punish him and impart justice for the wrongdoing of Ush.[9]  So Israel was not the only nation to have these practices, but this was a commonly accepted form of acting in the Ancient Near East.

Niditch compares the ban-as-sacrifice idea and the ban-as-justice idea and says:  that while favor was gained by offering God the spoils of war in the sacrifice ideology, the way the Israelites gain the favor of God through the justice idea is by expunging the nation of evil, by means of “justly deserved punishment.”[10]  This punishment is executed in the act of war.[11]  One of the advantages of this idea of the ban-as-justice is that the Israelites did not have to be feel guilty for the mass killings of an entire people because God required it.[12]  While God used the Israelites to judge the other nations he would also use other nations to execute judgment on Israel for the evil that they had done.[13]  Thus God was not one sided in his punishment of sin but God punished sin wherever he found it.  “In the ban as god’s justice a sharp line is drawn between us and them, between clean and unclean, between those worthy of salvation and those deserving elimination.  The enemy is thus not a mere human, an offering necessary to win the assistance of God, but a monster, unclean, and diseased.”[14]

There are several examples of where the Israelites acted out judgments on nations for their wickedness.  In 1 Samuel 15, the Amalekites are put under the herem because they opposed the Israelites when they were coming up from Egypt (v. 2). [15]  In this instance, the Amalekites had mistreated the Israelites and were to be punished for their actions.  In verse 18, it calls the Amalekites sinners.  One can see Samuel administering justice to king Agag for the evil he has done.  1 Samuel 15:33 says, “And Samuel said, “As your sword has made women childless, so shall your mother be childless among women.”  Just as king Agag had lived by the sword in a reign of terror so shall he die by the sword.

In some cases God did the punishing of a nation for its wickedness.  God punished Israel when they were coming out of Egypt.[16]  When Moses went up on Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments the people made a calf of gold and worshipped it.  Exodus 32:33-35 says, “The LORD replied to Moses, ‘Whoever has sinned against me I will blot out of my book.  Now go, lead the people to the place I spoke of, and my angel will go before you. However, when the time comes for me to punish, I will punish them for their sin.’  And the LORD struck the people with a plague because of what they did with the calf Aaron had made.”  Isaiah 10:5-13 tells us that God used Assyria to punish Israel for the wickedness that they had done. [17]  Isaiah then goes on to say that God then will punish Assyria for their pride and arrogance.  It is interesting to note that that although God uses wicked nations to punish a nation that is not as wicked, in the end the wicked nation will be judged and punished also. 

Understanding the ban as a type of punishment helps to put these stories in a new light.  Just as any society needs to enforce laws for the flourishing of a society, so also the repugnant evil of the Canaanites had to be punished for the flourishing of the Ancient Near East.


[1]Niditch says that some “anthropologist of a Marxian or cultural materialist persuasion” believe that the ban as God’s justice was an excuse for war so they could achieve their true goals, which were to gain land, goods, and women for the survival of their own group (127).

[2]Cf. Deuteronomy 18:9-13

[3]Walzer, 215.

[4]J. Brenton Stearns, “Divine Punishment and Reconciliation,” Journal of Religious Ethics, 9 Spring 1981, 121.  Niditch asserts that in some instances more than one reason for the herem can be in play.  She says that in some passages the ban as a sacrifice ideal joins the ideal of the ban for divine justice as cause to totally destroy a nation (58).

[5]This is not the only city that Amos mentions in his book.  He goes through a list of them and mentions things they did that were morally wrong that they are going to be punished for.  cf. (1:6, 9, 11, 13; 2:1)

[6]John A. Wood, Perspectives on War in the Bible (Press Macon, Georgia:  Mercer University, 1998), 143-144.

[7]Joze Krasovec, “Is There A Doctrine of ‘Collective Retribution’ in the Hebrew Bible?”  Hebrew Union College Annual 65 (1991):  38.  cf. Kang, 13.

[8]Krasovec tweaks this idea of divine retribution by saying that punishment can also come from God allowing peoples’ actions to produce their appropriate fruits, which could be considered a punishment or reward (38).  Rollins furthers this idea when he says that God will fight for Israel unless Israel has been displeasing to God and then God would withdraw from battle, which would necessitate defeat.  Marion J. Benedict, The God of the Old Testament in Relation to War (New York:  AMS Press, 1972,) 17.

[9]Kang, 13.

[10]Niditch, 57.

[11]Robert M Good, “The Just War in Ancient Israel,” Journal of Biblical Literature 104 Spring (1985):  389.

[12]Niditch, 152.

[13]Craigie, 74.  Krasovec notes that Israel forced God to inflict punishment on them because the threat of punishment was usually ineffective.  It was only when God punished Israel that the people were humbled and would admit their guilt and want to change (60-61).

[14]Niditch, 77.

[15]The ban is what is employed in this instance because verse 3 says that every living thing is to be destroyed.  Gangloff references the ban when talking about this passage (19).

[16]Sherlock, 27.

[17] Cf. Marvin E. Tate, “War and Peacemaking in the Old Testament,” Review and Expositor 79 Fall (1982):  554, 555.  To see other verses that show God using nations for His purposes cf. Jeremiah 25:9; 27:6; 43:10.

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