The violence of the Old Testament is often cited in attacks on the Bible and the Faith. Here are four helpful perspectives on the violence involved in the Israelite’s conquest of Canaan, arguably the most egregious instances of violence portrayed in the Old Testament.
Critics often cite what is called “the ban” or “herem” (pronounced “KHAY-rem”) mandated by God in the Book of Deuteronomy for the conquest of Canaan. Herem is the Hebrew verb meaning “devote”, and in this context it means the total destruction of every inhabitant in the city and the destruction or appropriation of their possessions.
Here is an example of such a command of God:
But in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall utterly destroy them, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Per′izzites, the Hivites and the Jeb′usites, as the Lord your God has commanded; that they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices which they have done in the service of their gods, and so to sin against the Lord your God.Deut. 20:16-18
The Book of Joshua describes its implementation in Canaan:
So Joshua defeated the whole land, the hill country and the Negeb and the lowland and the slopes, and all their kings; he left none remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the Lord God of Israel commanded. And Joshua defeated them from Ka′desh-bar′nea to Gaza, and all the country of Goshen, as far as Gibeon.Joshua 10:40-41
As you can imagine, this is horrifying to modern people, and secularists and atheists often use it to attack the Faith and the Church. Here are four perspectives on herem as we find it in the Old Testament that you might find helpful as a person of faith.
The first perspective is Divine Justice, which serves as the default, baseline, and traditional perspective. The other three perspectives will not contradict Divine Justice, but rather will complement it.
We turn first to the Book of Wisdom, chapter 12, where the inspired author discusses the people of Canaan and their conquest.
For truly, the ancient inhabitants of your holy land, whom you hated for deeds most odious— works of sorcery and impious sacrifices; These merciless murderers of children, devourers of human flesh, and initiates engaged in a blood ritual, and parents who took with their own hands defenseless lives, You willed to destroy by the hands of our ancestors, that the land that is dearest of all to you might receive a worthy colony of God’s servants.Wisdom 12:2-7
The sins mentioned include the widespread practice of sacrificing their infants and toddlers to Molech and other idolatries. A few verses later, God’s justice is discussed.
…For who can say to you, “What have you done?” or who can oppose your decree? Or when peoples perish, who can challenge you, their maker; or who can come into your presence to vindicate the unrighteous? For neither is there any god besides you who have the care of all, that you need show you have not unjustly condemned; Nor can any king or prince confront you on behalf of those you have punished. But as you are righteous, you govern all things righteously; you regard it as unworthy of your power to punish one who has incurred no blame.Wisdom 12:12-15
St. Augustine took that exact stance on the matter, and St. Thomas Aquinas confirmed the moral principle in his Summa Theologiae, saying:
All men alike, both guilty and innocent, die the death of nature: which death of nature is inflicted by the power of God on account of original sin, according to 1 Samuel 2:6: “The Lord killeth and maketh alive.” Consequently, by the command of God, death can be inflicted on any man, guilty or innocent, without any injustice whatever.Summa Theologiae I.94.5 St. Thomas Aquinas
This idea of Divine Justice can make us feel very uncomfortable for at least two reasons. First, many of us have lost any belief in an immortal human soul, so we simply don’t believe that God can give eternal happiness to an innocent Canaanite child, for example. Secondly, while the secularists hate to admit it, our Western culture has been influenced by Jesus and his Gospel, especially the Sermon on the Mount and whether they like it or not, our concept of the dignity of human life can be credited to our society’s original Christian experience, notwithstanding the scandal of abortion or the tens of millions of civilians killed in the wars of the last century.
This leads us to the second perspective, “Divine Pedagogy”, which complements Divine Justice. This is the idea that God taught and led his chosen people for thousands of years until His revelation in Jesus Christ, in the fullness of time, as St. Paul says. Pope Benedict summarized this quite well in his Apostolic Exhortation, Verbum Domini:
“In discussing the relationship between the Old and the New Testaments, the Synod also considered those passages in the Bible which, due to the violence and immorality they occasionally contain, prove obscure and difficult. Here it must be remembered first and foremost that biblical revelation is deeply rooted in history. God’s plan is manifested progressively and it is accomplished slowly, in successive stages and despite human resistance. God chose a people and patiently worked to guide and educate them. “Pope Benedict XVI, Apostolic Exhortation, Verbum Domini 42 (2010)
To use a modern analogy, this is like a father teaching his child to play basketball – first dribbling, then shooting, and patiently allowing plenty of time before demanding a high level of skill.
God slowly extracted the Israelites from violent, pagan people, formed them into his own and eventually revealed himself in Jesus Christ.
As we start to read the Books of Joshua and Judges closely, we start to notice what appears to be contradictions regarding Joshua’s conquest of Canaan. For example, we read in the 17th chapter of the Book of Joshua:
But when the people of Israel grew strong, they put the Canaanites to forced labor, and did not utterly drive them out.Joshua 17:13
This verse is duplicated in the first chapter of the Book of Judges.
We read in the first chapter of the Book of Judges that the tribes of Ephraim, Zebulun, Asher, Naphtali, and Dan all dwelled among the Canaanites. This included the Amorites, who were supposed to be destroyed!
If these are truly contradictions, then some of these passages must be presenting falsehoods, which should be very disconcerting to us. A better alternative, however, is that the descriptions of total destruction are inspired hyperbole, that is, inspired rhetorical exaggeration. We have to tread carefully. Hyperbole, after all, can be falsehood, but it’s not falsehood if both the writer and his original audience knew that it was hyperbole. In the case of the herem, these other passages indicate that Israel understood harem this way. Exaggeration was commonly used by Semitic people in those times when describing military exploits.
The bible includes hundreds of figures of speech, including hyperbole. Jesus himself used hyperbole which his listeners readily recognized:
- In the Sermon on the Mount he said, “If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away;…” (Matt. 5:29)
- And speaking to the Pharisees he said, “You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!” (Matt. 23:24)
Let’s go back to the 12th chapter of the Book of Wisdom one more time and look at verses 19 and 20, where the inspired author describes how God punished the Canaanites with concern and leniency, giving them lots of time to repent.
You taught your people, by these deeds, that those who are righteous must be kind;
And you gave your children reason to hope that you would allow them to repent for their sins. For these were enemies of your servants, doomed to death; yet, while you punished them with such solicitude and indulgence, granting time and opportunity to abandon wickedness,Wisdom 12:19-20
So the complete destruction of the Canaanites in the Book of Joshua may be inspired hyperbole. As people of faith, the inspired hyperbole invites to ask, “Why?” What was God trying to teach or to emphasize?
That suggests that there might be a spiritual meaning or sense of the concept of herem. That’s the fourth and last perspective we’ll consider in this post. Origen, an influential Christian theologian from Alexandria, Egypt born late in the second century, proposed an allegorical meaning for harem. Origen wrote:
If those things that were dimly sketched through Moses concerning the tabernacle or the sacrifices and the entire worship are said to be a “type and shadow of heavenly things” (Heb 8:5), doubtless the wars that are waged through Joshua, and the slaughter of kings and enemies must also be said to be “a shadow and type of heavenly things,” namely, of those wars that our Lord Jesus with his army and officers—that is, the throngs of believers and their leaders—fights with the Devil and his angels.Origen, Homilies on Joshua
Joshua prefigured Jesus, in fact, they had the same name, and the evils of the Canaanites are by allegory the sins of us all. We are led by Christ and by his grace we defeat these evils in our own lives.
In conclusion, these four perspectives: Divine Justice, Divine Pedagogy, Inspired Hyperbole, and Spiritual Allegory can help us understand the violence of the herem of the Old Testament.
Origen. (2002). Homilies on Joshua (C. White, Ed.; B. J. Bruce, Trans.). Catholic University of America Press.