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Friday, March 5, 2010

Grasping at Straws Part Nine--Evangelicals Defend Genocide

In two previous posts (here and here), I analyzed the 12 reasons that Andy Woods gave in defense of the genocides ordered by Yahweh recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures. Today, I want to interact with another part of Wood's article in which he describes the nature of the genocides as "holy war" or "Yahweh war" (Woods seems to rely heavily on Tremper Longman III's chapter, The Case for Spiritual Continuity, in Show Them No Mercy, pp. 159-90).

I will quote at length from his article:
Another important element of the holy war and genocide passages is their sacred character. They disclose the continual presence of God with the army. Thus, chērem warfare is worship on equal par with going to the temple (emphasis added). This can be seen by examining the activities before war. Prior to battle, God informed the nation as to whether it was to go to battle. This information was relayed either from a visitation from the angel of the Lord (Josh 5:13) or through the nation seeking God’s will (1 Sam 23:1-6). If the nation did not inquire of the Lord first, it ran the risk of making a rash decision that would come back and haunt them later (Josh 9:14). Spiritual preparedness before battle is also evident in the way the second generation of Jewish males was mass circumcised prior to practicing Canaanite chērem (Josh 5:2-9). This generation also observed Passover prior to battle (Josh 5:10-12). This sacral dimension prior to battle is also seen in the need for ritual purity in the war camp (Deut 23:9-14), which included abstention from sexual activity (2 Sam 11:11). Also, prior to battle the priest was to administer the appropriate animal sacrifice (1 Sam 7:9-10). The importance of this procedure is evidenced by the fact that Saul was told that his kingdom would not endure when he failed to comply with the procedure (1 Sam 13). Moreover, the placing of the ark representing the presence of God at the head of the army also demonstrates Israel’s spiritual preparedness prior to battle (Josh 6). It is probably for this reason that the ark is mentioned seven times in Joshua 6.

Equating warfare with worship can also be seen in the events of the battle itself. The march to battle involved a well-arranged religious procession (Num 2). The marchers participated in prayer, religious song, and celebration (2 Chron 20:18-22). The presence of God in the battle is seen in the way He deliberately sends Israel into conflict with inferior manpower and weaponry so He alone will be seen as the sole guarantor of victory (Josh 11:6, 9; Judg 6–8; 1 Sam 17). The fact that God alone is seen as provider of victory is also evidenced in the way that He causes panic and fear to befall the enemy (Josh 5:1; 10:1-2, 10), enlists the elements of creation in battle (Deut 7:20; Josh 10:11-15), and has Israel engage in seemingly irrational battle strategies. These things are designed to teach the nation that the victory comes from God’s hand rather than from its own strength.

Events subsequent to the battle portray worship as well. After the battle, the army returned with the ark to the sanctuary (Psalm 24). Songs were sung in celebration of victory (Exod 15:1-4; Judg 11:34; Ps 98). The last act after the battle was the practice of chērem, which involved offering the conquered people as well as their possession to Yahweh (emphasis added). As previously explained, this practice usually involved killing every living thing in the conquered territory (Josh 6:21) while offering the possessions that remained to God. Any minor deviation from this practice meant defeat for the nation (Josh 7) while adherence to the practice of chērem meant success for the nation (Josh 8). In sum, the direct involvement of God before, during, and after battle equates Israel’s holy war and the practice of chērem with an act of worship (emphasis added).

I think Woods makes a strong case for the genocides being an act of worship in which the people and their possessions were offered up to God as a sacrifice. As he correctly notes, this is the basic concept behind the Hebrew word חֵרֶם (cherem).

So, contrary to some apologists who would say that the genocides commanded by the Hebrew God were a regrettable but necessary event, it seems more correct to say, based on the concept of חֵרֶם (cherem), that the genocides were actually an act of worship to Yahweh and that he was pleased to accept that worship.

What Woods doesn't do, and I have yet to see any evangelical apologist do, is to explain how a perfectly good and loving God could delight in having people (including women, children and infants) sacrificed to him. How can one possibly reconcile the contradiction? Its one thing to say, as some apologists do, that God regretted having to kill the Canaanites and would have much preferred that they repent, and to say that God accepted the offering of the Canaanites as a form of acceptable worship. The former might "get God off the hook," but the latter certainly doesn't. I think the evangelical apologist has an insuperable problem here.

To me, its much more plausible to believe that the Israelites were simply doing what was commonplace in their historical and cultural setting. Other ANE nations also practiced חֵרֶם(cherem). It was not unique to Israel.

As Woods notes:
The Moabite Mesha Stela records the words of the king of Moab in the ninth century B.C. boasting about placing chērem upon the Israelites. The pertinent portions says: "And Chemosh said to me: Go, take Nebo from Israel! So I went by night and fought…against it from the break of dawn until noon, taking it and slaying all, seven thousand men, boys, women, girls, and maidservants; for I had devoted them to destruction for (the god) Ashtar-Chemosh. And I took from there the […] of Yahweh, dragging them before Chemosh" (James B. Pritchard, ed., The Ancient Near Eastern Texts: Relating to the Old Testament, 3d ed. (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1969), 320).

Another text from Mesha’s campaign might also be alluding to the employment of chērem against the Israelites. It says, “I killed all the people from…the city as a ryt (delight,satisfaction, propitiatory sacrifice [emphasis added])for Chemosh and for Moab" (N. Lohfink, “Chērem,” in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, ed. G. Johannes Botterweck, 5:190.) Hittite material also contains the idea of total destruction. In addition, some sites connected with the Later Bronze period, such as Gezer, manifest a distinct burn layer. This evidences the practice of burning everything after the defeat of a city (John H. Walton, Victor H. Matthews, and Mark W. Chavalas, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, 179.).

Woods is correct. Most scholars, since the discovery of the Moabite Stone in 1868, recognize חֵרֶם(cherem)as a common practice during this time. (For example, see Divine war in the Old Testament and in the ancient Near East by Sa-Moon Kang and War in the Hebrew Bible by Susan Niditch). Nations believed that war was an act of worship to their particular god. They saw nothing wrong with it. Its interesting that in the Biblical account, the writers nowhere seem to recognize any sort of problem related to killing all the people. It seems like the right thing to do as far as they were concerned. This can be easily understood if they are merely doing what everyone else in their historical setting did. After all, they were bound by their time and culture.

The difficulty for the Christian apologist, however, is to defend how their perfectly good and loving God, who is not bound by time and culture, could approve of such a horrendous act. Not only approve of it but actually accept it as a form of sacred worship to Himself.


  1. “Thus, cherem warfare is worship on equal par with going to the temple (emphasis added).”

    Please note that the word used for Jewish ritual slaughter of animals is shechita (shin, chet, tet). All animals offered at the temple must be killed according to this method. Do a word study on slaughter for temple offerings and you will find the word shechita. This word is not used for killing humans in warfare. In Judaism, a human offering is not allowed.

    The word cherem has the meaning of “keeping separate” and “separating from life”. It also has the meaning of consecrated property, (Joshua 6:18-18 and Joshua 7:1) When the Children of Israel kill the people in Jericho the word is cherem - used to mean they separated them from life, not shechita which would mean they would be preparing them for an offering, G-d forbid.

    I must strongly disagree with the theory that warfare is worship.

  2. Emet,

    I think you are again falling into a semantical fallacy in thinking that a specific word has to be used in every case that something is referenced.

    Information does not come to us in isolated words. It comes to us in sentences and paragraphs. As Woods points out from the relevant passages, the warfare was a form of worship regardless of what particualr word is used to refer to a sacrifice.