Appendix 6. Why the Slaughter of Jericho? Devoted to Destruction (Herem)

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James J. Tissot, 'Joshua Destroys the Giants' (1896-1902), gouache on board, 8.75 x 8.25 in., The Jewish Museum, New York.
James J. Tissot, 'Joshua Destroys the Giants' (1896-1902), gouache on board, 8.75 x 8.25 in., The Jewish Museum, New York.

Even when we span 3,500 years, it's pretty easy to identify with the people of Joshua's time. People haven't changed much. Jobs have changed, homes have changed, but people's basic needs haven't changed at all. And since God relates to us as people, we learn a great deal from his dealings with peoples thousands of years ago.

But culture is another thing. Around the world, culture is vastly different. The cultural values in Japan differ from those in the West, the values in Fiji from those in Africa. And so we must stretch to understand. We read National Geographic and watch PBS and try to put ourselves in their shoes.

A Culture of Violence

In the 1970s and 80s, our family lived the peaceful community of Reseda, in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles. Though we saw occasional graffiti, we there was little evidence of gang activity. The community was quiet and relatively safe. In a dozen years, our house was never burglarized. When I read about wars in the Old Testament, it seemed like a world far away from mine.

But the City of San Fernando on the east side of the Valley, only about 10 miles away, had a great deal of gang activity. It wasn't safe to be out at night. Bars covered the windows of residences. Drug deals were conducted openly. Gangs "owned" the streets. It was a very different culture from mine, and violence reigned.

What do you do when violence reigns? What do you do when your villages are burned, and your women are raped and abducted? What do you do when you find whole towns slaughtered? You are traumatized. You live in fear. You arm yourself and get ready to take vengeance on your enemies.

In Los Angeles gang culture, when someone from a gang is attacked, it is considered an attack on the whole gang (solidarity, and all that). The gang then goes out to fight for its honor. The most fearless fighters become feared leaders. The Warrior, rather than the Politician, is the most respected role model. Wars are conducted out of offense and pride as well as defense and self-preservation. If you don't defend your territory or kill your enemies, then they'll feel free to come on your turf and kill you. It is kill or be killed.

I'm not saying that this is Christian. It is not. But this is how perennially warring enemies act.

My point is that people are still the same. Their fears and motives haven't changed a great deal since Joshua's time. When you move from a stable society of law and order to one where armed might determines people's destinies, you move immediately into the mindset of the Late Bronze Age. For you, it may be moving across the city or into the ghetto, but it probably isn't too far away from you, either. To understand the people of the Old Testament we need to understand their fears and hatreds, their hopes and dreams.


When I see news of civil war and genocide, I am revolted. Genocide, according to the United Nations' definition in 1948, is certain acts "committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group, as such." Here are just a few notorious examples of genocide in the twentieth century:

Armenia. Armenian Christians were slaughtered by Ottoman Turks (1915-1916), 1.5 million people out of a total of 2 million.

Jewish Holocaust. Nazi Germany slaughtered Jews in concentration camps and gas chambers (1939-1945), 6 million Jews.

Cambodia. Khmer Rouge slaughtered citizens of Cambodia (1975-1979), 1.5 to 2 million people, about 20% of the population

Rwanda. Hutu tribesmen slaughter Tutsi and moderate Hutu tribesmen (1994) 1/2 to 1 million people in 3 months.

Balkans. Christians vs. Muslims in an "ethnic cleansing" in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Albania with unknown total of people killed.

The Israelite destruction of the peoples of Jericho and Canaan fits the United Nations' definition of genocide. How do we square this with what we know of a loving God? I don't know that we can fully understand, but here is what the Scripture seems to teach.

1. Punishment for Sin

In a previous generation, preachers preached heaven and hell, and they preached hell hot. Preachers loved to dangle their hearers over the fires of hell in order to get them saved. When you compare this to Bible preaching, you can see it was an extreme. But today we are at another extreme. Far from preaching about hell, we ignore hell altogether. Instead, we major on themes of love and peace, joy and blessing. We try to win people to a positive-thinking God. In the process, we have distorted the God of the Bible.

You can't read the Bible without coming face to face with judgment for sin. It is interwoven throughout Jesus' own teachings. He taught of outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. He told a parable about the rich man tormented in the flame. He told of the separation of sheep from the goats, tares from the wheat. He wept over Jerusalem, for they did not know the time of their visitation and now faced destruction (carried out by the Romans in 70 AD). The Book of Revelation is full of judgment.

Our God is a God of righteousness and holiness, with which inevitably come judgment and punishment. He has revealed himself in this way in both the Old and New Testaments through a hundred apostles and prophets and the Son of God himself.

Bruce K. Waltke observes of the Israelite wars against the Canaanites:

"Although to many modern readers these wars seem immoral, from the biblical perspective they were fought precisely for moral reasons."[76]

Part of the destruction of the peoples of Canaan was punishment for their sin and a cleansing of the land. Two verses indicate this rather clearly:

"Then the LORD said to [Abraham], 'Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions.... In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure....'" (Genesis 15:13-14, 16)

"Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, because this is how the nations that I am going to drive out before you became defiled. Even the land was defiled; so I punished it for its sin, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. But you must keep my decrees and my laws. The native-born and the aliens living among you must not do any of these detestable things, for all these things were done by the people who lived in the land before you, and the land became defiled. And if you defile the land, it will vomit you out as it vomited out the nations that were before you" (Leviticus 18:24-28)

So we must view the Israelite Conquest, in part, as the sword of God's punishment for sin, if we are to take the Bible seriously.

2. Danger of Syncretism

In Abraham, God had a man, a single man, who would trust and follow him. He called him Abraham, the father of nations, with the promise that out of his descendants would come a nation, a people of God, a Chosen People. In Abraham, there was one. With Isaac, there were two -- Jacob and Esau. With Jacob, there were twelve. With Joseph, 70 people came to Egypt. And a few hundred years later they were brought out from Egypt, redeemed from slavery by God, a people a million and a half strong.

Hardly people of faith, they learned faith from Moses. They learned God's ways from the Ten Commandments and the law given on Mount Sinai. They learned God's way and God's values. Through the discipline of difficult times and a "time out" in the wilderness for forty years, they finally came to the place where faith was growing in them.

If the temptation in the wilderness was unbelief, the temptation in the Promised Land was syncretism, which is "reconciliation or fusion of differing systems of belief." In Appendix 5. Canaanite Religions and Baal Worship, we learned that the differences were great: monotheism vs. polytheism, idolatry vs. worship in Spirit, sexual purity vs. sexual immorality, to name a few. There was always the danger that worship of the true God would fuse with the worship of Baal and the gods of Canaan.

In order to prevent this specific occurrence, God commanded the Israelites to utterly destroy the peoples of the land:

"Completely destroy them -- the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites -- as the LORD your God has commanded you. Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the LORD your God." (Deuteronomy 20:17-18)[77]

Indeed, because of the Israelites' disobedience and failure to fully implement God's command, many Canaanites continued in the land and did become a snare to the Israelites. From King Solomon (about 900 BC) to the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BC, the history of the people is a history of idolatry and spiritual decline.

For God to establish his people as a faith incubator, in which the Messiah would be born, it was necessary to destroy the peoples of Canaan, as terrible as that was. In times of medical crisis, hospitals set up triage centers to determine whom they can save, and those too far gone to waste precious personnel to attempt to save. In order to save Israel, God determined to destroy Canaan, a tough but necessary decision.

3. Herem -- Devoted to Destruction

A third concept we must understand is called herem:

"The city [of Jericho] and all that is in it are to be devoted (herem)[78] to the LORD.... But keep away from the devoted things (herem), so that you will not bring about your own destruction (haram)[79] by taking any of them.... All the silver and gold and the articles of bronze and iron are sacred[80] to the LORD and must go into his treasury." (Joshua 6:17-19)

Roland de Vaux, a well-known French Old Testament scholar, explains it this way:

"The herem, the anathema [is] carried out on the vanquished enemy and his goods. The meaning of the root and the usage of the cognate verb show that the word herem denotes the fact of 'separating' something, of taking it out of profane use and reserving it for a sacred use; alternatively, it may stand for the thing which is 'separated' in this way, forbidden to man and consecrated to God."[81]

The word is closely related to our word "harem" (from Arabic harim) which refers to a secluded area of a house allotted to women. In Arabic, the word literally means "sanctuary," a "forbidden" area, since the women in a harem are exclusively the property of the husband and off-limits to all others. The Hebrew word herem used in our passage refers to "the exclusion of an object from the use or abuse of man and its irrevocable surrender to God."[82]

We must remember that the Israelites thought of God as their King. The tabernacle was his desert throne room. To declare that all the plunder of a city belonged solely to the king was his right as king, if he chose to claim it. For anyone else to take what had been declared to be the king's constituted theft from the royal treasury, a crime punishable by death (Joshua 7).

When you understand the sacrificial offering system outlined in Leviticus, you see various kinds of offerings. The offering for sin was often the "whole burnt offering" (Leviticus 1; 6:8-13), in which the sacrifice is literally "vaporized" and "goes up" to God by fire.[83] While our passage in Joshua is not using this kind of sacrificial terminology, the concepts are similar.[84] The people -- men, women, and children -- are put to the sword, along with the cattle.

"Then they burned the whole city and everything in it, but they put the silver and gold and the articles of bronze and iron into the treasury of the LORD's house" (Joshua 6:24).

This concept of "devoted to the LORD" is difficult for us to understand, perhaps, but it is central to understanding not only the Conquest, but also God's rejection of Saul as king in 1 Samuel 15.

4. Standards of the Time

We get in trouble when we try to impose a modern century ethic in a Bronze Age situation. Our modern ban on genocide only works where nations agree to it and will enforce it. And that is hard enough in our time.

In fact, genocide was common in the Bronze Age. With a population of perhaps 1.5 million, Israel was a threat to all the people of Canaan. Unless she destroyed them, she would be destroyed herself. In fact, five kings of the Amorites -- Jerusalem, Hebron, Jarmuth, Lachish, and Eglon -- formed an alliance to destroy the Israelites (Joshua 10). It was kill or be killed. We must understand the actions of Israel in a Late Bronze Age historical context, not our own.

5. Death the Ultimate Punishment?

Sometimes we look at death as the ultimate punishment. It is rather the second death we should fear (Revelation 20:14). So what happens to the inhabitants of Jericho who suddenly meet their Maker? Will their eternal judgment somehow be harsher or less just? We have an assurance from Scripture that God will judge the heathen with righteousness and justice:

"All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God's sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. (Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.) This will take place on the day when God will judge men's secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares." (Romans 2:12-16)

Only when we get to heaven ourselves will we understand what it means that

"We have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, and especially of those who believe." (1 Timothy 4:10)

Judging God

One of the dangers we face when reading the Bible is setting ourselves up as judges of God himself. "I reject the bloodthirsty God of the Old Testament," people sometimes say. "I accept the loving God of the New Testament as seen in Jesus." As indicated above, the person who says this hasn't read very carefully either Jesus' words or the Book of Revelation. You can't with integrity reject the God of the Old Testament for the God of the New; they are one and the same.

Lessons in book formats are available.

When we accuse God of lack of love and compassion, by whose standards do we judge? Those of Jesus? Our own high record of life-long morality? Generally, the offense to our sense of love is at the expense of our understanding of sin and justice and punishment.

As regards the destruction of Jericho, and many difficult events we experience in our own lives, we must let God be God, and leave judgment to him.


To explore this further, see:


[76] Bruce K. Waltke, "Joshua, Book of," ISBE 2:1135.

[77] See also Genesis 15:16; 2 Kings 21:11; Ezra 9:1; 1 Kings 11:5-7; 1 Kings 14:24; 2 Kings 16:3; 2 Kings 23:13; 2 Chronicles 36:14; Ezra 9:11; Judges 10:6.

[78] KJV "accursed," Jerusalem Bible "set apart for Yahweh under a ban."

[79] KJV "make yourselves accursed."

[80] Kodesh, "sacred, holy, consecrated."

[81] Roland de Vaux, Ancient Israel, Vol. 1, Part III, ch. 5, p. 260

[82] Leon J. Wood in Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament 1:324.

[83] Eugene E. Carpenter, "Sacrifices and Offerings in the OT," ISBE 4:268.

[84] Nola J. Opperwall, "Devoted, Devoted Thing," ISBE 1:940.

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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