Christ and the Conflagration of Canaan

| March 24, 2015

A New York Times article recently described the Islamic State’s persecution of Christians in Iraq and Syria as “a slow-motion genocide.” Atrocities such as beheadings, burnings, crucifixions, and mass burials (sometime of live victims) defy human comprehension. Islamic mujahideen (holy warriors) smile at the camera, waving flags and holding up AK-47s, proud of their brutal accomplishments. One does not have to be a Christian to be sickened by such horrors.

In this cultural moment, with daily reports of genocide throughout the world, the question of Canaan’s destruction under the ministry of Joshua occasionally enters the conversation: “How could the God of Scripture command the violent slaughter of an entire society?” In other words, doesn’t the Old Testament practice of ḥerem (Hebrew word meaning “to place under a ban” or “devote to destruction”) amount to genocide? How can we reconcile this history with our belief that “God is love”?

Destruction of Canaan

The Hebrew term ḥerem, Walter Brueggemann notes, “refers to the religious requirement that everything that Israel captures or gains in war—booty as well as people—is to be ‘utterly destroyed,’ offered up to YHWH in conflagration [destruction by fire] or some other mode of killing (thus acknowledging YHWH to…

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