Saturday Nov 21, 2020

Holy War Against the Canaanites

Deuteronomy 2:34 mentions, for the first time in this book, the subject of holy war. The words “utterly destroyed” translate the Hebrew חָרָם charam, which in this passage connotes something “devoted to destruction.”[1] Leon Wood states, “Usually ḥāram means a ban for utter destruction, the compulsory dedication of something which impedes or resists God’s work, which is considered to be accursed before God.”[2] Eugene Merrill comments:

  • "Nothing is more integral to the waging of holy war than the placing of conquered lands and their peoples under ḥērem. This noun, derived from the verb ḥāram, “to exterminate,” refers to a condition in which persons and things became the personal possession of the Lord by virtue of his inherent sovereignty and his appropriation of them by conquest. They could either be left alive and intact (Lev 27:21, 28; Josh 6:19) or eradicated (as here; cf. Num 21:2–3; Josh 6:21). In the passage at hand, it seems that the physical structures of the cities themselves were spared and that only the populations were decimated."[3]

     Though the idea of holy war can be difficult for us to digest (which in this context includes putting children to death), several things should be considered. First, the command was from the Lord Himself (Deut 2:34; 7:1-2; 20:17). Because God is omniscient (Psa 139:1-6), He knew the situation completely. Because the Lord is perfectly righteous (Gen 18:25; Psa 7:11), His command was just and fair. And, because God is gracious and patient (Psa 103:8), His command to execute the Canaanites was not reckless. Divine judgment meant God had determined the Canaanite culture was not reformable. Second, the Canaanites were by no means innocent. Rather, they were antitheocratic and hostile to God and His people and comprised the most corrupt culture in the world at that time. For hundreds of years the Canaanites practiced gross sexual immorality, which included all forms of incest (Lev 18:1-20; 20:10-12, 14, 17, 19-21), homosexuality (Lev 18:22; 20:13), and sex with animals (Lev 18:23; 20:15-16). They also engaged in the occult (Lev 20:6), were hostile toward parents (Lev 20:9), and offered their children as sacrifices to Molech (Lev 18:21; 20:1-5; cf. Deut 12:31; 18:10). Third, God had been gracious to the Canaanite people for four hundred years (Gen 15:14-16), giving them ample time to turn from their sin. Though God is very gracious and slow to anger (Psa 145:8-9), this does not last forever and eventually His righteous judgment falls upon those who deserve it (Deut 9:4-5). Fourth, Moses offered Sihon, King of Heshbon, peaceful terms if he would let the Israelites pass through his land, even offering to pay for whatever food and water they consumed, but Sihon rejected Moses’ offer and therefore brought judgment upon himself and his people. Fifth, the Amorites could have moved out and avoided the conflict by settling in another area. Sixth, God could have destroyed the people Himself, like He’d done in the global flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, and Egypt; however, it was His will the Canaanites be removed by military means and as a test of obedience to His people. Seventh, those who turned to God would have been spared, like Rahab and her family (Josh 2:1-14). Eighth, the killing of the Canaanite children may have spared them from growing up in a corrupt and hostile culture, “For if the child died before reaching the age of accountability it is likely that his or her eternal destiny would have been made secure in heaven.”[4] Ninth, this is the only time in the Bible and history that this command was given and was never repeated to other generations. Tenth, God’s command for holy war is not applicable for Christians, for God is not working to establish a theocratic kingdom on earth as He was through Israel.

     God warned Israel that if they failed to execute His judgment upon the Canaanites, they would become a corrupting cancer that would infect them (Deut 20:17-18; cf. Ex 23:33; Josh 23:12-13). Israel’s actions would have a direct impact on future generations. We know historically that Israel failed to obey the Lord (see the book of Judges), and the corrupt culture spread among God’s people, who themselves began to practice all the evil things God hates (Deut 12:31). Because Israel eventually became corrupt, He then destroyed and expelled them from the land by means of military defeat from their enemies. This happened when the ten northern tribes of Israel fell to the Assyrians in 722 BC and when the two southern tribes of Judah fell to the Babylonians in 586 BC.

 

[1] Ludwig Koehler et al., The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1994–2000), 354.

[2] Leon J. Wood, “744 חָרַם,” ed. R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1999), 324.

[3] Eugene H. Merrill, Deuteronomy, 102.

[4] Jack S. Deere, “Deuteronomy,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck, vol. 1 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 276.

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