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On the concept of Cherem
And the city and all that is within it shall be devoted to the Lord for destruction. Only Rahab the prostitute and all who are with her in her house shall live, because she hid the messengers whom we sent. (Josh. 6:17)
What does the word cherem means, as applied in the Old Testament with regards to the destruction of the Canaanites? The word cherem is the transliteration of the Hebrew word that is translated as the phrase 'devoted to the Lord for destruction' in Josh. 6:17 in the ESV. In the context of the book of Joshua, the first city conquered, Jericho, was defeated supernaturally and everything in it was devoted to God. All life present in it were wiped out; all man, woman and children (yes and babies too) were put to the sword, together with all the livestock. The city and everything in it was burned to the ground and all the metalware (which incidentally are not burnable) were taken and placed into the Lord's treasury. This by far is one of if not the most graphic picture of what it means for people or things to be considered cherem.
Now, some people may attempt to focus on the morality of such supposedly genocidal and barbaric actions, but before we even talk about this, I think it is instrumental to see it from a biblical point of view first. Disregarding whatever historical basis of such an action in for example ANE (Ancient Near East) cultures, the more important thing we should consider is the biblical rationale for it. The Bible is clear that the annihilation visited upon the various inhabitants of Canaan is because of their sin (Gen. 15: 16), and not because of a capricious act of God. As such, they must be eradicated so as to preserve the holy family and the holy seed from which Jesus would descend, from corruption. This is more religious than ethnic, as we can see from the integration of former Gentiles like Ruth and Rahab the prostitute.
The total eradication of all the inhabitants thus is judgment against them and such that there would be no people around to corrupt the pure religion of God among God's chosen people.
The case of Jericho is indeed a special one. As the first city to be conquered, Jericho is the firstfruit of the conquest, and therefore special commands and circumstance present itself to the invading Israelites. Firstly, God was the one who single-handedly destroyed the strong fortifications of Jericho. Jericho thus fell by the hand of God alone rather than the military strategies or prowess of the Israelites. This proved to the Israelites that God is the one who would go before them in battle, and He would give Israel the victory even over enemies far superior than them militarily. As the first city, this showed Israel that God will be with them right from the start in their conquest. They are not to be afraid, but to know the truth that 'if God is for us, who can be against us' (Rom. 8:31).
Secondly, since Jericho was the firstfruits of the conquest, God is teaching Israel that they must be grateful and give Him the firstfruits of whatever they have (Deut. 26). As such, everything in it must be dedicated to the Lord; the perishable to the flames, and the imperishable to the Lord's treasury. As such, nobody is allowed to take any of the livestock or goods from the city as loot. Those who do so are subjected to the same treatment given to the inhabitants of Jericho, as Achan found out to his and his family's destruction (Josh. 7:10-26).
The eradication of the Canaanite thus have a solidly biblical rationale behind it. Are there any spiritual lessons we can draw from the concept of cherem?
The first thing we can learn is the passion of God for the purity of His people. God demands that His people be holy, for He is holy (Lev. 11:44; 1 Peter 1:16) and he burns with wrath against all forms of compromise and every defilement that we may bring in. God is not a respecter of persons (Rom. 2:11), and He will punish His own people for their disobedience like that of the pagans, nay, worse than that, seemingly worse than them even sometimes (1 Peter 4:17; Heb. 12:7-11). That God would wipe out entire groups of people, who deserved to be killed anyway because of their sins, for Israel's sake shows His passion for the purity of His people. In fact, because of their failure to wipe out all of the former inhabitants (Judges 2:1-5), God judged them by allowing them to be oppressed and be led astray by foreigners. From this, we can learn that sin and compromise must be totally eradicated, otherwise they will come back, metastasize and attempt to eliminate our spiritual life. There is no such thing as 'just a little sin' or 'a little compromise', and that 'God will understand'. Those who do so, unless they repent, will find to their sorrow that they would have slowly but surely turn away from God, with disastrous results.
So now, we turn back to the concept of cherem. I have checked out the word in the Septuagint (the first Greek translation of the OT), and it is translated as anathema and used to that effect. It is thus the same word and the same approach, albeit spiritually, we are to use against those who preach a false 'christ' and a false 'gospel' (Gal. 1:8-9). Such people are to separated from and handed over for to God for the ultimate destruction of their souls in the lake of fire. Unless these false teachers repent, they are to be considered accursed, consecrated unto God in their destruction for the praise of His glorious name. Amen.
With all of these covered, how should we tackle the question of morality? How can a loving God permits and even orders wholesale genocide?
Now, we have already stated the theological reasons for such an action to be taken. With regards to the moral question, I would turn the tables on such people. Who are you to make such a judgment of God? Will what is molded say to its molder, '"Why have you made me like this?" (Rom. 9:20b) Without God you don't even have the basis upon which you can make any form of ethical statement coherently. Who dares sits in judgment against the LORD Almighty, his/her creator? The audacity of created beings counseling and conspiring against their Creator, to impeach Him, is laughable and will be mocked by the most high (Ps. 2:4-6). Furthermore, since God is the Creator of life, who dares to tell Him what He can and cannot do with His creation? And these people deserved what they would be getting. They spit at God, hold His name in contempt, mock Him, refuse to worship Him, commit all manner of atrocities including incest and homosexuality, and God is at fault in wiping them out? Those who dare bring a charge against God clearly have no sense of their sin and depravity before God. They know not the hot, fiery wrath of God poured out against them for their disobedience, and therefore can never comprehend and grasp the grace offered freely to all sinners who would repent of their sins through the atoning sacrifice in the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. If anything, they are the ones in the dock, not God who will judge everybody in the final judgment.
In conclusion, it is hoped that we would learn from the concept of cherem primarily and the examples of both the wicked Canaanites and the Israelites. Surely God who is over all desires for us to turn to Him, to cleave onto Him always in purity and oneness of heart, without compromise. Amen.