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Creach and the Command to “Utterly Destroy”

Hello Bloggers,

Sorry for the delay in posting, but I was waiting until my new site was ready to launch before writing another post. Unfortunately, it seems something new pops up every day to delay the launch, so I finally decided to post regardless of when the new site will be ready. (Do you have any idea how much work it takes to get a new website ready? For cry’n out loud!)

We’ve been discussing (among other things) the problem of Old Testament violence on this blog the last couple months. Without question the most offensive aspect of Old Testament violence concerns God’s command to “destroy them [the Canaanites] totally” and “show them no mercy” (Deut. 7:2). This is the concept of herem (“ban”) which most scholars interpret to mean something like “devote to destruction.” It’s close to the concept of offering something up as a sacrifice to Yahweh. But could anything be more contrary to the teachings of Jesus than the idea of sacrificing men, women and children (to say nothing of the animals) to God as a sacred offering?

But what if the concept of herem was not meant to be taken literally? This was the view of the second century theologian Origen (found in his Homilies on Joshua). He argued that anything in the Old Testament that wasn’t consistent with the moral and theological truth revealed in Christ must be interpreted in a non-literal way. He thus interpreted herem as an allegory for spiritual warfare. The Canaanites thus represent everything inside of us or in the world that keeps us from being fully devoted to God. These things, he argued, must be completely destroyed.

Now, the practice of allegorizing Scripture (on the part of Jews and Christians) or other ancient literature (like Homer on the part of pagans) in order to make it more consistent with the beliefs and practices of the exegete was a widespread practice in the ancient world, especially in Alexandria where Origen was located. But, as a general approach to Scripture, it is uniformly rejected by scholars today. Not surprising, until recently I knew of no scholar who took Origen’s attempt to allegorize herem seriously. Then I happened to stumble onto the work of Dr. Jerome Creach, Professor of Old Testament at Pittsburg Theological Seminary. Dr. Creach was kind enough to send me the rough draft of a chapter he’s working on in which he fleshes out his view that herem was not meant to be taken literally. (It will be part of a larger book he’s writing that addresses the issue of faith and violence).

I can summarize the heart of Creach’s argument by making seven points. Taken together, they suggest that herem in Deut. 7:2 was meant as a metaphor for complete devotion to Yahweh, not as a command to literally annihilate people.

1) There are a number of passages in Deuteronomy that reflect a much more humane treatment of foreigners than a literally reading of herem would suggest. For example, Deuteronomy 15 instructs the Israelites to be generous and merciful to foreigners, and 21:10-14 gives instruction to Israelite men requiring them to treat with decency Canaanite women they want to marry. Verses 24:17-18 instruct the Israelites to be kind to foreigners in need, and so on. How are these instructions consistent with the command to completely slaughter all Canaanites?

2) Joshua 11:19 presents the Israelites as trying to make peace with various Canaanite cities, though only the Gibeonites accept their offer. Only when cities rejected peace did war ensue. Other passages treat Israelite warfare as a defensive response to Canaanite aggression as well. Creach argues that this theme is interwoven throughout the Conquest narrative (reflecting concerns by those who redacted the final version of this book). This motif hardly seems consistent with the understanding that the Israelites were to slaughter them carte blanch.

3) The fact that Rahab (Joshua 2) and the Gibeonites are spared — and even held up as models of faith — is hard to reconcile with a literal interpretation of herem.

4) Engaging in redaction arguments that are too complex to go into here, Creach argues that Joshua 1-12 presents an idealized account of the Conquest. There is some evidence for this in the text itself. For example, Joshua 11:23 says Joshua “took the entire land” and that there was a rest from war. But 13:1 depicts “large areas of land” that had not yet been taken over when Joshua was an old man. Moreover, the beginning of Judges describes how various tribes worked to secure their territories (Judg. 1:1-3, 6). On top of this, Creach argues that archeology supports the gradual conquest model much more than the idealized model of chapters 1-12 of Joshua. This also suggest that the “conquest” was not as militant and annihilationist as a literal reading of herem (and a straight forward reading of Josh. 1-12) would suggest.

5) Creach argues that Numbers 21:1-3 suggests that herem was originally something Israelites offered to God; it wasn’t something God himself ordered. To acknowledge that their military victories were acts of God the Israelites vowed to not benefit from it, but to offer up everything as a sacrifice to God. Creach then notes how Deut. 7:1-5 differs from this, for here God himself orders herem and it has a moral dimension to it. The concern in Deuteronomy (but not Numbers) is that Israel will be seduced by Canaanite practices.

6) Creach argues that Deuteronomy 7:1-5 is patterned after Ex. 23:20-33. In this latter passage the Lord told the Israelites he himself would “wipe out” the Canaanites (vs. 23). But he clearly doesn’t mean by this that he would completely destroy them, for he says he’ll make them “turn their backs and run” (vs. 27). He also says he’ll use hornets to drive them out little by little (vs. 28) because if he did this all at once the land would become destitute and overrun with wild animals (vs. 29). For the Israelites’ part, they weren’t to make any covenants with the residents of the land or with their gods (vs. 32) and were not to let them live in their land because of the possibility that the Israelites would be seduced by their foreign gods (vs. 33). This clearly is not consistent with the idea that God’s intent from the start was to have the Israelites slaughter the Canaanites completely.

7) Finally, utilizing the work of R. W. L. Moberly (“Toward an Interpretation of the Shema”), Creach notes that Deut. 7:1-5 is part of an explanation and extension of the Shema (“Here O Israel…” Deut. 6:4-9). It stipulates what it looks like for the people of God to be faithful to Yahweh, and it involves not following “the gods of the peoples around you” (Deut 6:14) and remembering that Yahweh delivered Israel out of Egypt and drove out their enemies before them (vs. 19). Chapter 7 then adds the command to “utterly destroy” their enemies (vs. 2) with the stipulations that they are not to intermarry with them (vs. 3) and are to break down all their sacred places and idols (vs. 3). Yet, it’s hard to reconcile the stipulation to not follow the gods of the people around you, to remember that the Lord “drove out” the enemies before you and to not intermarry with the indigenous residents with the understanding that the Israelites were to completely annihilate the Canaanites.

Put all this together, and you arrive at Creach’s conclusion that the command to “utterly destroy” the Canaanites had become a metaphor for complete devotion to Yahweh by the time Deuteronomy was written. The practice of herem perhaps began in Israel as a practice that was close to “ethnic cleansing,” which is perhaps what we find reflected in Number 21:1-3. But it evolved over time to become a metaphor for something that was not violent. To this extent, Creach argues, Origen was right. Herem is a metaphor for being completely devoted to Yahweh and that “points aways from violence and bloodshed.”

Think about it.



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