Monday, July 18, 2011

Why “utterly destroy” people and cities?

One thing that has always stood out to me in the Old Testament is the Lord's insistence that the Israelites "utterly destroy" the nations that they conquer, which oftentimes included slaughtering all of the people, their animals, and ultimately burning their cities to the ground. Images of Geghis Khan come to mind.

This seemingly vicious practice stems from the Lord's instruction to the Israelites when encountering the many nations inhabiting the promised land. The Lord commands that they were to "smite them, and utterly destroy them" (Deut. 7:1-2). Compliant with this command, on one occasion Joshua and the Israelite army "utterly destroyed" Jericho and its inhabitants: "And they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword" (Josh. 6:21). Later, other cities, such as Makkedeh, Libnah, Laschish, Eglon, Hebron, and Debir, were "utterly destroyed . . . ., and all the souls that were therein" (Josh. 10:28, 32, 35, 37, 39). Sounds pretty brutal, right?

In Hebrew, the lexical root for "utterly destroyed," as translated in the KJV, is h-r-m, or herem. The word herem is most often translated as "accursed," and means to be devoted or set apart. This accords with Joshua's instruction to the Israelite armey prior to attacking Jericho: "[T]he city shall be accursed, even it, and all that are therein . . . . And ye, in any wise keep yourselves from the accursed thing, lest ye make yourselves accursed, when ye take of the accursed thing" (Josh. 6:17-18). Consequently, through its "utter destruction," a city and its people were symbolically being set apart for or otherwise devoted to God. The precious metals found in the cities, however, were not destroyed but were instead purified and placed in "the treasury of the Lord" (Josh. 6:19, 24).

The Israelite's were fighting their king's war, and as such the spoils of the battle rightfully belonged to Jehovah. Therefore, Jehovah sometimes required that his people devote everything to him by "utterly destroying" entire cities and populations. This is not unlike ritual killing and Israelite animal sacrifice, where the burnt offering is entirely consumed, or devoted to God, on the sacrificial altar. Likewise, after overrunning a city and killing all of its inhabitants, burning the city with fire made it a large sacrificial offering devoted to the Lord.

One of the more well-known stories applying herem is recounted in 1 Samuel 15, where Saul is instructed to "utterly destroy" the Amalekites, including all of their people and animals (1 Sam. 15:3). Contrary to Samuel's instructions received from the Lord, Saul returned with Agag the Amalekite king and "the best of the sheep, and of the oxen, and of the fatlings, and the lambs, and all that was good, and would not utterly destroy them: but every thing that was vile and refuse, that they destroyed utterly" (1 Sam. 15:9). Agag was apparently a trophy of Saul's victory over the Amalekites, and it was Saul's intent to sacrifice the captured livestock to the Lord as a burnt offering. This, however, is not the intent of herem, so Samuel was required to finish the job by "hew[ing] Agag in pieces before the Lord"(1Sam. 15:33).

Although a seemingly vicious act, the requirement of the Lord that the Israelites "utterly destroy" cities and their inhabitants was actually a form of worship and proved one's devotion to Jehovah.


Andrew H. said...

Ethnic cleansers and their supporters around the world hail this post. "Indeed, indeed!" says Radovan Karadžić, standing in Srebrenica, "That's right!" say the Interahamwe in Rwanda.

Okay, snark aside, why has the Lord not insisted on this policy in recent millenium? Is it possible that Joshua and Samuel and the believers and scripture writers of those generations simply sadly misunderstood the chrachter of the Lord and what He would have them do?

Jeremy said...

Valid point, Andrew. It is very difficult for me to imagine a loving God who would be pleased with the killing of children in any context. I admit that this does not make sense to me, and I struggle with its interpretation.

Thanks for stopping by.

Unknown said...

I suggest that the post-Exodus Israelites were suffering from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This cannot be understood without recognizing the true depth and extent of the Exodus and Joshua events as profoundly catastrophic events, brought on my cosmological forces of global extent. Once that truth is established, one can easily see the Israelites' proclivity for utterly destroying their enemies as an acting out typical of PTSD victims. As you suggest, ritual sacrifice, under the catastrophe regime, is an attempt to allievate the feelings of guilt, anger and remorse the Israelites felt after suffering and surviving great natural catastrophes. Thus, understanding the truly catastrophic events in Earth's ancient history explains most, if not all of the aberrant behavior displayed by early Israelites and other, conteporary cultures.

Nate said...

I have always thought of this from a completely different perspective.

When I have asked myself why would God command that, to answer, I first assume that God ways are not my ways (i.e. He knows better). He is more interested in saving souls than lives.

Leaving behind people always has consequences. False teachings remaining with the original people could corrupt Israel. Unrighteous regimes of racism and discrimination could arise. People set their original ways die in ignorance rather than being tasked with accepting the teachings of conquerors. From an eternal perspective, it would seem that everyone is better off.

This perspective is consistent with a loving God. It just seems strange to us.

In response to Andrew: the policy will be instituted as the second coming...costing billions of lives.

Stan Beale said...

As a Mormon neo-Marcionite, I do not have a great problem with this. Though I do not believe in a dimurge, I do believe that they who write their own history are susceptable to faith promoting casuistry. There is nothing more tempting than to say God commanded it, in order to justify heinous acts.

We American Christians should not feel superior as our faith was used as an underpinning for "The only good Indian is a dead Indian" as well as for slavery

Ryan said...

I agree with Nate. To say that the Old Testament account is inaccurate and that God didn’t command Israel to “utterly destroy” the Canaanites and other corrupt civilizations is a treacherous slippery slope. That sort of liberalizing of the scriptures leads to terrible, albeit unintended, doctrinal consequences. Especially since the Book of Mormon and the Prophet Joseph Smith corroborate the history of the Old Testament. The Prophet Joseph confirmed,

“That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another. God said, ‘Thou shalt not kill;’ at another time He said, ‘Thou shalt utterly destroy.’ This is the principle on which the government of heaven is conducted—by revelation adapted to the circumstances in which the children of the kingdom are placed. Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is, although we may not see the reason thereof till long after the events transpire.” (Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 256).

We can readily conclude from that teaching of the Prophet that God DID in fact command, “Thou shalt utterly destroy,” as recorded in Deut. 7:1-2. The big question then is why? I believe that W. Cleon Skousen said it succinctly and accurately in “The Third Thousand Years” p. 368-370. First, he reminded us that the standing rule was for Israel to first offer peace to every city that they encountered, to give the people the opportunity to peacefully integrate (see Deut. 20:10-11). If the offer of peace was rejected, and war was forced, then the military personnel, or the men, were to be disposed of, and the women and children integrated into Israelite society by first making them servants (see Deut. 20:12-14). However,

“The Lord specifically warned against [certain] nations which had reached such a level of total human debauchery that he knew they would … resist all efforts to generate them or incorporate them into the new order [of God]…. With them human sacrifices and debasing immoral debauchery [i.e. ritualistic sexual depravity that was integral to idol worship] were not occasional spasms of evil but a continuous frenzy of sub-human depravity. They had institutionalized these abominations and made them a mandatory way of life. The Lord knew that without any significant exception, these people would fight desperately and bitterly rather than abandon these practices. They reveled in them.” (W. Cleon Skousen, The Third Thousand Years, p. 369-370).

Apparently the Lord wanted no memory of these civilizations in the minds of his chosen people, and thus all trace of them was to be obliterated. The slaughter of women and children, while terrible, must be considered in the eternal perspective as Nate said. Those children will now be heirs of God’s glory. Israel’s failure to fulfill these commandments faithfully was a major reason for its backsliding throughout its history into the very abominations that the Lord had commanded them to eliminate.

Anonymous said...

The Mongols also offered to allow
cities to survive if they would
subjugate to them. Those that refused were destroyed.

natebergin said...

I think that it's great that Jeremy is discussing this issue in such a frank, and unapologetic way. Why not be honest about the God we claim to believe in, a God of genocide and violence, a "God of war" as Exodus says?

God seems to think nothing of mass killings through natural disasters. Old Testament genocide simply seems to be man doing God's dirty work. God could do it Himself with an earthquake. So is genocide another way of becoming "like God" by learning to kill like a god?

Maybe we have much more in common with jihadists than we would like to admit. Jihadists are our Old Testament brothers. Let us recognize them for who they really are: our own religious heritage.

Thank goodness for Jesus, who transformed the God we worship into the the current, Prince of Peace, who said, "Put up thy sword into it's place, he who lives by the sword shall perish by the sword."

The real question this raises is, who is this God we worship, the God of peace, and the God of killing? The God of mercy, and the God of violence?

How well do we really know this creature we call God?

jay harrison said...

i love this post your things are great

QPT said...

thanks for sharing your article.

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A Lady's Life said...

We find ourselves reading a book of stories from the past when people lived much differently than we do or can even be understood today.
Today we understand God as a defender of free will so why would he give an order to destroy everything and every one?
God wants us to understand and to come because we understand what is right and what is wrong.God also has the power to change every one into understanding immediately,all he desires us to understand, through the holy ghost, which would eliminate the need to kill and destroy.
No. These actions were not the work of God, but the work of men in Gods' name.They are seen today
in other names of terror.
Mankind should read between the lines and understand evil comes from man and it is man that needs to grow and change and know truth is absolute and different from laws.