by Kyle Dillon
When the LORD your God brings you into the land that you are entering to take possession of it, and clears away many nations before you, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations more numerous and mightier than you, and when the LORD your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction. You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them. (Deut. 7:1-2).
This is one of the most morally troubling passages in all of Scripture. It also happens to be one of the most frequently heard objections to the Christian faith today. God spoke these words to the Israelites as they were encamped on the plains of Moab and about to cross the Jordan River into Canaan. God had promised this land to their ancestor Abraham around 500 years earlier (Gen. 15:18-21), but it would be their responsibility, under
the leadership of Joshua, to clear out the local inhabitants and take possession of the land. And it’s not simply forced eviction we are talking about here; it’s the slaughter of entire nations, down to the last man, woman, and child. Bible scholars call this ḥerem warfare. The Hebrew word means “to devote something to total destruction.”
Law and Lawgiver
Non-Christians often point to the Old Testament’s ḥerem laws to reject Christianity altogether. A God of love and justice, they say, could never command genocide, and therefore he must not exist. Ironically, the unbeliever’s moral criticisms presuppose a transcendent source of morality. It makes no sense to say that the ḥerem laws are unjust unless there is an objective standard of justice to which they must conform. But this is precisely the thing that the unbeliever loses in denying the existence of God. You cannot have moral laws without a moral Lawgiver.
Even so, many who acknowledge God’s existence still have trouble accepting the morality of Scripture. Some Christians have responded by driving a wedge between the Old Testament and the New, claiming that Jesus’s ethics improved upon the brutal practices of ancient Israel. But this sort of response does not fit with Jesus’s own view of the Old Testament…
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