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Herem:The Killing of Non Combatants

Updated: Jun 28

Here is a question for you, particularly aimed at the Christian community, those who have pledged allegiance to Jesus and seek to walk in His way. Has fidelity to YHWH, the covenant God of Israel, ever been embodied in the violent killing of non-combatants, including women and children? Is it ever right to say 'YHWH is King' and, as an outworking of His kingship, annihilate and destroy entire populations?

This isn’t just an academic exercise; history is littered with examples of those who take the name of Jesus justifying the deaths of civilians as ‘just war’. Think of the conquistadors, the Crusades, Dresden, the use of nuclear weapons, and the justification of war crimes in Gaza.

Does God at times look like Jesus—loving your enemies and being merciful like your Father in heaven—but at other times command His followers to drench their swords in the blood of men, women, and children?

For readers familiar with scripture, this question is amplified by the conquest narratives found in the book of Joshua.

To understand this better, we need to delve into the concept of herem. The term "herem" (חרם) in Hebrew refers to a ban or devotion to destruction, often used in the context of war in the Old Testament. This concept is particularly prominent in the book of Joshua, where the Israelites, under Joshua’s leadership, were commanded to destroy certain cities and their inhabitants completely. For instance, Joshua 6:21 recounts the destruction of Jericho: "They devoted the city to the Lord and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep, and donkeys." This total destruction was seen as an offering to YHWH, purging the land of idolatry and sin.

The practice of herem was intended to eliminate anything that could lead the Israelites astray from their covenant with God. It reflected a time when survival and religious purity were intertwined, and the harshness of these commands can be difficult to reconcile with the character of God as revealed in Jesus.

The Old Testament provides divine support for the mass killing of civilians.

In the grand narrative of Scripture, Jesus emerges as the ultimate revelation of God, the compass and guide for those who seek to understand the divine nature. While the Old Testament offers a glimpse of God’s character, often shrouded in the cultural and historical contexts of ancient Israel, it is in Jesus that we see the fullness of God’s heart and intentions clearly illuminated.

Jesus, the incarnate Word, embodies the essence of God’s love, mercy, and justice. His life and teachings provide a definitive portrait of who God is and how He desires us to live. When we see Jesus healing the sick, forgiving sinners, and embracing the outcast, we witness God’s boundless compassion and grace in action. His command to love our enemies and do good to those who hate us (Luke 6:27) challenges us to move beyond the limitations and violent tendencies often depicted in the Old Testament narratives. In Jesus we are called to question whether herem offers a true account of the nature of God.

The Old Testament, with its stories of conquest and divine judgment, serves as a shadow—an incomplete and preparatory revelation of God’s purposes. Shadows, not only reveal but they also conceal.

In Jesus, the shadow gives way to the light. He fulfills and surpasses the old covenant, bringing a new way of relating to God and to each other. As Hebrews 1:3 declares, "The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of His being, sustaining all things by His powerful word." Jesus’ sacrificial love on the cross and His triumphant resurrection reveal a God who is deeply committed to the redemption and restoration of all creation.

Therefore, as followers of Christ, we are called to let Jesus be the lens through which we interpret the Old Testament. His life and message compel us to question any portrayal of God that conflicts with the love and peace He exemplifies. As Michael Ramsey beautifully put it, “God is Christlike, and in Him there is no un-Christlikeness at all.” When we encounter difficult texts that depict divine violence or the wholesale destruction of peoples, we must weigh them against the revelation of God in Christ, who came not to condemn the world but to save it (John 3:17).

In Jesus, we find the true nature of God—a God who is patient, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9). He invites us to walk in His way, to be peacemakers and ministers of reconciliation, embodying the love and justice of the Kingdom of God in our broken world. Thus, Jesus is not only our guide but the clearest revelation of the God we serve, calling us to live out the transformative power of His love in every aspect of our lives.

In a world of violence, with texts which justify extreme violence to civilians, the christian community would do well to build no other foundation than that which is found in Jesus, the one who would rather die for his enemies than slay them. Blessed are the peacemakers.


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2 comentarios

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11 jun
Obtuvo 5 de 5 estrellas.

Totally agree!

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Chris Horton
Chris Horton
11 jun
Obtuvo 5 de 5 estrellas.

Yes! In Him is no 'unChristlikeness' at all and He is the lens. Even in the OT there are indications, particularly in the prophets, that God does not actually want the killing. Even the book of Joshua also has signs of a counter-narrative that the Israelites did not actually carry out the destruction.

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