The concept of being “devoted to destruction” appears several times in the Bible, most often in relation to God’s command for the Israelites to completely destroy their enemies when taking possession of the Promised Land. This practice was known as “herem” in Hebrew, meaning something that is devoted or set apart for God alone, not to be used for common purposes.
There are a few key things to understand about this practice:
- It was commanded by God – The destruction of Israel’s enemies in Canaan was not something the Israelites decided to do on their own. God specifically commanded it as part of His plan to judge the sinful inhabitants of the land and make a clean separation between His people and pagan nations.
- It was limited to Canaan – The practice of “herem” was only applied to the Canaanite nations living in the specific region God had promised to Abraham and his descendants. There are no biblical examples of Israel applying this kind of destruction to other nations.
- It was a form of divine judgment – The Canaanites were deeply wicked, practicing child sacrifice, cult prostitution, and other abominations. God delayed His judgment on them until “the iniquity of the Amorites is complete” (Gen. 15:16). When judgment finally came, it was to be complete.
- It prevented corruption in Israel – Allowing the Canaanites to remain alive in the land would lead Israel into the sins of idolatry and spiritual corruption that happened many times throughout their history.
There are several examples in Scripture where God commanded the complete destruction of a particular people or city:
When God brought Israel out of Egypt to the Promised Land, He instructed them to completely wipe out the existing inhabitants of Canaan. This included nations such as the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites (Deuteronomy 20:16-18). The Israelites were to “save alive nothing that breathes” in the cities that God gave them to conquer (Deuteronomy 20:16).
But in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall devote them to complete destruction, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, as the Lord your God has commanded (Deuteronomy 20:16-17)
This was fulfilled as the Israelites conquered Jericho and Ai, utterly destroying them as “devoted things” (Joshua 6:17-18, 8:26). The only exception was Rahab and her family, who were spared for protecting the Israelite spies (Joshua 6:25).
The Amalekites attacked Israel after they left Egypt, ambushing the weak and weary stragglers (Deuteronomy 25:17-18). As judgment for this heartless act, God commanded Israel to wage war against Amalek and destroy them completely.
Therefore, when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget. (Deuteronomy 25:19)
Although Saul failed to fully carry out this command (1 Samuel 15), it was ultimately fulfilled by David (1 Samuel 30:16-20).
When Israel first entered Canaan, Jericho was the first city they were to conquer. God commanded that the city and all its spoil be devoted to Him for destruction.
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. (Joshua 6:17)
Joshua and the Israelites obeyed God’s command and utterly destroyed everything in the city except for Rahab and her household (Joshua 6:21).
After the sin of Achan which led to initial defeat, Israel went up again against Ai. This time God commanded them to plunder the city but devote the people to destruction as “herem” – set apart for God alone.
And the Lord said to Joshua, “Do not fear and do not be dismayed. Take all the fighting men with you, and arise, go up to Ai. See, I have given into your hand the king of Ai, and his people, his city, and his land. And you shall do to Ai and its king as you did to Jericho and its king. Only its spoil and its livestock you shall take as plunder for yourselves.” (Joshua 8:1-2)
Again the Israelites were careful to obey, destroying the people completely while taking the plunder for themselves (Joshua 8:22-27).
Nations in Canaan
As Israel continued conquering Canaan, God repeatedly commanded them to “devote to destruction” the people in cities while taking the spoil and plunder for themselves.
“But in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall devote them to complete destruction, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, as the Lord your God has commanded” (Deuteronomy 20:16-17)
This pattern was seen throughout the book of Joshua as the land was subdued before Israel (Joshua 10:28, 10:35, 10:37, 10:39-40, 11:11-12, 11:20).
In summary, the concept of being “devoted to destruction” in the Bible referred to God’s command for Israel to completely destroy pagan nations living in Canaan as a form of divine judgment. Key points include:
- It was commanded by God, not Israel’s own choice
- It applied only to wicked nations in the Promised Land
- It was God’s judgment on their extreme sin and idolatry
- It prevented corruption from pagan influence in Israel
- Examples include Canaanites, Amalekites, Jericho, Ai, and other Canaanite cities
While difficult to understand at times, this practice was about God establishing His righteous kingdom and protecting His people from the effects of unrelenting evil and perversion. As the sovereign Judge, God has the prerogative to exercise judgment upon persistently unrepentant sinners.
Further Teaching in Scripture
Although “herem” was commanded in the Conquest of Canaan, the New Testament moves in a different direction, teaching love and mercy even for enemies:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:43-45)
“Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ To the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.’” (Romans 12:19-20)
The teaching progresses from Old Testament times focused on establishing God’s nation on earth, to Christ’s kingdom which is “not of this world” (John 18:36) and operates by love, mercy, and sacrificial living.
So within Scripture we see an arc of progress, yet through it all, God remains perfectly just and righteous in all His ways. His judgments are always according to truth. The conquest of Canaan was unique to that time, place and purpose – now as God’s people we operate by “the law of the Spirit of life” in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:2), loving even those who hate and mistreat us.
Application for Today
While the practice of “herem” does not apply to nations today, there are some principles we can learn:
- God hates sin – His judgment shows His purity.
- Idolatry and immorality bring God’s judgment.
- God protects those who follow Him from corrupting influence.
- Judgment is God’s domain – we should show mercy and grace to all.
- God’s ways are above our ways – we see dimly.
The Conquest illustrates God’s holiness and foreshadows the ultimate spiritual battle between the kingdom of God and the dominion of darkness. Jesus’ death and resurrection seals Satan’s defeat and evil is already judged by the cross. God’s people now go forth in His authority but with the weapons of the Spirit, preaching the gospel of grace and peace.
We may struggle to fully comprehend the Conquest, but can be assured of God’s perfect righteousness and trust His plan to ultimately eradicate evil and restore all things through Christ. In our finite minds we see but glimpses, so need humility and faith to trust the Judge of all the earth will do right.