Did the Israelites “Utterly Destroy” the Nations in the Promised Land?

Deuteronomy 7:1-5 reads

When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and occupy, and he clears away many nations before you—the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations mightier and more numerous than you— 2 and when the Lord your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy. 3 Do not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, 4 for that would turn away your children from following me, to serve other gods. Then the anger of the Lord would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly. 5 But this is how you must deal with them: break down their altars, smash their pillars, hew down their sacred poles,[a] and burn their idols with fire.

The key phrase here is “utterly destroy.” In spite of various attempts to ameliorate this passage many are not satisfied and insist it represents a sub-Christian ethic. Stop making excuses and simply call it what it is—mass murder. I was reading Old Testament Theology by R.W.L. Moberly and thought he had an interesting take on this passage. At least it was one I hadn’t heard before. Below is an abridgment of his discussion.

“It is important initially to recognize the rhetorical nature of the text and to take this rhetoric seriously without taking it woodenly. On the one hand, the seven nations of 7:1 can hardly be placed on a map of Canaan in terms of historical geography. ‘Seven’ in Hebrew idiom often functions to indicate ‘many’ rather than a precise number (as in ‘Your enemies . . . shall come out against you one way, and flee before you seven ways’ [Deut. 28:7]). Moreover, comparable lists of the peoples of the Canaan in other contexts (e.g., Gen. 15:20-21; Exod. 3:8, 17; 13:5), lists that vary both in the number and identity of those mentioned, suggests that the function of the lists is more rhetorical than geographical. In other words, the seven nations are probably symbolic opponents who represent a threat to Israel within its home territory. On the other hand, the strongly rhetorical character of Deuteronomy 7 as a whole is evident in its depiction of the seven nations as ‘mightier and more numerous than Israel, such that they make Israel afraid as to how they can succeed against them (7:1, 17).”

Moberly says the key term here translated “destroy” (ḥērem) can be translated other than as “destroy.” “Deuteronomy has two other verbs to express a straightforward sense of ‘destroy.’” ḥērem could be also be translated as “put under the ban,” or simply “ban.” Moberly astutely asks, “If the seven nations are to be ‘destroyed’ (v. 2), why should intermarriage need to be prohibited (vv. 3-4)? Since, to put it bluntly, corpses present no temptation to intermarriage, the text surely envisages the continuance of living non-Israelites in close proximity to Israel. . . .Thus when Israel comes into contact with the seven nations in the promised land and YHWH enables Israel to overcome them, then the requirement is that Israel should practice ḥērem with regard to them (7:1-2a). This means refusing normal practices of treaty making or being moved to pity for the vanquished (7:2b). The content of this ḥērem is then given in what immediately follows, in terms of two specific practices. Negatively, Israel is to avoid intermarriage (7:3-4), for this would entail religious compromise, since intermarriage as a rule entails acceptance and incorporation of the religious culture of the non-Israelite and thus could lead to a dilution of Israel’s allegiance to YHWH. Positively, Israel is indeed to carry out destruction—but the specified destruction is not of people but solely of those objects that symbolize and enable allegiances to deities other than YHWH. In other words, ḥērem is being presented as a metaphor for unqualified allegiance to YHWH. On this reading ḥērem is not a ‘mere’ metaphor, for it envisages specific and demanding practices. These practices, however, do not entail the taking of life on the battlefield, but rather the rejection, the absolute non-use, of that which could compromise Israel’s covenantal allegiance to YHWH: intermarriage and the presence of alien religious symbols within Israel’s promised land.” (Emphasis his. pp. 59-62)

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2 thoughts on “Did the Israelites “Utterly Destroy” the Nations in the Promised Land?

  1. Looking forward to reading this. Thanks!

  2. Interesting thoughts by Moberly. However, I wonder how he would respond to God’s command to Saul to herem the Amalekites in 1 Samuel 15. This does seem to involve the complete destruction of every living thing. This is indeed a very important topic. If any of your readers are interested, I am in the process of writing a number of articles concerning violence in the Old Testament. These articles can be found on my blog at biblestudywithrandy.com
    Thanks for sharing these thoughts Louis.

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