Most Americans associate “holy war” as something barbaric, treacherous, and associated with the fanatical Muslim Terrorists in the Middle East. However, God licensed holy war to be used by the Israelites when receiving and cleaning out the land that was promised to them by the Lord at Sinai (Deut. 7:1-6). This would be shocking to us as American Christians since many of us believe that God is a loving God, and how could God annihilate whole people groups? That would be genocide. This is what God licensed the Israelites to do in Deuteronomy and in the book of Joshua.
Just as difficult is it for Americans to understand and comprehend “holy war”, so is the Hebrew Word associated with holy war which is herem. Herem is a Hebrew word which is difficult to define in English. According to the Lutheran Study Bible, it defines herem as to “that which is given over to the Lord for destruction” which would include people and things.
The Nature of Holy War – Herem
Most Ancient Near Eastern Cultures practiced herem or holy war. According to Peter Enns:
“Taking land and defeating enemies with the blessing of the gods was as common in the ancient world as Dunkin’ Donuts in New England. And, as the Canaanite extermination story shows, the Israelites were every bit as much a part of that mentality as any other ancient culture we can point to.” (Enns – The Bible Tells Me So, pages 56-57)
Herem was used both for military and non-military uses by the Lord with the Israelites and its neighbors. The Lord laid out the details for herem and “holy war” in Deuteronomy 20:1-20. Specifically the Lord specified certain peoples living within Canaan in Deuteronomy 7:1-6, 25-26 due to destruction. The most graphic portrayal of the “holy war” was the complete and utter destruction of Jericho in Joshua 1-6.
For Israel, herem was used in both positive and negative ways. Positively, it involved places and things consecrated for the Lord such as land, people, and things. Leviticus 27 discusses what are considered to be consecrated to the Lord which included people (Lv. 27:1-8), animals (Lv. 27:11-13), real estate (Lv. 27:14-25), all of which belong to the priests (Nu. 18:14) since they are God’s agents. When Hannah offered Samuel (1 Sam. 1-3) to the Lord, this is an example of the service given to the priests laid out in Leviticus 27:1-8. There is a distinction between those serving the Lord (consecrated to God – Lv. 27:1-8) and those captured within Israel’s holy wars. There is a distinction between dedicating (haqdis) and devoting (haharim); that which is dedicated can be redeemed (in the year of Jubilee), that which is devoted cannot.”
Negatively, herem was applied to punishment and God’s judgment both against individuals and community within Israel who violated God’s law by worshipping false idols (Ex. 22:20; Deut. 13:12-18). Internally they were then classified as herem to be devoted to destruction. According to Lilley, “property is not forfeit to the priests, but is also destroyed. The object of the verb (16) is ‘the city and all it contains’ this must include the inhabitants, who are to be put to the sword. The noun (18) denotes the property which might, but for these instructions have been taken as plunder.” Again, herem was used as a tool of judgment against an Israelite community committing idolatry.
The Negative Side of Holy War
Many European Nations and America has used the “holy war” as a justification for practicing genocide and exterminating people groups while seizing their land. This was called the “manifest destiny” in American History when Americans would seize Indian lands and destroy Indian nations, and justify slavery as an institution. According to Greg Boyd:
“Reflecting the common white European conviction that would later come to be known as “manifest destiny” doctrine, Benjamin Franklin rationalized the brutality of the European conquest by claiming it was “the design of Providence to extirpate these savages in order to make room for the cultivation of the earth.” Through horrific violence that accompanied this conquest, along with the brutality of American slavery, has historically minimized in American High-School history textbooks, the truth is that Native Americans and African slaves were often subjected to the same merciless treatment the Canaanites received from the invading Jews within the biblical narrative provided the model for this European Conquest.” (Boyd – Crucifixion of the Warrior God – page 27)
According to Boyd, the Israelites misunderstood God and his intentions for the herem. God promised to drive the indigenous peoples off the land little by little, not by massacre. He writes:
Getting the indigenous population of Canaan to slowly migrate off the land on their own by making it unpleasantly pesky strikes me as a much more Christlike way of acquiring real-estate than having your people engage in full-scale genocide. What ever happened to the nonviolent plan? (Boyd- Cross Vision – pages 114-115).
Boyd cites that one of the major mistakes was that Israel did not put their complete trust in God to completely drive out the Canaanites from the land in a non-violent way” (Boyd page 116). Boyd also cites that Moses was bound by the Ancient Near Eastern Culture and that might have affected him from hearing from the Lord properly how to drive out the Canaanites from the Land (Boyd 117). Also, Boyd notes that the Israelites lacked a “complete knowledge of the Lord”. He cites that they were under a curse (Gal 3:13), and Moses command to practice Genocide was one of the manifestations of the curse.
Yet according to Paul, Jesus became the curse to provide a better way of non-violent relating through the cross. Since Greg Boyd uses the Cruciform hermeneutic as the means by which to interpret scripture, he shows that the revelation that Moses received was limited. Christ would have never sanctioned genocide.
 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith”
Peace is always the preferred choice to relating to people different than us. As history tells us, war and violence is never a solution to a nations problems. War should never be used to justify taking something that doesn’t belong to us. Using God as a means by which to sanction genocide is not “Christlike” and more in steps with the Anti-Christ, than Christ himself. (Keith Giles, Jesus Untangled, Kindle Loc. 2344) War and violence put Christ to death on the cross. Yet God brought freedom from the symbol of violence, power and greed by Jesus death and resurrection. Brian Zahnd writes:
The cross is not about the satisfaction of an omnipotent vengeance. The cross is about the revelation of divine mercy… Jesus’s act of forgiveness transformed the cross into a new symbol-the symbol of Christian faith, hope, and love. (Zahnd – Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, pages 86-87).
By becoming the curse, Jesus broke the curse and brought peace so that in Christ the blessing that came to Abraham can also be received by those that are not Jewish. By becoming a curse, war and just war is irrelevant.