Genocide in Joshua? Rethinking “the Ban” as Christian Readers

[Editor’s Note: As we conclude our sermon series on Joshua at KCD, Crosslink offers the following Theolog on one of the most controversial ideas we encountered along the way: Israel’s charge to eliminate and displace the indigenous people of Canaan. Readers may also be interested in Tom Judge’s post on the same topic.]

The herem problem

The book of Joshua is seen as problematic today. In a nutshell the problem is that it tells a story of God commanding the Israelites to take possession of a land – by ‘completely annihilating’ the people already living in the land, as summarized in Joshua 10.16-42. Worse still, the people, their houses and their possessions are apparently to be destroyed as an ‘offering’ to the Lord (Joshua 6.17).

In the original Hebrew in which Joshua was written the word used to describe such repeated annihilation of people and places is herem. Occuring frequently in Joshua 1-12, it is notoriously difficult to translate. Compare the English translations of Joshua 6:17 – “The city [Jericho] and all that is in it are to be…

  • ‘devoted for destruction’ (NRSV)
  • ‘devoted’ (NIV)
  • ‘under the ban’ (NAS)
  • ‘set apart’ (NET)
  • ‘devoted under the curse of destruction’ (NJB)
  • ‘doomed to destruction’ (NKJ)
  • ‘completely destroyed as an offering’ (NLT)

… to / for the Lord.”

The background of herem and Joshua: Deuteronomy

The book of Joshua, especially chapters 1-12, presents itself as the ‘fulfilment’ of the herem command in Deuteronomy 7.1-5:

“When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations… seven nations larger and stronger than you – and when the Lord your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally [herem them]. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, for they will turn your sons away from following me to serve other gods, and the Lord’s anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you. This is what you are to do to them: Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones, cut down their Asherah poles and burn their idols in the fire.” [NIV] See also Deuteronomy 13 and 20.

The NIV translates herem as ‘utterly destroy’ in Deuteronomy 7.2, but as ‘devoted’ in Joshua 6.17. So what does it mean? Also, to command the Israelites not to marry the inhabitants of the land in Deuteronomy 7.3-4 is unnecessary if they are all to be killed anyway.

Clearly there’s a lot of work to do to clear up what herem means in both Deuteronomy and Joshua, and to learn what it means to apply or to live in the light of herem today.

Some ground clearing work

There are three interpretations within the Old Testament of how Israel enters and occupies Canaan:

  1. In Deuteronomy and Joshua, Israel obtains the land by a herem campaign;
  2. In the book of Exodus it is envisaged that the inhabitants will simply ‘disappear’ (Exodus 23.20-33, key Hebrew word kahad), but only little by little over time;
  3. The land ‘vomits out’ the Canaanites since they have defiled the land by doing detestable things (Leviticus 18.24-30, key word qiya).

If we look at Joshua closely, there are yet more reasons to be cautious in trying to provide an answer to the question of how Israel settled in Canaan. Joshua portrays the Israelite takeover of the land as complete in some places (Joshua 10.28; 11.12-23; 12.7-24; 21.43-45; 23.9-10; 24.11-13) and incomplete in others (Joshua 9.14-27; 11.22; 15.36; 16.10; 17.11-12; 19.47).

What sort of book is Joshua?

On the Old Testament’s – and even Joshua’s – own terms, there are different interpretations of how Israel possessed the land. So we shouldn’t simply take Joshua or any portrait ‘at face value’ at the expense of others if we want to understand how Israel came to live in Canaan. But this isn’t the question that Joshua is really trying to answer…

We shouldn’t necessarily read Joshua like newspaper reports of some event. Ancient readers realised this. In the original categorisation of the Old Testament, the book of Joshua was classified as one of the prophetic books rather than as simply a history book. ‘Prophetic’ here means ‘bringing God’s word’ rather than the narrower ‘seeing the future,’ of course. But what could this mean for Joshua, and herem?

To come at the question another way, ancient Christian interpreters like Origen and Gregory of Nyssa in particular used things like these – little inconsistencies concerning complete or partial possession of the land in Joshua, multiple pictures of entrance to the land, and the ethical or moral difficulties raised – as pointers for interpretation.

Such difficulties are indicators that Joshua is not to be taken at face value, but is to be read ‘spiritually’, ‘figuratively’ or perhaps ‘symbolically’ – as in a loose sense ‘prophetic’. This is how many of us in fact read stories in the Old Testament much of the time. The enduring message of the text is not always the ‘face value’ reading. Foundational texts like Joshua, or the Gospels, are written to (re)shape our worldview, beliefs, attitudes and behaviour in an evocative, rather than textbook, way.

How does Joshua do this with the idea of herem

Understanding herem

Two types of herem

There are two different herems in the Old Testament. There is a ‘priestly-herem’ associated with holiness in Leviticus (e.g. Leviticus 27), which is distinguished from ‘deuteronomistic-herem’ associated with annihilation in Deuteronomy and Joshua. The two have been confused, unhelpfully influencing contemporary translations. It makes it harder to understand what herem means in Deuteronomy and Joshua. For example, it has led to the unhelpful unbiblical notion of ‘Holy War’.

Deuteronomistic-herem in the Old Testament

Herem is rare in the Old Testament. It occurs mostly in the prophets where it is related to the eschatological (end-time) future (e.g. Isaiah 34.2-5, 43.28; Jeremiah 25.9, 50.21-26, 51.3; Micah 4.13), and Deuteronomy and Joshua where it is related to the foundational, distant past. Literal herem-talk – people actually ‘doing herem’ envisaged as annihilation – is pushed away from the present experience of God’s people into either the distant past or distant future for virtually all readers of Scripture. Herem is not in the Psalms, which might be said to form the basis of everyday prayer language, and it is not used to describe Israel’s everyday experience in the Old Testament. So how might herem in the distant past or future affect or impinge upon our life now?

Joshua 23: Living out herem?

One answer is found by comparing Deuteronomy 7.1-5 with Joshua 23, Joshua’s final sermon to Israel in which he sets out the nature of the ongoing everyday task of living in the land. There is no mention of herem in Joshua 23, even though the sermon reflects the concerns of Deuteronomy 7. It is the Lord who will continue to drive out the godless hostile people, which is not Israel’s task. Israel’s task is to live faithfully to God as expressed in following the Law of Moses. In particular this means having nothing to do with the religion and idolatry of the local inhabitants, and avoiding associations such as marriage with the locals since they are likely to entangle the Israelites in idolatry, leading Israel away from God.

To live in the light of herem then is to live a life for God and apart from idolatry and other alluring but false or harmful ungodly ways of life. It is about being separated for God and away from idolatry as ‘radical obedience’. It is about living ‘in the world’ while not being ‘of the world’. 

The herem stories in Joshua

But there is more to the book of Joshua than this. Joshua, probably written well after the events portrayed in the narrative, explores in more detail the enactment of herem to show what Deuteronomy 7 really means using stories set in the context of Israel’s distant past. These stories concern paradigmatic or symbolic characters and places, such as Joshua, Rahab, Achan and Jericho so as to make us think through the drama of the narrative.

Joshua challenges a simplistic ‘face value’ reading of Deuteronomy 7, namely that Israel is just to charge into the land triumphantly and kill everyone (see Joshua 5.13-15). In these stories in Joshua 1-12 herem plays a further symbolic function. Namely, that response to herem symbolizes response to God so as to reveal what’s in people’s hearts, with the stories relating this to membership of God’s people. 


On a simplistic ‘face value’ reading of Deuteronomy 7 Rahab ought to have been subject to herem, perishing with the rest of Jericho. As a Canaanite prostitute who lies she is stereotypical of one who is apparently far from God. The first thing the Israelite spies do is to make an oath with Rahab (Joshua 2), as apparently forbidden in Deuteronomy 7. The story has an ominous start that looks like an Israelite failure, recalling Numbers 25.

But this is not how the story unfolds. In response to the impending herem of Jericho (Joshua 2 and 6) Rahab offers a ‘confession of faith’ (Joshua 2.11) that is matched only by Moses (Deuteronomy 4.39) and Solomon (1 Kings 8.23) in the Old Testament. More than this she responds by showing kindness or steadfast love (Hebrew hesed) (Joshua 2.12), a characteristic central to God, God’s covenant and to living as a faithful Israelite (Deuteronomy 5.10; Exodus 20.6; Exodus 34.6-7; Micah 6.8).

So despite appearances, Rahab is in fact a model Israelite at heart, and is indeed saved to become part of God’s people. She is included in the genealogy of Jesus (Matthew 1.5). Her true status is revealed only through the herem of Jericho. The apparent symbolic ‘outsider’ to God’s people is in fact the symbolic ‘insider’ at heart, demonstrated by her response to the herem of Jericho.


Rahab is contrasted with Achan through the herem of Jericho (Joshua 7). Achan is set up as the symbolic perfect Israelite in contrast to Rahab, having a model genealogy. But, following his response to the herem of Jericho (Joshua 7.1) – theft of some of the items declared herem – he is shown to be the symbolic outsider to God’s people. This is shown in the story by interpreting his actions using the language of unfaithfulness to the covenant as expressed in breaking the Ten Commandments (Joshua 7.11 & 21; cf. Deuteronomy 5.19) – he steals and he covets.

So despite appearances of being the symbolic model Israelite, Achan is revealed to be a symbolic ‘outsider’ to God’s people by the herem of Jericho, confirmed by his death (Joshua 7.25), placing him outside God’s people.

Joshua contrasted with the hostile kings

Another contrast that herem reveals is between Joshua and the hostile kings. Joshua appears to be the faithful Israelite, and is indeed proven to be so by his unwavering bold and courageous obedience to God.

The hostile kings are, like Rahab, apparently ‘outsiders’. But unlike Rahab, their response to herem is not to worship God and show kindness to the Israelites, but to club together to fight Israel (Joshua 9.1-2; 10-12). So here, the apparent ‘outsider’ status of the hostile kings and their armies is confirmed in their response to herem.


Finally, there are the Gibeonites (Joshua 9). Their response to herem is ambiguous, falling between Rahab’s and the hostile kings, with the result that their fate falls is ambiguous too. They are not killed, but they are not fully part of Israel either, becoming servants within Israel.

In summary:

Apparent statusResponse to heremNature of response‘Revealed’ status
RahabOutsiderGlorify God and hesed PositiveInsider
AchanInsiderSteal, covetNegativeOutsider (death)
Local kingsOutsidersAggressionNegativeOutsiders (death)
GibeonitesOutsidersAmbiguousAmbiguousAmbiguous (slavery)

Joshua and the sheep and the goats

What does it mean to be a true Israelite? What does it mean to be a true Christian? How is herem relevant to us? The book of Joshua encourages us to reflect on these questions by carefully evoking two different symbolic interpretations of herem.

The first, given by comparing Deuteronomy 7 with Joshua 23 suggests that we separate ourselves to God from idolatry and sin. To enact herem is to avoid entanglements that trap us in sin. It is to seek to ‘utterly destroy’ or ‘put to death’ the sinful tendencies in our own hearts, living faithfully in Christ (Romans 8.13; Colossians 3.1-17). This requires being strong and courageous (Joshua 1.9) in this spiritual battle against evil (Ephesians 6.10-18).

The second comes from comparing Deuteronomy 7 with the major characters of Joshua 1-12. Here herem shows where one’s true identity lies, despite surface appearances,. Herem reveals who is truly part of God’s people, challenging the superficial attitudes that we might have towards others. Rahab’s story can be read as a conversion story of a sinner. But, perhaps truer to the story, it can also be read as a story about the conversion of our own attitudes toward who is, and is not, a faithful Christian, and how we treat people based on appearances. In this sense ‘living out’ herem concerns who we include or exclude and why. This interpretation is reflected in the New Testament in the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25.31-46).

Joshua is a very challenging book, but perhaps not for the reasons that we often think today.

Douglas Earl attends Kings and is the author of The Joshua Delusion? Rethinking Genocide in the Bible.

Photo by Sebastian Pichler on Unsplash.