A Biblical Theology of OT Holy War, Pt 2: Covenant Setting

Nations declare war for a lot of reasons—some just, some unjust. But the declaration of war can rarely if ever be understood apart from the context in which it arose. If you look back at, say, World War II and simply view it in isolation as a war, then you would completely misunderstand it. Understanding that war requires knowledge of all the factors leading up to it, across numerous nation-states. To feel the full weight of the war and to try to understand its rationale and contributing factors, you must see it within the bigger picture. We should do the same, then, with the “holy war” of the Old Testament. Approaching it simply from a binary “ethical or unethical” perspective (as is so often done) completely overlooks much of the context that is essential for understanding it. So in this post I will begin to fill in some of those contextual details that we must consider when dealing with the OT holy war.


As mentioned in the first post of this new series, my goal is not to provide an ethical defense of the OT holy war per se, but rather to seek to understand it in light of the broader teaching of the OT and NT. Specifically, I hope to develop a biblical theology that traces out the implications of the fact that God’s command to the Israelites to engage in such warfare is actually part of the overarching covenant structure itself. In this post I will provide some detail about the covenant setting of the holy war command, and in the subsequent posts I will elaborate on numerous implications. The outline, by way of reminder, is as follows:

  1. The Problems: What are the most common complaints or issues raised about the OT holy war, and how have they often been dealt with?
  2. Covenant Setting: How the institution of the Mosaic Covenant defines Holy War. (this post)
  3. Holy War and the Crushing Seed (Adamic Covenant)
  4. Holy War and the Promise (Abrahamic Covenant)
  5. Holy War and the Nation (Mosaic Covenant)
  6. Holy War and the Covenant-Maker
  7. Holy War and Christ
  8. Conclusions

The Covenant Context of the Cherem

In discussions about the holy war within Christian circles—let alone within non-Christian circles that throw around the heavily laden term “genocide” repetitively—it is rarely noticed that the holy war command forms part of the covenant legislation revealed at Sinai and later recapitulated on the plains of Moab prior to the entry into the Promised Land. This neglect is very unfortunate, as I will argue that understanding the cherem—a term which I will define further below—in light of the covenant context in which it originates is absolutely essential to making sense of it biblically.

God’s command regarding the destruction of the Canaanites and the takeover of the land appears first in substantial detail in Exodus 23:20–33, which forms the concluding aspect of God’s revelation given to Moses on his first sojourn on Mount Sinai amid the terrifying theophany of the Lord. Here is the outline of the account:

  1. Prologue to the Covenant (Exod 19): recounting God’s mighty act of deliverance in bringing Israel out of bondage in Egypt. This constitutes the redemptive indicative for the entire Mosaic Covenant: God has saved his people, and now he gives them commands to govern the way in which they are to live in light of that redemption.
  2. Declaration of the Covenant (Exod 20–23)
    1. Ten Commandments (Exod 20:1–21): the moral core of the Mosaic Covenant
      1. Commandments 1–4: Love your God
      2. Commandments 5–10: Love your Neighbor
    2. Elaboration of Commandments (Exod 20:22–23:19: regulations for life in Israel under the rule of Yahweh
      1. “Love your God”: Worship laws (altars)
      2. “Love your Neighbor”
        • Personal conduct laws
        • Property laws
        • Social justice laws
      3. “Love your God”: Worship laws (festivals)
    3. Institution of the Cherem / Holy War (Exod 23:20–33)
  3. Confirmation of the Covenant (Exod 24)

You can see from this outline that the context of the first major discussion of the upcoming conquest is rather important. God has reiterated to his people that he alone is their savior, that he has redeemed them for himself, and that he has a great plan for them: he will make them a holy nation that will exist as a beacon of light on earth to worship him rightly. He then gives them the Mosaic covenant, which, as I’ve argued extensively elsewhere, is a central part of the Covenant of Grace. This covenant in its essential form presented here in Exod 20–23 is focused around the two parts of the Ten Commandments: loving God and loving neighbor. While the principial form of these moral commandments are given in the Ten, the subsequent chapters elaborate on them. After this elaboration, God promises that he will lead Israel into the land he has promised them, where they will be able to live according to this covenant by worshipping him and loving one another according to his commandments. Moses then concludes the covenant institution and immediately begins the confirmation ceremony, which, notably, reaches its crescendo with these all-important words: “And Moses took the blood and threw it on the people and said, ‘Behold the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words'” (Exod 24:8).

Decades later, after a prolonged period of wandering in the desert waiting for this conquest to begin, Moses renews the covenant in Deuteronomy 5–7. Though the account is quite different, the logical flow is strikingly similar:

  1. Prologue to the Covenant (Deut 4:44–49): Moses recaps where the Lord has brought them when he took them out of Egypt
  2. Declaration of the Covenant (Deut 5–7)
    1. Ten Commandments (Deut 5:1–21)
    2. Elaboration of the Commandments (Deut 5:22–6:25, 7:6-15)
      1. Love the Lord (the Shema)
      2. Remember and keep all the commandments the Lord has given you when you come into the Promised Land
      3. You are a people whom God has chosen to worship him
    3. Institution of the Cherem / holy war (Deut 7:1–5, 16–26)
  3. Remember the Lord (there is no ceremony this time, as that has already taken place in Exod 24)

The holy war in its covenantal context, then, somehow plays a key role in how Israel will fulfill its calling to love the Lord their God with all their heart, soul, and might as well as fulfill their social responsibilities towards one another. Regardless of whether this strikes against our modern sensibilities, the plain fact is that the holy war is positioned near the very center of the Mosaic Covenant, which itself propels along the Covenant of Grace that God has established with his people. We will return to these implications in later posts, but for now I simply note that, if we want to understand the conquest/holy war, we have to do so by starting in the right place: namely, in the covenant documentation where it was commanded.

So let us look at those passages a little more closely.

Defining the Cherem

The passages mentioned above in which the holy war is outline read as follows (ESV):

Exodus 23:20–33
20 “Behold, I send an angel before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared. 21 Pay careful attention to him and obey his voice; do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgression, for my name is in him.22 “But if you carefully obey his voice and do all that I say, then I will be an enemy to your enemies and an adversary to your adversaries.23 “When my angel goes before you and brings you to the Amorites and the Hittites and the Perizzites and the Canaanites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, and I blot them out, 24 you shall not bow down to their gods nor serve them, nor do as they do, but you shall utterly overthrow them and break their pillars in pieces. 25 You shall serve the Lord your God, and he will bless your bread and your water, and I will take sickness away from among you. 26 None shall miscarry or be barren in your land; I will fulfill the number of your days. 27 I will send my terror before you and will throw into confusion all the people against whom you shall come, and I will make all your enemies turn their backs to you. 28 And I will send hornets before you, which shall drive out the Hivites, the Canaanites, and the Hittites from before you. 29 I will not drive them out from before you in one year, lest the land become desolate and the wild beasts multiply against you. 30 Little by little I will drive them out from before you, until you have increased and possess the land. 31 And I will set your border from the Red Sea to the Sea of the Philistines, and from the wilderness to the Euphrates, for I will give the inhabitants of the land into your hand, and you shall drive them out before you. 32 You shall make no covenant with them and their gods. 33 They shall not dwell in your land, lest they make you sin against me; for if you serve their gods, it will surely be a snare to you.”
Deuteronomy 7:1–5, 16–26
When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are entering to take possession of it, and clears away many nations before you, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations more numerous and mightier than you, 2 and when the Lord your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction. You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them. 3 You shall not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, 4 for they would turn away your sons 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 thus shall you deal with them: you shall break down their altars and dash in pieces their pillars and chop down their Asherim and burn their carved images with fire.

16 And you shall consume all the peoples that the Lord your God will give over to you. Your eye shall not pity them, neither shall you serve their gods, for that would be a snare to you. 17 “If you say in your heart, ‘These nations are greater than I. How can I dispossess them?’ 18 you shall not be afraid of them but you shall remember what the Lord your God did to Pharaoh and to all Egypt, 19 the great trials that your eyes saw, the signs, the wonders, the mighty hand, and the outstretched arm, by which the Lord your God brought you out. So will the Lord your God do to all the peoples of whom you are afraid. 20 Moreover, the Lord your God will send hornets among them, until those who are left and hide themselves from you are destroyed. 21 You shall not be in dread of them, for the Lord your God is in your midst, a great and awesome God. 22 The Lord your God will clear away these nations before you little by little. You may not make an end of them at once, lest the wild beasts grow too numerous for you. 23 But the Lord your God will give them over to you and throw them into great confusion, until they are destroyed. 24 And he will give their kings into your hand, and you shall make their name perish from under heaven. No one shall be able to stand against you until you have destroyed them. 25 The carved images of their gods you shall burn with fire. You shall not covet the silver or the gold that is on them or take it for yourselves, lest you be ensnared by it, for it is an abomination to the Lord your God. 26 And you shall not bring an abominable thing into your house and become devoted to destruction like it. You shall utterly detest and abhor it, for it is devoted to destruction.

Both texts are quite dense, so I will simply outline the key features of what God is commanding:

  • The Divine Warrior: God will send his “angel,” his “hornet” (which in the Hebrew is quite tricky to translate), and his “terror” before the Israelites to guarantee victory. Moreover, God promises that he will “be an enemy to your enemies … and blot them out.” Finally, God makes it clear that he is fighting the battle, not Israel by themselves. He declares, “Little by little I will drive them out from before you, until you have increased and possess the land.”
  • The Enemies: God names six tribes in Exodus and adds a seventh in the Deuteronomy account: Amorites, Hittites, Girgashites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hivites, and Jebusites. Numerous commentators point out that the sheer number of opposing people groups suggests the fullness of the opposition that the Israelites are facing in order to live out God’s covenant in the land. Note also that the fact that all of the people groups, rather than a single one, are designated by God should immediately call into question the whole “genocide” hypothesis.
  • The Nature of the Holy War: God’s stipulations concerning the war include the following: utterly overthrow them, break down their pillars and altars, and undertake the cherem (Deut 7:2, 26). This term is notoriously difficult to translate, but the ESV is as good as any: “devote to destruction.” As later elaborated in Numbers (31:17–23; 33:52), the cherem includes destruction of living things, burning of flammable things, and the carrying of noncombustible metals into the tabernacle. The cherem involves, in other words, the total destruction of all material things as well as the lives of every man (in some cases, Deut 20:13) or every man, woman, and child (in other cases, Deut 20:16). It is deadly serious.
  • The Rationale: The Exodus account most clearly elucidates the rationale for the holy war, and, perhaps not surprisingly, it is covenantal in nature. As a conclusion to the covenant legislation (shown above), God declares: “You shall make no covenant with them and their gods. They shall not dwell in your land, lest they make you sin against me; for if you serve their gods, it will surely be a snare to you” (Exod 23:32–33). This is hugely important: the holy war is commanded in order that the covenant with Yahweh might not be put in jeopardy through falling into the sin patterns of the enemies of God. Deut 7:2–3 reiterates the same covenantal points.

Throughout both accounts, the recurring theme is hard to miss: Yahweh fights the battle, and he calls upon his people to trust in him through this bloody conquest. The cherem is holy war—it is “Yahweh war.” Just as he has called his people into covenant with him, so also he undertakes the battle necessary for them to live under that covenant without it being jeopardized by the people currently occupying the land. The cherem serves the covenant. We may not like it; we may find that logic repulsive. But it is God’s logic nonetheless: he fights the battle against his enemies so that his covenant people may live in holiness before him.

But why? Why destroy these ancient Near Eastern people groups? Why could there not be a peaceful, diplomatic solution? Why were all these “innocent” enemies dealt with this way? And how can this possibly further the Covenant of Grace? We will turn to these vital questions in the next post.

Connecting to the pew

The subject of the Conquest, the holy war, the cherem is incredibly challenging to Christians and non-Christians alike. It is nearly impossible to get our minds around the fact that God commands this. But even in such a shocking set of passages, we get a glimpse at something crucial: God fights for his people. At the most fundamental level, the battle was not between Israel and these people groups. It was not genocide by one ethnic group against another. God is very clear the HE is the enemy of these enemies of Israel. In other words, the cherem is the outworking of Yahweh’s own battle against those who oppose him. It is his war. Holy War is God’s War.


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