On Sunday I plan to explore the idea of ḥerem—variously translated as “devoted to destruction” (ESV), “completely destroyed” (NIV), “utterly destroyed” (KJV), and “annihilated” (NET Bible). Robert Young’s “Young’s Literal Translation” from the late 1800s captures the idea perhaps most closely: “devoted”. It has the idea of putting something under a ban. An object or a person or even a plot of land that was ḥerem was not available for one’s personal use. It was devoted to God. God could, of course, give his thing to a person, but that was God’s choice. One could not take the banned item unless instructed to do so by God. In the case of a person this meant he or she was not available for marriage, or even a close alliance. I’ll leave the details of ḥerem for Sunday, and especially what it meant for the conquest of Canaan, as well as what it means for us today.
One of the purposes of ḥerem was to avoid what would eventually happen to both the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. Both were conquered by foreign enemies as an act of God’s judgment. Both kingdoms had begun worshiping the gods of the people around them, failing to maintain their loyalty to the God of Israel, despite numerous warnings from the prophets God sent to them. After the nation split into two kingdoms, the northern kingdom of Israel lasted a little more than 200 years, and each one of its nineteen kings was evil and worshiped other gods. In 722BC, the Assyrian army wiped out Israel and took its people into exile, never to return. The southern kingdom of Judah would last another 130 years or so, finally being conquered by the Babylonian army in 589BC. Prior to its complete destruction, Judah was under the thumb of Babylon and many of its cultural elite, from the king to the priests to various artisans and craftsmen to the educated among them, were taken to Babylon to serve that nation. As we’ll explore in more detail on Sunday, this was the idea of the practice of ḥerem, for it removed the sense of national identity from the nations it conquered. What would remain of the United States if the President and Vice President and the entire Cabinet and all of Congress were taken captive somewhere else, along with all the military officers—well, those who survived what would have been a very fierce war—and a ruler was appointed over us by the nation that conquered us? In what sense would be “the United States”? This is what happened to Israel and Judah. God had warned the people what would happen if they continued to worship idols.
And this occurred because the people of Israel had sinned against the LORD their God, who had brought them up out of the land of Egypt from under the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and had feared other gods and walked in the customs of the nations whom the LORD drove out before the people of Israel, and in the customs that the kings of Israel had practiced. And the people of Israel did secretly against the LORD their God things that were not right. They built for themselves high places in all their towns, from watchtower to fortified city. They set up for themselves pillars and Asherim on every high hill and under every green tree, and there they made offerings on all the high places, as the nations did whom the LORD carried away before them. And they did wicked things, provoking the LORD to anger, and they served idols, of which the LORD had said to them, “You shall not do this.” Yet the LORD warned Israel and Judah by every prophet and every seer, saying, “Turn from your evil ways and keep my commandments and my statutes, in accordance with all the Law that I commanded your fathers, and that I sent to you by my servants the prophets.”2 Kings 17:7–13 ESV
Even after Babylon subjugated Judah and had taken its cultural elite to Babylon exactly as God had warned through the prophet Jeremiah, those remaining in Judah and in the surrounding nations many had fled to, they refused to believe God’s word through Jeremiah. A large group planned to go to Egypt for protection. God warned them they would be destroyed there. They were to remain in the land and trust him further. They refused. Jeremiah himself gets taken to Egypt along with them. While there Jeremiah prophesies that Egypt will be conquered by Babylon as well and will have its temples burned to the ground. He then prophesied against the people of Judah in Egypt. God said this to them:
Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: “You have seen all the disaster that I brought upon Jerusalem and upon all the cities of Judah. Behold, this day they are a desolation, and no one dwells in them, because of the evil that they committed, provoking me to anger, in that they went to make offerings and serve other gods that they knew not, neither they, nor you, nor your fathers. Yet I persistently sent to you all my servants the prophets, saying, ‘Oh, do not do this abomination that I hate!’ But they did not listen or incline their ear, to turn from their evil and make no offerings to other gods.”Jeremiah 44:2–5 ESV
God went on to warn them yet again, but this was their response.
Then all the men who knew that their wives had made offerings to other gods, and all the women who stood by, a great assembly, all the people who lived in Pathros in the land of Egypt, answered Jeremiah: “As for the word that you have spoken to us in the name of the LORD, we will not listen to you. But we will do everything that we have vowed, make offerings to the queen of heaven and pour out drink offerings to her, as we did, both we and our fathers, our kings and our officials, in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem. For then we had plenty of food, and prospered, and saw no disaster. But since we left off making offerings to the queen of heaven and pouring out drink offerings to her, we have lacked everything and have been consumed by the sword and by famine.”Jeremiah 44:15–18 ESV
In chapter 7 of Jeremiah, he warned them about worshiping the “queen of heaven”. This is most likely the goddess Ishtar. This was before Jerusalem was destroyed by Babylon and even though Jeremiah’s warnings tied the coming destruction of Jerusalem to their worship of other gods, they steadfastly refuse to listen to the word of the Lord in Egypt. God had been proved right again and again, yet they declared emphatically, “As for the word that you have spoken to us in the name of the LORD, we will not listen to you.” Instead, they insist they will keep their vows to the queen of heaven and make offerings to her. Their reason was simple: life was more prosperous when they worshiped the queen of heaven and it has been only misery since they stopped worshiping her, so now they’re going to do what works—in their minds, at least.
There is in each one of us the desire for something more. This desire to grow and improve the world, or at least our little corner in it, is actually rooted in God’s mandate he gave to us in the garden of Eden. God said he would create humans in his image and likeness, which is a status. We see this in his very next declaration that humans are to have dominion over this world and its resources. It is natural for humans to desire sufficient food and clothing and shelter and prosperity and peace and justice. These are the things we are to work for in the world. When the people of Judah tell Jeremiah that they longed again for the days when they “had plenty of food, and prospered, and saw no disaster”, the issue was not what they desired. The issue was how they sought to gain these things.
God has always desired faith. He wants us to trust him for all things. Even as he gives us the ability to work for our daily bread, he desires that we trust him for it. This does not mean we refuse to work and just wait for our daily bread to appear magically. It means that as we work and labor that we may provide the things we need, we are trusting him for every moment of it. We must live with the conscious awareness that everything comes from God, including our ability to work and work hard.
The problem with the people of Judah was they were seeking these good things in a wrong way. Rather than trust the God of Israel, they sought to take a shortcut and make offerings to Ishtar, wrongly thinking she was the one who gave them food and prosperity and peace. God told the people of Israel long before they entered the land that it was flowing with milk and honey. Israel is a dry and barren land! How does a dry and barren land flow with anything other than dust? The God who created the world causes it to flow with milk and honey! Ishtar did not—could not. Rather than acknowledge that all blessings come from the Lord, they preferred to attribute the goodness they experienced to the so-called queen of heaven. This was not faith, and so God was angry at their stubborn rebellion.
One of the significant reasons Israel was to drive the Canaanites out of the land was so they could not entice Israel away from faithfulness to God. The truth of the matter is faithfulness is not our default state. Faith in God is not automatic. If they—and we!—do not actively pursue faithfulness, it will not happen. They allowed the people to remain and entice them to fall away from God and the result is they fell away from God and then actively rejected him. If we do not actively drive out the things in our lives that propel us away from faith in God, we will find ourselves in the same place as the people of Judah.
One of the most significant gifts God has given us is the local church. It is in the local church where our varied spiritual gifts are exercised. Through our service to one another we are continually reminded of what God has done and we are encouraged and exhorted to remain faithful. When we struggle with faith, we are corrected and taught and urged to focus on faithfulness. When we struggle with sin our brothers and sisters in Christ are able to speak into our lives words of hope in the God who hears us and empowers us to live for him and gives us his Spirit that we might overcome temptation. Gifts of mercy and of service show us tangibly God’s goodness to us in Christ. It is only by God’s grace working through these constant reminders from one another that we can remain faithful. Faithfulness is never automatic. It must be worked for, and God works primarily in and through his church.