Since World War II, based on information about Nazi genocides, many sensitive persons have asked: Where was God during the Holocaust? How could an omnipotent and omnibenevolent deity have allowed these atrocities to have occurred? Some who ask these questions might be surprised to learn that the Holy Bible teaches that the monotheistic and transcendent creator of the universe was himself responsible for a number of violent genocides. According to both the Old and New Testaments, this deity (under the name of Yahweh, the Lord, or God) explicitly commanded and helped the Israelites—his “chosen people”—to conquer the Promised Land of Palestine. He also commanded and helped them to “totally destroy” all the pagans—including men, women, and children—who were living there at the time. The phrase “totally destroy” is a translation of the Hebrew verb herem or cherem (pronounced KHEH-rem).1 Philosopher Michael Walzer has observed: “For the modern reader, the conquest of Canaan, with all its attendant slaughter, is the most problematic moment in the history of ancient Israel,” and this is especially true for “the law of the herem, the ban which consigned entire cities to utter destruction.”2
The divine commandments for herem are especially prominent in the Bible’s fifth book, Deuteronomy, within the context of the Israelites preparing to invade and take possession of their lebensraum. In preparation, their prophet-warrior Moses reminded them that Yahweh had promised that a land “flowing with milk and honey” would forever belong to the descendants of patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. One big problem, however, was that seven Canaanite nations were then residing in this Promised Land. As a “final solution” to the problem, Moses advised: “The Lord your God will destroy all the nations that are on the land that he is giving you. You will force them out and live in their cities and homes. . . . You must not spare anyone’s life in the cities of those nations that the Lord our God is giving you as your property.” This herem was necessary to prevent the Israelites from being influenced by the Canaanites’ idolatrous religions. A secondary justification was the need to punish the Canaanites for their great wickedness. Based on his pious faith, Moses assured the Israelites that they had nothing to fear: “The Lord your God is going with you. He will fight for you against your enemies and give you victory” (Deut. 19:1 and 20:16–18). Shades of Gott mit uns!
Moses also reported that the benevolent deity had told him not to order the herem of those nations located in the territories that were near and adjacent to the Promised Land. When approaching a city in these territories, the Israelites were initially to offer its people the opportunity to surrender peacefully. Moses instructed: “If they accept the offer and open their gates to you, then all these people in the city will be made to do forced labor and to work as your slaves.” But any city refusing the generous offer of slavery was to be severely punished: “When the Lord your God hands the city over to you, kill every man in that city with your swords. But take the women, the children, the cattle, and everything else of value as plunder for yourselves. You may possess and use these spoils of war that the Lord your God gives you from your enemies” (Deut. 20:10–15).