How Could He?

How Could He?

The story of the destruction of Jericho and the conquest of Canaan poses an ethical dilemma for many readers of the Bible. How could the God of love and mercy, the Father of Jesus, display such anger toward the inhabitants of the Promised Land? We will never understand completely the actions of the sovereign God of the universe, but as we study the story of Jericho in context, we as Christians will receive good insights as well as a serious warning.


In Genesis 1:2, God created a beautiful, perfect world from the chaos of water. And he was pleased with his work. But human beings, the crown of his creation, refused to acknowledge God's ownership of them and would not live by his standards. The creation would not recognize its Creator. So God began the process of reclaiming what was rightfully his: by judging and punishing it.


The judgment of God is called cherem in Hebrew (anathema in Greek) and is translated "totally devoted to God" or "utterly destroyed." In modern English, we might say "damned." Only such total judgment could remove the pollution of sin so that God's creation would again honor him. The Bible gives several examples of God's cherem falling upon sinful people. In Genesis 6-9, God sent a disastrous flood to wash away a perverse human race. In Genesis 19, God poured fire and brimstone on the evil cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. In Numbers 16, God immediately judged Korah, Dathan, and Abiram when they defied him. The New Testament describes God's judgment as ending our world and restoring God's creation to Him forever. There will be a new heaven and a new earth.

To bring about this judgment and restoration, God chose as his instruments the very creatures who had sinned against him.


The conquest of Canaan was just another step in God's plan to reclaim his world. God wanted a holy land for a holy people. Whatever is cleansed by God's judgment is called "holy." God selected as his people the descendants of his servant Abraham, and he led them to the Promised Land, Canaan, under the leadership of his prophet Moses.

Before the Hebrews could settle there, however, they had to cleanse it of a sinful people who rejected God, worshiped the fertility gods of the Near East, and practiced many perversions (Lev. 18:1-5,24-30; Deut. 18:9-13). The cherem was the only way to make the land fit for God's people to serve him. Then they would become a blessing to all nations so that the world would know that Yahweh is God.


God's destruction of Jericho reveals the judgment that falls on all unforgiven sin. In a sense, the Jericho story was the Judgment Day arriving early for Jericho's sinful inhabitants. Yet anyone who recognizes God will receive forgiveness and escape his judgment, as Rahab and her family joyfully discovered. One could say that Jesus' death on the cross was God placing his cherem on him for any who seek forgiveness and cleansing through his death.

Though it is hard to grasp the destruction God visited upon Jericho, it illustrates God's absolute hatred of sin and the ungodly lifestyle it fosters. It also highlights the wonder of God's forgiveness in Jesus Christ.


The Old Testament view of sin and judgment produced a concept of reality divided into three parts: the holy, the common, and the unclean or abominable.

The Holy. Anything devoted to Yahweh or used in his service was considered holy. Some things God made holy?for example, the Sabbath. Other things became holy because they were offered to God in service, such as firstfruits. Jericho was devoted to or set apart for God because it was the firstfruit of, or first reward for, the people's work.

Once something had been given to God, it was his alone. The worst kind of sin was to use something holy for the benefit of the people. The Sabbath was the Lord's day, so it could not be used for personal gain. Jericho had been given to God, so it was not to be lived in. Israel had been set apart to serve God, so it could not worship anyone or anything else.

The New Testament describes Christians as holy. Each one of us has been set apart to serve God. We cannot and must not serve any other person, idea, or thing. Every part of our lives should be dedicated to serving the Lord. This includes our occupations, our families, even our recreation. Nothing is to be done for our benefit alone. To do so is to place ourselves under his judgment, and as the citizens of Jericho discovered, the results are terrifying.

The Common. In the Old Testament, things that belonged to the people were considered common. They were to be used in godly ways, but they were under the stewardship of the people who owned them. Common things included household possessions, animals, land, and so on. As long as they were not used in idolatry, they could be employed as people saw fit.

In the New Testament, the holy and the common were joined. Everything was to be used in God's service, even the most mundane. The prophet Zechariah says that when the Messiah comes, even the horse's bells (ancient bumper stickers?) will be holy. The bowls used in family cooking will be as sacred as those used in temple worship. Every pot in Jerusalem will be holy to the Lord (set apart for his service). "And on that day there will no longer be a Canaanite in the house of the LORD Almighty" (Zech. 14:20-21).

That is the story of Jericho. The Canaanites in Jericho had polluted God's land and had to be removed by his judgment. Then the holy people of God could begin to find ways to serve him in every part of their lives. Even the common was to become holy. The Abominable. Things detestable to Yahweh are called abominable. They include anything associated with the worship of other gods and any behavior that perverts the lifestyle God intended human beings to live. Leviticus 18 contains a list of unlawful sexual behaviors that people today would recognize (e.g., incest, adultery, homosexuality, bestiality). The people who practice these things will be judged by God.


God's standards for sin never change; he is just as angered by abominations today as he was during biblical times. The Old Testament believer carried a sword to root out any abomination in the Holy Land. Jesus did not confront sin in the same way, but he challenged it nonetheless, by sacrificing himself for others.

Our task as Christians "as people set apart for God" is to identify and avoid abominable things. We must recognize the ungodly around us and, wielding the sword of the Spirit, we must resist it with the passion of Joshua.