A Brief Study of the “Ban” under the Old Covenant
Being chosen instruments of destruction doesn’t ordinarily sound pleasant to our ears, perhaps not even particularly virtuous. But in God’s eyes, it could be a holy calling and ministry to which Yahweh ordains certain people at special times for special purposes. Israel’s conquest of the Promised Land was one of those special occasions ordained by the Holy God who sanctifies himself and his people.
The Creator God is the God of all nations though they have all turned aside from him. He has always been at work among the nations of the earth, and he has been served by men among those nations. Consider Melchizedek (Gen. 14:18-20), the Jebusite king of Salem and priest to El Elyon who met Abraham returning from battle, received tithes from the Patriarch, and shared bread and wine in table fellowship. Also consider Jethro (Exod. 18:1-27), the father-in-law of Moses and God’s priest to the people of Midian.
However, Yahweh took for himself a special nation for special purposes and gave them special covenants, privileges, and promises. To the Israelites, God gave the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the law-giving, the liturgy, and the promises. These are from the fathers, and from them came Christ according to the flesh (Rom. 9:4-5). And God gave them a special land, the Promised Land, and along with it a special task — obliteration of a special enemy, the inhabitants of that land, the descendants of Canaan.
God instructed the Israelites in the equitable conduct of warfare with nations far away in other lands who might come against them, i.e. seeking terms for peace, respectful treatment of captives and plunder, preservation of resources (Deut. 20:1-20). However, the seven clans of the Canaanites were not to be given this general equitable treatment (Deut. 20:15-18). The citadels of Canaan and their inhabitants were under “the ban” (as some translations render it). What is this ban?
The ban (Hb. khārem) or placing a thing under the ban (Hb. khërem), as it is sometimes rendered, is the devotion of or act of devoting a thing to God. It’s otherwise expressed as devoting a thing to destruction or even simply to utterly destroy a thing. To devote a thing to God (khërem) has two aspects, though we normally only think of one aspect, i.e. the pleasant or delightful one. God gave statutes governing the devotion of things (Lev. 27:21) and the redemption or the impossibility of redemption for things devoted to God (Lev. 27:28-29). However, some devoted objects are better understood by us as being under a curse.
Devoting, cursing, or banning things (Hb. khërem) is akin to consecrating or sanctifying (Hb. qadash) things; devoted objects are akin to holy objects. But holiness has two sides as well that are not equally appreciated by us; a thing can be set apart or made holy for glorious or hideous ends. The Spirit of our glorious God is the Holy One (Hb. qōdesh), but male and female temple prostitutes (Hb. qedesh and qedeshah respectively) are holy ones as well. And just like touching a holy object confers holiness, touching a devoted object confers devotedness to the one who laid his hand upon the object, whether that is as devotion unto privilege or utter destruction.
The task of utterly destroying all that which was devoted to destruction was a special ministry assigned to Israel. Canaan fell under the ban in Deuteronomy 7:1-26. Nations that come out to oppose Israel on their journey to the Promised Land also fell under the ban, i.e. King Sihon of Heshbon, King Og of Bashan, and their people (Deut. 2:25-37; 3:1-12). The Amalekite nation was also declared the eternal enemy of God and his people (Exod. 17:8-16) and affirmed as being under the ban during the reign of King Saul (1 Sam. 15).
The enumeration of the Canaanite fortified cities that were utterly destroyed can be found in Joshua 6-11 and early in Judges — first Jericho (6:17-19), then Ai (8:1-29), and then dozens more. In the aftermath of the fall of Jericho is the case of the man Achan and his household who came under the ban for keeping some of the plunder of the city which had been devoted. He and his household were destroyed like the city was.
One additional instance of a city falling under the ban is Jabesh-Gilead in Judges 21:7-11. Of all the cities of all the tribes in Israel who came out and fought against the tribe of Benjamin in its emboldened wickedness, only Jabesh-Gilead held back and was then regarded as liable to punishment in the aftermath. Every man and every woman who had sexual relations with a man was devoted to destruction. The virgin women were offered to the surviving men of Benjamin in order to build up their tribe, because all the men of Israel except for the men of Jabesh-Gilead had sworn an oath never to give their daughters to Benjamin in marriage.
One additional and instructive reference to a city falling under the ban for destruction is found in Deuteronomy 13:12-18. If the sons of worthlessness lead the inhabitants of a city of the nation of priestly Israel into idolatry and apostasy, and if this is found to be true upon investigation, then the city’s inhabitants and livestock are to be killed, piled in a heap within the city, and burned up with fire never to be rebuilt. This is essentially the pattern seen in the utter destruction of dedicated cities with some variations. One unique detail is that the apostate city is to be burned with fire as a whole burnt offering (Hb. kaliyl). This implies that the fire used for burning up the heap of a city devoted to destruction is not just any common fire but holy fire from the altar in the court of the Tabernacle or Temple. Devoted objects under the ban are ceremonially offered up to God as sacrifices in worship.
Question: Is there a transformed version of this concept under the New Covenant?
Well, I think this concept is deeply centered in the ceremonial holiness code, so I tend to read it as largely pedagogical and typological. This is a ritual status under holy war. Now, holy war as earthly military conflict simply doesn’t exist ethically for the Church under the New Covenant. The only way in which I can see it taking a physical military form under the New Covenant is if it points to an aspect of Christ’s Second Coming “when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (2 Thess. 1:7-8). Holy war for the Church in the present age happens in our worship; it’s liturgical in nature and happens in the heavenly realms. And neither our weapons nor our opponents are flesh and blood.
I’m not inclined to make Theonomic or Reconstruction applications of this passage. I think its present relevance is distinctly ecclesiastical. A holy city of Israel apostatizing would be something like a local church doing the same. It would need to be devoted to destruction by the church at large, such as a denomination or association to which it is accountable. Thinking of the end of the ceremonial law, where would we get holy altar fire to burn an apostate church? The only thing I see resembling holy fire in the New Covenant is that which appeared on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2. The tongues of fire from the outpouring of the Holy Spirit proclaimed the Gospel in all the languages of the nations. If that’s the case, then an apostate church which is “devoted to destruction” is to be “burned” with the holy fire of the Gospel. That church is to be renounced and is to be exhorted to submit in faith and repentance to the Gospel of Christ.