Scripture: And the LORD heeded the voice of Israel and gave over the Canaanites, and they devoted them and their cities to destruction. So the name of the place was called Hormah. Numbers 21:3 ESV
Observation: The setting for this battle is the region of Arad in the Negev (located approximately twenty miles south of Hebron and twenty-five miles north of Mount Hor, where Aaron died). The impetus is Arad’s king hears that Israel, the same tribal nation that had suffered a devastating defeat forty years earlier in the neighboring territory, is approaching the northern edge of the Dead Sea in Moab. So he preemptively leads a raid on Israel and takes some captive. But this is a new generation with no personal memory of the prior devastating loss. Hence, Israel vows to the Lord that if he gives these Canaanites over to them, they will devote their enemy’s cities to destruction, following the command their elders failed to uphold.
Pleased with their intent, the Lord fulfills his end of the promise and hands this Canaanite king and his army over to Israel, who then razes Arad’s cities. Accordingly, the victors name the place Hormah (ḥormāh), a noun related to the verb ḥāram (“to devote to destruction”). But there’s more to this name than its literal meaning. The previous generation’s failed campaign against the Canaanites and Amalekites resulted in a devastating defeat. Indeed, their adversaries pursued Israel beyond the Canaanite border to an adjacent region called Hormah (see Numbers 14:45). Thus, with the reversal of fortunes, by renaming the battleground Hormah in honor of God granting them victory, they ameliorate the disgrace of their fathers.
Takeaway: It is problematic from our modern perspective of justice and mercy to reconcile why a loving God would command his people to “devote to destruction” any human life. From a historical context, Israel’s conquest aligns with Yahweh’s divine pronouncement to Abraham that his offspring will sojourn to a foreign land where they will serve their master under affliction for four hundred years. But at the appointed time, they will return to Canaan “for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete” (Genesis 15:16b ESV). Thus, as theologian Ronald Allen contends, “The cup of iniquity of the people of the land was now full; Israel was to be the instrument of the Lord’s judgment to cleanse the land of the people who had polluted it” (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Numbers).
From a theological standpoint, this is not a choice between whether God is acting just or merciful. His judgment against unrepentant nations, whether Egyptians, Canaanites, or present-day countries, is based on his character of holiness, of refusing to dwell among people of unatoned sin. Thus, our Lord demonstrates justice and mercy in bringing even his chosen people to account through the later-to-come second exile. The ultimate example, however, is the sacrifice of his only begotten Son: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21 ESV). Being “devoted to destruction,” Christ incarnated our loving Father’s justice and mercy by drinking the cup of our iniquities and thus removing the barrier of our sin so that he and the Father might dwell in us. Hallelujah!
One last thought: if we fully understood the ravishes of unchecked sin manifested in serial murders, genocides, and a holocaust, we would better understand why our loving God would command his people to destroy vessels of sin. While this is not justification for capital punishment or holy wars, we as ambassadors of Christ should very much be about the mission to transform the darkened, sin-infested corners of our world with swords of the Spirit (the Word of God), prayer, and sacrificial love, all of which invoke his justice and mercy.
Prayer: Father God, we thank you for your Son who devoted his human body to destruction to cover our sins and rescue us from ruin. Would you please help us engage in his ongoing mission to expand his kingdom to the godless stretches of our world, invoking your justice and mercy through Scripture, prayer, and sacrificial love that spark the birth of spiritual lives filled with grace? Amen.
Rev. Gordon Green, M.Div., M.A. Counseling