On Cherem and Justice I

If you’re talking about a restoration of God’s Law — as opposed to the Law grounded in the will of (certain) Men — then you will need to address the Cherem principle, one day or another.

I will be making two huge excerpts:

—<Quote Begins>—

The principle of cherem (KHE-rum) is perhaps the most significant aspect of discontinuity for our discussion. It is here, precisely, where general statements about continuity lead to many raised eye- brows: do you mean all those death penalties would be brought back? For blasphemy? For apostasy? For idolatry? For adultery? Ironically, even our best past authors have provided little direct discussion of modern application of these penalties, so this section of this book may in fact be its most important contribution.

Cherem means “devoted” in the sense of devoted wholly unto the Lord. In the instances most relevant to our discussion, it means specially devoted to destruction. To be devoted unto the Lord in this sense means to be separated from holiness of the Holy Land and immediately into God’s holy presence for judgment. This can refer to objects such as animals being devoted to the Lord for sacrifice and given to the priests as their food and inheritance, but even here the devoted animal was to be sacrificed. This means its purpose was primarily as a substitutionary recipient of God’s wrath. When in the context of a punishment for a crime against God’s holiness (idolatry, paganism, etc.), it meant to be put under the curse of immediate death. For this reason, cherem is often referred to as “the ban” or, in its verb form, as a command to “utterly destroy” or “devote to destruction” the person or objects.

Cherem is peculiar to the Old Testament administration because it functioned only in the context where God’s presence was in the physical temple/tabernacle, in the altar fire, the land itself was holy and was an agent of sanctions, and the inheritance of God’s covenant promises was through blood descent and external possession of the Holy Land. As we have seen, all of these realties have been drastically altered by the New Testament economy. The civil penalties based upon the cherem principle must be considered in this light as well.

First, where in the Old Testament do we see this cherem principle? It appears first in Exodus 22:20, although its meaning and importance are made clearer in later verses. This first instance says, “Whoever sacrifices to any god, other than the Lord alone, shall be devoted to destruction.” Here the penalty of devotion to destruction [cherem] is applied to false worship. Deuteronomy elaborates on this particular crime:

If there is found among you, within any of your towns that the LORD your God is giving you, a man or woman who does what is evil in the sight of the LORD your God, in transgressing his covenant, and has gone and served other gods and worshiped them, or the sun or the moon or any of the host of heaven, which I have forbidden, and it is told you and you hear of it, then you shall inquire diligently, and if it is true and certain that such an abomination has been done in Israel, then you shall bring out to your gates that man or woman who has done this evil thing, and you shall stone that man or woman to death with stones (Deut. 17:2–5).

If applied in New Covenant times, this law would seem to require the death penalty for merely leaving the Christian faith. A simple apostate would, under strict application of this passage, be required to die at the hands of the State. There can be no doubt this is what it meant for Old Testament Israel. Does it still abide today? We will see in a moment.

Also subject to the direct judgment as cherem were the original Canaanite tribes who were to be purged from the land. God invokes the term cherem when describing both the people and their idols (Deut. 7:2, 26) that should be utterly destroyed. He reiterates this special devotion to destruction in the laws of warfare (Deut. 20:16–18). This inclusion is very helpful specifically because it was special and not normal even for Old Testament Israel. In ordinary warfare, rules for seeking peace, allowing tribute taxes, and pro- tecting innocents apply. But in the Canaanite cities “devoted to complete destruction,” nothing and no one was to be spared. This distinction in the Mosaic law itself shows that there was a special case already operative, and temporary, for those special commands that God applied under the cherem principle: some laws were just based upon the eye-for-an-eye rule (as we shall see); others were just based upon God’s immediate judgment under cherem.

There are other instances of cherem that illustrate its distinctiveness even more clearly. Numbers 21:1–3 relate how God answered the Israelites’ prayer to place Arad, a Canaanite king, under cherem.

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.

Hormah is derived from the word cherem and thus means “devoted.” In other words, the Israelites named this conquered territory after the principle itself. It was a memorial to God’s curse upon the Canaanites and the victory wrought thereby.

Similar stories are related concerning Sihon King of Heshbon (Deut. 2:30–34) and Og King of Bashan (Deut. 3:1–6). Both instances were not normal warfare, but rather warfare against peoples who were devoted specially to destruction before the Lord. Another instance appears in the destruction of Jericho. The city and all its property were dedicated to the Lord for cherem destruction. Achan violated cherem property and Israel suffering defeat for this (Josh. 7). Achan was ritually executed for his offense. Also, Saul’s failure came in response to a special application of cherem by God upon the Amalekites (1 Sam. 15). In each case, there was a special (not normal) application of the death penalty to unbelievers or apostates.

Another important instance of cherem is found in Deuteronomy 13. This case describes the destruction of even a Hebrew city that is nevertheless led away by faithlessness or apostasy. Shall a whole city be destroyed in modern times if it follows ungodly leaders and departs from the faith?

This instance is helpful in that it further clarifies the nature of cherem “devotion.” In this case, in Old Testament Israel, a city had been led away by either false prophets or false worship (see Deut. 13:1–17). In such a case, the whole city was to be devoted and destroyed, including all the property within it. All the property was to be burned specifically “as a whole burnt offering to the Lord your God” (13:16). This detail is crucial. The “whole burnt offering” is a reference to the ordinary substitutionary sacrifice for atonement (Lev. 1:9, 13, 17). When that society had rejected the true God, however, and started to worship false gods, there remained no substitutionary sacrifice for them. The penalty that would normally fall upon the substitutionary sacrifice would now fall upon them. They themselves were therefore devoted to destruction: destroyed and burned for their apostasy.

Cherem in the New Testament

This principle is obviously continued in the New Testament, but with the change in temple, priesthood, and land administration comes a transfer of the seat of judgment from the earthly land to the heavenly throne of Christ. God’s consuming fire is no longer on earth in an altar. It was removed. Thus, the same principle of apostasy can be declared in the New Testament, but the sanction is no longer by earthly civil government, it is from the throne of Christ. In light of the change from shadow to substance (Heb. 10:1), the book of Hebrews makes this change fairly clear:

For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? (Heb. 10:26–29).

Keep in mind, the author was writing to Hebrews about the change from Old Covenant to New Covenant under Christ. The issue here would have been mass apostasy. The Hebrews who remained in unbelief after Christ would have been committing idolatry (false temple worship) and apostasy (denial that Christ had come in the flesh). Under the Mosaic administration, they would have been devoted to destruction (Ex. 22:20; Deut. 13; 17:2–5) by the civil government. The author of Hebrews acknowledges this. Yet he does not prescribe a cherem death penalty administered by the civil government. He prescribes an even worse judgment that will come from the throne of grace. This judgment fell, in history, in God’s providence, in A.D. 70, when Jerusalem was utterly destroyed in the greatest demonstration of cherem devotion to destruction ever. This was carried out by God Himself in history, not by human civil governments (although Rome was used as God’s providential agent).

With the New Covenant, therefore, the cherem principle is entirely changed. Its locus of authority has been removed from earth to heaven. God no longer calls upon the civil government to carry out cherem penalties. He still carries them out by punishing societies for idolatry and apostasy, but He does so through Christ and through the Holy Spirit.

Why this change? The discontinuity encountered in regards to the cherem principle is directly related to the difference in nature of the Old Covenant compared to the New. Just read God’s basic description of the change:

For he finds fault with them when he says: “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel
and with the house of Judah,
not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt.
For they did not continue in my covenant,
and so I showed no concern for them, declares the Lord.
For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel
after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts,
and I will be their God,
and they shall be my people.

And they shall not teach, each one his neighbor and each one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest.

For I will be merciful toward their iniquities,
and I will remember their sins no more”
(Heb. 8:8–12; cp. Jer. 31:31–34; Heb. 10:15–18).

The New Covenant is said specifically to be “not like” the Old. We know there are many differences already, but what is the fundamental difference in view here? The law continues, as we have noted already, but it is now written on the minds and hearts of God’s people, not merely on stones and books. It is that the New Covenant is administered by the Spirit, from heaven, not from the letter on earth. It is also marked by permanence: whereas the Israelites broke the Old Covenant and God cast them away for it, this New Covenant is wrought by God Himself in our hearts and cannot be broken. It is also marked by general forgiveness as opposed to the call for immediate cherem death.

Paul discusses the difference in precisely these terms:

And you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such glory that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses’ face because of its glory, which was being brought to an end, will not the ministry of the Spirit have even more glory? For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, the ministry of righteousness must far exceed it in glory (2 Cor. 3:3–10).

This is hardly to say that the law in its entirety is brought to an end, but to show the difference in the nature of the two covenants and their administrations. The first was a ministry of the letter and death, the latter a ministry of the Spirit and life.

Finally, we see this difference manifested in how the New Testament applies the principle of cherem. We have already seen it transferred from earth to heaven in Hebrews 10:26–29. We see the same elsewhere as well. The word to look for is anathema. This is the Greek word used to translate the Hebrew word cherem in the Greek version of the Old Testament. Most of the passages we have covered use this word in the Greek version (Lev. 27:28; Num. 21:3; Deut. 7:28; 13:16; 20:17; Josh. 7). Where it appears in the New Testament, we should consider its equivalence. Sure enough, where it appears, it generally refers to religious sanction (Rom. 9:3; 1 Cor. 12:3; 16:22; Gal. 1:8–9). Consider these two examples that relate directly to the First Table of the law:

If anyone has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed [anathema] (1 Cor. 16:22).

But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed [anathema]. As we have said before, so now I say again: If any- one is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed [anathema] (Gal. 1:8–9).

It is clear that Paul is still applying the cherem/anathema principle in relation to First Table offenses, but the only sanction here is ecclesiastical. This in itself does not prove that the civil penalties no longer apply, but when taken together with the lessons from Hebrews, the change in the nature of administration of the covenants, and the transfer of temple/priesthood/land to Christ in heaven, it is illustrative.

Which laws does cherem cover?

It is my conclusion that civil governments no longer have authority to apply cherem punishments in the New Covenant. So, which laws does this cover? In general, these are all First Table offenses: false worship, apostasy, idolatry (Ex. 22:20; Deut. 13; 17:2–5). Further, there can no longer be any concept of holy war (Deut. 20:16–18), but the general laws of warfare abide.

The cherem principle indicates that certain other death pen- alties related to the First Table would also no longer apply. It would include laws relating directly to inheritance in the land, even when it crosses into family matters. This is why, for example, the death penalty was required for incorrigible sons (Deut. 21:18–21). (While not traditionally considered so, the Fifth Commandment is part of the First Table. It is a general principle but was also directly tied to inheritance in the land.) Under Old Testament law, a son would inherit the land by mandate, not by choice of the parents. A rebellious, incorrigible son was therefore a threat. His wicked influence and legacy was to be permanently purged “from your midst” (21:21). (Note that this law is not said to apply to daughters, who could be just as wicked and rebellious, and just as incorrigible, yet could inherit the land only in rare circumstances). While the word cherem is not used here, the principle is the same. The evil son was devoted to destruction to prevent the Holy Land and Holy people from being defiled.

In the New Testament, the land/seed/inheritance principles are all superseded. While a general principle against incorrigibility in regard to crime may still stand, the need to execute rebellious sons in this way is. In the New Covenant, the parents can by decision simply disinherit him, shun him, and leave him to God’s judgment.

—<Quote ends>—

There’s a LOT more going on here, lots of good stuff that I snipped.

Serious Christians desire to have Divine justice direct our hearts, our neighbourhoods, and (in time) our public justice system. As opposed to the culturally and financially and personally destructive policies of short-sighted desires of powerful men with silver tongues.

To preach this part of the Gospel, the defining terms of the righteousness and justice of God that is to cover the world, we Christians must master the details of the Law of God, and master the basic theory needed to know what applies today, and what does not, get the book, and read it for yourself.

And after mastering the core principles — including WHY the cherem principles (a.k.a. the first table of the Ten Commandments) are not to be enforced by the public magistrate today — then, we must apply the principles of God’s Law: first in our own hearts and lives, then in our families and churches, then in our businesses and neighbourhoods and counties, and finally at the national level of public policy.

Not murderous revolution. Not pious oppression.

Compassion, truth, righteousness, mercy, and justice for all, led by preaching and personal example.

That’s how God’s work will get done.

Again, the book is:

The Bonds of Love

1 thought on “On Cherem and Justice I

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.