The "ban" (Heb. cherem) refers to God's command to the Israelites to exterminate 7 tribes living in the land of Canaan (Deuteronomy 7:1,2).
There are several moral problems raised by the "ban." The Christian worker should be able to defend this area of biblical revelation (1 Peter 3:15).
What was the main reason for the "ban"?
The main reason for the "ban" was not that God was "playing favorites" with Israel. Although God had promised to give the land of Canaan to the nation of Israel (Genesis 12:1,7), and although he was using Israel as his means of judgment (rather than a flood or fire and brimstone), he makes it very clear that the primary reason for the "ban" was to execute his judgment on the Canaanites.
Genesis 15:16 says that God would delay giving the land to Israel for four hundred years "because the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete." Only when the Canaanite reached a point of utter depravity would he remove them from the land.
In Deuteronomy 9:4-6, God reminds the Israelites that he is giving them the land not because of their righteousness, but because the Canaanites have forfeited it because of their wickedness.
Furthermore, the term "ban" means "devoted" to God. Because the Canaanite culture was "devoted" to God's destruction, the Israelites were not permitted to take any booty (Joshua 6:17). This was another way in which God emphasized that the conquest was primarily his judgment on the Canaanite nations.
Is God's judgment valid?
It must be acknowledged that God has the right to judge sinful people at any time. There can be no objection that this is "unjust" because we forfeit all claim to the positive aspects of God's justice the first time we sin. From that point on, the only way God's judgment can operate toward us is in retribution.
Nevertheless, God is "slow to anger" (Exodus 34:6,7; Psalm 103:8). As Genesis 15:16 implies, God waits until a nation or group has become "full" of iniquity before he judges them. By the time of the conquest of Canaan, God had already twice demonstrated this willingness to wait before he judged.
NOTE: Sodom and Gomorra were populated by Canaanite peoples. Since this event occurred in 2000 BC, the residents of the land had warning 600 years before the "ban" was executed that God would judge such depravity. But instead of heeding this warning, they went on into depravity.
Genesis 6:3,5-8 - God waited until all of humanity (besides Noah and his family) had reached a point of utter depravity. He then moved to spare Noah's family (and the rest of future humanity) through the judgment of the Flood.
Genesis 18:17-33 - God stated that he would spare the whole city of Sodom for the sake of ten who were not utterly depraved. Even when ten could not be found, he still spared Lot's family before judging Sodom and Gomorra.
God also indicates that he is willing to relent of his plan to judge a nation if they respond to His warning by repenting (Jeremiah 18:7,8). He demonstrated this willingness in his dealings with Nineveh (Jonah 3:4-10). Because of this, we can be sure that if the Canaanite peoples had repented, God would have spared them.
Like a surgeon who performs an amputation, God waits until all hope of recovery is gone, and then removes the limb so that the rest of the body may live. Only when all hope of repentance is gone does God step in to judge, and even then he does so out of mercy for the rest who remain alive.
In view of God's stated reluctance to judge, and in view of his past demonstration of that reluctance before the Flood and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorra, we can sure that God waited until the Canaanite nations had passed the point of no return before he judged them.
Evidence of the level of their corruption is found in Leviticus 18, where God forbids the nation of Israel to practice the lifestyle of the Canaanite nations. The activities mentioned include incest, bestiality and child sacrifice. Deut. 18:9-13 states that the Canaanite peoples were also immersed in demonic occultism. Archeological verification of these things has also been discovered.
Why did God exterminate women, children & animals?
The Western concept of the "chivalric code," in which only soldiers fight and die in warfare, is both recent and unbiblical. If God is judging a nation because of its wickedness, then the women are equally under God's judgment because of their involvement in sexual sins, child sacrifice and occultism.
The children's death is a problem primarily to the person who sees this life as the only life one has. Since God saves the child who dies before the "age of accountability" (see 2 Samuel 12:23), and since the children raised in such a depraved culture would probably join in that depravity, many children my have actually been rescued from eternal death.
NOTE: It is important not to extrapolate this principle to our own day and argue that it is better for children to be aborted. God alone reserves the prerogative to make such decisions.
The animals were killed and the property was burned so that Israel could not profit materially from the conquest (see above). Furthermore, some of the inanimate property could be potentially defiling since it communicated the values of a corrupt culture (Joshua 6:18).
Additional points to remember
The "ban" was also applied to Israel in their dealings with the Canaanite peoples. That is, Israel came under the "ban" if they refused to carry out the "ban" or if they committed the same sins as the nations under the "ban".
When Achan violated the "ban" at the conquest of Jericho, God ordered the destruction of him and his household (Joshua 6:18;7:1,11-26).
When Saul violated the "ban" of the Amalekites, God removed him from kingship (1 Samuel 15).
Whoever committed the sins of the Canaanites fell under the "ban" (Leviticus 18:29).
Because Israel did not fully remove the Canaanite nations from the land (Joshua 15:63; 16:10; 17:12,13), they became defiled by them as God had warned and had to be removed from the land themselves (Leviticus 18:24-28; 20:22; Deuteronomy 7:4,25; Joshua 23:13).
The "ban" applied only to the seven Canaanite nations. The other nations occupying the land were offered terms of surrender if they did not resist conquest (Deuteronomy 20:10-18). This further confirms the fact that God was not engaged in a genocidal conquest of the land simply to give the Israelites the land. These other nations' iniquity had not yet become "full", and therefore were not under God's judgment in the same way.
God forbade mistreatment of these surrendered peoples. In Deuteronomy 21:10ff, he forbids selling their women as concubines; they must either marry them or set them free.
In subsequent wars, God empowered Israel only to repel attacks on their land. They were not permitted to expand their territory, only to defend it. Throughout the Old Testament, there is a strong prophetic voice against war for expansion or exploitation (Isaiah 10:12-19; Amos 1:11,13).
Archer, Gleason. A Survey of Old Testament Introduction. Chicago: Moody Press, 1964, pp. 279-280.
Bruce, W. S. The Ethics of the Old Testament. Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1895, pp. 259-266.
Iwasko, Ronald A. "God of War". Christianity for the Tough-Minded, edited by J. W. Montgomery. Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship Inc., 1973, pp. 99-107.
Kaiser, Walter C. Toward an Old Testament Ethics. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Press.
Schaeffer, Francis A. Joshua and the Flow of Biblical History. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1975, pp. 65-70.
Wenham, John W. The Goodness of God. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1974, pp. 117-147.