Question: "What did it mean to be devoted to destruction?"
Answer: In Exodus 22:20, God commands, “Whoever sacrifices to any god, other than the Lord alone, shall be devoted to destruction” (ESV).
The Hebrew word used here is charam, meaning “to curse, annihilate, or destroy.” The literal interpretation is that the Hebrew person who sacrificed to another god was to be put to death. Idolaters received capital punishment.
The use the phrase “devoted to destruction” elsewhere in the Old Testament confirms this understanding. In Number 21:3 we read, “And the Lord heeded the voice of Israel and gave over the Canaanites, and they devoted them and their cities to destruction” (ESV). The NIV translates it as, “They completely destroyed them and their towns.” The idea of being devoted to destruction included destroying these cities.
In Deuteronomy 2:34 we read a review of Israel’s time in the wilderness. The narrative includes, “And we captured all his cities at that time and devoted to destruction every city, men, women, and children. We left no survivors” (ESV). In this case, “devoted to destruction” clearly indicates death. Deuteronomy 3:6 offers a similar use of this phrase: “And we devoted them to destruction, as we did to Sihon the king of Heshbon” (ESV); Sihon was a king they had previously put to death.
In Joshua 6:17, Jericho was devoted to destruction. We read, “And the city and all that is within it shall be devoted to the Lord for destruction” (ESV). In Joshua 10:28 the same fate befalls the city of Makkedah.
Exodus 22:20 reveals that the punishment for Jews who sacrificed to any god other than Jehovah was that they be put to death under the Mosaic Law. However, in the time of the judges and the pre-captivity kingdom, idol worship among the Jews was a perennial problem. God had made it clear that idolatry was worthy of death. Yet many wicked people and leaders through Israel’s history resorted to open idol worship in ways that brought God’s judgment upon them from other nations.
The enforcement of this command can be found in 1 Kings 18. In this account, Elijah challenged King Ahab’s 400 prophets of Baal to call down fire from heaven. The God who answered would be the true God. When the Lord God answered, Elijah commanded, “‘Seize the prophets of Baal. Don’t let anyone get away!’ They seized them, and Elijah had them brought down to the Kishon Valley and slaughtered there” (1 Kings 18:40).
This command notes God’s displeasure with the worship of other gods. He presents Himself as the one God who calls every person to worship Him and to believe in His Son Jesus for eternal life (John 3:16).
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