This is part of the ongoing Forest Hills Israel Holy Wars series. The rest of the content can be found here: https://www.sefaria.org/groups/FHJC-Holy-Wars .
Today we are going to start tracing through the Torah's use of the term herem, a word which is oftentimes at the heart of the passages of violence that we tend to struggle with.
Personally, I have learned much from an incredibly thorough and comprehensive article written by Daniel J. Castellano, called Cherem: The Israelite Wars of Destruction (2012).
(The article can be found here: https://www.arcaneknowledge.org/catholic/cherem.htm#ch2 )
In the second part of his article, called Ethical Evaluation, he states the following:
The condemnation of all acts of charam as intrinsically evil is a rash judgment, imposing principles developed from modern social conditions onto a time when the conditions for national survival were radically different... This will be made clear by analyzing the acts in question according to their historical context.
Before start digging into some of his analysis, we first have to see herem in its different contexts in Torah. We have already seen it a couple of times. Let's first revisit those passages; I will leave the term herem untranslated, and we we will continuously try to come up with the most fitting translation.
Given the context, what do you think would be the most appropriate English word to use for herem here?
Let's now turn to a very different context; YHWH detailing the privileges of being part of his custodian-priestly families.
As we read, let's try to approach this passage with a clean slate in our mind about herem, as if we have not yet seen it in Deuteronomy.
What do you think? How would you translate herem here?
Unsurprisingly, the passage above comes from the Priestly source-material (P) of the Torah. Let's see how else P makes use of this term:
How is P using the term here? Similarly to what we saw in Numbers above?
What's really interesting is what happens in the immediately following verse.
(Brace yourselves for this one!)
What does this sound like to you?
If in light of its context you find yourself thinking human sacrifice, I would have to agree with you; it does sound a bit like that, doesn't it?
The Jewish Study Bible Commentary is not going to help us with this. In fact, it makes it worse!
The text shockingly says that one may sentence oneself, one's slave, or a household member under one's authority to death as a consecration to the Lord, and once this is done there is no reprieve or remedy. Commentators have interpreted the text differently, but there is little basis for this.
Here are a few examples of those "other commentators that the JSB might be referring to:
HarperCollins Study Bible: [Cherem persons] - probably prisoners of war resulting from cherem vows taken against an enemy - must be destroyed.
Ultimate Cross-Reference Treasury: That is, either that every person devoted to the service of God shall not be redeemed, but die in that devoted state, or, that such as were devoted to death by the appointment and law of God, as the Canaanites were, shall be put to death.
Does this remind you of anything else in the TaNaKh you have ever heard of, our encountered?
Let's turn for a moment to the collection of legends written about the pre-monarchic tribal heroes, to another story that we have a very hard time with.
This is certainly on the list of the most tragic stories in the work in the TaNaKh, and it evidently had a major impact on the Israelites when it happened; Hence the yearly custom of continuing to mourn.
Here is a comment from the CollegePress Bible Commentary (1969):
It is most important for the Bible student to dig deeply into the text at this point. Many ramifications of the situation are seen immediately. A question rises in the Bible student’s mind as he asks himself if it is possible for a man like Jephthah to have in mind the making of a human sacrifice. Then consideration must be given to the possibility of God’s giving victory to a man who has such a sordid and cruel concept of sacrifice. The Bible does not say expressly that Jephthah sacrificed his daughter; it simply says that he did with her according to his vow (Jdg_11:39). The language of the vow is double in implication. Jephthah says whatever comes out will be the Lord’s and he will offer it as a burnt offering. It would be possible for him to offer his daughter in perpetual service to the Lord, and that would be essentially the same as making a burnt offering. If he did have in mind the possibility of his offering a sacrifice, some students of the text indicate the conjunction and might be also translated or. Then the vow would indicate whatever came out would be the Lord’s if it were human; or if it were animal, he would offer it as a burnt offering.
What do you think of this comment? Do you buy it? In thinking on it, look back at verse 40 above.
Here's a question one might ask; If indeed there is so much to mourn here; Why did Jephthah have to go through with it? Could he not have gotten out of it somehow?
As we think about this question, there is yet another source which we have already seen which is worth placing in dialogue with our current readings. Remember the seemingly never-ending war with the Moabites?
Okay, now let's start working our way backwards, for we have quite a bit of material to retrace to get back to our greater discussion. Neither this story of the Moabite war, nor the story of Jepthah above use the word harem. However, what might they tell us about Leviticus 27 above?
Here some more questions worth thinking about regarding the Priestly sources (Leviticus 27 and Numbers 18):
- What is the best way to translate herem in P? And is there a translation which consistently work in the P-source?
- How does the translation compare to how we wanted to translate it in Deuteronomy?
- Is there an underlying common denominator between all of the uses so far (i.e., both Deuteronomy and the Priestly sources)?
(below: we can probably use some comedic relief)
With that, let's move back to Numbers, the book which tells of the 40-years' worth of wandering.
This was a time period fraught with violent conflict with basically all of the tribes and kingdoms that the Israelites encountered.
Chapter 21 tells of one such moment:
This passage begs a closer reading then people usually give it. There is an important contrast in the first two verses. What is the difference between the Canaanites and the Israelites? Who is more "righteous" in the eyes of the narrator? How can we tell?
The usage of herem here is very much related to some of what we've already seen in Deuteronomy 7 and 20. We will now look at yet another passage in Deuteronomy where this word appears, in which Moses is portrayed as looking backwards, summarizing some of what was experienced during the wilderness wanderings:
This is most definitely the kind of passage that I had in mind when thinking about texts that shock and disturb. And yet somehow, it seems that Moses is speaking of this proudly. How can there be something here which he finds admirable?
Does reading this in light of Numbers help us understand what the author might have had in mind? And how does this relate to our ongoing question about translations and common denominators?
In addition to Deuteronomy 7 and 20, we have seen another work which uses the term herem.
Does this look familiar ? :
Our Mesha Stele is back!
Lines 14-18 say the following:
And Kemosh said to me "Go! Seize Nebo against Israel!" So I proceeded hy night and fought with it from the crack of dawn to midday, and I took it and slew all of them: seven thousand men and boys, and women and gi[rls] and maidens because I heremed it to Ashtar Kemosh. I took the vessels of YHWH and I dragged them before Kemosh.
Interesting! How is herem being used in the Mesha Stele? Similarly to how we've seen it?
If thing are complicated, well they will get worse when we turn back to Deuteronomy 7, which is where we began, but to a passage that we have not yet seen:
Without any other meanings of herem we have suggested in mind, how would you translate it here? Is this related to the usages we have seen before? How so?
Next session we will read some of what Daniel J. Castellano has written about some of the above passages, in which he tries to bring us into the heads of the peoples living in the ancient near east to understand how and why this all fits together, and how the ancient Israelite authors could have spoken so casually about things that jar us to our very core.