This is part of the ongoing Forest Hills Israel Holy Wars series. The rest of the content can be found here: .

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: )

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.

(א) כִּ֤י יְבִֽיאֲךָ֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֕רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־אַתָּ֥ה בָא־שָׁ֖מָּה לְרִשְׁתָּ֑הּ וְנָשַׁ֣ל גּֽוֹיִם־רַבִּ֣ים ׀ מִפָּנֶ֡יךָ הַֽחִתִּי֩ וְהַגִּרְגָּשִׁ֨י וְהָאֱמֹרִ֜י וְהַכְּנַעֲנִ֣י וְהַפְּרִזִּ֗י וְהַֽחִוִּי֙ וְהַיְבוּסִ֔י שִׁבְעָ֣ה גוֹיִ֔ם רַבִּ֥ים וַעֲצוּמִ֖ים מִמֶּֽךָּ׃ (ב) וּנְתָנָ֞ם יְהוָ֧ה אֱלֹהֶ֛יךָ לְפָנֶ֖יךָ וְהִכִּיתָ֑ם הַחֲרֵ֤ם תַּחֲרִים֙ אֹתָ֔ם לֹא־תִכְרֹ֥ת לָהֶ֛ם בְּרִ֖ית וְלֹ֥א תְחָנֵּֽם׃ (ג) וְלֹ֥א תִתְחַתֵּ֖ן בָּ֑ם בִּתְּךָ֙ לֹא־תִתֵּ֣ן לִבְנ֔וֹ וּבִתּ֖וֹ לֹא־תִקַּ֥ח לִבְנֶֽךָ׃

(1) When YHWH your elohim brings you to the land that you are about to enter and possess, and he dislodges many nations before you—the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites, seven nations much larger than you— (2) and YHWH your elohim delivers them to you and you defeat them, you must utterly herem them: grant them no terms and give them no quarter. (3) You shall not intermarry with them: do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons.

And similarly:

(טז) רַ֗ק מֵעָרֵ֤י הָֽעַמִּים֙ הָאֵ֔לֶּה אֲשֶׁר֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לְךָ֖ נַחֲלָ֑ה לֹ֥א תְחַיֶּ֖ה כָּל־נְשָׁמָֽה׃ (יז) כִּֽי־הַחֲרֵ֣ם תַּחֲרִימֵ֗ם הַחִתִּ֤י וְהָאֱמֹרִי֙ הַכְּנַעֲנִ֣י וְהַפְּרִזִּ֔י הַחִוִּ֖י וְהַיְבוּסִ֑י כַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר צִוְּךָ֖ יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶֽיךָ׃ (יח) לְמַ֗עַן אֲשֶׁ֨ר לֹֽא־יְלַמְּד֤וּ אֶתְכֶם֙ לַעֲשׂ֔וֹת כְּכֹל֙ תּֽוֹעֲבֹתָ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֥ר עָשׂ֖וּ לֵֽאלֹהֵיהֶ֑ם וַחֲטָאתֶ֖ם לַיהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃ (ס)

(16) In the towns of the latter peoples, however, which YHWH your elohim is giving you as a heritage, you shall not let a soul remain alive. (17) No, you must utterly herem them—the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites—as YHWH your elohim has commanded you, (18) lest they lead you into doing all the abhorrent things that they have done for their gods and you stand guilty before YHWH your elohim.

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.

(ח) וַיְדַבֵּ֣ר יְהוָה֮ אֶֽל־אַהֲרֹן֒ וַאֲנִי֙ הִנֵּ֣ה נָתַ֣תִּֽי לְךָ֔ אֶת־מִשְׁמֶ֖רֶת תְּרוּמֹתָ֑י לְכָל־קָדְשֵׁ֣י בְנֵֽי־יִ֠שְׂרָאֵל לְךָ֨ נְתַתִּ֧ים לְמָשְׁחָ֛ה וּלְבָנֶ֖יךָ לְחָק־עוֹלָֽם׃ (ט) זֶֽה־יִהְיֶ֥ה לְךָ֛ מִקֹּ֥דֶשׁ הַקֳּדָשִׁ֖ים מִן־הָאֵ֑שׁ כָּל־קָ֠רְבָּנָם לְֽכָל־מִנְחָתָ֞ם וּלְכָל־חַטָּאתָ֗ם וּלְכָל־אֲשָׁמָם֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר יָשִׁ֣יבוּ לִ֔י קֹ֣דֶשׁ קָֽדָשִׁ֥ים לְךָ֛ ה֖וּא וּלְבָנֶֽיךָ׃ (י) בְּקֹ֥דֶשׁ הַקֳּדָשִׁ֖ים תֹּאכֲלֶ֑נּוּ כָּל־זָכָר֙ יֹאכַ֣ל אֹת֔וֹ קֹ֖דֶשׁ יִֽהְיֶה־לָּֽךְ׃ (יא) וְזֶה־לְּךָ֞ תְּרוּמַ֣ת מַתָּנָ֗ם לְכָל־תְּנוּפֹת֮ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵל֒ לְךָ֣ נְתַתִּ֗ים וּלְבָנֶ֧יךָ וְלִבְנֹתֶ֛יךָ אִתְּךָ֖ לְחָק־עוֹלָ֑ם כָּל־טָה֥וֹר בְּבֵיתְךָ֖ יֹאכַ֥ל אֹתֽוֹ׃ (יב) כֹּ֚ל חֵ֣לֶב יִצְהָ֔ר וְכָל־חֵ֖לֶב תִּיר֣וֹשׁ וְדָגָ֑ן רֵאשִׁיתָ֛ם אֲשֶׁר־יִתְּנ֥וּ לַֽיהוָ֖ה לְךָ֥ נְתַתִּֽים׃ (יג) בִּכּוּרֵ֞י כָּל־אֲשֶׁ֧ר בְּאַרְצָ֛ם אֲשֶׁר־יָבִ֥יאוּ לַיהוָ֖ה לְךָ֣ יִהְיֶ֑ה כָּל־טָה֥וֹר בְּבֵיתְךָ֖ יֹאכֲלֶֽנּוּ׃ (יד) כָּל־חֵ֥רֶם בְּיִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל לְךָ֥ יִהְיֶֽה׃

(14) Everything that has been herem in Israel shall be yours.(15) The first issue of the womb of every being, man or beast, that is offered to YHWH, shall be yours; but you shall have the first-born of man redeemed, and you shall also have the firstling of unclean animals redeemed. (16) Take as their redemption price, from the age of one month up, the money equivalent of five shekels by the sanctuary weight, which is twenty gerahs. (17) But the firstlings of cattle, sheep, or goats may not be redeemed; they are consecrated. You shall dash their blood against the altar, and turn their fat into smoke as an offering by fire for a pleasing odor to YHWH. (18) But their meat shall be yours: it shall be yours like the breast of elevation offering and like the right thigh. (19) All the sacred gifts that the Israelites set aside for YHWH I give to you, to your sons, and to the daughters that are with you, as a due for all time. It shall be an everlasting covenant of salt before YHWH for you and for your offspring as well.

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:

(כו) אַךְ־בְּכ֞וֹר אֲשֶׁר־יְבֻכַּ֤ר לַֽיהוָה֙ בִּבְהֵמָ֔ה לֹֽא־יַקְדִּ֥ישׁ אִ֖ישׁ אֹת֑וֹ אִם־שׁ֣וֹר אִם־שֶׂ֔ה לַֽיהוָ֖ה הֽוּא׃ (כז) וְאִ֨ם בַּבְּהֵמָ֤ה הַטְּמֵאָה֙ וּפָדָ֣ה בְעֶרְכֶּ֔ךָ וְיָסַ֥ף חֲמִשִׁת֖וֹ עָלָ֑יו וְאִם־לֹ֥א יִגָּאֵ֖ל וְנִמְכַּ֥ר בְּעֶרְכֶּֽךָ׃ (כח) אַךְ־כָּל־חֵ֡רֶם אֲשֶׁ֣ר יַחֲרִם֩ אִ֨ישׁ לַֽיהוָ֜ה מִכָּל־אֲשֶׁר־ל֗וֹ מֵאָדָ֤ם וּבְהֵמָה֙ וּמִשְּׂדֵ֣ה אֲחֻזָּת֔וֹ לֹ֥א יִמָּכֵ֖ר וְלֹ֣א יִגָּאֵ֑ל כָּל־חֵ֕רֶם קֹֽדֶשׁ־קָֽדָשִׁ֥ים ה֖וּא לַיהוָֽה׃ (כט) כָּל־חֵ֗רֶם אֲשֶׁ֧ר יָחֳרַ֛ם מִן־הָאָדָ֖ם לֹ֣א יִפָּדֶ֑ה מ֖וֹת יוּמָֽת׃ (ל) וְכָל־מַעְשַׂ֨ר הָאָ֜רֶץ מִזֶּ֤רַע הָאָ֙רֶץ֙ מִפְּרִ֣י הָעֵ֔ץ לַיהוָ֖ה ה֑וּא קֹ֖דֶשׁ לַֽיהוָֽה׃

(26) A firstling of animals, however, which—as a firstling—is YHWH's, cannot be consecrated by anybody; whether ox or sheep, it is YHWH’s. (27) But if it is of unclean animals, it may be ransomed as its assessment, with one-fifth added; if it is not redeemed, it shall be sold at its assessment. (28) But of all that anyone owns, be it man or beast or land of his holding, nothing that he has made herem for YHWH may be sold or redeemed; every herem is totally consecrated to YHWH.

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!)

(כט) כָּל־חֵ֗רֶם אֲשֶׁ֧ר יָחֳרַ֛ם מִן־הָאָדָ֖ם לֹ֣א יִפָּדֶ֑ה מ֖וֹת יוּמָֽת׃

(29) No human being who has been made herem can be ransomed: he shall be put to death.

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.

A Hasty vow

(ד) וַיְהִ֖י מִיָּמִ֑ים וַיִּלָּחֲמ֥וּ בְנֵֽי־עַמּ֖וֹן עִם־יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃ (ה) וַיְהִ֕י כַּאֲשֶׁר־נִלְחֲמ֥וּ בְנֵֽי־עַמּ֖וֹן עִם־יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וַיֵּֽלְכוּ֙ זִקְנֵ֣י גִלְעָ֔ד לָקַ֥חַת אֶת־יִפְתָּ֖ח מֵאֶ֥רֶץ טֽוֹב׃ (ו) וַיֹּאמְר֣וּ לְיִפְתָּ֔ח לְכָ֕ה וְהָיִ֥יתָה לָּ֖נוּ לְקָצִ֑ין וְנִֽלָּחֲמָ֖ה בִּבְנֵ֥י עַמּֽוֹן׃


(כט) וַתְּהִ֤י עַל־יִפְתָּח֙ ר֣וּחַ יְהוָ֔ה וַיַּעֲבֹ֥ר אֶת־הַגִּלְעָ֖ד וְאֶת־מְנַשֶּׁ֑ה וַֽיַּעֲבֹר֙ אֶת־מִצְפֵּ֣ה גִלְעָ֔ד וּמִמִּצְפֵּ֣ה גִלְעָ֔ד עָבַ֖ר בְּנֵ֥י עַמּֽוֹן׃ (ל) וַיִּדַּ֨ר יִפְתָּ֥ח נֶ֛דֶר לַיהוָ֖ה וַיֹּאמַ֑ר אִם־נָת֥וֹן תִּתֵּ֛ן אֶת־בְּנֵ֥י עַמּ֖וֹן בְּיָדִֽי׃ (לא) וְהָיָ֣ה הַיּוֹצֵ֗א אֲשֶׁ֨ר יֵצֵ֜א מִדַּלְתֵ֤י בֵיתִי֙ לִקְרָאתִ֔י בְּשׁוּבִ֥י בְשָׁל֖וֹם מִבְּנֵ֣י עַמּ֑וֹן וְהָיָה֙ לַֽיהוָ֔ה וְהַעֲלִיתִ֖הוּ עוֹלָֽה׃ (פ) (לב) וַיַּעֲבֹ֥ר יִפְתָּ֛ח אֶל־בְּנֵ֥י עַמּ֖וֹן לְהִלָּ֣חֶם בָּ֑ם וַיִתְּנֵ֥ם יְהוָ֖ה בְּיָדֽוֹ׃ (לג) וַיַּכֵּ֡ם מֵעֲרוֹעֵר֩ וְעַד־בּוֹאֲךָ֨ מִנִּ֜ית עֶשְׂרִ֣ים עִ֗יר וְעַד֙ אָבֵ֣ל כְּרָמִ֔ים מַכָּ֖ה גְּדוֹלָ֣ה מְאֹ֑ד וַיִּכָּֽנְעוּ֙ בְּנֵ֣י עַמּ֔וֹן מִפְּנֵ֖י בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃ (פ) (לד) וַיָּבֹ֨א יִפְתָּ֣ח הַמִּצְפָּה֮ אֶל־בֵּיתוֹ֒ וְהִנֵּ֤ה בִתּוֹ֙ יֹצֵ֣את לִקְרָאת֔וֹ בְתֻפִּ֖ים וּבִמְחֹל֑וֹת וְרַק֙ הִ֣יא יְחִידָ֔ה אֵֽין־ל֥וֹ מִמֶּ֛נּוּ בֵּ֖ן אוֹ־בַֽת׃ (לה) וַיְהִי֩ כִרְאוֹת֨וֹ אוֹתָ֜הּ וַיִּקְרַ֣ע אֶת־בְּגָדָ֗יו וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ אֲהָ֤הּ בִּתִּי֙ הַכְרֵ֣עַ הִכְרַעְתִּ֔נִי וְאַ֖תְּ הָיִ֣יתְ בְּעֹֽכְרָ֑י וְאָנֹכִ֗י פָּצִ֤יתִי־פִי֙ אֶל־יְהוָ֔ה וְלֹ֥א אוּכַ֖ל לָשֽׁוּב׃ (לו) וַתֹּ֣אמֶר אֵלָ֗יו אָבִי֙ פָּצִ֤יתָה אֶת־פִּ֙יךָ֙ אֶל־יְהוָ֔ה עֲשֵׂ֣ה לִ֔י כַּאֲשֶׁ֖ר יָצָ֣א מִפִּ֑יךָ אַחֲרֵ֡י אֲשֶׁ֣ר עָשָׂה֩ לְךָ֙ יְהוָ֧ה נְקָמ֛וֹת מֵאֹיְבֶ֖יךָ מִבְּנֵ֥י עַמּֽוֹן׃ (לז) וַתֹּ֙אמֶר֙ אֶל־אָבִ֔יהָ יֵעָ֥שֶׂה לִּ֖י הַדָּבָ֣ר הַזֶּ֑ה הַרְפֵּ֨ה מִמֶּ֜נִּי שְׁנַ֣יִם חֳדָשִׁ֗ים וְאֵֽלְכָה֙ וְיָרַדְתִּ֣י עַל־הֶֽהָרִ֔ים וְאֶבְכֶּה֙ עַל־בְּתוּלַ֔י אָנֹכִ֖י ורעיתי [וְרֵעוֹתָֽי׃] (לח) וַיֹּ֣אמֶר לֵ֔כִי וַיִּשְׁלַ֥ח אוֹתָ֖הּ שְׁנֵ֣י חֳדָשִׁ֑ים וַתֵּ֤לֶךְ הִיא֙ וְרֵ֣עוֹתֶ֔יהָ וַתֵּ֥בְךְּ עַל־בְּתוּלֶ֖יהָ עַל־הֶהָרִֽים׃ (לט) וַיְהִ֞י מִקֵּ֣ץ ׀ שְׁנַ֣יִם חֳדָשִׁ֗ים וַתָּ֙שָׁב֙ אֶל־אָבִ֔יהָ וַיַּ֣עַשׂ לָ֔הּ אֶת־נִדְר֖וֹ אֲשֶׁ֣ר נָדָ֑ר וְהִיא֙ לֹא־יָדְעָ֣ה אִ֔ישׁ וַתְּהִי־חֹ֖ק בְּיִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃ (מ) מִיָּמִ֣ים ׀ יָמִ֗ימָה תֵּלַ֙כְנָה֙ בְּנ֣וֹת יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל לְתַנּ֕וֹת לְבַת־יִפְתָּ֖ח הַגִּלְעָדִ֑י אַרְבַּ֥עַת יָמִ֖ים בַּשָּׁנָֽה׃ (ס)

(4) Some time later, the Ammonites went to war against Israel. (5) And when the Ammonites attacked Israel, the elders of Gilead went to bring Jephthah back from the Tob country. (6) They said to Jephthah, “Come be our chief, so that we can fight the Ammonites.”


(29) Then the spirit of YHWH came upon Jephthah. He marched through Gilead and Manasseh, passing Mizpeh of Gilead; and from Mizpeh of Gilead he crossed over [to] the Ammonites. (30) And Jephthah made the following vow to YHWH: “If you deliver the Ammonites into my hands, (31) then whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me on my safe return from the Ammonites shall be YHWH and shall be offered by me as a burnt offering.” (32) Jephthah crossed over to the Ammonites and attacked them, and YHWH delivered them into his hands. 33) He utterly routed them—from Aroer as far as Minnith, twenty towns—all the way to Abel-cheramim. So the Ammonites submitted to the Israelites.

(34) When Jephthah arrived at his home in Mizpah, there was his daughter coming out to meet him, with timbrel and dance! She was an only child; he had no other son or daughter. (35) On seeing her, he rent his clothes and said, “Alas, daughter! You have brought me low; you have become my troubler! For I have uttered a vow to YHWH and I cannot retract.”

(36) “Father,” she said, “you have uttered a vow to YHWH; do to me as you have vowed, seeing that YHW has vindicated you against your enemies, the Ammonites.”


(39) After two months’ time, she returned to her father, and he did to her as he had vowed. She had never known a man. So it became a custom in Israel (40) for the maidens of Israel to go every year, for four days in the year, and chant dirges for the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite.

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?

Emergency Protocol

(כו) וַיַּרְא֙ מֶ֣לֶךְ מוֹאָ֔ב כִּֽי־חָזַ֥ק מִמֶּ֖נּוּ הַמִּלְחָמָ֑ה וַיִּקַּ֣ח א֠וֹתוֹ שְׁבַע־מֵא֨וֹת אִ֜ישׁ שֹׁ֣לֵֽף חֶ֗רֶב לְהַבְקִ֛יעַ אֶל־מֶ֥לֶךְ אֱד֖וֹם וְלֹ֥א יָכֹֽלוּ׃ (כז) וַיִּקַּח֩ אֶת־בְּנ֨וֹ הַבְּכ֜וֹר אֲשֶׁר־יִמְלֹ֣ךְ תַּחְתָּ֗יו וַיַּעֲלֵ֤הוּ עֹלָה֙ עַל־הַ֣חֹמָ֔ה וַיְהִ֥י קֶצֶף־גָּד֖וֹל עַל־יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וַיִּסְעוּ֙ מֵֽעָלָ֔יו וַיָּשֻׁ֖בוּ לָאָֽרֶץ׃ (פ)

(26) Seeing that the battle was going against him, the king of Moab led an attempt of seven hundred swordsmen to break a way through to the king of Edom; but they failed.

So he took his first-born son, who was to succeed him as king, and offered him up on the wall as a burnt offering.

A great wrath came upon Israel, so they withdrew from him and went back to [their own] land.

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:

(א) וַיִּשְׁמַ֞ע הַכְּנַעֲנִ֤י מֶֽלֶךְ־עֲרָד֙ יֹשֵׁ֣ב הַנֶּ֔גֶב כִּ֚י בָּ֣א יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל דֶּ֖רֶךְ הָאֲתָרִ֑ים וַיִּלָּ֙חֶם֙ בְּיִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וַיִּ֥שְׁבְּ ׀ מִמֶּ֖נּוּ שֶֽׁבִי׃ (ב) וַיִּדַּ֨ר יִשְׂרָאֵ֥ל נֶ֛דֶר לַֽיהוָ֖ה וַיֹּאמַ֑ר אִם־נָתֹ֨ן תִּתֵּ֜ן אֶת־הָעָ֤ם הַזֶּה֙ בְּיָדִ֔י וְהַֽחֲרַמְתִּ֖י אֶת־עָרֵיהֶֽם׃ (ג) וַיִּשְׁמַ֨ע יְהוָ֜ה בְּק֣וֹל יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל וַיִּתֵּן֙ אֶת־הַֽכְּנַעֲנִ֔י וַיַּחֲרֵ֥ם אֶתְהֶ֖ם וְאֶת־עָרֵיהֶ֑ם וַיִּקְרָ֥א שֵׁם־הַמָּק֖וֹם חָרְמָֽה׃ (פ)

(1) When the Canaanite, king of Arad, who dwelt in the Negeb, learned that Israel was coming by the way of Atharim, he engaged Israel in battle and took some of them captive. (2) Then Israel made a vow to YHWH and said,

“If You deliver this people into my hand, I will cherem their towns.”

(3) YHWH heeded Israel’s plea and delivered up the Canaanites; and they and their cities were heremed. So that place was named Hormah.

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:

(לב) וַיֵּצֵא֩ סִיחֹ֨ן לִקְרָאתֵ֜נוּ ה֧וּא וְכָל־עַמּ֛וֹ לַמִּלְחָמָ֖ה יָֽהְצָה׃ (לג) וַֽיִּתְּנֵ֛הוּ יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵ֖ינוּ לְפָנֵ֑ינוּ וַנַּ֥ךְ אֹת֛וֹ וְאֶת־בנו [בָּנָ֖יו] וְאֶת־כָּל־עַמּֽוֹ׃ (לד) וַנִּלְכֹּ֤ד אֶת־כָּל־עָרָיו֙ בָּעֵ֣ת הַהִ֔וא וַֽנַּחֲרֵם֙ אֶת־כָּל־עִ֣יר מְתִ֔ם וְהַנָּשִׁ֖ים וְהַטָּ֑ף לֹ֥א הִשְׁאַ֖רְנוּ שָׂרִֽיד׃ (לה) רַ֥ק הַבְּהֵמָ֖ה בָּזַ֣זְנוּ לָ֑נוּ וּשְׁלַ֥ל הֶעָרִ֖ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר לָכָֽדְנוּ׃

(32) Sihon with all his men took the field against us at Jahaz, (33) and YHWH our elohim delivered him to us and we defeated him and his sons and all his men. (34) At that time we captured all his towns, and we heremed every town—men, women, and children—leaving no survivor.

(35) We retained as booty only the cattle and the spoil of the cities that we captured.

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:

(כה) פְּסִילֵ֥י אֱלֹהֵיהֶ֖ם תִּשְׂרְפ֣וּן בָּאֵ֑שׁ לֹֽא־תַחְמֹד֩ כֶּ֨סֶף וְזָהָ֤ב עֲלֵיהֶם֙ וְלָקַחְתָּ֣ לָ֔ךְ פֶּ֚ן תִּוָּקֵ֣שׁ בּ֔וֹ כִּ֧י תוֹעֲבַ֛ת יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ הֽוּא׃ (כו) וְלֹא־תָבִ֤יא תֽוֹעֵבָה֙ אֶל־בֵּיתֶ֔ךָ וְהָיִ֥יתָ חֵ֖רֶם כָּמֹ֑הוּ שַׁקֵּ֧ץ ׀ תְּשַׁקְּצֶ֛נּוּ וְתַעֵ֥ב ׀ תְּֽתַעֲבֶ֖נּוּ כִּי־חֵ֥רֶם הֽוּא׃ (פ)

(25) You shall consign the images of [false gods] to the fire; you shall not covet the silver and gold on them and keep it for yourselves, lest you be ensnared thereby; for that is abhorrent to YHWH your elohim.

(26) You must not bring an abhorrent thing into your house, or you will be herem like it; you must reject it as abominable and abhorrent, for it is herem.

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.