A Possible Approach to ḥērem in Deuteronomy?

Poussin_-_Joshua_and_the_Amorites_Moscow dsIn the last post on Walter Moberly’s book Old Testament Theology: Reading the Hebrew Bible as Christian Scripture we considered the nature of Israel as a chosen people. One of the principle texts here is Deuteronomy 7:6

For you are a people holy to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you out of all the people on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession.

Although the exclusive nature of Israel as the chosen people raises some important questions, it is the little word “for” here that really causes problems. The word is connects this statement to what came before. Because Israel is chosen as a treasured possession they are to utterly destroy the seven nations in Canaan.

When the Lord your God brings you to the land you are about to enter and occupy, and he clears away many nations before you – the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations mightier and more numerous than you – and when the Lord your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them [haḥărēm taḥărīm, the verb is an emphatic form of the root from which the noun ḥērem is derived]. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy. Do not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, for that would turn your children from following me, to serve other gods. Then the anger of the Lord would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly. But this is how you must deal with them: break down their altars, smash their pillars, hew down their sacred poles, and burn their idols with fire. (Deuteronomy 7:1-5, p. 54-55)

The war that Israel is to wage against the seven nations is a holy war, a conquest in which they are apparently called to utterly destroy their opponents. Moberly lays it on the line:

Here we face what may be the quintessential enigma and challenge of the Old Testament. One moment we are considering the mystery and wonder of divine love as fundamental to the calling and choosing of Israel; the next moment we are considering such choosing as a basis for apparent divinely sponsored genocide. One moment we see God as loving; the next moment we see a deity who apparently sponsors mass murder. How should this be approached and understood? (p. 56)

There is no simple answer to this question – but there are some promising directions. The acceptability of these directions may be related to one’s view of scripture. In certain views of inerrancy the violence is taken at face value and rationalized as deserved punishment, either for the specific sins of these peoples or for the general depravity of fallen humanity. We all deserve obliteration – the wonder is the mercy that God shows. Add to this the fact that it occurred so long ago, and the violence can be safely ignored.

This view troubles many Christians because it doesn’t seem consistent with the nature of God as love or with his justice and mercy. Moberly offers some ideas that he finds promising. These will not satisfy some literalists, but Moberly suggests that we should take the rhetoric of the text seriously without taking it woodenly.

First, the letter of the passage argues against a literalist reading. It clearly contains rhetorical idioms of the ancient Israelites. One of these is the symbolism of the number seven which Moberly points out “often functions to indicate ‘many’ rather than a precise number.” In other places the lists of occupants of Canaan vary in identity and number (five, six, or ten peoples in Genesis and Exodus for example).

[This] suggests that the function of the lists is more rhetorical than geographical. In other words, the seven nations are probably symbolic opponents who represent a threat to Israel within its home territory. (p. 59)

Second, the rhetorical effect of the claim that the seven nations are “mightier and more numerous than you” stands in contrast to the claim in Deuteronomy 1:10 and 10:22 that God has made Israel “as numerous as the stars in the sky.” There are clearly rhetorical tools at use here. Moberly suggests that in this passage about taking Canaan both the seven nations and Israel are described “somewhat like “ideal types,” who play an imaginative role in enabling one to think about an issue.” (p. 60) The rhetorical relative smalleness of Israel is to put them in a frame of mind focused on dependence on God. They need to look to God for strength and victory.

Third, Moberly suggests that the interpretive translation of haḥărēm taḥărīm as utterly destroy is questionable. There are other Hebrew words used in Deuteronomy to express the straightforward sense of the English word “destroy.”

Moreover, the conceptuality of ḥērem is on any reckoning more complex than “destroy,” even if in certain contexts destruction might be entailed. It appears that the prime sense is a matter of making something the exclusive possession of YHWH and thereby removing it from the sphere of regular human use. Even though this could entail destruction, it is important to realize that “‘destruction’ is a secondary implication of ḥērem and not its primary meaning.”(p. 60)

Finally, it makes no sense to forbid intermarriage with a people who are wiped off the face of the earth (utterly destroyed). “Since, to put it bluntly, corpses present no temptation to intermarriage, the text surely envisages the continuance of living non-Israelites in close proximity to Israel.” (p. 61) Iain Provan made the same point in his discussion of this issue. It is not likely that haḥărēm taḥărīm was read or heard by the Israelites in terms of complete obliteration.

A way forward? Moberly proposes a reading of Deuteronomy 7:1-5: the text is “a definitional exposition of ḥērem as an enduring practice for Israel.” They are a people set apart for God.

The content of this ḥērem is then given in what immediately follow, in terms of two specific practices. Negatively, Israel is to avoid intermarriage (7:3-4), for this would entail religious compromise, since intermarriage as a rule entails acceptance and incorporation of the religious culture of the non-Israelite and thus could lead to dilution of Israel’s allegiance to YHWH. Positively, Israel is indeed to carry out destruction – but the specified destruction is not of people but solely of those objects that symbolize and enable allegiances to deities other than YHWH (7:5). In other words, ḥērem is being presented as a metaphor for unqualified allegiance to YHWH. On this reading ḥērem is not a “mere” metaphor, for it envisages specific and demanding practices. (p. 61-62)

But what about Deuteronomy 20:16-18? Here we read:

But as for the towns of these people that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive. You shall annihilate them [haḥărēm taḥărīm, as in 7:2] – the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites – just as the Lord your God has commanded, so that they may not teach you to do all the abhorrent things that they do for their gods, and you thus sin against the Lord your God. (p. 63)

Moberly points out that the purpose of ḥērem in this passage is the same as in 7:1-5. Unfortunately, the command “you must not let anything that breathes remain alive” appears to undermine the metaphorical treatment suggested for the earlier passage. However, strong rhetorical language is common in Scripture and need not be taken entirely literally. This passage certainly involves a lack of mercy in warfare, and there is no getting around the military conquest in Deuteronomy and Joshua. However, the text need not mean divinely ordained genocide or mass murder of innocents.

As an example of strong rhetorical language seldom tken literally Moberly refers to the language Jesus uses in the Sermon on the Mount: “If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. … And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away.” I’d also turn to the rich young ruler who Jesus told to sell all he had and give it to the poor. At least part of the point in all of these passages is similar – put away anything that comes between you and the Lord your God. Few of us, however, see the command to gouge, cut, or sell all as commands to be followed with wooden literality, either by the original audience or by us today. Moberly notes that “interpreters have no difficulty in recognizing the metaphorical usage, in a way that does not undermine the text, but rather takes it seriously.” (p. 64) His suggestion is that the rhetoric of Deuteronomy may be similar.

Moberly has more to say about this issue of ḥērem in the Old Testament. This is enough for one post, however. We’ll look at the rest of this chapter in the next post and I’ll offer some additional thoughts of my own.

Is it possible that these passages include rhetorical flourish that were not meant with wooden literality?

What does it mean to take a passage seriously?

If you wish to contact me, you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.

If you would like to comment please see A Possible Approach to ḥērem in Deuteronomy at Jesus Creed.

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