It is a Puzzle … Ḥērem Never Practiced?

Poussin_-_Joshua_and_the_Amorites_Moscow dsChapter 2 of Walter Moberly’s book Old Testament Theology: Reading the Hebrew Bible as Christian Scripture concludes with a section asking the question “What kind of law is the law of ḥērem?” The question arises for a variety of reasons. Many people read the passages in Deuteronomy and Joshua and wonder about the kind of God who would condemn children to death without mercy. It just doesn’t seem right. Scholars see another problem as well. Quite simply, there is no evidence that ḥērem was ever practiced in any significant manner. As Moberly puts it:

The puzzle relates to the scholarly consensus that, despite the specific way in which Deuteronomy 7:1-5 and 20:16-18 promote the practice of ḥērem, they in fact promote something that was not actually realized within Israel’s history. (p. 64)

The Canaanites were neither expelled nor exterminated. Ḥērem warfare was never carried out except possibly in limited military battles. Outsiders play important roles in Israel’s history, becoming insiders in the process. Uriah the Hittite is one such example – especially pertinent as the Hittites are one of the proscribed people in Deuteronomy 7. Rahab the Canaanite prostitute is another example (in the genealogy of Jesus according to Matthew 1). Ruth the Moabite is brought in and exalted, becoming the great grandmother of David (and thus also an ancestor of Jesus).

Some scholars have suggested that the concept of ḥērembelongs more to theory than to practice” and that the law “was purely theoretical and never in effect“. There are many potential reasons suggested – that it was a way of explaining the disappearance of certain peoples, that it was imposed backwards at the time Deuteronomy was written because of “a fear of cultural and religious swamping in the time of exile.” The law was written in such a way that it could not be practiced, being confined to “mists of the past.”

Moberly doesn’t find these explanations convincing. The notion that ḥērem is specified only to show that it is inoperative is “more ingenious than persuasive.” He takes a slightly different view and suggests that ḥērem in Deuteronomy is metaphorical. The book of Deuteronomy was written down long after the events described, in the late monarchic or exilic context (presumably using older sources and oral traditions). This informs his interpretation.

My contention is that, although it appears there was once an actual practice of ḥērem on the battlefield, both in ancient Israel and among its near neighbors, Deuteronomy uses and indeed privileges the notion of ḥērem only because it was seen to lend itself to a particular metaphorical usage for practices appropriate to enabling Israel’s everyday allegiance to YHWH within a world of conflicting allegiances. (p. 68)

The use of military metaphors is fairly common … fight the good fight and the armor of God are examples (Ephesians 6). Perhaps the writer of Deuteronomy used this cultural language and concept to make a point.

Application in Ezra. Moberly finds support for his interpretation in the way that Deuteronomy 7 is cited and applied in Ezra 9-10, in the narrative about the dissolution of mixed marriages.

As the narrative of Ezra 9 develops, the issues are posed entirely in terms of Israel’s separation from other peoples so as to preserve holiness through the abolition of intermarriage. It is striking that there is no suggestion that other peoples should be put to death, or that the text requires anything other than separation through rejecting intermarriage. Within the continuing narrative, moreover, the one use of the verbal form of ḥērem is to depict the “forfeiting” of property by the non-compliant (Ezra 10:8). … [W]ithin the narrative there is no hint that anything other than full compliance with the Deuteronomic prohibition is what is being enacted, or that separation is in any sense a compliance that is second best because of the constraints of the situation. Such a reading of Deuteronomy 7 may stand closer to the intrinsic sense of Deuteronomy 7 than has generally been recognized. (p. 69)

This is an interesting example. The command that the Israelites and now the Jews are to maintain an everyday allegiance to YHWH in a world of conflicting allegiances is clear. That a surrounding culture is a temptation and that intermarriage is a way of assimilation is also clear. The danger of intermarriage becomes painfully clear in the narrative of 1 and 2 Kings and in some of the prophets. That this, rather than a military command to wipe out large communities, is the primary focus makes coherent sense.

Ḥērem in Joshua. Moberly also deals briefly with the concept of ḥērem in Joshua. There are several interesting features. The first is that the book of Joshua does not portray God as “on Israel’s side.” “God cannot be harnessed to human plans, yet human plans may be brought into conformity with God’s plans.” In the narrative, a banned outsider – Rahab (along with her family) – becomes an insider. “Both her words and her deeds are exemplary from the perspective of Israel’s faith. So she is exempted from ḥērem, despite the lack of exemption clauses in Deuteronomy, and enabled (with her family) to become part of Israel (6:23,25).” (p. 71) Moberly goes on:

When one reads Joshua as a sequel to Deuteronomy, the construal of ḥērem is less than straightforward. Admittedly ḥērem as warfare constitutes the backdrop of the action; but the depiction of battles is perfunctory and formulaic (with a partial exception of Josh. 7-8). The foreground interest is in people and situations that call into question any simple in-or-out account of Israel’s identity; instead they searchingly probe what faithfulness to YHWH really entails. (p. 71)

This isn’t an exhaustive treatment of ḥērem in the Old Testament. Moberly doesn’t deal with 1 Samuel 15 and the sin of Saul for example. There could be overstatement in this passage as well in the command to “kill both man and woman, child and infant,” but this would require another discussion. It is clear that Saul’s sin and the sin of his men involves greed and acquisition of plunder for themselves against the command of God, another example of unfaithfulness to YHWH.

Conclusion. Any reading of Deuteronomy 7 and 20 as texts that enable general conquest by God’s chosen people is, in Moberly’s view, a misreading of the text.

Rather, the practice of ḥērem, apparently originally a battlefield practice involving killing, has been retained and indeed highlighted, by Deuteronomy only because it was seen to be amenable to metaphorical reconstrual in terms of practices that enhance Israel’s covenant faithfulness to YHWH in everyday life. … [W]e see Israel as a people called to a loving covenantal relationship with God that entails strong responsibilities, especially in practices that will prevent that relationship becoming diluted. (p. 72)

Intermarriage and alliances with surrounding kings and kingdoms were destructive for Israel. While a blanket ban on marriage to outsiders is actually inconsistent with the realities of the biblical narrative – because exceptions are quite common – the danger was very real. The destruction of objects of worship devoted to foreign gods is also important (Deut. 7:5). Through these we find application to Christian life – not through the literal application of ḥērem warfare. When practices become destructive they require strong measures in response. “The concern within Deuteronomy is that Israel is recidivist, so strongly attracted to allegiances other than YHWH (the constant problem of “other gods”) that strong language becomes necessary.” (p. 73)

If Deuteronomy was written (or edited together from earlier sources and oral traditions) at a later date, as most scholars believe, then such a view of the intent of the language is distinctly possible – even from a divinely inspired author/editor. This suggestion will not sit well with some views of the nature of the biblical narrative, and opinions about the meaning of inerrancy and the authority of Scripture. It is important to note, however, that Moberly’s intent is not to undermine or devalue Scripture, but to dig for the meaning and intent of the text in its ancient context.

To what extent is Deuteronomy straight history and to what extent is it shaped to make a theological point?

Is it possible that Deuteronomy reflects the concerns from a later date – late in the monarchy when things were falling apart, or in the exilic period?

What problems do you see with Moberly’s proposal that the practice of ḥērem was intended metaphorically?

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

If you would like to comment please see It is a Puzzle … Ḥērem Never Practiced? at Jesus Creed.

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