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Herem: the decree of extinction (part 1)

January 28, 2013

In response to my co-blogger J. K. Gayle’s posts on “The Meanings of Joshua and Jesus” and “God’s and Joshua’s genocide” I wanted to make a series of posts on herem (also sometimes spelled cherem):  the decree of extermination.  As Philip Stern remarks in his excellent study:  The Biblical Herem:  A Window on Israel’s Religious Experience:  “The two greatest prophets of ancient Israel, Moses and Samuel [e.g., Psalm 99:6], were each associated the herem; so it is plain that this behavior was no embarrassment to the people better known today for the Ten Commandments.”

A particularly profound study on this topic is Louis Feldman’s outstanding Remember Amalek!  Vengeance, Zealotry, and Group Destruction in the Bible According to Philo, Pseudo-Philo, and Josephus.  Much of my understanding of Herem is derived from Feldman’s and Stern’s studies, and I will freely borrow from them in this series of posts.

A prime example of herem is the divine command (Deuteronomy 25:19) to wipe out the memory of Amalek; which the prophet Samuel interprets (1 Samuel 15:3) that every man, woman, child, and even animal of the Amalekites is to be destroyed.

Feldman sets the stage as follows:

In an autobiographical fragment the philosopher Martin Buber recalls how, even when he was a child, it horrified him to read how the heathen Amalekite king Agag was hewn to pieces by the prophet Samuel simply because he was a descendant of Amalek and because God had commanded the the total destruction of Amalekites (1 Samuel 15:33).  Buber remarks that he could never believe that this was the message of a merciful God.

Feldman then mentions biblical parallels in which God commands the destruction of whole groups of people or biblical descriptions of mass destruction in the absence of a biblical commandment:

[…] in the Great Flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, the plague of the first-born Egyptians, […] the seven Canaanite nations, […] the annihilation of the Hivites because of the rape of Dinah by one of them, the annihilation of the nations of Shihon and Og, the complete destruction of the inhabitants of Jericho, and the extermination of priests of Nob

and further mentions

[…]the justification of God’s reward to Phinehas for his zealotry in bypassing the law when he put to death a Jew and non-Jew for their immorality

mentioning in his understated way

These are difficult issues; and, as we shall see, there are no simple answers to the questions they raise.

Feldman begins by listing a number of parallels to the biblical herem:

We may point to an inscription of the Utuhegal, king of the Sumerian city-state of Uruk (Erech) in the 22nd century BCE, which states that the chief god, Enlil, commanded Utuhegal to “destroy the name” (a phrase clearly reminiscent of the instructions with regard to Amalek [Exodus 17:14, Deuteronomy 25:19]) of the Gutians, the hated mountain folk who are described elsewhere in Mesopotamian literature as a people who had never been shown how to worship a god and who did not know how to perform the rites and observances properly.  These Gutians had invaded Sumer and had ruled cruelly, thus offending the gods before Utuhegal finally expelled them.  In the end, Tirigan, the king of Guti, like Agag, the Amalekite king, was killed “before God.”

Another example is to be found in the Mesha inscription, the one text found in Canaanite soil that explicitly mentions the herem, where King Mesha of Moab in the ninth century BCE says (line 7) that he saw in a dream that Israel had perished utterly and forever.  He refers proudly to the fact (line 11) that he fought against the town of Ataroth, captured it, and slew all of its inhabitants.  A few lines later (line 16) he boasts that he slew all in Nebo – 7,000 men and women, both natives and aliens, and female slaves – and proscribed the town Ashtar-Chemosh and resettled Moabites instead of the previous inhabitants.  As Stern notes, the mere existence of a special verb for the herem indicates that this cannot be the sole time in Moabite history that it was applied.  The fact that the personal names of people and deities derived from the root of herem are found in in so many Semitic languages (South Arabic, Classical Arabic, Nabatean, Egyptian, Aramaic, Ugaritic, Phoenician, Akkadian, and Hebrew) not only indicates how widespread the practice was but also how positively it was viewed.

A number of additional parallels to these examples of mass extermination are cited by Stern.  One is from a letter by Shibtu, the wife of Mari’s last king, Zimri-Lim.  A war-goddess, speaking through a prophet, declares a holy war in which she will consecrate the enemy to annihilation.  Meanwhile, a Hittite text speaks of consecrating a city to destruction, burning it, and designating the ruined mound as perpetual, reminiscent of Joshua’s destruction of the city of Ai (Joshua 8:28)[…].

A parallel, or at least a projected parallel, may be found in Homer’s Iliad (6.55-60), where after the Greek Menelaus captures the Trojan Adrestus, Adrestus begs him to spare him in return for a princely ransom.  Menelaus is just about to spare him when his brother, Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek expedition, remonstrates with him sarcastically and indicates his intention to eliminate the Trojans completely, including even babies in their mothers’ wombs:  “My dear Menelaus, why are you so concerned for these men?  Truly excellent things have been done for you by the Trojans.  Let none of them escape headlong destruction at our hands.  let not even an infant whom his mother carries in her womb escape, but let all the inhabitants of Troy together perish unburied and without a trace.” [Footnote:  In point of fact, to be sure, as we see Euripides’ Hecabe, the men and male children are slain, but the women and girls are taken as slaves.]

In the fourth century BCE, the Greek historian Dicaearchus, a pupil of Aristotle, wrote a work, now lost except for fragments, on the destruction of human life in which he mentions holocausts.  According to Cicero (De Officiis 2.5.16), Dicaearchus in this book first assembled all the other causes of death, such as flood, pestilence, famine, sudden attacks by large numbers of wild beasts, by which, as he apparently pointed out, whole nations (quaedam genera hominum) had been wiped out.  He then, by contrast, went on to point out how many more people had perished at the hands of their fellow human beings in wars and rebellions than through any other catastrophe.  In any case we do know of whole nations – such as the Sumerians, Akkadians, Philistines, Amorites, Kassites, Hurrians, Hittites, Medes, Parthians, Minoans, Lydians, and Etruscans – that seem to have totally disappeared, though, of course, this does not mean necessarily that they perished through mass destruction.

An example of the total destruction of a city-state is the annihilation of Sybaris in 510 BCE by its neighbor in southern Italy, Croton, which killed all whom they found, even those who retreated, and refused to take any prisoners (Diodorus 12.10.1).  The Crotoniates utterly destroyed the city, going to the length of diverting a river over it (Strabo 6.1.3).  Sybarites attempted to refound the city four times, and each time the city was destroyed by the Crotoniates.  The annihilation of the Sybarites is not an isolated case in Greek history but rather, as Peter Green has remarked, an instance of “the habit of genocide.”

[Feldman goes on at length to consider the destruction of Melos by Athens and of Carthage by the Romans; the Delphic Oracle’s decree against the Cirrheans and the Cargilidae; the war of the Romans against the revolting Latin cities in 340 BCE; Caesar’s report in Gallic Wars of a Celtic practice of devoting all the enemy to the god of war; Tacitus (Annals 13.5.7) description of the German tribe, the Chatti, of devoting the entirety of their enemy to their gods.]

But, Feldman then goes on to point out that the Amalek example is unique in its horror, because it is not limited in time, but is an eternal commandment.

All of these cases, however, are instances of complete destruction of a given nation at a given time.  The Mesha inscription is the closest parallel to the biblical command against Amalek, but there the utter destruction of the Israelites is seen in a dream and not specifically commanded by a god.  Thus the biblical injunction is unique.  It specifies that the men, the women, the children, and even the animals of the Amalekites be destroyed.  Moreover, in no other instance do we find that the injunction demands that the offending nation – even its children – be destroyed for all time.

In future posts, I hope to discuss the issue of herem further, and to discuss how various thinkers have grappled with this very difficult commandment.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. laurent Contini permalink
    May 25, 2016 10:10 am

    yes biblical anathema (herem) need studies, in my country specially (France) where it is unknown, not even quoted in dictionaries where it is limited to excommunication. I read with a lot of interest Stern, but also Niditch and Jenkins. Their books are not even translated in french. There is a kind of omerta on this subject, the théologians are not daring to face it, and to legitimate it, the secular scholars are not daring to critize it, if they know it. By example, if you look at the prestigious ” Revue des sciences religieuses” established since the XIX s, their only article on herem is back to 1910.


  1. Herem in the New Testament: Joshua, the sword, Jesus « BLT

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