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Herem in the New Testament: Joshua, the sword, Jesus

January 30, 2013

First, read the post “Herem: the decree of extinction (part 1)” by Theophrastus, our BLT co-blogger. Also, look for part 2 (which we’re anticipating as I post this particular post).

In this particular blogpost here, I want to consider the possibility that the writer of the New Testament book of Hebrews might have been alluding to and even encouraging, in a literary and perhaps a Greek rhetorical sort of way, a new Herem. When we get how that particular book of instruction to Jewish readers concerning Jesus as the Son of God quotes the Septuagint, then we take note how it constructs its own very difficult commandment of new devotion and new destruction perhaps.

Here’s the Septuagint version of a line from the book of Joshua (6:21) –

καὶ ἀνεθεμάτισεν αὐτὴν Ἰησοῦς
καὶ ὅσα ἦν
ἐν τῇ πόλει
ἀπὸ ἀνδρὸς
καὶ ἕως γυναικός
ἀπὸ νεανίσκου
καὶ ἕως πρεσβύτου
καὶ ἕως μόσχου
καὶ ὑποζυγίου
ἐν στόματι ῥομφαίας.

Roughly that can read this way in English –

And he did anathema it, Iesous did,
And whatsoever was
in the Polis
from man
to woman
from young
to old
to oxen calf
to yoked donkey
he dedicated/destroyed it
by the edge of the sword.

This English translation of mine is attempting to reflect some of the “devoted/destroyed” ambiguity in the verb ἀνεθεμάτισεν. This particular Greek verb, of course, in its noun form often gets transliterated as “anathema,” which is so much a New Testament and even now an English word that there’s substance enough in it for a wikipedia article on it.

But I do want the focus to get back to the Hebrew translational wordplay.  The Hebrew original verb is חָרַם, or cherem or herem.  And its uses in the Five Books of Moses and in the Book of Joshua are many, mainly for devotion that includes utter destruction.  So the ambiguities are there before the Greek translation conveys any of that.

In the New Testament, in the Book of Acts, for example, the verb form of the ambiguous Greek gets played out rather fully.  Acts 23:14 has the Jewish leaders turning on Paul, the former Jewish leader who had been enacting his own authorized “herem” against “the Way,” that is the sect of Messianic, Iesous following Jews of his day.  And these leaders say:  Ἀναθέματι ἀνεθεματίσαμεν.  The KJV translators rendered that into English as “We have bound ourselves under a great curse.”  And of course the whole verse gets at the violence:  “And they came to the chief priests and elders, and said, We have bound ourselves under a great curse, that we will eat nothing until we have slain Paul.”

What we might guess is that the edge of the sword is the particular instrument of the dedication and devotion of this particular destruction.

Given all this language of herem here, we might read Hebrews 4 as rather devoted and dedicated and destructive language.  And I’m calling our readerly attention again to the contrast of Joshuas, or Iesouses, in a very short context of text.  Here’s the ESV –

For if Joshua [Ἰησοῦς] had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day later on. So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, 10 for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his.

11 Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience. 12 For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 13 And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.

14 Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus [Ἰησοῦς], the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession.

The call in this text is to distinguish two different Iesouses, the one of herem who did not bring “Sabbath rest” and the other who comes to “Hebrews” through a sword, a sort of new and New Testament herem.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 30, 2013 11:03 am

    Fascinating stuff. As I’ll mention in one of my later posts (which I hope to get to this week), by Second Temple times, interpretations of herem were still very important (receiving disproportionate attention in Philo, for example) although sometimes interpreted allegorically to avoid offending Rome.

    Others, though (including some competing Jewish messiahs of the time, such as bar Kochba), advocated violent resistance to Rome. One natural question one can ask of the New Testament authors is the degree to which they advocated violent action against Rome. Some of Jesus’s statements (“Render unto Caesar”) seem to be favoring appeasement and others seem to indicate that Jesus was aligned with the zealots (so Celsus charged, and Simon appears to have been a zealot).


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