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Cherem: The Israelite Wars of Destruction

Daniel J. Castellano


I. Historical Interpretation
  1.1 Cherem as Devotion
  1.2 Cherem as Anathema
  1.3 Cherem as Applied to the Wars after the Exodus
  1.4 Israelite Rules of War
  1.5 Cherem in the Moabite Stone
  1.6 Cherem in Pre-Monarchical Israel
  1.7 Charam as Divine Punishment
  1.8 Later Instances of Charam
II. Ethical Evaluation
  2.1 Sacred Oaths and Divine Commands
  2.2 Moral Circumstances of Antiquity
  2.3 Non-Judicial Killing of the Innocent
  2.4 Evaluating Israelite Actions
  2.5 Obsolescence of Wars of Cherem

The Old Testament recounts several occasions where the Israelites destroyed the inhabitants of a city after conquering it, sometimes with apparent divine sanction. The Biblical authors do not write a word condemning these actions, but on the contrary criticize those who spared what ought to be destroyed. This attitude is jarring to modern readers, having inherited centuries of Christian sensibility regarding mercy to one’s enemies, especially toward those who are unarmed. Our ethical concern is nothing new; the second-century heretic Marcion was so scandalized by this divinely-sanctioned extermination, that he proposed that the God of the Old Testament was a malevolent demiurge, altogether distinct from the God of Christianity. This error is repeated by modern critics, who invoke these passages as evidence against the divine inspiration of the Old Testament. The Fathers of the Church, by contrast, accepted these passages as Holy Scripture, and explained them as allegories or prefigurations of Christian truths, or as inscrutable divine judgments.

For most of the last two millennia, we have lacked the knowledge of ancient Hebrew culture that would help us explain why what we find shocking was relatively unremarkable to the Biblical authors. There is little attempt in the text to explain or justify Israelite actions, as though the reasons were expected to be evident to the ancient reader. In order to understand these motivations, we must make careful inferences from word usage and context in Biblical and non-Biblical sources. There have already been many modern theories on this topic, but too often they are informed by anachronistic concepts such as “holy war” and “genocide,” which do not adequately grasp the Late Bronze Age mentalities. I hope to present a more authentic representation of the likely motivations of the ancients.

Our visceral reaction to the Israelite wars of destruction may tempt us to immediate moral evaluation, but such judgment may color our interpretations of motive. In this study, then, we will avoid making any moral judgments while exploring issues of motive, reserving such evaluation for our final analysis. This separation of ethics from history allows us to focus on the perspectives of the ancients rather than on our own. In order to make a proper ethical evaluation, we must first have a precise knowledge of the content to be evaluated.

A noxious epistemological error among historians is to suppose that there is a single, static “human nature” characterizing all the behavioral psychology of humanity throughout history. In this view, we appeal to our own intuitions and assume that the ancients, being fellow humans, must have perceived the same. In fact, much of what seems obvious or self-evident to us was not so to people of other cultures. This does not necessarily mean that they were inferior in wisdom, for they had their own set of “self-evident” truths which are not at all obvious to us.

The ancient Hebrew notion of cherem (or herem), whereby conquered peoples are reserved for utter destruction, was a self-evident reality to the Israelites, yet resists easy categorization in terms of modern concepts. We might characterize it as heartless fanaticism or holy war, yet the same Biblical books also commend mercy to enemies in other circumstances, and they never characterize bloodshed in war as holy. In fact, King David is considered unfit to build God’s temple because he is a man of war. We may resolve this incongruity by lazily accusing the Israelites of inconsistency or hypocrisy, or we can embark on the difficult task of trying to understand their ethical landscape, which made distinctions based on circumstances we might find irrelevant. It is in this latter course of action that we might hope to learn something new, by stepping outside ourselves.

In this study, I will show that the Hebrew notion of cherem refers principally to the act of dedicating a conquest to God, and only secondarily to the destruction that such dedication entails. Cherem may be ordained by a divine command or intimation, but this is not always the case. Conversely, not all divinely sanctioned wars are followed by the designation of cherem. The precise circumstances and parameters of this custom can be only imperfectly gleaned from extant Biblical and extra-Biblical texts. We will discover enough, however, to show that the Israelites and other nations with this custom were not acting incoherently, but in accordance with a rationally self-consistent worldview. The ancients understood both justice and mercy, both severity and clemency, as do we. Yet they did not divide the occasions for preferring one over the other as we do, and it is in these circumstantial details that we will find how they arrived at an evaluation of cherem that is utterly opposite to our own intuition.

Ortega y Gassett occasionally rebuked pacifists for their blanket condemnation of the use of force or coercion, from which we all have benefited. Every great civilization had to be constructed by war or force at some point in its trajectory, so that people would work toward a common end rather than be scattered among private interests. If we can all take it for granted today that everyone respects the rule of law, it is only because our ancestors harshly imposed this rule upon anyone unruly enough to resist. The taming of our barbarous passions, which to us seems a birthright, is actually the product of many centuries of civilization imposed by force. While it is true that force alone is no basis for a lasting civilization, it is an indispensable companion of the moral suasion used to promote worthy ideas of social organization. Even the liberal states of today reserve the right to the use of force, employing weapons that would be utterly terrifying to the ancients. Our lightest explosives and automatic weapons, employed on “peacekeeping” or “humanitarian” missions, create enough carnage to horrify even a hardened veteran of the Israelite wars, so we should be wary of letting visceral reactions determine moral evaluations. Intuition is an important touchstone for moral judgment, but it does not always have the final word.

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I. Historical Interpretation

1.1. Cherem as Devotion

Judging from its earliest usages in the Pentateuch, the original primary meaning of the verb charam is “to devote” (i.e., to dedicate by vow), and its noun form cherem means “that which is devoted.” All other senses of these terms may be considered as derivative of this primary meaning, as we shall show.

This original meaning of cherem as devotion is preserved in the Pentateuch. In Numbers 18:14, Aaron is told, “Every thing cherem in Israel is thine.” This is followed by an enumeration of the various types of religious offerings, some of which are redeemed for money, while others are sacrificed as burnt offerings. Cherem in the general sense refers to that which is given to God as a votive offering. Yet we also find in the Pentateuch a more specific type of dedication.

The twenty-seventh chapter of Leviticus deals with the sale and redemption of votive offerings to the sanctuary. The Israelites could dedicate beasts, houses, fields and even themselves by vow to the sanctuary. Those who dedicated themselves would donate a monetary sum, equivalent to the price of a redeemed captive. Leviticus provides specific guidelines for valuing votive offerings of one’s own person, leaving priests the discretion to lower the price for the poor. The priests would set prices for offerings of property. The donor had the opportunity to buy back or redeem such offerings, but only if he paid an extra fifth in value. Unredeemed offerings could be sold by the sanctuary to other men at the valuation price.

There were exceptions to the rules permitting the sale and redemption of sanctuary offerings. The firstborn of every ox and sheep belong to God, and are to be set apart (kodesh) by no man. (Lev. 27:26) The firstborn of unclean beasts may be redeemed (Lev. 27:27), since they are not fit for sacrifice. Yet the law also specifies:

Any devoted thing (cherem), which is devoted (charam) to God, be it man or beast or field, shall not be sold or redeemed. What is devoted (cherem) is holy of holies (kodesh kodashim) to God. (Lev. 27:28)

Here, that which is cherem is absolutely dedicated to God, admitting no monetary substitution. Thus it cannot be redeemed by the donor, nor can it be sold by the sanctuary to a third party. It is holy of holies (kodesh kodashim) because it is set apart (kodesh) even from other sanctified offerings.

This notion of cherem as an especially holy offering to God is in marked contrast to later interpretations. Cherem is often translated as “under the ban,” in reference to the act of destruction that the offering entails, but this gives the impression that what is cherem is somehow cut off from God or unholy. This error may be reinforced by noting that in Arabic, haraam refers to that which is forbidden or unclean. Yet we have seen that this cannot be the original meaning of cherem, since unclean things are unfit for dedication to God, and are therefore to be redeemed. Rather, what is cherem is an especially holy offering, since God will not permit anything to be substituted for it, reserving it entirely to Himself.

When a cherem offering is a man, he shall not be redeemed as with the votive offerings of the Israelites, but shall surely die. (Lev. 27:29) This is only a logical extension of the rule that what is cherem cannot be sold or redeemed, yet it would seem here that Leviticus is prescribing human sacrifice, which the Pentateuch elsewhere emphatically forbids. This conclusion is premature, however, as we are not told the circumstances under which a man might be declared cherem.

What we do perceive at this point is that the law of cherem is strictly religious in character, being a sacred obligation to respect what is absolutely reserved to God. The notion of cherem is religious in its core, so it is probably misguided to construe the later practice of charam during the Israelite conquest as a religious rationalization of secular customs of war. Much more likely, the reverse is true: cherem was a religious value informing the conduct of war, altering it from normal practice.

Since that which is cherem must be physically destroyed in order to commit it to God, the verb charam effectively implied such destruction. We see such implication already in the Pentateuch, though the primary meaning of “to devote” still holds: “He who sacrifices to gods shall be devoted (charam) to the Lord.” (Ex. 22:20) There is ironic justice in this punishment, for the Israelite who dedicated things to false gods shall himself be dedicated to the true God. We recall that, by virtue of the Mosaic covenant, all of Israel is consecrated to the service of God, who brought them out of the land of Egypt. By the rule of cherem, God is reclaiming the people who are rightfully His own, the people who live only by virtue of His saving power.

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1.2. Cherem as Anathema

The term cherem, from a very early stage, developed an additional meaning of “banished” or “denounced.” We see such usage already in the seventh chapter of Deuteronomy, where the Septuagint translates cherem as anathema. This Greek term, much like cherem, originally referred to a devoted religious offering, before it attained its more familiar meaning. We read: “Neither shalt thou bring any thing of the idol into thy house, lest thou become an anathema (cherem), like it. Thou shalt detest it as dung, and shalt utterly abhor it as uncleanness and filth, because it is an anathema (cherem).” (Deut. 7:26)

Here we see a usage of cherem that seems utterly opposed to the holy offerings described in Leviticus, yet there is a common root of meaning. Religious offerings that are cherem are absolutely forbidden to the people, who must never again bring them into their homes. Thus cherem can take on the meaning of that which is banished or taboo. In the present context, idols are absolutely banished from Israel, and anyone who keeps an idol in his home is also to be cast out or anathema.

It is in this sense of “anathema” that cherem is used in the thirteenth chapter of Deuteronomy, which deals with Israelites who establish idolatry in their own cities.

[13] Children of Belial are gone out of the midst of thee, and have withdrawn the inhabitants of their city, and have said: Let us go, and serve strange gods which you know not:
[14] Inquire carefully and diligently, the truth of the thing by looking well into it, and if thou find that which is said to be certain, and that this abomination hath been really committed,
[15] Thou shalt forthwith kill the inhabitants of that city with the edge of the sword, and shalt destroy it and all things that are in it, even the cattle.
[16] And all the household goods that are there, thou shalt gather together in the midst of the streets thereof, and shalt burn them with the city itself, so as to consume all for the Lord thy God, and that it be a heap for ever: it shall be built no more.
[17] And there shall nothing of that anathema (cherem) stick to thy hand: that the Lord may turn from the wrath of his fury, and may have mercy on thee, and multiply thee as he swore to thy fathers. (Deuteronomy 13:13-17)

Israel as a nation is devoted solely to the worship of God, who brought them out of Egypt and to whom Israel owes its very existence. Any Israelite city that departs from the worship of God is to be expunged from Israel. This is not to be done rashly, but after careful and diligent inquiry. Once guilt is established, however, the punishment is severe. The inhabitants are to be killed, since they are no longer fit to live as part of the nation of Israel, and what is more, all the livestock and material goods of the city are to be destroyed. These items are considered cherem in a negative sense; they are not holy offerings, but are nonetheless absolutely forbidden to the Israelites. The reason for this prohibition is not explicitly given, but the sense appears to be that the Israelites should not profit from the apostasy of their neighbors, and that every relic of the apostates should be blotted out.

When we examine future instances of the term cherem, we must take care to determine whether the primary meaning of “devotion” or the derivative meaning of “anathema” is intended, keeping in mind that there is some overlap of meaning.

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1.3 Cherem as Applied to the Wars after the Exodus

The principle of cherem is applied to some, but not all, of the Israelite wars following their flight from Egypt. The earliest such instance is found in the twenty-first chapter of the Book of Numbers. Here we find that, when a city is “devoted” to God, its inhabitants are destroyed in accordance with the rule of cherem for special religious dedications.

The incident begins when Arad the Canaanite attacked the Israelites and took some of them as captives. (Num. 21:1) This was the usual practice of taking spoils in war, and it is immediately contrasted with Israel’s practice.

But Israel binding himself by vow to the Lord, said: If thou wilt deliver this people into my hand, I will charam their cities. (Num. 21:2)

Note that the Israelites initiate the idea of applying the principle of cherem. They voluntarily bind themselves by vow to give an offering to God if He grants them victory. Such votive offerings were common in antiquity, and were usually made in dire circumstances where victory was most uncertain. We recall Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter as a famous example of the extremes to which such vows might go. Here the Israelites are offering to God all the captives and spoils of the Canaanite cities that would customarily be their due.

The practice of charam here involves great self-restraint, for the ordinary inclination in those days was to take captives and spoils as recompense for the perils and costs of war. The Israelites are bound by their vow to receive no such recompense, and instead dedicate everything to God who granted them the victory. This shows they desire victory for justice’s sake, and not for their own profit.

We can already begin to see how this practice is difficult to categorize under modern concepts. This is not a so-called “holy war,” as the Israelites were not commanded to destroy the inhabitants, but volunteered this offering. Much less can we attribute this to some wanton desire or bloodlust, for by the worldly desires of the day, it would have been far more preferable to take captives and spoils. Rather, the Israelites made a votive offering when victory was uncertain, for they valued the victory apart from any spoils, and they were subsequently duty-bound to keep their solemn vow. We may begin to appreciate why sparing any inhabitant would be considered an abominable act, since this would break a vow to God, show supreme ingratitude for an improbable victory, and unlawfully take for private use what is “holy of holies”—absolutely set apart for God.

The Biblical text repeatedly indicates the thoroughness of destruction in wars of charam, in order to show that the Israelites faithfully kept their vows. This does not mean that such wars involved the utter extermination of nations. What was essential to the vow was not the extinction of a people, but that the Israelites should take no captives for themselves. Whoever fell into their hands after battle was slain. The only practical alternative for such people was to become captives, which was here impermissible. Still, we must recall that most people lived in the countryside, which accounts for why this conquered city, thereafter named “Chormah,” continued to exist in the time of Joshua, and was allotted to the tribe of Simeon. (Josh. 12:14, 19:4) Thus, it is unlikely that the name “Chormah” signified “destruction,” for the city was not laid waste. Rather, it signifies “devotion,” in commemoration of the vow kept by the Israelites.

In general, it is misleading to translate charam as “destroy.” If we did so above, we might erroneously suppose that Chormah was destroyed. Hebrew already has many words that mean “destroy,” such as shachath, shamad, and kathath, none of which are used here. Destruction is only secondary in the rule of charam. What is essential is the act of devotion, or dedication by vow, from which the duty to destroy spoils derives.

Another early instance of charam is recounted in the second chapter of Deuteronomy. Here it is said that the Israelites “devoted” (charam) the men, women and children. (Deut. 2:34) Yet they “only” took the cattle and the spoil, this being characterized as an exception to the act of charam. (2:35) Ordinarily, they would take women and children as the principal spoils, per the customs of war. Again, they are showing restraint and self-denial by instead devoting the most prized spoils to God.

The inhabitants killed include taphim, ordinarily translated as “children.” The word taph is derived from taphaph, which means to skip or take little steps. Thus its primary reference is to children not fully grown, yet old enough to walk. Yet the term is sometimes used of young adults (Ex 12:37), or even of all family members other than the head. (Gen 47:12, Ex. 10:10, Nm. 32:16, 24, 26) The same term is applied to youth of such varied ages because they all had the same social status. They did not have houses of their own, but served in the house of their father. This identification of the family members with the head made it seem natural that the members should share the fate of its head. If the head of household is slain in a war of conquest, his house becomes the property of the conqueror. The rule of charam, when applied to wives and children, is a departure from the ordinary custom of war, not because they would ordinarily be set free, but because they would otherwise be taken as booty.

From our perspective, it may seem as though the rule of charam effectively punishes non-combatant women and youth, as they are subjected to a fate that is worse than what they would otherwise have received. Yet the purpose of charam is not punishment, but to devote to God the spoils of war. It is a mistake to subject a non-juridical action to juridical criteria. What we may find objectionable is precisely that the women and youth are not treated as juridical subjects, but as mere objects to be passed from one owner to another. It is unquestionable that the ancient peoples of the Near East regarded wives and children as a sort of property, and that they did not always clearly distinguish this relationship from other kinds of property relations. Yet they were not necessarily wrong to think this way, for someone who pertains to me in a relationship of personal identification is, correctly speaking, my “property” in the generic sense of the term. What is erroneous is to suppose that a human being can be my property in the same mode by which an ox or a house is property. The ancients did recognize different grades of property relations, granting legal prerogatives to women and children that would not be granted to an ox, so we cannot accuse them of treating their household as chattel. Nonetheless, the rest of the house was subordinate to the head to a degree that is foreign to modern thinking.

By the standards of the day, it was perfectly correct to conceive of women and children as passively moving from one lord to another. If we are appalled by the outcome of the rule of charam, we should find fault not with that rule, but with the prevailing sentiment that women and children had no autonomy apart from the head of household.

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1.4. Israelite Rules of War

Revulsion toward wars of extermination, no matter how rationally or morally self-consistent the motivation, is not a purely modern phenomenon. The great medieval scholar Moses Maimonides, moved by similar scruples, sought to show that the wars of cherem were compatible with justice and mercy. He noted that such wars were subject to the general rule of the Torah that all enemies were first given the opportunity to flee or make peace. (Deut. 20:10) Thus only those who persisted in fighting to the end were slain. In this view, even the women and youth who were killed remained in active resistance.

We cannot confirm Maimonides’ interpretation, but should not be surprised if this were so. In the modern Middle East, we have seen women and children exhibit fierce devotion and identification with their family heads, refusing to surrender to a foreign enemy, and even taking up arms. In the West, we tend to infantilize and demilitarize women and children, but this was not generally the case for most of history. It is quite plausible that many women and youth of a conquered city would refuse to either flee their homes or make peace with their enemies.

Still, it seems that Maimonides’ argument was an early case of special pleading, in an attempt to accommodate Biblical warfare to later moral norms. If we look at the relevant text of Deuteronomy in full, it seems clear that all in the city were to be slain, once war was initiated.

[10] If at any time thou come to fight against a city, thou shalt first offer it peace.
[11] If they receive it, and open the gates to thee, all the people that are therein, shall be saved, and shall serve thee paying tribute.
[12] But if they will not make peace, and shall begin war against thee, thou shalt besiege it.
[13] And when the Lord thy God shall deliver it into thy bands, thou shalt slay all that are therein of the male sex, with the edge of the sword,
[14] Excepting women and children, cattle and other things, that are in the city. And thou shalt divide all the prey to the army, and thou shalt eat the spoils of thy enemies, which the Lord thy God shall give thee.
[15] So shalt thou do to all cities that are at a great distance from thee, and are not of these cities which thou shalt receive in possession. (Deut. 20:10-15)

Above are the general rules of warfare for the Israelites. Cities who accept a peace offer are spared completely, and are only required to pay tribute. Once war begins, however, the Israelites may press the siege and slay all the men if they are victorious. Women, children, and animals are spared. All the spoils are to be divided among the conquering army. These rules apply only to cities that the Israelites will not receive in possession, that is, those cities they are not divinely ordained to inhabit. Thus, these rules do not represent a kind of holy war.

Yet a special, divinely prescribed rule applies for those cities which the Israelites are destined to inhabit:

[16] But of those cities that shall be given thee, thou shalt suffer none at all to live:
[17] But shalt kill them with the edge of the sword, to wit, the Hethite, and the Amorrhite, and the Chanaanite, the Pherezite, and the Hevite, and the Jebusite, as the Lord thy God hath commanded thee:
[18] Lest they teach you to do all the abominations which they have done to their gods: and you should sin against the Lord your God. (Deut. 20:16-18)

No foreigner is allowed to remain in the cities of the Promised Land, which is set aside for Israel. A purely religious reason is given: their idolatrous practices would teach Israel to sin against God. We are not told if the nations of this region practiced an especially deplorable form of idolatry, or if this is simply a question of the Holy Land needing to be reserved for worship of God alone. In either case, the danger is considered sufficiently grave that none of these nations can be permitted to live among the Israelites. Exile was not a realistic option, as non-nomadic peoples were tied to the land.

Again, there is no sense that this was a punishment visited upon the conquered. The men would have been slain anyway per the usual practice of war. The women and children, normally spared, are also slain in order to protect the Israelites from their religious abominations. This is obviously not a humanistic ethic, as the rights of God take precedence over the rights of man. The highest imperative is that no one in Israel should sin against God through idolatry.

Although such wars of extermination bear superficial resemblance to the rule of charam, we find no indication here of a vow whereby Israel devotes the spoils to God. There is no explicit proscription against taking spoils, but only against allowing the human inhabitants to live. In the subsequent verse, the Israelites are told not to destroy the woodland, “for it is a tree, and not a man, neither can it increase the number of them that fight against thee.” (Deut. 20:19) By this same principle, it would seem, the animals might be spared. At the same time, we see a further reason for not sparing the women and youth, as they will eventually increase the numbers of those who would war against Israel, and assimilation is not an option because of their idolatry.

The rule of charam is better understood against a background in which it was already licit to exterminate the population of a city to be occupied by a completely different and incompatible culture. We find this hard to comprehend, as it has been the project of modernity to make all cultures mutually compatible. Yet Deuteronomy tells us that co-existence between the Israelites and the Canaanites was a plain impossibility. This should not be too surprising, given what we know about ancient cultures more generally.

It is a common modern conceit to suppose that the peoples of antiquity frequently resorted to war on account of some residual animal impulse that they could not control. Yet ancient literature attests that our ancestors mourned their dead as do we, and they regarded war as a bane rather than as something to be sought out. If they warred frequently, it is because this was a practical necessity in order to preserve their civilizations. If they could not all “get along,” it is because this was a practical impossibility. Each nation had its own national project that was mutually incompatible with those of other nations. This is why nations warred rather than merge peacefully. If such was the general rule among the pagan nations, it should be far more obvious that a peaceful merger of Israel with other nations was an impossibility.

Our unified culture is the product of the wars of Alexander, Caesar, and their successors. It was only when a few great nations were able to conquer the rest that the Western world was able to incorporate itself into a single civilization. This civilization spread itself to the rest of the world through colonization and conquest. As much as modern pacifists wring their hands over these supposed injustices, the cultural unity of the world, which makes modern irenicism possible, is the product of such violent acts. If the Caesars and the Ptolemies had allowed themselves to be infirm of purpose, the world would have remained overwhelmed by aimless hordes.

In the case of Israel, the national project was to establish a land consecrated to the worship of the true God according to the laws given to Moses. Thus all the cities “given to them” were to be cleared of idolatrous inhabitants. If they would not flee, they would be besieged and conquered. The fighting men would be killed, as was usual, but the women and children would also be killed, in order that they might not destroy the nation by spreading idolatry. The nation, we must understand, is not just a group of people or territory, but a project. In our democratic era, which places emphasis on the individual will, we have lost sight of this fact, and risk lapsing into a society without hierarchy and common purpose, becoming little better than a herd of animals. Without leadership directing us toward a common purpose, we cease to be a nation, save in the primitive sense of a people of common birth.

The authors of the Biblical texts make no apologies for killing the inhabitants of conquered cities in Canaan, nor would it have occurred to them to do so. To do that would entail apologizing for their nation’s existence, that is, for their national project of establishing a land where God is worshiped. It would be inconceivable that they should feel remorseful for devoting themselves to such a calling, which was far nobler than other national projects, oriented toward wealth or power.

Wars of extermination and charam are not the same thing. Deuteronomy shows that the Israelites were bound to execute the inhabitants of all the Canaanite cities, though we will find that only sometimes was the law of cherem invoked. Conversely, the rule of cherem could be invoked in wars against nations outside of Canaan, as would be the case with the Amalekites. Still, the general practice of killing non-combatants in order to preserve the national culture, which frequently had a religious character, provides further context for the rule of cherem.

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1.5. Cherem in the Moabite Stone

The Meshe stele, commonly known as the Moabite Stone, provides further evidence that charam was distinct from the act of extermination, and from the general customs of war. This inscription from the ninth century BC recounts the military exploits of Meshe, a prince of Moab. In Line 17 of the text, Meshe says he seized and slew (harag) all of Nebo. He killed the men and lads or retainers (Heb.: na’ar), and maidservants or maidens (possibly ‘amah). He did all this, “for to Ashtar-Kemosh I had devoted (cherem) it.” The killing (harag) is distinct from, yet consequential to the dedication (cherem) to the national god Chemosh. Here we see the term cherem retaining its primitive meaning of “devoted.”

We contrast this episode with that of Line 32, where Chemosh says “Go fight against Horomen,” just as he had earlier said, “Go fight against Nebo.” Yet there is no similar destruction of Horomen. The justification for killing inhabitants is not the divine command to go to war, but rather the dedication of the spoils to the god, which happens only in some circumstances.

Conversely, not all acts of extermination had anything to do with charam. In Line 11, Meshe says he “slew” (harag) all people at Ataroth. No divine mandate, either to initiate the war or to withhold the spoils, is given. Yet Ataroth is to be a gazing-stock (royt) or object of contempt to Chemosh and Moab. This is different from the other incidents. Here we have plain outright conquest of enemies to avenge past oppression. Accordingly, Meshe took the altar-heath of Ataroth to Chemosh in Kriyyot. Note that Ataroth is not devoted to Chemosh. It is an object of contempt, and thus unfit for cherem.

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1.6. Cherem in Pre-Monarchical Israel

With this context, we can better understand what is meant by cherem in the wars of Israelite conquest. We noted that Deuteronomy prescribed killing the inhabitants of those cities that were to be occupied by Israel, in order to protect their society from idolatry. There was no explicit mention of dedicating the spoils to God. Yet in the account of the wars of Joshua, we find some instances of the rule of cherem being invoked.

In Joshua 6:17, Jericho is declared to be “cherem to the Lord,” except for Rahab and her house, who are spared for hiding the messengers. In the next verse, there are three instances of cherem and one of charam: Israel is admonished to “keep from what is cherem, lest you should charam; when you take what is cherem, you make (set, put, place) the camp of Israel cherem, and trouble it (‘akar: disturb, as in troubled water; bring evil upon).” (6:18)

The last instance of cherem has the negative meaning of “anathema,” and thus by parallelism we might translate all instances as “accursed,” as in the King James Version. Jericho is not a holy offering, but is akin to those apostate Israelite cities envisioned in Deuteronomy 13:13-17. The city is “cherem to the Lord” in the sense that the Israelites are not to take anything for themselves, but instead deliver everything to God via destruction. If the Israelites were to take anything cherem among themselves, they would adopt its character.

In plainer language, the Israelites are not to permit any idolaters or their possessions to live among them, since that will disturb the community and lead many to apostasy, incurring the rule of cherem from Deuteronomy 7.

There is an exception to the destruction of the spoils of Jericho: all the silver, gold, and vessels of brass and iron are “set apart” (kodesh) for the Lord, and put in the treasury of the Lord. (Josh. 6:19) Still, the Israelites are to take nothing for themselves.

The Israelites “charam all that was in the city, man, woman, young (na’ar) and old, with the edge of the sword.” (Josh. 6:21) Here charam is effectively synonymous with destruction, though it is a destruction mandated by the dedication of the spoils to God. This dedication, we have noted, is not so much a holy offering but rather a safeguard against the corrupting effects of idolatry.

In the seventh chapter of Joshua, we find that one man violated the rule of cherem. Accordingly, God punishes the Israelites by allowing them to be defeated by the men of Ai. When Joshua turns to pray after the defeat, God tells him:

“Israel hath sinned, and transgressed my covenant: and they have taken of the anathema (cherem), and have stolen and lied, and have hidden it among their goods. Neither can Israel stand before his enemies, but he shall flee from them: because he is defiled with the anathema. I will be no more with you, till you destroy him that is guilty of this wickedness.” (Joshua 7:11-12)

Taking what is cherem is considered a breach of the holy covenant by which God had agreed to protect Israel. This passage gives some insight of how solemn a duty the rule of cherem was perceived to be, as it strikes at the core of Israel’s national identity. Without total separation from idolatry, Israel cannot be God’s people.

The offender is then stoned to death, per the traditional custom of collective execution. This method symbolizes that the entire community, not just some private group, condemns the individual. Afterwards, the body is burnt, which was not typical, but was specifically prescribed for this offense. This is because the offender is himself cherem (anathema), and thus must be dedicated to God by destruction.

There are several aspects of this practice that are alien to modern ethics. First, there is the notion that idolatry is absolutely intolerable within Israel. This rule follows from the special character of the Israelite covenant, whereby the Israelites owe their very lives and their freedom to God. Second, there is the apparent notion that one somehow becomes tainted or unholy by physical contact with the possessions of idolaters. This may seem superstitious, but ritual cleanliness was essential to Hebrew religion. While there is no physical basis for such a belief, it entailed a discipline of self-restraint and reinforced a complete repudiation of idolatry. Those who flouted the rule of cherem were showing disdain for the national covenant and wavering in their commitment to the One God of Israel. Also, many household artifacts did in fact have idolatrous significance.

Lastly, we may find it strange that Israel’s holiness is restored only by killing a man and burning his body. The execution was in accordance with the circumstances of the time, where imprisonment was not a viable option. The impossibility of mercy seems to arise from the belief that the damage done by the misdeed was irreparable, because of the tainting mentioned. The rule of cherem was well known to all, so the violation of this rule reflects grave contempt for the national covenant. Such a man could not be permitted to live among Israel, for the same reason apostates were not suffered to live. This action must be referred to Israel’s peculiar character as a nation consecrated to the worship of God.

In the eighth chapter, God instructs Joshua to do the same to Ai as was done to Jericho, except this time they may take spoil and cattle. Again, the city was to be burned, and was not to be rebuilt. The term charam is mentioned only once in this passage, when Joshua stretches out his spear, and charam’s the inhabitants of Ai. (Josh. 8:26) Only the inhabitants are dedicated to destruction this time. The Israelites did not believe that the possessions of idolaters had any intrinsic magical power to corrupt them; it was only the vow of cherem that could make such objects off limits. Taking what is cherem corrupts the offender not because of some property inherent in the object, but because of the violation of the sacred covenant that such an act entails.

In the late pre-monarchical period, when the Israelites gathered at Maspha for war against the Benjaminites, they took a solemn oath not to let their daughters marry the Benjaminites, and also to slay anyone who did not send men to this army. (Judges 20:1; 21:1,5) These were not extravagant oaths, as it is only natural not to wish to give one’s daughters to a mortal enemy, and death is a common penalty for treasonous evasion of military duty even today.

When it was found that the people of Jabesh-Gilead did not send any men to Maspha, the Israelites killed the inhabitants there, including women and children (taph). (Judges 21:10) Yet verse 21:11 specifies: “you shall charam every male, and every woman that has lain with man...”

The virgins were spared, so that these may marry the Benjaminites and save that tribe from extinction. The Israelites at Maspha considered themselves honor-bound not to allow their own daughters to marry the Benjaminites, so this seemed to be the only solution that would keep their oath.

There is no explicit divine command mentioned in this narrative, but the Israelites felt a religious and moral obligation to keep any oaths they had made before the Lord at Maspha. Since the slaying at Jabesh-Gilead was consequent to a solemn vow, the verb charam is used. The men were killed, along with their wives and sons (as they were considered subordinates of the same household), since they did not help defend the nation and thus renounced their right to be defended by it. The Israelites allow themselves to spare the virgins without considering themselves to have violated their vow, since they are giving them over to the Benjaminites.

The incident at Jabesh-Gilead shows how an oath mandating charam may be initiated by men without appeal to any divine command. In this case, charam was clearly intended as a punishment for treason or cowardice, and was not motivated by any overtly religious consideration. Still, the vow itself is always a solemn, religious act, requiring scrupulous observance.

The mere narration of an instance of charam does not necessarily imply moral approval by the Biblical author. The Israelites wanted to provide wives to the tribe of Benjamin, so they pushed the boundaries of their vows to make accommodations to the Benjaminites. They even went so far as to allow the Benjaminites to seize Israelite women at Silo. To this the narrator remarks: “In those days there was no king in Israel: but every one did that which seemed right to himself.” (Judges 21:24)

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1.7. Charam as Divine Punishment

We have just seen an example of how charam could be used as a form of human punishment, though this was not ordinarily the case. Charam might also be a form of divine punishment in some cases. It may be a divine punishment in one of two ways: (1) an enemy of Israel providentially acts in a way leading to its own destruction; or (2) charam is specifically prescribed by God as punishment of a nation.

An example of charam being perceived as a sort of providential punishment can be found when Joshua defeated the kings of the north, who had attacked Israel.

It was of the Lord to harden hearts, that they should war against Israel in battle, that he might charam, that they might have no favor (or mercy), but that he might destroy (shamad) them, as the Lord commanded Moses. (Joshua 11:20)

Although God had commanded Moses to destroy the Canaanites, the Israelites did not seek out wars with their neighbors. The author of the book of Joshua considers it providential that God hardened hearts so they would fight Israel, leading to their destruction.

The verse is grammatically constructed to give a chain of causation, which we depict below:

God hardens hearts → enemies attack Israel → they are “devoted” (cherem) → there is no mercy or favor → Israel destroys (shamad) them

This last part, the destruction, fulfills the divine commandment given to Moses. Although God specifically commanded destruction, this is implemented only in accordance with moral norms. Divine commands do not supervene morality. Thus, even with a divine command, the Israelites will not attack without just cause.

As an example of direct divine punishment, we come to the most famous instance of charam, that against Amalek in the first book of Samuel.

Go smite Amalek, and charam (v.) all that he has, and pity/spare them not, but kill (muvth, lit., execute) every man, woman, suckling (‘owlel) and infant. (1 Samuel 15:3)

This is a more severe form of charam than any we have seen, as the Israelites are specifically advised not to have pity, but to act as God’s executioners.

The Israelites were not a merciless people, as is shown in the subsequent verses. Saul spares the Kenites living among Amalek, since they were kind to Israel. (15:6) Amalek is punished for its hostility when the Israelites came out of Egypt. Even this judgment showed lenience, as centuries passed before the punishment was carried out. At last, the Amalekites were killed from Arabia to the border of Egypt.

The close affiliation between charam and killing is indicated in verse 15:8, which says the Israelites “devoted” (charam) people with the edge of a knife. They spared/pitied only the king Agag, and the best sheep and oxen. They would not charam them, but they charam’ed only what was “vile and refuse.”

We can see why this is a crime. They “devoted” only what was worthless and vile to God, while they kept the best for themselves. It is not pity as such that is the crime.

Further, we may see that cherem is not the same as sacrifice. Saul tells Samuel that the animals were spared in order to sacrifice (zabach) them to God. (15:15) He blames the people, saying that they took this to sacrifice in Gilgal. (15:21)

Samuel responds that it is better to obey than to sacrifice. (15:22) Remarkably, this disobedience is considered grave enough to cost Saul his kingship! Samuel never speaks to him again.

There is a clear contrast in perspectives here. To modern eyes, and indeed to all Christians since the time of Augustine, the practice of cherem is what seems morally dubious, if not outright repugnant and criminal. Yet for Samuel, the great crime was disobedience, specifically a failure to abide by cherem. Even in the New Testament, we find echoes of the principle that it is better to obey than to sacrifice. (cf. Mk. 12:33, Heb. 10:6-9) It is the failure to demonstrate obedience through cherem, not a failure to exterminate the Amalekites, which is the principal crime.

The rule of cherem did not require the total extermination of the Amalekites, as is proved by the fact that they continued as a race through the time of King David, and even until the time of Hezekiah, when their last remnants were stamped out. The reason for such severity against Amalek is not explicitly given in 1 Samuel 15:2, but it is implied (cf Deut. 25:17-18): they slaughtered the stragglers during the Exodus, failing to respect the sacred duty of hospitality. As noted in our Commentary on Genesis, violating hospitality was not ordinarily considered a capital offense. Rather, this failure is cited as an example of how the Amalekites were beyond the pale of civilized humanity, and thus were not owed the right to live as neighbors. We have no extra-Biblical knowledge of the Amalekites, so we cannot make any impartial judgment as to whether their crimes merited such severity. The fact that they were singled out for especially harsh punishment suggests that their crimes were extraordinary, even by the standards of the age.

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1.8. Later Instances of Charam

From the time of King David onward, we find no instances whatsoever of the practice of charam, that is, extermination as the result of a vow. We know that the custom still existed among the Moabites, but this was no longer necessary for Israel. For one thing, ancient Israel would never again be involved in a war of conquest, eliminating most potential occasions for charam. For another, the centralization of government and worship reduced the need for improvised justice by private oaths and invocations of the Deity. The only charam that had been part of public revelation was the judgment against the former inhabitants of Palestine, who were now fully supplanted by the Israelites.

There are still a couple of late Biblical mentions of the term charam, but these have lost the term’s original significance, and take on derivative meanings.

In 2 Kings 19:11, charam is contrasted with being spared or rescued or snatched away (natsal), so charam effectively means “not-spare.”

In Isaiah 11:15, charam clearly means “to destroy,” so the derivative meaning has fully overtaken the original meaning.

This predominance of derivative meaning carries over into modern Arabic, where haraam means what is forbidden or unclean. Unfortunately, this has led to modern interpreters mistaking derivative meanings for the original meaning of cherem, and applying this error to analysis of the Biblical texts.

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II. Ethical Evaluation

2.1 Sacred Oaths and Divine Commands

Now that we have a better sense of what is actually meant by the various instances of cherem and its verb form charam, we might attempt an ethical evaluation of this practice. Sometimes, discussions of this issue invoke a distinction between natural ethics and religious ethics, where the former consists of principles discernible by reason and universally applicable to humanity, and the latter relies on special divine revelation. Those following this approach will compare ancient practices of charam against purportedly universal ethical principles and judge them favorably or unfavorably. Some might argue that a special divine command supersedes or overrides natural ethics.

It is anachronistic to impose a sharp distinction between natural and religious ethics on the events of the Old Testament, or indeed any moral actions by the peoples of the ancient Near East. No such distinction was recognized by such people, and if ethical evaluation entails knowledge of intent, we must take this factor into consideration, as it informs the moral intentions of the ancients.

The inadequacy of a distinction between natural and religious ethics is especially evident when we are dealing with oaths or vows, which attain binding force by virtue of being made before God, as a sort of promise to God. To falsify this promise would be to defraud the Almighty. It is true that later ethicists, such as Cicero, sought to explain swearing to God as simply promising to speak the truth, and thus one is swearing by one’s own honor or honesty. This rationalization was unknown to the peoples of ancient Palestine, however, and they took oaths before God as being bound by the Deity, sometimes even erecting a pillar to represent the divine witness.

Not all oaths ought to be kept, as is obvious when the oath is to commit some terrible crime. Even if the oath is a promise to God, it would seem that any black oath should not be kept, for one is hardly rendering service to God by committing crimes. Rather, such an oath ought not to have been made in the first place. Thus a necessary presupposition of the oath would be that the act promised is not intrinsically evil. An act is not made righteous simply by being the object of a religious vow; there must be other circumstances that specify its righteousness or at least its liceity.

If a vow or solemn commitment is demanded by divine authority, either by God Himself or an emissary speaking on His behalf, then it follows from divine impeccability that what is commanded cannot be intrinsically evil. We are not making the tautological claim that whatever God commands must be good by virtue of being the object of divine command, as if the divine claim to absolute authority was separable from the objective benevolence of the Deity. Rather, God, because He is perfectly good, will choose to command only that which is good, and will refuse to command that which is intrinsically evil. The objective rectitude or evil of the act is not determined by being the subject of a specific divine command, but by its intrinsic characteristics. These characteristics, of course, are given by God, who is the source of all goodness. Thus even those, like Cicero, who hold to a naturalistic ethics must ultimately refer objective goodness back to the Deity who creates the world and orders it to its proper end.

We reject the notion that the subject of a divine command is good “because God says so,” but rather we may trust that God, because He is good, would never command that which is intrinsically evil. This is the faith of Abraham, who believed even when he could not understand how a divine command might be justified (as with the sacrifice of Isaac), yet also had an objective notion of justice to which he expected God to conform (as in his pleading to spare the innocent of Sodom and Gomorrah). God is loved by virtuous men because He is just. This is why the Hebrew patriarchs loved the God of Abraham rather than the false gods who commanded atrocities. The ethical writings on justice and mercy in the Hebrew Scriptures, especially in the Psalms, bear eloquent witness to this.

If it could be shown that there are instances in the Bible where God commands an atrocity, it would follow that the Hebrew God is a false god, or at the very least, that that portion of Scripture is not divinely inspired. If the Scriptures are divinely inspired, on the other hand, then we must regard all of the wars of extermination to be either: (1) not intrinsically evil, or (2) not commanded by God.

For most of Christian history, commentators have argued that the Israelite wars of destruction were not evil, either because they were ethical acts of war, or because they lost their evil character by virtue of being the objects of divine commands. In the modern era, both these lines of argument have lost their force, since we are much more stringent about what is permissible in war, and our aversion to authoritarianism makes it unpalatable to conceive of a God who is right only by virtue of His might. Thus most modern exegetes take the approach that the acts of extermination were not commanded by God. This interpretation is defensible in some instances, yet there still remain several occasions where the demand for charam is directly imputed to God or His prophet. Modern exegetes uphold the goodness of the Old Testament God only by effectively impugning the divine inspiration of parts of Scripture, and even of the prophet Samuel.

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2.2 Moral Circumstances of Antiquity

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. It is inappropriate to impose juridical principles of guilt or innocence onto non-juridical actions. This will be made clear by analyzing the acts in question according to their historical context.

In modern society, it is considered a war crime to willfully kill civilians who are not combatants, when this can be reasonably avoided. It is also considered a crime to impose “collective punishment,” inflicting harm on an entire community in retaliation for the militant actions of their young men. The killing of women and children is considered especially contemptible, as they are perceived as relatively weak and defenseless. In the case of young children, we may add a perception of moral innocence. Lastly, owing to the experience of the Holocaust, we regard any deliberate attempt to exterminate an ethnic group, regardless of justification, to be the most heinous of all crimes, which we call genocide.

It should be noted that all of these principles are informed by historically determinate circumstances that did not obtain in the ancient world. In the first place, there was no neat distinction between the military and civilians. In times of danger, all able-bodied men were expected to participate in war. There was no distinction between combatant and non-combatant men, which is why we find, not only in the Bible, but in innumerable ancient accounts of war, occurrences of exterminating the men of a defeated enemy. This is not because all ancient people were heartless and evil, but because they correctly perceived that all able-bodied men among their enemies were real threats. In an age when warfare was decided by muscle power rather than machines, allowing men to live would be like allowing a modern defeated enemy to retain its armaments.

Modern opprobrium toward “collective punishment” would have been similarly unintelligible to the ancients. The entire point of society is to form a collective, and when nations were small and close-knit, it was all the more obvious that the actions of one affected the entire community. Thus we find, not only in the Bible but in various ancient codes, that the criminal needed to be put to death or exiled, lest divine wrath should come upon the community for his sin. The moral solidarity of society was taken seriously. There was nothing of modern individualism, which would make society but an aggregation of autonomous persons interacting through trade and mutual contract. When ever-present danger forced societies to remain closely bound, moral responsibility was shared, as seen in the ritual of stoning. Serious decisions such as going to war involved collective participation, and all expected to share the same fate, for good or ill.

This social solidarity was especially pronounced within the family household. Wives and children fully expected to share the fate of their husbands and fathers. Their welfare and security depended on the patriarch, to whom they offered total allegiance. It should not be thought that this devotion was purely a product of physical coercion, for there are numerous examples of wives wishing to sacrifice themselves after a husband’s death, or children feeling duty-bound to avenge their fathers. Many would choose death rather than enter the service of another household.

Women and youth of the ancient Near East were much more hardened than their modern counterparts. Though they did not usually bear arms, they performed heavy labor and were accustomed to danger. Boys usually were proficient with a bow or sling, though not the sword. At an early age, children were exposed to adult affairs, and fully expected to participate in the economic life of the household, and to prepare for marriage. Infants, of course, were always helpless, yet the death of an infant was a much more frequent, though still lamented, occurrence even under ordinary circumstances.

Our revulsion toward genocide is largely the product of the industrial-scale killing of the twentieth century, with its horrifying images of massive piles of emaciated bodies.The ancient equivalent of genocide, if any, would have amounted to the rather incomplete extermination of a local tribe or kingdom. Most of the killing would take place in battle and its immediate aftermath. The ancients would not have considered such practice much different from the ordinary course of war, except that they were declining to take captives. If we are shocked that war was fought without mercy, we should recall that the peoples of Palestine generally would go to war only if they perceived an existential threat or a grave offense against justice. This is because war required the total commitment of the nation, ready to devote all of its young men to battle. Such a risk would not be taken unless for grave cause, unlike those wars designed only to spread the glory of kings and emperors.

We should be mindful that the modern ethos is colored by a general aversion to killing for any reason. This even goes to the extreme of being reluctant to execute the most terrible criminals. This revulsion toward bloodshed as intrinsically barbaric and cruel, regardless of moral context, is itself an irrational aesthetic judgment. We generally recognize that killing is licit, even commendable, when done in self-defense or in a just war, which suffices to prove that the act of killing is not intrinsically evil. A universal “right to life” cannot prove that killing is always wrong, any more than a universal “right to liberty” proves that imprisonment is always wrong. Indeed, to imprison a man for life is effectively to deprive him of his life by bloodless means. It is hardly cogent to endorse life sentences as valid criminal penalties while denouncing the death penalty as intrinsically unjust. There may be valid reasons for preferring lifetime imprisonment as the supreme temporal punishment, but the notion that society may not deprive a man of his life is not one of them.

The liceity of the death penalty comes from the fact that it is not morally the same to kill the guilty as to kill the innocent. What is intrinsically immoral is not killing as such, but deliberately killing the innocent without adequate cause.

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2.3 Non-Judicial Killing of the Innocent

The notion that it is wrong to kill the innocent is not specifically modern, but may be found in all cultures throughout the ages. It may be said to constitute part of that natural moral law that all men are bound to follow, and which no one having the use of reason may violate on the pretext of ignorance. As noted previously, Abraham considered it unjust that God might slay the innocent together with the guilty in an act of judgment. The primary purpose of judgment is to distinguish between guilt and innocence, so punishing the innocent in a judicial act is intrinsically unjust, and therefore always wrong.

Nonetheless, there may be times when the innocent are slain, not in an unjust judgment that disregards their innocence, but in an act that is not intended to be judicial at all. For example, a man might slay a nighttime intruder who intended no crime, or anyone else who inadvertently seemed to threaten his life, on the grounds of self-defense. Although the person slain was innocent of any offense, the killer is not necessarily guilty of any crime. Also, in war, a soldier may kill enemy fighters who are individually guilty of no crime or injustice. This does not make the soldier a murderer, as he is not presuming to aggrandize himself at another’s expense, nor is he intending to punish individuals for supposed guilt. Again, this is a non-judicial act with its own sufficient cause, in this case the casus belli.

It can never be wrong to do that which is necessary, so sometimes people may licitly kill out of physical or practical necessity. Some physical or moral circumstance may make it necessary to kill. For example, when resources are limited or there is a dire emergency, one must make a choice about which lives should be saved first, effectively condemning others to death.

Nature may kill, through storm, famine, plague or wild beast, yet this is not considered intrinsically unjust, even if it should befall the innocent. Though we may bemoan an especially cruel fate or misfortune, in our sober moments we recognize that no one is entitled to a life free from natural calamity. All of us are destined to die by virtue of our perishable constitution and our vulnerability to injury and disease. To claim that natural death is unjust would be to demand that we ought to be imperishable and invulnerable by right.

Those who ascribe the natural order to God do not impugn the Deity with injustice for causing them to die sooner or more painfully than others. This is because no one supposes that every death is intended to be a punishment in proportion to guilt. Rather, God, the giver of all life, may reclaim His gift at any time according to His providence. No one has a right to complain of this, since life itself is an undeserved gift. If anyone should say that the prospect of death makes life more miserable than non-existence, he might prove this by committing suicide, yet that would be absurdly to pursue death out of fear of death.

Here we recognize that God has a right over life and death that human beings lack, owing to His unique role as the free giver of life. He alone may claim the lives of the innocent at any time in any circumstance. Many Christian exegetes have held that the Israelites acted as instruments of divine Providence, obediently following God’s command to slay those whom He had designated for destruction. In this view, the Israelites are no more guilty of murder than a storm or wild beast who kills an innocent person at the divinely appointed hour.

Yet there is something deeply problematic in this notion that human beings may be used as angels of death. Once it is accepted that God may command men to kill the innocent for some inscrutable reason, the principle is very easily abused, and we may have unspeakable atrocities committed in the name of religious obedience. Opponents of the divine inspiration of Scripture argue that precisely such atrocities are what we find in the Old Testament. A more careful examination, however, shows that the exterminations were performed for different reasons, and not all were done at the supposed command of God.

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2.4 Evaluating Israelite Actions

In Numbers 21 and Deuteronomy 2:34-35, we find that the Israelites volunteered to devote cities to God rather than take captives. Elsewhere in Deuteronomy, we find divine laws prescribing the destruction of Israelites in cities turned to idolatry (13:13-17), and the same for inhabitants of conquered Canaanite cities, to avoid learning “abominations which they have done to their gods.” (20:16-18) Here the concern is to preserve Israel from the objectively grave evil of idolatry.

The acts of charam in the Book of Joshua appear to be in accordance with the prescriptions of Deuteronomy 20. In Joshua 6, Jericho is offered as cherem, without any special divine command. Yet God holds the Israelites to their vow, punishing them with defeat at Ai for not keeping cherem, thereby breaching His covenant. (Joshua 7) In Joshua 8, God tells Joshua to do the same to Ai as was done to Jericho, except to keep the spoil and cattle. In Joshua 11:20, it is said to be providential that the kings of the north should attack and then be defeated and charam’ed (per Deut. 20:16-18).

Charam may also be used as a punishment, as is the case in Judges 21, where the Israelites decide to charam Jabesh-Gilead for treason, though sparing the virgins so the Benjaminites could marry. Most famously, in 1 Samuel 15, God through Samuel tells Saul to smite and charam Amalek, as punishment for their heinous crimes. Saul is then punished with the loss of his kingship for sparing the king of Amalek and the best livestock.

Setting aside those cases that do not have any overt divine sanction (Numbers 21, Deuteronomy 2, Judges 21), we find that the recorded instances of charam are not arbitrary or completely inscrutable acts of providence, but are prescribed for definite reasons. The destructions of Jericho, Ai, and the kings of the north were commanded in order to protect the fledgling nation of Israel from the idolatrous abominations of the Canaanites. The Amalekites were punished for their relentless and merciless opposition to Israel since the Exodus. In all these cases, there is a radical incompatibility between the nation of Israel and the culture to be destroyed.

We should note that Israel warred many times against pagan nations, but only in these few instances did they resort to the practice of cherem. It was not merely idolatry as such that prompted this recourse, but the especially abominable forms found among the Canaanites, who lived in such proximity to Israel as to constitute a real existential threat to the Israelite national project.

Still, we do not generally allow that it is licit to kill the innocent of another nation so that one’s own nation may flourish. Even the great good of promoting a nation dedicated to the worship of God cannot justify evil means, which is why the Israelites did not presume to conquer the Canaanites except as just causes arose. Yet they did have a special divine ordinance (given in Deut. 20:16-18) to destroy the inhabitants of Canaanite cities at such time when they were defeated in a just war. The adults were duly punished for their crimes, while the children were killed in consequence, not because they were guilty of their parents’ crimes, but so that the crimes of that culture would not continue. Since the children were morally innocent, the Israelites could slay them only by virtue of the divine mandate in Deuteronomy, which was neither cruel nor arbitrary, but ordered toward a definite good.

We must recall that the only practical alternative to killing non-combatants was to incorporate them into the households of the conquerors, since a defeated city without any men could not long survive. Such a merger was not possible in the special cases of the Canaanite cities and the Amalekites, as these depraved cultures posed an existential threat to the Israelite national project. The severity of this threat was expressed by regarding the inhabitants and spoils as cherem in the sense of “anathema.” Although the acts of extermination seem cruel and harsh to modern eyes, the practical alternatives of enslavement or death from starvation or exposure were hardly better.

Properly speaking, the practice of charam was ruthless but not cruel. By ‘ruthless,’ I mean merciless, and it is without question that charam essentially entailed a lack of mercy, a steadfast refusal to spare any of the vanquished. Yet it was not cruel in the sense of reflecting a disposition to inflict suffering or harm. With the exception of the Amalekites, there is generally no indication that charam was motivated by a desire to punish. The Israelites, in their ordinary inclinations, would have liked to take captives and spoils, and they had to exert extraordinary self-restraint to destroy them instead. We find no indication that they took any delight in killing non-combatants, nor that they held any animus toward the latter. Rather, they felt morally obligated to kill conquered inhabitants on account of their vow and the necessity of the survival of their national project.

As a matter of strict justice, the Israelites were not obligated to accept the conquered into their households. Once it was resolved not to take captives, there remained only death by passive or active means. God permitted that the Israelites should put everyone to the sword, rather than leave them to die of exposure or hunger. There is nothing here, then, that is inconsonant with justice. Such analysis should not suffice, however, for those who profess to be Christians.

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2.5 Obsolescence of Wars of Cherem

The Israelites were a people barely removed from idolatry, and constantly in danger of full relapse. They were taught higher religious and moral sensibilities, including an appreciation of justice and mercy, by first being set apart from other nations. Eventually, when they were ready to receive an even nobler ethic, where men do not claim what is their just due, but instead lay down their lives for the good of their enemies, the survivalist ethos in which cherem had arisen was no longer applicable.

There is no prospect of God ever again commanding the slaying of the innocent, since the Christian dispensation has begun. Indeed, the need for such a special mandate had already ended a thousand years earlier, once Israel had established a firm foothold in Canaan. A Christian should not seek to destroy his enemies, but rather to give up his own life, confident that the new Israel, which is the Church, shall never perish from the earth. We should not expect God to command a Christian, or anyone else, to act in a way that is contrary to the superabundant charity that He wishes to bring forth through the kingdom of God. The Christian sensibilities of mercy and charity toward our enemies have become so deeply infused in our culture, that we may say even of Jews, Muslims, indeed of all men, that none of them should ever expect a divine mandate to slay the innocent, even if their own nations are threatened.

While it is tempting to look down upon the survivalist justice of ancient Israel as an inferior sort of ethic, this would be exhibiting shortsighted ingratitude. Were it not for the survival of ancient Israel, we could not have seen the development of higher religious and ethical sensibility among the Jews, which they brought to the gentiles of the Eastern Mediterranean, preparing them for acceptance of Christianity. Without their necessary ruthlessness at the appropriate time, we would not have the ethos of charity and mercy now taken for granted. Although many today would abstract the principles of charity and mercy from their religious context, this is naive and ahistorical. These did not become living principles through abstract moral reasoning, but through concrete historical experience, in determinate religious and social contexts. Modern readers who are appalled by the severity of Old Testament warfare should recall their debt to the ancient Israelites for their liberal heritage.

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© 2012 Daniel J. Castellano. All rights reserved. http://www.arcaneknowledge.org