Herem, “Devoted to Destruction” (in Joshua)

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There is hardly an idea more problematic to contemporary readers than the notion that God might command one people group to annihilate another people group. That notion of divinely sanctioned genocide or ethnic cleansing is reflected in the Hebrew noun ḥerem (and its related verb), which in the cognate Moabite language is the same word as is found in the Mesha Inscription. The verb has been translated in a variety of ways: devote to destruction, utterly destroy, annihilate, exterminate, proscribe. The noun and its related verb form occur twenty-seven times in Joshua. Although the word is primarily associated with warfare in Deuteronomy and Joshua, it is also associated with other contexts (e.g., Exod 22:20; Lev 27:21, 28-29; Num 18:14) where it applies to matters from capital punishment to handing over ownership of things to the Lord or to his priestly representatives. Most often, however, ḥerem is concerned with the annihilation of the Other, those perceived either as enemies or as a hindrance to the fulfillment of the Lord’s promise of land to Israel (Num 21:2-8; Deut 2:34; 3:6; 7:2, 26; 13:15-17; 20:17; 1 Sam 15:3).

Drawing on a number of earlier studies, Lohr offers this succinct summary of the meaning of the word ḥerem:

“Whether used in the context of war or in the sanctuary, the word evokes the idea of an ‘irrevocable surrender to God.’ This separating or devoting something to God is absolute, irrevocable, permanent, complete. Once something is devoted, it cannot be redeemed. The thing devoted is taken from profane or common use and is given over or dedicated to be something set apart or sacred. A connection to the idea of holiness, whether positive or negative, is inevitable.” (208)

Most explanations of ḥerem that try to justify the command to annihilate the enemy run aground on the objection that they bypass the biblical text. Lohr summarizes a number of such solutions, ranging from “the idea that the ḥerem never happened to the idea that God did not really command it to the idea that God commanded it because he is a God that gets his hands dirty. All of the above suggestions seem to read something into the text that is not present” (225). Lohr proposes that the biblical texts are primarily concerned with “the fulfillment of God’s blessings to Abraham, one of which included a land that his descendants were to possess but that was populated” (225). From this perspective, Lohr suggests that ḥerem, “though repugnant to the contemporary reader, shows YHWH’s absolute loyalty to his oath made to Israel’s foreparents” (161). Although Lohr states that the Canaanites were simply “in the wrong place at the wrong time” (225), the promise to the ancestors does include a reference to “the iniquity of the Amorites,” which, according to Genesis 15:16, will form the basis for their dispossession.

Lohr does not consider the fact that ḥerem also stands at the heart of the Mesha Inscription, where the god Chemosh promises to give victory to Mesha, king of Moab, who is to devote Israelites—men, women, children, and livestock—to destruction for the god Chemosh. The Mesha Inscription and the biblical text assume an integral relationship among god, land, and people. Both texts reflect the theology of Jephthah’s messengers (Judg 11:23-24). Like the Mesha Inscription, biblical texts that use the word ḥerem appropriate the conventional language of the conquest-account genre. And when Deuteronomy commands ḥerem, it shares the same theological perspective on that relationship as does the Mesha Inscription: that the god (Yahweh or Chemosh) has a right to rid an “alien people” from the land designated for the deity’s special people.

The “solution” to the ḥerem problem, therefore, cannot be derived simply from within the text of the OT. Although Lohr is correct in linking ḥerem to the Lord’s loyalty to the ancestors, the book of Joshua itself subordinates ḥerem to divine instruction (Torah), even though it is clear that not all divine instruction in Deuteronomy is to be obeyed in perpetuity. Moreover, as Seibert points out, “Even the most theologically troubling texts contain other insights, ideas, and perspectives that can, and should, be explored” (213). For further development of that idea, see Matties (2009).

See Nelson; Niditch; Stern; Earl, Reading, ch. 6; Joshua Delusion; Lohr: Appendix 2.


  • Earl, Douglas S. Reading Joshua as Christian Scripture. Journal of Theological Interpretation: Supplement 2. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2010.
  • ______. The Joshua Delusion? Rethinking Genocide in the Bible. Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2010.
  • Lohr, Joel N. Chosen and Unchosen: Conceptions of Election in the Pentateuch and Jewish-Christian Interpretation. Siphrut: Literature and Theology of the Hebrew Scriptures 2. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2009.
  • Matties, Gordon H. “The Word Made Bitter: At the Table with Joshua, Buber, and Bakhtin.” In The Old Testament in the Life of God’s People: Essays in Honor of Elmer A. Martens, edited by Jon Isaak, 307-32. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2009.
  • Nelson, Richard D. “Ḥērem and the Deuteronomic Social Conscience.” Deuteronomy and Deuteronomistic Literature. Bibliotheca ephemeridum theologicarum lovaniensium 133. Edited by M. Vervenne and J. Lust, 39-54. Leuven: Leuven University Press, 1997.
  • Niditch, Susan. War in the Hebrew Bible: A Study in the Ethics of Violence. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Gordon H. Matties