Understanding The “”Ḥerem -- By: J.P.U. Lilley

Journal: Tyndale Bulletin
Volume: TYNBUL 44:1 (NA 1993)
Article: Understanding The “”Ḥerem
Author: J.P.U. Lilley

Understanding The “”Ḥerem

J.P.U. Lilley


The term for ‘devote’ or ‘destroy’ has not always been understood correctly, particularly in relation to the so-called ‘holy war’. It forbade the use of property, or relationships with people. It applied only occasionally to loot, and not to idolatrous objects; but in its application to enemies, it involved extermination, and thus the verb acquired its secondary sense of ‘destroy’.

The Hebrew term ḥerem has attracted special attention because of its use in the account of the invasion of Canaan, in the book of Joshua, where it often connotes the destruction of Israel’s Canaanite opponents. This policy is enjoined in Deuteronomy 7:2 and 20:17 by the use of the verb haḥarîm, which also occurs in war narratives (e.g. Nu. 21:2 f., Dt. 2:34 and 3:6). The term has other applications in the Pentateuch, and indeed in Old Testament literature generally; taking these into consideration, it appears that the interpretations found in many commentaries on Joshua are not entirely satisfactory.

A Problem Of Translation

It is not easy to find an unambiguous equivalent in English for ḥerem. ‘Devoted’ has acquired a connotation of personal loyalty; ‘devoted to destruction’ is periphrastic and not accurate in all contexts. ‘Ban’ has to be given a technical meaning for this purpose, and in many places it would be awkward or difficult to use. ‘Dedicated’ is too wide a term and fails to convey the idea of destruction which is often required. The RSV and NIV prefer ‘devoted thing’ for the noun,1 and ‘totally destroy’ for the verb, which is accurate but leads to many marginal notes. The Greek translators experienced similar difficulty; the Septuagint is almost equally divided between ἀνάθημα and ὄλεθρον (counting verbal forms and cognates in both cases). Certainly there is a derived meaning of haḥarîm in which the element of ‘devotion’ is weakened or perhaps non-existent;2 but it is not always easy to

identify, and arguably the Septuagint adopts it too readily. In this article I will stay with ‘devoted’ as far as possible.

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