Herem, holy war (1 Samuel 15)

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The command given to Saul in 1 Samuel 15:3 to “totally destroy everything” that belonged to the Amalekites represents the translation of the Hebrew word haram. This verb, which means to “ban” or “completely destroy” has a related noun, herem, meaning “absolute destruction”. In keeping with its frequent use within the context of Old Testament Hebrew warfare, the verb is also found in Deuteronomy 20:16-18, where the Israelites were commanded to “completely destroy” all the peoples living within the land God had given them as an inheritance. These verses in Deuteronomy indicate that this total destruction involved killing all the people and domestic animals belonging to the place. The same verb appears in the Moabite language, as attested on the ninth century B.C. Mesha Stele (pictured below), an inscribed stone monument on which king Mesha of Moab claimed to have “totally destroyed” the people of Nebo for the god Chemosh. Mesha’s use of this verb demonstrates a connection between Israel and her neighbours in the realm of warfare ideology.

While the phrase “holy war” may be somewhat misleading, the Biblical idea of war is rooted in the notion that God led His people into battle and that certain Old Testament battles were executed as religious acts. Although it has been suggested that herem was an element of every Biblical holy war, this is most unlikely, since it was not decreed in every battle.

While it is not mentioned in 1 Samuel 15, the ark of the covenant served as the palladium (a religious image or object thought to provide divine protection to a people or place) that signified Yahweh’s presence among the Israelite army in battle. Yahweh was often portrayed as a warrior God who was victorious over the powers of chaos. This ideology was prevalent throughout the ancient Near East, and, along with associated injunctions to purity among the warriors (Deuteronomy 23:9-10), it provided the essential elements of the holy war. In the Bible this offers a powerful metaphor for God’s mighty acts in salvation history that will culminate in the absolute destruction of all who oppose Him.

The herem in Israelite warfare strikes many readers as cruel, but it is helpful to keep three factors in mind:

  • The Israelites were executing divine judgement on Canaan speciffically; they were not called to wage holy wat on the nations around them in order to create an empire.
  • The herem was intended to remove permanently the pagan influence from the Israelite vicinity.
  • The herem was  meant to remind the Israelites that their warfare was not for the purpose of aquiring slaves and booty, but was meant to secure the land as their inheritance. When the Israelites failed to carry out the herem, the reason was often not mercy on their part, but greed (1 Samuel 15:9).

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