The Warfare Ideology of “Herem” in Ancient Israel and The Ancient Near East

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Susan Niditch’s analysis of warfare ideology in Ancient Israel in the Old Testament is thorough and therefore suggestive of her sophisticated knowledge of the topic. This essay will examine chapter 1 of her work, War in the Hebrew Bible (1993), and thus expound in some detail the ideological warfare of “herem.” This paper will not only elucidate her own thoughts but also the views of other reputable biblical scholars who are supportive of her own and/or bolster her central claims.

Having identified the ancient Israelite warfare ideology within the Old Testament, Niditch references numerous warfare ideologies Israel adopted such as herem, tricksterism, the ideology of expediency, non-participation, and the bardic tradition, all of which are identifiable within the biblical texts. However, herem, as this paper’s focus, is what Niditch defines as the “most chilling” of biblical war texts (Niditch, 1993: 28). And although we shall identify several types of herem, in its most simplest form it is the ideology in which all human beings of Israel’s enemy are to be “devoted to destruction” (Niditch, 1993: 28). Moreover, as we shall see, herem was a common ideology in the Ancient Near East (ANE) setting in which the Israelites grew as a nation.

Niditch identifies a few categories of herem within ancient Israel (Niditch, 1993: 28-30). Our primary sources for learning about these are the books of Deuteronomy, Numbers, Joshua, 1 Samuel, and Malachi 4:6. First, and most widely known, is the herem of which the Israelites put on the nations and hill tribes living within the land of Canaan (Jebusites, Hivites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, and Hitties), as well as cities within the land (Joshua and Ai). Under this herem, populations were devoted to destruction (1 Sam. 15:3) which included “men, women, children” (Deu. 2:34), “man and woman, young and old” (Josh. 6:21) as sacrifices to Yahweh (Num. 21:2-3; Josh. 6:17-21; 8:2, 24-28; 11:11, 14; Deu. 2:34-35). This ideology provides a rationale for genocide (Boustan, 2010: 3-5; Brueggemann, 2003: 148; Enns, 2014; Rauser, 2009 & 2015: 27-41). Niditch further observes that herem could too apply to Israelites who disobeyed Yahweh, and especially those who worshipped other false gods instead (Niditch, 1993: 30), which was viewed as an abomination (Exo. 22:20; Deu. 7:25–26). The consequence was that both livestock and human beings were to be killed and inanimate objects burned. A third form of herem was through which individual Israelites offered God their possessions such as agricultural holdings, slaves, and animals (Lev. 27:28) (Niditch, 1993: 30).

Importantly, the ideology of herem in the ANE was not limited to Israel. In fact, it was a common belief in Ancient Near Eastern societies that within war the sacred and secular were interlinked (Niditch, 1993: 32). Thus, it was the belief of these ancients that God, or the gods, would fight on their behalf, would hand them victory in battle, and promise them victory on the battlefield before the combat had even begun. Some would also promise a pleasing sacrifice to God should he grant them the victory (see Num. 21:2-3 for a biblical example). As mentioned, the devoting to destruction entire populations was not unique to Israel, and can be found within the Mesha Inscription in which King Mesha of the Moabites captured the town of Nebo and killed all the inhabitants by devoting “them to destruction for (the god) Ashtar-Chemosh” (Niditch, 1993: 31; Pritchard, 1969: 320).

The Israelites were nonetheless convinced that herem was both commanded by Yahweh and helped by him (Dumbrell, 2002: 66; Niditch, 1993: 28-29). Yahweh, they believed, was fighting on their side and would no doubt hand them the victory (Num. 21:2-3; Josh. 10:8; Deu. 21:10). Again, this fits in well with the wider ANE context. For example, the Moabites believed that their god Kemosh gave them victory over the Israelites in their battle. According to the Annals of Mursili and Sargan’s Letter to Ashur their gods sent hailstones down onto their enemies, and the god Ba’alshamayn was believed to deliver King Zakur from all the enemy kings who wanted to siege him.

A further feature to herem within ANE is important to observe, namely, the deliberate stylized exaggeration of military accounts of victories over enemies in battle (Copan, 2011: 76-124; Driver, 1902: 98; Versluis, 2017: 317). This is referred to as hagiographic hyperbole since Nicholas Wolterstoff’s coining of the term (Wolterstorff, 2010: 252-253). Niditch accepts the premise of this Ancient Near Eastern literary device and draws parallels to King Mesha’s similar use of hyperbolic war rhetoric (Niditch, 1993: 31). For example, the king boasted that the northern kingdom of “Israel has utterly perished for always,” which was not true given that northern Israel lasted for over a century post the king’s premature declaration (before Assyria invaded northern Israel in 722 BC). Examples of this exist elsewhere in ANE literature, for instance, Tuthmosis III claimed that “[The] army of Mitanni was overthrown within the hour, annihilated totally, like those (now) not existent” (Gebal Barkal Steal), King Merneptah penned that “Ashkelon is conquered, Gezer seized, Yanoam made nonexistent; Israel is wasted, bare of seed” (the earliest ancient reference to Israel from the Merneptah Stele dated 1230 BC), Sennacherib bragged that he cut down his enemy and not one escaped, and Ramses II allegedly slew the entire Hittite force and “all the chiefs of all the countries” in his invasion of Syria (The Bulletin of Ramses II). Such hyperbole was a common literary device in this part of the ancient world.

Furthermore, though she does not examine the relationship between inspiration and the ethical and historical issues within the Joshua conquest narratives, Niditch does explain that these have been a cause for concern (Niditch, 1993: 41). Where ethics is relevant, Niditch finds there to be a concerning inconsistency between herem and other values within the Pentateuch/Torah, for example, she explains that herem seems counter to fundamental underlying “biblical values such as the emphasis on moderation in all things; the importance of preserving life” (Niditch, 1993: 28-29). These include the warnings against the shedding of human blood (Gen. 9:5), the emphasis on the care for aliens, widows, and orphans (Exo. 22: 21-24), and the instruction to not be the cause of an innocent’s death (Deu. 19:15-20). Personally, I would extend this difficulty to the ethic set down by Jesus Christ of the New Testament. Theologian Greg Boyd rightly explains that many Christians “feel forced to conclude there is no way to reconcile the depictions of God commanding genocide… with the revelation of God in Christ” (Boyd, 2008).

Niditch, moreover, notes the historical concerns pertaining to herem (Niditch, 1993: 51; also see Brueggemann, 2003: 141). She outlines several theories attempting to explain the alleged historical origins of Israel in Canaan that are “not accepted by the majority of contemporary scholars…” (Niditch, 1993: 51-53). For example, we have the Conquest model which is the view that although the biblical conquest narratives are historically inaccurate they still occurred. There is the Infiltration model which sees the Israelites as nomads from the desert who slowly over time settled into Canaan. Third, the Revolt model proposes that Israel emerged within the land of Canaan as peasants who rebelled against Canaanite rule. Proponents also believed that there were a small number of bandits and slaves who came out from Egypt and settled in Canaan. Fourth, the Pioneer Settlement model has been presented though it too has its share of challenges. Thus, Niditch, not appearing to accept either of these models, believes that Israel, prior to kingship, was once a cluster of “smaller bands” who would then come to identify themselves as groups (Niditch, 1993: 54). However, how the ideology of herem sits within this process we will “never be certain if Israelite rulers of any period invoked the ban against actual enemies” (Niditch, 1993: 54).

Thus, in conclusion this paper has sought to summarize and reflect on a number of points scholar Niditch brings forth within her book. All considered, it would be safe to suggest that the ideology of herem was embraced by numerous Ancient Near Eastern civilizations, and especially so within Israel’s own testimony although historians will never know if Israel actually historically carried it out on its enemies. Moreover, herem further presents readers will ethical and theological difficulties given it shows Yahweh as the instigator of genocide, while its bloody and merciless ideology also appears to be in uncomfortable tension with other biblical values found within the Pentateuchal texts.

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Boustan, R. 2010. Violence, Scripture, and Textual Practice. In Early Judaism and Christianity;

Brueggemann, W. 2003. An Introduction to the Old Testament. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press

Enns, P. 2014. The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It. New York: Harper Collins.

Rauser, R. 2009. “Let Nothing That Breathes Remain Alive”: On The Problem Of Divinely Commanded Genocide. In Philosophia Christi, 11 (1): 27-41

Rauser, R. 2015. Did God Really Command Genocide? A Review (Part 1). Available: [17 April 2018]

Boyd, G. 2008. What’s at Stake in Trying to Explain the Violent God of the Old Testament? Available: [17 April 2018]

Copan, P. 2014. Did God Really Command Genocide? Ada: Baker Books.

Driver, S.R. 1902. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Deuteronomy. London: T. & T. Clark.

Dumbrell, W. 2002. The Faith of Israel. Grand Rapids: Baker.

Niditch, S. 1993. War in the Hebrew Bible: A Study in the Ethics of Violence. New York: Oxford University Press.

Pritchard, J. 1969. Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Versluis, A. 2017. The Command to Exterminate the Canaanites: Deuteronomy 7.

Wolterstorff, N. 2010. Reading Joshua. In Bergmann, M., & Rea, M. Divine Evil? The Moral Character of the God of Abraham. New York: Oxford University Press.



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