Was God Just Clearing His Throat When He Said, “Herem”?

Herem (sometimes spelled more phonetically correctly as “cherem“) is a concept that gives me cold chills up and down my spine, and I am obviously not alone in my reaction to it.

It describes the consecration of something to God – often, in the Old Testament, an entire city – usually by totally destroying it.

It has come to have the lesser meaning, through the centuries, of complete ecclesiastical censure from the Jewish community – what we would call, in Restoration Movement circles, “disfellowship.” But that’s not the meaning I’m talking about.

Total destruction of an entire village or city – “men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys” (1 Samuel 15:3) – at God’s command; that kind of herem is a concept some have found so repulsive that it has caused them to doubt the inspiration of (some) scripture; that God could or ever did order such a thing in Deuteronomy 7:16 or 7:26 or 13:15. Or that Joshua was following His orders when he did so in Joshua 10:1 or 10:28 or 10:35 or 10:37 or 39 or 40-42 or 11:11-12 or 11:20-21, etc., etc., etc.

It is an action which these folks find so morally repugnant that they cannot bring themselves to believe God would command it.

I can totally sympathize with them. Herem sounds, to twenty-first century American Keith, too much like Holocaust. Extermination. Genocide. How could creatures whom God created and loved be ordered by Him to be annihilated? How could a merciful God condemn Saul for having mercy on King Agag and sparing him from the herem of the rest of the Amalekites (1 Samuel 15)? How could a loving God inspire Isaiah to warn that He would Himself commit herem to “all nations” in His wrath (Isaiah 34:2)?

Surely, these folks reason, the herem instruction must have been attributed to God by writers of scripture rather than coming from God Himself.

Which is a way of thinking that leads to all kinds of problems, not the least of which is to what extent the inspiration of scripture can be relied upon, or discerned and determined, by us rather dim-witted mortals. If we don’t like part of scripture that doesn’t seem Godly to us, can we just reclassify it as uninspired and shuffle on past it? By what standard do we determine what seems Godly to us? And where does that process stop, if it’s completely subjective?

I think the answer to the questions above is complex and difficult and far beyond my powers of comprehension even if it were within my powers of explication.

But here’s what I think.

  • God is merciful and loving. He is also just and righteous. We can’t handle that balance perfectly, and He can. This perplexes us, and we have a tendency to create God in our own image rather than accepting the vice-versa.
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  • God is sovereign. He created us, for His own purpose, to His own glory – and not to meet our standards of morality, however much we might think them to be perfect.
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  • He creates and destroys. He gives life, and He takes life. If you have difficulty with the concept of Him taking life or a city full of lives or the lives of 185,000 Assyrians at the hand of one angel or causing a flood that obliterates all kinds of life, you are going to have big, big problems with the idea of Him judging mankind and meting eternal punishment to those whom He deems disobedient – people who do, in fact, desperately deserve punishment for their hatred, violence, greed, slander, abuse, tortures, and murders. Was there even one of the consequences foretold by God in Deuteronomy 28 which were not visited upon His beloved people to discipline them?
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  • The instances in which herem are described in scripture were swift and sure. They were accomplished without rancor or pity – there was no time for either. They accomplished the destruction of cultures which had become so twisted that evil was thought to be good and good was considered to be evil. Captured kings were dismembered, or if killed, their corpses dishonored and displayed. Cult prostitution was rampant. Babies were sacrificed to idols made by hands. Scripture calls their practices “detestable” over and over again. The reason God required the destruction of such cultures was so that their evil would not infiltrate Israel and contaminate her culture, and that’s exactly what happened when His people failed to obey His command. They were to be His instruments of obliterating this evil from the land He was giving them so that they would never forget what His wrath might do to them.
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  • God did not love Israel any more or less than the nations around her. (Jonah 4:10-11) But a point came when Israel’s sin began to exceed that of the nations around her; she had not learned to excise sin, act justly, love mercy nor walk humbly with her God though her history was replete with the consequences of not doing so. Examples of herem went unheeded and/or unremembered. Repeated defeats and captivities had proven ineffective. Law would no longer suffice. Destroying Israel would not be instructive. Redemption was the only alternative.
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  • And if you have trouble with the idea of God taking lives that are not innocent, you are going to have insurmountable difficulties with the notion of a God who allows the life of His innocent Son to be brutally wrung from Him, blow-by-blow and blooddrop-by-blooddrop and breath-by-breath, naked, nailed to a cross, in front of His mother.
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  • This is all just a little beyond us. It does not fit within the limitations of the three-and-a-half pounds of head cheese comprising billions of neurons firing electrical impulses that go a little faster than 250 miles an hour inside our skulls. We need to get over ourselves, get past the idea that we know better than He does and stop judging Him and the way He has chosen to communicate with us through His word.
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  • God is God, and we are not.
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  • Thank God for that.
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4 thoughts on “Was God Just Clearing His Throat When He Said, “Herem”?

  1. Keith, why do we credit God with all the destruction mentioned in the old testament, and none of the destruction we see every day all around us. ?
    Why did they call it an act of God, and we call it an act of nature. There has been much more heinous acts committed in modern days that God has not taken revenge upon, and yes against the Jews. Believe it or not, we are much more learned than those persons of old were, when things happened they could not explain they credited to God’s anger, why because he was the source of all power. when we see someone that ignorant today we say, you got to be kidding, God had nothing to do with it, Is our God the same God of the old testament, has he mellowed, or been replaced? Did he turn all the punishment over to “mother nature”?

  2. I think that Western culture has largely eliminated God as a possible cause of disaster (except for certain televangelists who are somehow convinced that He is the cause of every kind of disaster as punishment against those whom the televangelists deem guilty of abhorrent sin – as well as against anyone who lives close to them).

    Your answer probably lies between those extremes. Plus, there’s the possibility that God also permits disaster to give us a nudge; an opportunity to help and be the sort of Christlike people we should be in our generous giving and assistance and love and prayers.

    I know this is not a particularly popular point of view. But it seems quite biblical to me.

  3. All a part of the “mystery” of God that we want so desperately to understand, so we’ll re-create God in a way that it makes sense. Or dismiss Him altogether.

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