Reading Herem Non-Violently

Joshua is a hard book. It’s basically a story of war and conquest, of the tribes of Israel entering the Promised Land and eradicating and displacing the peoples living in the land. Anyone who has taken the trouble to look dispassionately at it quickly comes across some very difficult passages.

I argued here that Joshua’s war and land policies were time-specific and limited. They applied only to the conquest and settlement period and are not a precedent. The book contrasts the acceptance of God’s plans by Rahab and the Gibeonites (2:9-11; 9-10) with the resistance to it by others (5:1; 9:1-2; 10:1-5; 11:1-5). This contrast suggests that the Canaanites perished for resisting God, and not for their religious decadence or economic oppression. Those who submit to God’s sovereignty are saved but resistance is met with force.

However I am impressed with this non-violent reading for the text by Richard Beck

It’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that the cherem texts are the most difficult texts in the bible and that their existence in the Bible may be the single greatest reason why people come to reject the bible and the faiths built upon it.

To set the stage I’d like to suggest that cherem should be viewed as a part of a theodicy, as a way Israel explained exile to herself.

Most scholars believe that Joshua was written during the exile. And if that seems to be a bit too historical-critical for your tastes, Joshua is aware of the Divided Kingdom (e.g., both Judah and Israel are mentioned in 11.21, a distinction that would only make sense after the Divided Kingdom), the fracturing of the Davidic dynasty, which eventually culminated in exile.

So how is Joshua a theodicy? Well, the author of Joshua looks back and describes how Israel, at least at the beginning, had an absolute hostility toward idolatry. In the book of Joshua this hostility–of which cherem is the most extreme example–is a religious, ideological, and national ideal.

So the ideal was for Israel to have extreme antipathy toward their pagan neighbours and the gods they worshiped. Trouble is, the book of Joshua ends on an ambivalent note as Joshua predicts that, after his death, Israel’s hostility toward false gods will fade and that they would, eventually, turn from Yahweh to idols. Joshua’s prediction at the end of the book:

Joshua 24.19-20
Joshua said to the people, “You are not able to serve the Lord. He is a holy God; he is a jealous God. He will not forgive your rebellion and your sins. If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, he will turn and bring disaster on you and make an end of you, after he has been good to you.”

The people, of course, object to Joshua’s prediction. Still, after all those cherem texts an ambivalent note is struck at the end of the story and, given the hindsight of exile, Joshua’s words are found to be prescient. The people don’t keep up the antipathy toward foreign gods–an antipathy embodied in the cherem commands–and they turn away from God. And as Joshua promised, exile soon followed.

The point here is that cherem is working within a theodicy. Specifically, if Israel would have kept up her antipathy toward idolatry–of which cherem played a part–then exile wouldn’t have happened.

But Joshua is more than an explanation about the origins of exile. Joshua is also viewed as a sermon, a sermon being preached to a people living in exile among false and foreign gods. And it’s message seems to be crystal clear: Remember Joshua and the cherem! Be like Joshua and show unwavering hostility to these foreign gods you are living with!

That is how the story tends to be interpreted, an interpretation that leans toward rather than away from religious violence. But I’d like to flip that interpretation on its head.

Okay, with all that as background let’s move into my argument.

I’d like to start by suggesting that cherem was a logical outworking of the Levitical purity tradition. Cherem wasn’t just warfare. Cherem was a form of religious sacrifice, a holocaust in particular. Cherem was a burnt offering for God.

[Note: holocaust means "burnt offering" or "a sacrifice consumed by fire."]

Why is cherem the logical outworking of the Levitical purity tradition? The purity, holiness, and sacrificial impulse of the Levitical tradition sets in motion a process of dehumanization. To be a holy people "set apart" creates an in-group/out-group psychology that eventually leads toward out-group hostility. Cherem–killing out-group members because they are impure and unclean–is simply the endpoint of that trajectory. The purity/holiness impulse logically leads to violence. Basically, holocausts lead to Holocausts: the sacrificial logic of Leviticus leads to cherem.

Cherem–eradicating the pagans, offering them up as burnt offerings–was an act of purification.

Having noted the connection between cherem and the Levitical tradition we can now turn toward a non-violent reading of the cherem texts. To do this there are two moves we need to make.

The first move is this. If cherem represents the logical outworking of the Levitical tradition–how the pursuit of purity will eventually manifest in scapegoating violence–then we need to note that the Levitical tradition comes under criticism within the biblical narrative. The bible is a story that turns against itself in interesting ways, often beating modern sceptics to the punch.  Any reading of the cherem texts needs to take note of the fact that the prophets and parts of the Wisdom tradition strongly criticize the Levitical tradition of which cherem is a part. According to these texts God isn’t pleased with holocausts. Burnt offerings, and I’m arguing that we should see cherem as a burnt offering, are not desired by God:

Hosea 6.6
For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.

Psalm 40.6
Sacrifice and offering you did not desire—but my ears you have opened—burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not require.

My point here is that the Bible gets there first, beats modern readers to the punch in criticizing cherem. Though burnt offerings are a part of the OT, their theological significance is also strongly questioned and rejected. I think this affects how we read the cherem passages. There is a stream of biblical material that argues that God doesn’t desire or require burnt offerings like cherem. I think Jesus aligns himself with this stream of material in his teaching that God "desires mercy, not sacrifice."

Noting all this is important, but it doesn’t yet get us to a non-violent reading. Let’s move on to the final observation that gets us there.
Recall again that Joshua was written during the exile. And as I described above many have read Joshua as a sort of cautionary tale for those living in exile among foreign gods. The message many presume Joshua is preaching is that during exile Israel should follow the example of Joshua showing a cherem-like hostility toward idolatry and their pagan oppressors. Basically, Joshua, with its stories of cherem and military conquest, is a heroic story to inspire religious zealotry.

But I wonder if that understanding is correct.

Having recently read the book of Joshua I was struck by the following: Cherem doesn’t work. That seems to be one of the take home points of the book.

Cherem, as a burnt offering, had the practical goal of keeping Israel pure and separate from false gods. One way to accomplish this purification, obviously, was the eradication of pagan neighbours and their idols. It’s hard to be tempted into idolatry if those idol-worshipers no longer exist.

But at the end of the book Joshua predicts failure. And the reader in exile knows Joshua was right. Cherem didn’t work, it didn’t lead to the purification of Israel. How come?

For two reasons. First, as the book of Joshua makes clear Israel couldn’t kill everybody. A cherem-inspired strategy of "kill them all" just wasn’t practicable. And Joshua makes that clear. Israel wasn’t able to make herself pure and "set apart" by violently eradicating paganism in the land. Israel couldn’t use violence to religiously isolate herself in the world. Cherem couldn’t create a social quarantine. At the end of the day, Israel was going to have to live with and among pagans and foreign gods.

And what outcome does Joshua predict about how that’s going to work out? He predicts failure and eventual exile. Which is exactly what happens.

And I believe this failure at the end of the story creates a deep ambivalence about the practices of cherem read about earlier in the story.

Basically, the ending of Joshua suggests the following interpretation: Israel’s real problem, it’s deep problem, is a heart problem. It’s not a pagan neighbour problem.

Joshua seems, at the end of the book, to accept living with and among pagan neighbours as a given, as an on-going reality, as an inevitability that violence won’t ever change. Purity via social quarantine just isn’t possible. It’s as if Joshua is saying, "Killing our neighbours isn’t going to protect or purify us. We are our own worst enemy." At the end of the story Joshua seems to  argue that what is needed are hearts devoted to God, not pagan cities devoted (cherem) to God. As Hosea 6.6 states, what is needed are not holocausts but "acknowledgement of God." And on that score Israel fails.

Is this a plausible reading of Joshua? Is Joshua a story about the failure of cherem? I think so. To see this let’s try to get inside the head of the Jewish reader reading Joshua in exile.

To start, we must imagine the murderous hate many of the Jews felt toward their captors and oppressors. See Psalm 137.1-4, 8-9:

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How can we sing the songs of the Lord
while in a foreign land?
Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy is the one who repays you
according to what you have done to us.
Happy is the one who seizes your infants
and dashes them against the rocks.

We can imagine how this hate fed a violent desire to kill and eradicate the pagans, to practice cherem upon them. (A hate, we might add, that the Jews felt toward the Romans in the NT. And Jesus speaks into that hate the very un-cherem-like sermon of "Love your enemies and turn the other cheek.")

Now imagine handing the book of Joshua to these hate-filled people, a people itching to kill the pagans and dash their babies against the rocks. What do you think they would take away from the book of Joshua? That cherem is a good idea? Or a bad idea?
Yes, cherem is in the book. Which, given a superficial reading, suggests that Joshua is pro-cherem and, thus, a book that fans the flames of religious violence.

But that reading fails to take into consideration the failure at the end of the book. A failure that produced the exile the reader is now experiencing. And I wonder, by the end of the book, would the hate-filled reader really walk away with the view that the solution to Israel’s exile problem was more cherem? Or would the reader come to see and accept the conclusion of Joshua, that living with and among pagans is inevitable, and that faithfulness to Yahweh, with and among pagans, rather than violence, is the only way to holiness.

Basically, cherem and holocausts didn’t prevent exile.

But, ironically, "acknowledgement of God" while living with the pagans would have.

And if that’s so, what’s the final lesson of Joshua?

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