It is a Puzzle … Ḥērem Never Practiced?

May 21, 2015 @ 5:56 by 5 Comments

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Chapter 2 of Walter Moberly’s book Old Testament Theology: Reading the Hebrew Bible as Christian Scripture concludes with a section asking the question “What kind of law is the law of ḥērem?” The question arises for a variety of reasons. Many people read the passages in Deuteronomy and Joshua and wonder about the kind of God who would condemn children to death without mercy. It just doesn’t seem right. Scholars see another problem as well. Quite simply, there is no evidence that ḥērem was ever practiced in any significant manner.  As Moberly puts it:
The puzzle relates to the scholarly consensus that, despite the specific way in which Deuteronomy 7:1-5 and 20:16-18 promote the practice of ḥērem, they in fact promote something that was not actually realized within Israel’s history. (p. 64)
The Canaanites were neither expelled nor exterminated. Ḥērem warfare was never carried out except possibly in limited military battles. Outsiders play important roles in Israel’s history, becoming insiders in the process.  Uriah the Hittite is one such example – especially pertinent as the Hittites are one of the proscribed people in Deuteronomy 7. Rahab the Canaanite prostitute is another example (in the genealogy of Jesus according to Matthew 1).  Ruth the Moabite is brought in and exalted, becoming the great grandmother of David (and thus also an ancestor of Jesus).
Some scholars have suggested that the concept of ḥērembelongs more to theory than to practice” and that the law “was purely theoretical and never in effect“.  There are many potential reasons suggested – that it was a way of explaining the disappearance of certain peoples, that it was imposed backwards at the time Deuteronomy was written because of “a fear of cultural and religious swamping in the time of exile.”  The law was written in such a way that it could not be practiced, being confined to “mists of the past.”


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