The Hebrew noun used to denote exclusive dedication of something to God is herem [,rej]. The root idea is separation and exclusion. This idea is also expressed in the Arabic word harem (also in Harem el-Shariff, "the noble enclosure, " the temple mount). This property is exclusively Yahweh's and may be used constructively or be set apart for destruction. It is his to do with as he chooses.
Things that are devoted to the Lord are most holy and may not be sold or redeemed as might be done with ordinary donations and vows ( Lev 27:28-29 ). All devoted things belonged to Aaron and his sons as God's representatives ( Num 18:14 ). This same benefit was extended to the sons of Zadok ( Eze 44:29 ).
The spoil of Jericho belonged solely to Yahweh. Metals went into the Lord's treasury ( Joshua 6:19 Joshua 6:24 ); all living things were killed; everything else was burned (vv. 21, 24). Israel met with defeat at Ai because Achan kept some of this spoil ( Joshua 7:1-5 ), and thirty-six men were killed. Joshua would later observe that wrath came on the whole community and that Achan "was not the only one who died for his sin" ( Joshua 22:20 ). Later tradition called him the troubler of Israel and changed his name to Achar ("trouble" 1 Chron 2:7 ).
The Conquest. Over half the occurrences of the verb and noun for the root hrm concern the killing of nations associated with the conquest of Palestine. This does not mean that the Old Testament condones racial violence. At a time when the iniquity of the Amorites was not complete ( Gen 15:16 ), relationships with these people were normal and even cordial. The killing of Canaanites took place mainly during the conquest of the land.
Abraham was allied with Amorites ( Gen 14:13 ). Judah's best friend and wife were Canaanites ( Gen 1:5 ; 1 Chron 2:3 ). Judah got Tamar, a local girl, as a wife for his son ( Gen 38:6-11 ). Killing of Canaanites at Shechem was rebuked by Jacob using the same word for "trouble" Joshua did ( Gen 34:30 ). He later put a curse on his sons for this atrocity ( Gen 49:5-7 ). It is interesting to note that the first women mentioned in the New Testament were Canaanites ( Matthew 1:3 Matthew 1:5 ).
When David conquered Jerusalem, he did not kill the Jebusites ( 2 Sam 5:6-9 ). He did not confiscate Araunah's land but bartered with him as an equal ( 2 Sam 24:21-24 ). Neither did Solomon kill the Canaanites when he finished subjugating them ( 1 Kings 9:21 ). No prophet rebuked him for sparing these people. In fact Hosea prophesied the fall of the house of Jehu for his wholesale shedding of blood in the Valley of Jezreel ( 1:4 ). Some of those killed by Jehu would probably have been Canaanites. (Some of the seventy sons of Ahab were half-Phoenician.)
It is important to understand that this killing was not racially motivated. In the Old Testament non-Israelites were not killed because of their race but because of the harm they might do. This killing was essential to the survival of pure Mosaic religion and hence crucial to the redemption of the world ( Deut 20:16-18 ; Psalm 106:34-39 ). When faith in Yahweh was sufficiently established to meet challenges of Baalism, the killing stopped.
It is also necessary to note that the Old Testament does not condone wartime atrocities. The Old Testament set rules for treatment of war prisoners ( Deut 21:10-14 ). Even trees were protected ( Deut 20:19-20 ). Severity beyond what is necessary to achieve normal military objectives was condemned (Amos 1-2). In 2 Kings 6:21-23 the king is forbidden to kill his prisoners but must feed them and let them return home. Even Ben-Hadad's advisors knew that the kings of Israel had a reputation for being merciful to enemies ( 1 Kings 20:31 ). That a military man was not God's ideal is seen in his refusal to allow David to build the temple because he had shed much blood ( 1 Chron 22:8 ).
After the Conquest. The herem [,rej] was enjoined to enforce prohibition of idolatry ( Exod 22:19 ). Individuals or villages promoting paganism were to be destroyed ( Deut 7:26 ; 13:16-18 ). Loyalty to Yahweh was Israel's protection against the nations. Disloyalty would mean defeat and death ( Deut 28:25-26 ). Any attempt to break the covenant could cause the death of the nation and thus justly incurred the death penalty.
Amalekites fell under the ban because of atrocities committed during the wilderness wanderings ( Deut 25:17-19 ). Saul lost the kingship for his failure to carry out this command ( 1 Sam 15:22-23 ). Samuel's rebuke seems to emphasize that the rules of holy war do not include sacrificing spoil to Yahweh.
Prophets applied the herem [,rej] ban to other enemies of Israel such as Ben-Hadad ( 1 Kings 20:41 ), Babylon ( Jeremiah 50:21 Jeremiah 50:26 ; 51:3 ), Egypt ( Isa 11:15, ; unless the word should be translated "split" here ), Edom ( Isaiah 34:2 Isaiah 34:5 ), and other nations ( Mic 4:13 ). The context of some of these passages indicates that these nations may be symbolic for nations at the final battle against the forces of Satan. Much apocalyptic imagery is drawn from these sections.
The prophet Malachi closes with a promise that God will send Elijah to remedy family relationships so a herem [,rej] curse will not be necessary (4:6). Jesus understood this to refer to the ministry of John the Baptist ( Mark 9:12 ). Christ rebuked James and John for suggesting that fire come down on a Samaritan city ( Luke 9:54 ). Paul indicates that destruction of the flesh for the salvation of the soul was in Satan's domain ( 1 Cor 5:5 ). Zechariah 14:11 looks forward to a day when there will be herem [,rej].
Bibliography. N. Lohfink, TDOT, 5:180-203; A. Malamat, Biblical Essays; Mari and the Early Israelite Experience; E. Ullendorff, Documents from Old Testament Times; M. Unger, Archaeology and the Old Testament.
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