Friday, June 12, 2015

Pseudo-Philo and Cherem

Cherem, in the Hebrew Bible, usually refers to total destruction, particularly God’s commands for the Israelites to destroy totally the Canaanites in the land of Canaan.

Somewhere in the course of my reading and education in biblical studies, I learned that cherem means devoting something to God, or a god.  We see this a couple of times in the Hebrew Bible, although, the vast majority of the time, cherem in the Hebrew Bible means utter destruction.  Leviticus 27:28 refers to Israelites devoting to the LORD men and beasts, and not being allowed to redeem them.  Micah 4:13 refers to consecrating gain to the LORD.  Both passages use the Hebrew verb ch-r-m, from which the word cherem is derived.  We may see in Numbers 21:2 a notion that cherem relates to devoting something to God: Israel vows that, if God will deliver some Canaanite cities into Israelite hands, the Israelites will utterly destroy those cities.  Why would Israel vow this?  Maybe she is making God a deal: give us those cities, and we will consecrate them to you.

Outside of Israel, the Moabite Mesha Stele, which probably dates to the ninth century B.C.E., has a concept of cherem that means consecration to God.  In the Mesha Stele, the context is battle, which is often (but not always) the context of the word cherem in the Hebrew Bible.  See here for a list of the Hebrew Bible verses that have ch-r-m.

Understanding the cherem in reference to consecrating something or someone to God has influenced how some scholars interpret certain biblical passages.  Why, in the Book of Joshua, was Israel commanded to destroy Jericho utterly and not take any plunder, whereas she could take plunder from the next city that she conquered, Ai?  One explanation that I read (unfortunately, I forget where) is that she was offering Jericho to God as firstfruits of her conquest, since Jericho was the first city that she conquered, and there are laws in the Torah about offering firstfruits to God (i.e., Numbers 18:12).  I one time read (and, again, I forget where) a biblical scholar who tried to give King Saul the benefit of a doubt in I Samuel 15.  God wanted Saul to destroy all of the Amalekites and their animals, but Saul instead was offering the animals to God as sacrifices.  This scholar speculated that Saul, in his own mind, was obeying God’s command.  Saul was supposed to offer the animals to God by destroying them in the cherem, and Saul was offering the animals to God through sacrifices.  Either way, he is offering the animals to God!  I think that this scholar’s point is that an earlier story was presenting Saul as obedient, and a later editor tried to change the story to make Saul look disobedient, with awkward results.  In any case, cherem, in this understanding, is offering something or someone to God.

In light of all this, it was interesting to me to see how the first century C.E. Jewish work Pseudo-Philo addressed the topic of cherem.  Essentially, in Pseudo-Philo 26, it radically distinguishes the cherem from devoting or offering something or someone to God.  Kenaz is the judge, and God wants Kenaz to destroy the Israelites who have been found to have participated in idolatry, along with the idolatrous objects.  Kenaz asks if he should burn the precious stones or consecrate them to God, and God tells Kenaz to destroy them, saying, “If God in his own name takes anything from the things under the ban, what will man do?”  (This is D.J. Harrington’s translation.)  The ban here is not consecrating someone or something to God, but is simply destroying something.

(I should add that, in its telling of the story in I Samuel 15, Pseudo-Philo makes King Saul look a lot more sinister.  In Pseudo-Philo 58, I do not see anything about Saul offering animals to God, as Saul does in I Samuel 15, and Saul in Pseudo-Philo 58 spares the Amalekite king Agag because Agag is offering Saul hidden treasures if Saul spares his life.  Maybe Pseudo-Philo’s understanding of cherem is relevant to this: there is no way that Saul is being obedient to God in offering sacrifices, for cherem is unrelated to sacrifices.  In any case, Samuel in I Samuel 15 rebukes Saul by saying that obedience is better than sacrifice, and Pseudo-Philo 58, as far as I can see, takes away any idea that Saul was sacrificing!  Pseudo-Philo depicts Saul as utterly selfish, whereas I Samuel 15 as least depicts him with some piety.)

Not long ago, I was looking through Jeffrey Tigay’s Jewish Publication Society commentary on the Book of Deuteronomy.  He has an appendix in that about the cherem.  Actually, to be honest, I was trying to track down those points that I made above about Jericho and Saul, and I thought that they might be in this commentary, but, alas, I could not find them.  But I did find another point that Tigay made.  According to Tigay, the Book of Deuteronomy itself does not regard cherem as devoting something or someone to God.  Rather, in the Book of Deuteronomy, God commands the Israelites to destroy utterly the Canaanites so that the Canaanites will not be a temptation to them to engage in idolatry or false religion.  In Deuteronomy, cherem is a matter of getting rid of temptation, not devoting someone or something to God.  That appears to be what Pseudo-Philo would suggest centuries later, only Pseudo-Philo is more explicit in distinguishing consecrating something to God from the cherem.

As I look at the places where ch-r-m appears in the Hebrew Bible, I see that viewing the word in reference to consecrating something or someone to God does not always make sense.  Exodus 22:20 says that any Israelite who sacrifices to another god besides the LORD will be utterly destroyed.  That seems to me to relate more to punishment of sin, than to devoting someone to God.  Why would God want an idolater as a sacrifice?

I did a quick google search of “cherem AND Mishnah” because I was curious about the concept of the cherem in rabbinic literature.  The reason is that I vaguely recall cherem being used in the Mishnah in reference to devoting something to God as part of a vow or an obligation, meaning that it is not available for personal use.  There may be something to my hunch (see here).  At the same time, the concept of cherem within Judaism can have other applications as well: it can refer to excommunicating a person (see here).  The term is used in a variety of ways.

I am going to open up the comments to this post, but this is only so that people can add information or insight, if they want to do so.  I may not publish comments until tomorrow, though.

3 comments:

  1. It depends on the context. In the Bible it means destroy in one place. In another it means sanctified. But despite the difference in usage in each place it has a specific meaning.

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  2. Your analysis seems to rebut the claim, popular in some circles, that cherem is a form of human sacrifice (i.e. an offering to Yahweh).

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  3. I'd say it's not that in Exodus 22:20, Deuteronomy (in agreement with Tigay), and Pseudo-Philo. In Numbers 21:2 and Leviticus 27:28, I think it could mean that. But I am open to other interpretations.

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