The Ban as Theological Justification for War
excerpt from Joshua and the Promised Land, pp. 23-24
by Roy H. May, Jr.
The most disturbing aspect of the Book of Joshua is the divine command to commit mass slaughter. In Hebrew, this is herem or "ban." God required that certain things be "devoted" only to death and destruction. Some things were reserved for religious functions. According to the ban, enemies were to be completely exterminated. This idea was not unique to ancient Israel. Other ancient Near Eastern societies also practiced the ban. However, the idea is part of the Book of Deuteronomy and the work of the Deuteronomistic Historians. In this theological tradition, such destruction was to be dealt out because "foreigners" or non-Israelites, were viewed as impure idolaters. They deserved to die because their ways were opposed to Yahweh. The ban was required to remove obstacles to Yahweh.
This was especially important to the editors of the first edition of the Book of Joshua. They were writing in a time of national renewal. They wanted to underscore the covenant requirement of righteousness by showing what would happen to the unrighteous. For the editors of the final edition of the Book of Joshua, working as they were in a time of exile and loss of nationhood, the idea of the ban was a dramatic reminder that foreign conquerors were evil. It raised the hope of their eventual removal and Judah's freedom. Either way, the ban was a theological justification for taking Canaan. (20)
20. Susan Niditch, War in the Hebrew Bible: A Study in the Ethics of Violence (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), pp. 56, 62-68, 76 (return to text)
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