The Hebrew word ḥerem refers to the status of something that is separated from common use either because it is abominable to God or because it is to be consecrated to God. Common translations include cursed, accursed, under the ban, devoted, set apart, set for destruction, etc. The verbal form usually appears only in the hiphil and is usually translated utterly destroyed or something similar. The idea seems to stem back to the fact that all warfare in the ancient Near East was religious and that Yahweh owned all spoils of war. In this capacity he could sometimes command that such spoils be devoted to him through destruction. Some scholars see a parallel in the idea of animal sacrifice in that the ritual burning that occurs removes the designated object from human reach.

In Leviticus, Numbers, and elsewhere the word can be used with the simple sense of devoting something to God, but the word is most famous for its use in the conquest narratives and commands of Deuteronomy and Joshua—stories of total annihilation in war. Objects that are ḥerem contaminate those that interact with them, as seen in the story of Achan and the stolen goods of Jericho. Saul was also rejected by God for failing to complete the ḥerem against the Amalekites, and the book of Malachi ends by stating that if Elijah does not return to fulfill a certain mission then the earth will be smitten with a ḥerem.

Trying to interpret the term ḥerem can be sensitive and controversial because of its close association with stories of genocide. Some have argued that biblical depictions of slaughtering men, women, and children should be understood literally and others, understandable uncomfortable with this notion, have viewed it metaphorically or as a literary construct. Because Deuteronomy, Joshua, and other texts were written in a historical setting that post-dates the time period they describe, some have proposed that the descriptions of total war served a didactic role and had little to do with real history. The literary role of the biblical stories, however, is still a separate issue from the historical role of the concept of ḥerem. For example, the word appears on the Mesha Stela in such a way as to suggest literal mass killings, indicating that 1) the practice reflects some degree of historical reality, and that 2) it was practiced by non-Israelite peoples.

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