Chemosh, Yahweh, Herem, and Sacrifice

In this post I will concede a correction offered by Richard Hess on the translation of lines 11-12 of the Mesha Stele. In Hess’s first response to my review of Copan’s book, he argued that line 17 of the Mesha Stele, which uses the term herem, does not constitute sufficient evidence to prove that herem referred to a sacrifice to a deity. I responded that Hess was overlooking lines 11-12, in which a different lexeme has been translated “sacrifice,” referring to the slaughter of the people of Gad. Hess then responded that he follows Ahituv translating this lexeme as “property,” not “sacrifice.” In other words, the people are not a sacrifice to Kemosh; rather, the city has become the property of Kemosh. I responded citing W. F. Albright’s translation from Pritchard’s Ancient Near Eastern Texts, in which Albright translated r-y-t as “satiation (intoxication).” Hess has clarified why this is a wrong translation:

[In lines 11-12 of the Mesha stele] h-y-t implies a feminine subject, such as “city”.  A masculine subject would be “people” and, if singular, should have h-y-h as its verb.  Furthermore, the verb followed by a lamed preposition means “to belong to” and does not say anything about some sort of religious or cultic act of sacrifice.  The reason why Albright and others interpreted the phrase in the way they did was because they were misled to read r-y-t there in place of h-y-t.  R-y-t is a “hapax,” that is, it occurs only here and therefore its meaning is conjectural.  However, André Lemaire was the first epigraphist to go back to the squeeze that was taken before the inscription was smashed (soon after its discovery).  Lemaire read h-y-t there in place of the otherwise unknown r-y-t.  See André Lemaire, “’House of David’ Restored in Moabite Inscription,” Biblical Archaeology Review 20/3 (May-June 1994), pp. 31-37; and especially Lemaire, “New Photograph and ryt or hyt in Mesha,” Israel Exploration Journal 57 (2007) pp. 204-207.  Since that publication this has become the standard interpretation of the text.  Mr. Stark’s appeal to the earlier ANET and the translation of Albright from the 1960’s cites an authority who at the time did not have available the most accurate reading of the inscription.

Now, Hess states above that r-y-t is a hapax (a word found only once). It’s significant however that this root (r-y-t) is employed in a Minean inscription from northern Arabia to refer to a sacrificial offering to the deities ’Attar and Wadd.1 Nevertheless, if Lemaire’s reconstruction is correct, and the lexeme is actually h-y-t rather than r-y-t, then this point is moot and Hess’s translation is correct. At any rate, these lines do not use the h-r-m root, so the real contention is over the interpretation of line 17. Here are lines 14-18:

And Kemosh said to me, “Go! Seize Nebo from Israel.” so I

proceeded by night and fought with it from the crack of dawn to midday, and I to-

-ok it and I slew all of them: seven thousand men and boys, and women and . . .

maidens because I had devoted it to Ashtar-Kemosh. I took [the ves-]

-sels of Yahweh, and I dragged them before Kemosh.

These lines actually shed light on lines 11-12. There appears to be a clear logical connection between the herem (devotion to Ashtar-Kemosh) against the city and the slaughter of all of its inhabitants. Why did Mesha slaughter the population? Because he devoted the city to Ashtar-Kemosh. Now let’s examine the statements Hess has made about this text and evaluate them.

First, in his article, “War in the Hebrew Bible: An Overview,” Hess makes this statement:

A 9th-century stele of King Mesha of Moab describes his destruction of an Israelite town and its sacrificial devotion to his god Chemosh as a herem ‘ban.’ However, this language does not prove that the same theology dominated in Israel.2

Here it appears that Hess accepts that the use of herem in line 17 refers to a “sacrificial devotion” (in Hess’s own words). His only point of contention in this earlier statement is that we should automatically assume that because Israel used the same word (herem) that a sacrificial devotion is implied there too. Yet contrast this with Hess’s later statement in his response to me:

Line 17 of the Mesha inscription does indeed discuss the herem. However, it simply uses the causative verbal form of this root with the Moabite god as the direction toward which the herem was made. This follows king Mesha’s slaughter of 7,000 inhabitants of the city. However, in the context of war it is nowhere clear that this has to do with human sacrifice. It has to do with defeat of the enemy. We do not know what the religious beliefs of the Moabite king were in respect to the practice of the herem; only that he practiced some form of it. Beyond that, there is insufficient evidence on the basis of this one citation.

So while in his earlier statement Hess characterized it as a “sacrificial devotion,” it seems that now Hess is not convinced that it must be understood in this way. Or perhaps his earlier statement was just unclear; perhaps he was articulating Niditch’s understanding of herem in the Mesha Stele, and only critiquing the assumption that this understanding would have to translate to Israel as well. (Of course, it is not at all an assumption for Niditch. She makes a detailed argument for why herem should be understood as sacrificial in early Israel, an argument which Hess essentially ignores.) Whatever the case, whether Hess was unclear, or whether Hess has since changed his mind (both are fine), Hess now states that we can’t be sure that the Mesha Stele is speaking about herem as some sort of sacrifice to a deity.

I contest this. The term herem means “devoted” or “set apart” in Semitic languages (as Hess knows). We’re all already familiar with this word from Arabic—a harem is a collection of concubines set apart for a man of stature or a royal. There is no denying that it denotes the setting apart or devotion of an object to someone or for some purpose. Now the Mesha Stele is clear: the city of Nebo was devoted to Ashtar-Kemosh, and there is a logical connection between the slaughter of its inhabitants and its devotion to the deity.

If the inhabitants were not killed, but were kept alive, and they were said to have been devoted to Ashtar-Kemosh, then what would this mean? Likely it would mean that they were in some way put into service to the deity (as slaves for the priesthood?). But the fact is they were killed, and it is this action which is described as part of the city’s devotion to the deity.

Granted, they aren’t said to have been sacrificed on altars. So it’s not a sacrifice in that sense. But that doesn’t mean it cannot still be an act which operates within the domain of sacrifice. As I’ve stated before, by slaughtering the whole population, Mesha was not taking captives. These would have been potential wives, concubines, slaves, or perhaps even hostages. But they are not taken for these purposes; rather, they are slaughtered, because the city was devoted to Ashtar-Kemosh. Not all sacrificial offerings to deities were offered on altars. And here’s where the biblical evidence confirms that herem functioned in a very similar way, as Niditch discusses at considerable length. Let’s look first at Leviticus 27:28-29. The immediate context is an extended discussion of the rules regarding things devoted to Yahweh as offerings. A man could, if he chose, consecrate (qadash) a field to Yahweh, or a house, or an animal, or a person. These are put into Yahweh’s service (mediated by the priesthood), but these may be redeemed for a price set by the assessor (priest), if the one who consecrated them could afford it. If not, the field, etc., were to belong to Yahweh forever. But when it comes to anything that is devoted to Yahweh (herem) according to law, it may not be redeemed:

Nothing that a person owns that has been devoted to Yahweh, be it human or animal, or inherited land-holding, may be sold or redeemed; every devoted thing is most holy to Yahweh. No human beings who have been devoted to destruction can be ransomed; they shall be put to death. (Lev 27:28-29)

This speaks of offerings to Yahweh. While they do not all involve the use of altars, they are offerings nonetheless. Something that is herem is devoted to Yahweh, and may not be redeemed. If the herem object is human, the human cannot be ransomed, but must be put to death.

I’ll pause here to note that this conflicts with Copan’s claim that when a city was put to herem that need not mean all were literally killed. He argues that the warfare language is hyperbolic. But Leviticus 27 is not a warfare text; it is a legal text, and it makes clear that any human who is designated herem cannot be redeemed; they must be put to death.

Now, the significance here is that what we have in view are sacrificial offerings to Yahweh. Some of these offerings may be offered voluntarily, by means of a vow. These may be redeemed, but if not, they belong to Yahweh. But other objects are Yahweh’s by fiat; these are herem. Anything designated as herem may not be redeemed, because it belongs to Yahweh.

So when we turn to warfare texts in which h-r-m is employed, we see very clearly how they fit within this paradigm of objects offered to Yahweh in a sacrificial way. At Jericho, all spoils, human, animal and inanimate, were designated as herem. They belonged to Yahweh. Any inanimate spoils were to be burned to ash, and anything that would not burn was to go into Yahweh’s treasury. The Israelites were told not to “covet” the spoils, precisely because they belonged to Yahweh. If they were taboo or considered a contagion, it was not (at least originally) because they were contaminated by their connection to the Canaanites (since at Ai spoil is allowed to be taken), but rather because they were devoted to Yahweh. When Achan took that which belonged to Yahweh, he made all of Israel herem until he and his family and everything he owned were killed, burned and buried.

And this is why the translation of line 12 of the Mesha Stele can have the same sense either way. It has become the property of the deity, just as the objects placed under the ban at Jericho were devoted to Yahweh. While haram is not used in line 12 (as it is in line 17), the paradigm is essentially the same.

Niditch argues that we see this as well in Numbers 21:1-3. Israel is going up against Arad, a Canaanite complex. Arad has already attacked the Israelites and took some of their soldiers captive. So Israel is up against a formidable enemy, and they need that additional divine boost. What’s significant is that this is the only place in the book of Numbers where the word haram is used in a warfare context. Its noun form appears once in 18:14, which says, “Everything devoted (herem) in Israel shall be yours” (i.e., the priests’). In other words, if a sacrifice or offering was herem, it was for the priests’ consumption or use, because the priests were Yahweh’s representatives. But back to its use in warfare contexts. This occurs only once in Numbers, and it is significant that here it is the Israelites, not Yahweh, who designate the objects for destruction as herem. Whereas in Deuteronomy (later material) the Canaanites are designated as herem by divine fiat, here the Israelites offer to put the Canaanite cities of Arad to the ban (haram):

Then Israel vowed a vow to Yahweh and said, “If you will indeed give this people into my hands, then I will devote their cities to destruction [haram].” And Yahweh listened to the voice of Israel, and delivered up the Canaanites, and them and their cities they devoted to destruction.

Note the close parallel here to the vow of Jephthah made in Judges 11:30-31:

Then Jephthah vowed a vow to Yahweh and said, “If you will indeed give the sons of Ammon into my hands, then whoever comes forth from the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the sons of Ammon, shall be for Yahweh, and I will offer it up as a burnt-sacrifice. So Jephthah passed over to the sons of Ammon to fight against them, and Yahweh delivered them into his hands.

I’ve rendered the translations fairly literally so that the similarity in construction may be seen. Both make vows to Yahweh. Both vows involve an if/then arrangement: “If you will do this, then I will do this.” In both cases, Yahweh did what they asked him to do when they made their vows, and in both cases, a human slaughter was performed in order to fulfill their side of the vow. Since we know that herem refers to a devotion of an object or objects to a deity as an offering or sacrifice, and since we know that when the herem object is human, it is to be put to death, it seems quite clear that we see in Numbers 21 is a text which assumes that Yahweh is a god who appreciates human sacrifice.

No doubt Hess will not accept this. Although I am not sure why. Would Hess be willing to say that at the diachronic level, the texts speak to a time when Yahweh (was believed to have) approved of human sacrifice? Obviously, at the synchronic level, this is not the case, since no one disputes that by the time of the Dtr human sacrifice was still considered orthodox in Judea. If we take the final redaction to be normative, then obviously any text which assumes that Yahweh appreciates human sacrifice is going to be overruled by the texts which state unequivocally that he does not. But that is not what’s really at issue for me. The synchronic understanding is important, because that too speaks to another important period in Israel’s history which I would like to understand. But the diachronic reading must be understood in order to properly understand what’s taking place at the synchronic level.

I know that in theory at least, Matt Flannagan would have no problem accepting that certain texts in the Hebrew Bible state that Yahweh appreciates human sacrifice. For Matt what is important is what would be affirmed not by the original composers of these texts, but what was being affirmed either at the time of final redaction or what is being affirmed by God godself through the final form of the text. That’s all fine as far as it goes. Is this Hess’s understanding? It seems to be he has something like this approach to Deut 32:8-9 (or perhaps not; it’s still not very clear). If so, then I think Hess and I can agree on the synchronic reading and agree to disagree on the significance of the diachronic reading. But if Hess does not take this approach, and wishes rather to deny that there is any indication in any text at any stratum that Yahweh appreciates human sacrifice, then this is where we would continue to disagree, and where I think the evidence (only some of which has been discussed here) is stacked against him.

  1. See Ryckmans, Ex Oriente Lux 14 (1955-56): 79 n.12; Liver, PEQ 24 n.33, 99. [BACK]
  2. Hess, “War in the Hebrew Bible: An Overview,” p. 25. [BACK]

One thought on “Chemosh, Yahweh, Herem, and Sacrifice

  1. So long as neither you nor Hess declare a herem on each other I will continue to enjoy the conversation. Have any of your inerrantist dialogees composed an in-depth review of Niditch’s book? I’d like to see if they can squeeze half the questions out of her research and arguments as you have in the cases of Copan’s, Hess’s, and Flanagan’s.

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