The “Ban” in the Hebrew Bible
Susan Niditch in her War in the Hebrew Bible (WHB) offer commentary on the so-called “ban” in the Old Testament – the total destruction of an enemy as an act of devotion to Yahweh.
Niditch and other critics have connected the ban to concepts of human sacrifice. I have always found this connection to be tendentious, and to be a likely case of illegitimate conceptual transfer. “Human sacrifice,” after all, has been used tendentiously to describe the deaths of Christian martyrs and even that of Jesus. It is manifestly little more than an effort to apply a term overbroadly in an effort to invoke images of hapless Aztec victims having their hearts carved out for the sake of pleasing a bloodthirsty and evil deity, and thereby identify Yahweh as one such as well.
Rather than view the ban as related to concepts of human sacrifice, it seems far better to propose the following, much of which is contrary to Niditch:
First: The ban has not to do with sacrifice to appease God, or to buy victory from Him. Rather, it has to do with God acquiring honor by the performance of the ban.
A critical point is that Israel’s opponents were persons who believed that their own gods – the “landlords” and suzerains who owned their land, and were supposed to protect them from invasions and the acts of foreign gods – would protect them, and especially preserve their lineage. The ban served as a clear and indisputable demonstration that these pagan deities were helpless and useless in protecting these people and their land, for they permitted total destruction to occur. The leaving behind of even one survivor would be taken (desperately, to be sure!) as a sign that Baal, or Chemosh, or whomever, had in some way acted to protect the future of the defeated people, who had decided to stay in their cities and nation (rather than flee, as some did – thereby admitting that their gods would not be able to help them).
To that extent, the ban was the most clear message that could be sent to a much larger population that they would do well to flee rather than fight. Arguably, with a population committed to fight to the end using the “last man” to do so – as was the case in WW2 Japan – a message like the ban worked to save lives in the long term, much as the atomic bomb is well argued to have saved lives by compelling Japan to surrender earlier than they would have otherwise.
Comparative use of the word in question, the Hebrew cherem, we should point out, is equivocal in this regard. The word is also used of fishing nets (eg, Ezekiel 26:5, 14; 47:10; Hab. 1:15-17), which suggests that cherem indicates a setting aside or apart of something from some other larger collective. However, this also means that it has no innate sacral meaning; that is acquired by context.
Second: Sacrifice to Yahweh is better understood not as an offering to “feed” Yahweh but as a way to keep humans from having them for their own use. Skeptics routinely ask what God needed with sacrifices, and argue that sacrifices to Yahweh imply some more primitive notion of Him as being hungry and in need of food. In this no one seems to ask the question of why a deity should prefer meat that has been burnt into ashes, which is hardly likely to be any more appetizing to a hungry deity than it is to a hungry human.
The idea of sacrifice, and of devoting certain things to Yahweh, then, ought to be understood in terms of making it so that humans cannot use the sacrifice for themselves; in turn, the sacrifice is placing themselves under the patronage of the deity, trusting in the deity’s resources rather than their own. It is not that Yahweh needed food, or gold, or even humans for that matter; it is that humans obliterated the sacrifice to demonstrate that it was the property of the god rather than their own. It is also important that no one will be able to accrue the honor of having the captured goods; all of that honor will be reserved for Yahweh alone.
Niditch herself quotes passages that indicate this. In most cases, the ban involves only total destruction of humans, while livestock and booty is kept by the people. If God “needs” food and booty, then surely as a deity His energy needs are vastly greater than those of a human, and He would need far, far more humans, livestock, and booty to keep Himself alive. Niditch struggles, however, to explain the disparity between different ban orders, supposing that humans are always devoted to God because they are the “best booty”. Really? Then why are they killed? What good, to put it bluntly, is dead booty?
Further forced reading by Niditch may be found in her effort to read Ezekiel 38-9 in terms of God making a “sacrificial feast” of slain enemies: Ezekiel plainly says that the slain are eaten by birds of prey, and apart from the assumption of a hidden code in such language, there is little reason to impose some “mythological framework” on the text and see some hidden suggestion of “divine satiation” behind the text. Clearly, Niditch’s explanations are yet again a tendentious effort to illegitimately transfer stereotyped concepts of “human sacrifice” into the Biblical text.
Third: Failure to enact the ban requires recompense not because God requires recompense, but because of the inviolability of one’s oath in an honor-based culture. Niditch tendentiously regards such matters as the punishment of Achan and his family (Josh. 7), or the oath of Saul that anyone who eats before evening will die (1 Sam. 14), as required substitution because “God has been denied his due.” But this is an interpretation that smacks far more of one bearing the burden of bringing civilized mentalities to barbaric savages. An unbigoted assessment sees in such instances rather an enactment of, “your word is your bond”. To go back on one’s word is dishonoring – even if that word involved a grievous mistake.
Further on, Niditch explores the theme of the ban as an enactment of God’s justice. She believes that this theme evokes a contradiction, between the concepts of the ban as a sacrifice, and the victims (like Achan) as unclean sinners. But this tension is the result of her assumption that the ban is a sacral offering; if it is seen, rather, as a matter of honor, then the tension vanishes. Under such circumstances, the ban as God’s justice is complimentary, not contradictory.
In the end, Niditch’s arguments are performed in service of a misguided pacifism, laced with emotional rhetoric and tainted by an attitude which looks down upon ancient Israelite culture with the same regard as a New Atheist who rants endlessly about “primitive Bronze Age goatherders.” Though Niditch’s commentary has the backing of a credentialed scholar, there is little conceptually different from what can be found in any tome written by a New Atheist.