Genocide in Dt 7:2?

Yesterday I was reading bits of theses I am supervising (catching up after an Easter holiday), both were complex material, one because she is writing about Bakhtin (stimulating and likeable but not easy), the other because he’s dealing with two of the more difficult passages, basically dealing with the question of God’s commands to Israel in to commit the Canaanites etc. to the ban.

A basic question in dealing with this is: What do the passages actually say? For Dt 7:2 the English versions are pretty unanimous and clear (this is therefore just a small sample):

New Revised Standard
and when the LORD your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy.
New International Version
and when the LORD your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy.
English Standard Version
and when the LORD your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction. You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them.

It is not just the translations that follow the AV slavishly either, the CEV and New Living are as bad or worse.

So, to adopt (though hopefully with other motives) the snake’s question (Gen 3:1): Is this really what God says?
וּנְתָנָם  יְהוָה  אֱלֹהֶיךָ  לְפָנֶיךָ  וְהִכִּיתָם
הַחֲרֵם  תַּחֲרִים  אֹתָם
לֹא־תִכְרֹת  לָהֶם  בְּרִית  וְלֹא  תְחָנֵּם׃

The key phrases are in the second and third lines (above, this phrasing is based on the Masoretic accentuation).

הַחֲרֵם  תַּחֲרִים  אֹתָם is something like “you will certainly ban them” using a superlative construction that repeats the verb. The only major question about its meaning is what exactly the verb חרם means. Whatever it is they are most definitely to do it to the seven nations mentioned in the previous verse.

The last line is easier, they are not to make a covenant with them, nor show them “mercy”. Mercy here represents חנן “grace, mercy favour”.

The first clue that the English translations are wrong, if they mean – as I understand them to – that the Israelites are to wipe these seven nations out, is that they are commanded to make no covenant with them. One cannot make covenants with the dead. Secondly they are to show them no favour, this is not the same as showing no mercy!

Thus the traditional reading depends entirely on understanding of the ban חרם if this means “kill” then the rest of the interpretation is possible, but if it means something else then the rest is misleading (to put it mildly).

The Greek already had this understanding rendering הַחֲרֵם  תַּחֲרִים  אֹתָם  as ἀφανισμῷ ἀφανιεῖς αὐτούς.

So, does this ban mean “kill” or even “kill as a sacrifice to a god”. Not exactly, it seems rather to mean “exclude from human use, devote to a god exclusively (sometimes by sacrificing or killing).

So, does Dt 7:2 mean: “Exterminate them!” ? Sadly I think the answer is “yes and no”. As a command from God it clearly does not, one cannot make a covenant with someone one has killed! The command is rather to have nothing whatever to do with them. However, as an instruction in time of war to the Israelite forces in Joshua’s day, it does mean “Take no prisoners.”

I think a better translation would render the verse something like:

“and when the LORD your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them,
then you must completely cut yourselves off from them,
you shall make no covenant with them and nor offer them grace.”

Hmm…

4 comments on “Genocide in Dt 7:2?

  1. Peter Kirk

    Glad you got the Hebrew working – but accents don’t display properly in the default font, so best to strip them out.

    The first clue that the English translations are wrong, if they mean – as I understand them to – that the Israelites are to wipe these seven nations out, is that they are commanded to make no covenant with them. One cannot make covenants with the dead.

    I think you have made an error here by assuming that the Hebrew here consists of two separate commands to be followed chronologically, i.e. first xrm them then don’t make a covenant with them. But surely the Hebrew refers to two alternatives, “do this, not that”. It would be better English, though apparently not Hebrew (languages vary in their preferred orders for such sentences) to say something like “don’t make a covenant with them or favour them, but xrm them completely”.

    Of course this still doesn’t tell us what xrm means. But it does undermine this particular argument that it doesn’t mean kill them.

    On the other side of the argument we need to look at what the Israelites actually did to the Canaanites, which was to kill them, except for some that they got into trouble for not killing. At least that is unambiguous in the book of Joshua, isn’t it? Some of us might like to reinterpret that book in a way less offensive to modern minds, not involving genocide. But surely the text doesn’t allow us to do that?

  2. tim

    Yes, you are right. The telling is not necessarily sequential, though the logic is then still somewhat strange: “wipe them out and while you are wiping them out do not make a partnership with them” I still do not understand the logic IF חרם means “wipe them out”.

    Your comment about the stories in Joshua seems to me much stronger! If I have the intestinal fortitude I’ll address that issue later ;)

  3. tim

    Thanks for your comment about the accents! They were working so nicely on my machine and I was SO excited that I forgot some of the first rules of web publishing :( I have stripped them, so it should now work better :)

  4. Pingback: » Deuteronomy 7: Show no mercy Carpe Scriptura