The Subverted City (Ir Hannidahat) in the Context of ANE Vassal Treaties
Deuteronomy 13: The Execution of Subverters
Deuteronomy 13 requires the Israelites to execute anyone who attempts to subvert a fellow Israelite into worshiping gods other than YHWH. Its three main units each contain the root נ.ד.ח, which in the causative (hiphʿil) form refers to someone subverting others, “pushing them away” from God.
The first case concerns a prophet who performs wonders and then suggests worshipping other gods; this person must be executed, despite the miracles performed (vv. 2–6). The next case involves a person who secretly suggests worshiping other gods. Even if that person is your brother or wife or close friend, you must inform on him and execute him (vv. 7–12).
The third case involves the subversion of an entire city:
דברים יג:יג כִּי תִשְׁמַע בְּאַחַת עָרֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ לָשֶׁבֶת שָׁם לֵאמֹר. יג:יד יָצְאוּ אֲנָשִׁים בְּנֵי בְלִיַּעַל מִקִּרְבֶּךָ וַיַּדִּיחוּ אֶת יֹשְׁבֵי עִירָם לֵאמֹר נֵלְכָה וְנַעַבְדָה אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים אֲשֶׁר לֹא יְדַעְתֶּם.
Deut 13:13 If you hear it said, of one of the towns that YHWH your God is giving you to dwell in, 13:14 that some scoundrels from among you have gone and subverted the inhabitants of their town, saying, “Come let us worship other gods”—whom you have not experienced.
Whereas in the previous two cases the subverter is unsuccessful, and the people execute him before he can do further harm, here the city’s inhabitants have been subverted and have turned to these other gods. The first thing the text commands is not to be rash in judgment:
יג:טו וְדָרַשְׁתָּ וְחָקַרְתָּ וְשָׁאַלְתָּ הֵיטֵב וְהִנֵּה אֱמֶת נָכוֹן הַדָּבָר נֶעֶשְׂתָה הַתּוֹעֵבָה הַזֹּאת בְּקִרְבֶּךָ.
13:15 You shall investigate and inquire and interrogate thoroughly. If it is true, the fact is established—that abhorrent thing was perpetrated in your midst.
Having established the truth of the rumor, Deuteronomy does not command the Israelites to gather together and execute merely the parties directly involved, but instead stipulates an extreme punishment:
יג:טז הַכֵּה תַכֶּה אֶת יֹשְׁבֵי הָעִיר (ההוא) [הַהִיא] לְפִי חָרֶב הַחֲרֵם אֹתָהּ וְאֶת כָּל אֲשֶׁר בָּהּ וְאֶת בְּהֶמְתָּהּ לְפִי חָרֶב.
13:16 Put the inhabitants of that town to the sword and put its cattle to the sword. Proscribe (hacharem) it and all that is in it to the sword.
Biblical precedent of applying cherem to someone guilty of worshipping other gods appears already in the Covenant Collection, the Bible’s earliest law collection, which was used by the author of the Deuteronomic law collection:
שמות כב:יט זֹבֵחַ לָאֱלֹהִים יָחֳרָם בִּלְתִּי לַי־הוָה לְבַדּוֹ.
Exod 22:19 Whoever sacrifices to any god shall be proscribed, other than to YHWH alone.
The term cherem (ח.ר.מ), translated here as “proscribe,” implies more than just execution, and is most familiar as something done to enemies in a time of war. For example, after the Israelites are attacked by the king of Arad, and wish to retaliate:
במדבר כא:ב וַיִּדַּר יִשְׂרָאֵל נֶדֶר לַי־הוָה וַיֹּאמַר אִם נָתֹן תִּתֵּן אֶת הָעָם הַזֶּה בְּיָדִי וְהַחֲרַמְתִּי אֶת עָרֵיהֶם. כא:ג וַיִּשְׁמַע יְ־הוָה בְּקוֹל יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיִּתֵּן אֶת הַכְּנַעֲנִי וַיַּחֲרֵם אֶתְהֶם וְאֶת עָרֵיהֶם וַיִּקְרָא שֵׁם הַמָּקוֹם חָרְמָה.
Num 21:2 Then Israel made a vow to YHWH and said, “If You deliver this people into our hand, we will proscribe their towns.” 21:3 YHWH heeded Israel’s plea and delivered up the Canaanites; and [Israel] proscribed them and their cities. So that place was named Chormah (from the same root as cherem).
The destruction of the entire city of Arad functions as a kind of offering to YHWH, motivating him to grant Israel victory. The use of the term cherem for the subverted city partakes in this same imagery. But the destruction of the subverted city is not because these are, like the people of Arad, YHWH’s natural enemies. Rather, the inhabitants of the city are YHWH worshipers who behaved with disloyalty.
YHWH as Sovereign
Deuteronomy often uses the language of vassal treaties to characterize the relationship between Israel and YHWH, and the blessings and curses of Deuteronomy 28 reflect the usual promises and threats included in such treaties. The book of Jeremiah uses similar language to Deuteronomy, including the term cherem, to describe what Babylonia will do to Judah as a result of YHWH’s wrath:
ירמיה כה:ט הִנְנִי שֹׁלֵחַ וְלָקַחְתִּי אֶת כָּל מִשְׁפְּחוֹת צָפוֹן נְאֻם יְ־הוָה וְאֶל נְבוּכַדְרֶאצַּר מֶלֶךְ בָּבֶל עַבְדִּי וַהֲבִאֹתִים עַל הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת וְעַל יֹשְׁבֶיהָ וְעַל כָּל הַגּוֹיִם הָאֵלֶּה סָבִיב וְהַחֲרַמְתִּים וְשַׂמְתִּים לְשַׁמָּה וְלִשְׁרֵקָה וּלְחָרְבוֹת עוֹלָם.
Jer 25:9 I am going to send for all the peoples of the north—declares YHWH—and for My servant, King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon, and bring them against this land and its inhabitants, and against all those nations roundabout. I will proscribe them and make them a desolation, an object of hissing—ruins for all time.
Seen in this context, the law of the subverted city is an example of the ultimate punishment of Israelites who act disloyally to their sovereign, YHWH. As such, the rhetoric and punishment used in the subverted city pericope shares features with what we find in ancient Near Eastern texts about the punishment of cities that have violated vassal treaties, i.e., treaties between overlord kings and the cities or countries that swear allegiance to them.
Transgressing an Oath of Vassalage
In the ancient Near East, abrogating a treaty oath was regarded both as an act of disloyalty to the king, to whom allegiance had been sworn, as well as a transgression against the gods in whose name the oath was taken. In the Tukulti-Ninurta epic, we read how this Assyrian king reconquers Babylonia and its king Kashtiliash, who violated his oath of fealty and rebelled against Assyria. The war is portrayed as a trial-at-arms before Shamash, god of justice, who ultimately rules in favor of the Assyrian “mighty king,” Tukulti-Ninurta, who is portrayed as a “righteous, wronged monarch,” while the Kassite ruler of Babylonia, Kashtiliash, is described as “a scoundrel and coward” for violating his oath of fealty.
Because Kashtiliash is deemed to have sinned, the local gods desert his land, enabling the Assyrian king to conquer Babylon. Other ANE texts show that the need to prove to the gods the righteousness of the reaction against a rebellious city went beyond just rhetoric and entered the world of ritual.
Convincing the Gods to Leave: A Hittite Ritual
One Hittite text (CTH 423) describes a ritual conducted on the battlefield before conquering a rebellious city.
The Old Woman’s Ritual
The first part of the rite is conducted by the Old Woman, who performs ritual activities attracting the gods of the enemies, to cause them to leave their city on which the Hittite king had laid siege. Using cloth of different colors to create seven paths on which food and different symbolic artifacts were placed, she evokes the male and female gods thus:
“See! Gods of the enemy town […] May these cloths be trails for you. Go away over these (trails)! Turn in favor towards the (Hittite) king, and indeed step away from your land!”
After that, she makes sacrifices to the gods of the enemy town, offers them food and beer, and calls them to eat several times, thus gaining their support to the Hittite king.
The Ritual of the King and a SANGA-Priest
The second phase of the ritual involves the king and a SANGA-priest (lines 133-142). The king first says that if the local gods leave the city, he will know that his own land is safe from retaliation:
If you gods will have approved this matter done in this way, my Majesty on that matter will not fear at all regarding myself, my house and my country;
The king goes on to state that the city is being sacrificed, and that if people try to undo this and inhabit the city, they will face the anger of the Storm-God:
Regarding the enemy city which I will sacrifice (h. šippantaḫḫi), if ever someone will inhabit it, he will cause the anger of the Storm-god my lord, you will go to war with him, and you will annihilate him – you will not make his dwelling legally right! (ešuwar-ši UL āra iyaši).
Finally, the king requests a sign through hepatoscopy (liver reading) that his god—the Storm-god of Hatti—and the local gods are indeed favorably disposed towards a Hittite conquest as a consequence of the local city violating an oath of fealty:
(If) you gods will have approved this, done in this way, let the liver-oracle be favorable.
The answer to the oracle inquiry is favorable: (lines 145-156):
His Majesty performs thus: because the enemy city angers him, he will [dest]roy it….
The text thus clarifies that there was a previous relationship between the enemy city and the Hittite king, and that the city has angered him (na-an-kán kartimmiyanuzi) and been rebellious toward him (kappilalliš ešta). The city had been driven away from its loyalty to the king becoming its enemy.
Appeasing the Gods
The king requires divine approval for his intended act of devastation and annihilation, since these actions can only be pursued if commanded by the divine world. As the request is being made of the local gods, it must be made clear to them that their own people are in the wrong, so that they do not take vengeance on the Hittite king.
The biblical command to “investigate and inquire and interrogate thoroughly,” may be the Israelite parallel to the Hittite king standing in the battlefield asking for his permission to carry out this terrible act of devastation and hoping for a positive answer from the liver reading. In the biblical case, the investigation is what allows the cherem to go forward, with consent and permission of the divine. In the Hittite case, it is the ritual.
King Muršili II Destroys the City of Timuḫala
Another Hittite text about the destruction of a vassal city that violated its oath appears in the Annals of the Hittite king Muršili II (ca. 1320 BCE). His Ten Years Annals records a story of the city of Timuḫala, also located in the Kaška region (KUB 19.37). The event begins when Timuḫala stopped delivering regular troops to Muršili, meaning that the city rebelled against Muršili, neglecting its duties.
Muršili proudly arrived in the mountain city, whereupon its ruler fled. Muršili destroyed Timuḫala and two other towns nearby, stating his reason as follows:
The city of Timuḫala, which was rebellious (kappilalliš ešta) towards me, and furthermore it was in a difficult location.
The city’s punishment was:
I offered (šippandaḫḫun) the city of Timuḫala to the Storm-god, my lord, and made it sacred (šuppiyaḫḫun); I put boundaries to it (so that) no human being will inhabit it.
Muršili then defines the exact borders of the sacred area and declares the land to belong to the Storm God, whose servants, the two divine horses Šerri and Ḫurri, will dwell therein, as it will then become their pastureland.
Thus, this situation involved three kinds of action: rebellion, offer/sacrifice, and consecration of a specific piece of land to the divine domain. This fits with the description of the fate of the subverted city, which is burnt entirely, לַי־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ “for YHWH your God.”
Cherem as Dedicated to YHWH
The concept of consecration by offering the city to the god through complete devastation of the area, and completely annihilating its population, resembles the biblical cherem in general, and the note that it was abandoned because of the disloyalty of its population fits with the biblical punishment of the subverted city.
That the subverted city of Deuteronomy 13 was sacrificed to God was intuited by the second century C.E. sage R. Shimon bar Yochai, as noted in Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:6, who explicitly connects the destruction of the city with the sacrifice of a burnt offering:
אמר רבי שמעון: אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא אם אתם עושין דין בעיר הנדחת מעלה אני עליכם כאילו אתם מעלין עולה כליל לפני.
Rabbi Shimon said: “The holy Blessed One declared, ‘If you execute judgment upon the seduced city, I will ascribe merit to you as though you had sacrificed to me a whole offering.’”
The idea that the subverted city is dedicated to YHWH also helps explain why the entire city must be destroyed and why it is left permanently desolate.
Burning the Goods
The law of the subverted city continues:
דברים יג:יז וְאֶת כָּל שְׁלָלָהּ תִּקְבֹּץ אֶל תּוֹךְ רְחֹבָהּ וְשָׂרַפְתָּ בָאֵשׁ אֶת הָעִיר וְאֶת כָּל שְׁלָלָהּ כָּלִיל לַי־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ וְהָיְתָה תֵּל עוֹלָם לֹא תִבָּנֶה עוֹד. יג:יח וְלֹא יִדְבַּק בְּיָדְךָ מְאוּמָה מִן הַחֵרֶם לְמַעַן יָשׁוּב יְ־הוָה מֵחֲרוֹן אַפּוֹ וְנָתַן לְךָ רַחֲמִים וְרִחַמְךָ וְהִרְבֶּךָ כַּאֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע לַאֲבֹתֶיךָ.
Deut 13:16 Gather all its spoil into the open square, and burn the town and all its spoil as a holocaust to YHWH your God. And it shall remain an everlasting ruin, never to be rebuilt. 13:18 Let nothing that has been doomed stick to your hand, in order that YHWH may turn from His blazing anger and show you compassion, and in His compassion increase you as He promised your fathers on oath.
The text’s disposition toward the city’s property differs, for example, from the conquest of Jericho:
יהושע ו:כא וַיַּחֲרִימוּ אֶת כָּל אֲשֶׁר בָּעִיר מֵאִישׁ וְעַד אִשָּׁה מִנַּעַר וְעַד זָקֵן וְעַד שׁוֹר וָשֶׂה וַחֲמוֹר לְפִי חָרֶב... ו:כד וְהָעִיר שָׂרְפוּ בָאֵשׁ וְכָל אֲשֶׁר בָּהּ רַק הַכֶּסֶף וְהַזָּהָב וּכְלֵי הַנְּחֹשֶׁת וְהַבַּרְזֶל נָתְנוּ אוֹצַר בֵּית יְ־הוָה.
Josh 6:21 They proscribed everything in the city with the sword: man and woman, young and old, ox and sheep and ass…. 6:24 They burned down the city and everything in it. But the silver and gold and the objects of copper and iron were deposited in the treasury of the House of YHWH.
The city is burned down, but the precious metals are kept for YHWH’s treasury. Later in the book of Joshua, the city of Hazor is also destroyed, though we are not told what happens to its possessions:
יהושע יא:י וַיָּשָׁב יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בָּעֵת הַהִיא וַיִּלְכֹּד אֶת חָצוֹר וְאֶת מַלְכָּהּ הִכָּה בֶחָרֶב... יא:יא וַיַּכּוּ אֶת כָּל הַנֶּפֶשׁ אֲשֶׁר בָּהּ לְפִי חֶרֶב הַחֲרֵם לֹא נוֹתַר כָּל נְשָׁמָה וְאֶת חָצוֹר שָׂרַף בָּאֵשׁ.
Josh 11:10 Joshua then turned back and captured Hazor and put her king to the sword… 11:11 They put to the sword every person in it, proscribed. Not a soul survived, and Hazor itself was burned down.
Many cities weren’t destroyed at all, highlighting further that the treatment of the subverted city follows the most extreme type of cherem, in which everything is utterly destroyed and the city itself left as an eternal ruin. This complete destruction underscores the seriousness of Israel violating its oath to YHWH, just as the destruction of a rebellious city in war throughout the ancient Near East indicated how significant it was for a vassal to violate the oath to a sovereign king. The main difference between the biblical and the Hittite cases is that in the latter case, the one who punishes by cherem is the king to whom that city avowed loyalty, while in the case of the subverted city, the sovereign is YHWH himself.
Ritual as a Psychological Defense Mechanism
Both the Hittite and biblical cases present a ritual that performs an important psychological effect for the perpetrators. The wholesale slaughter of a city, specifically one that was once identified as part of the group as the subverted city was, is a frightening and horrible act, not to be stomached lightly. In the Muršili text, the Storm-god gives his permission for the act because of the city’s transgression; in the biblical text, YHWH commands it.
It would be difficult for the Israelites to live with themselves if they were to keep the booty or move into the now empty houses of the city. This, I suggest, is part of the reason the city is dedicated to God, with everything burnt, and even the ground abandoned. Doing so transfers the killing of the people from the Israelites to YHWH. The Israelites thus absolve themselves of responsibility and at the same time turn a brutal act of mass killing into a pious act of defending themselves from YHWH’s inevitable wrath if the sentence isn’t carried out as commanded.
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Prof. Ada Taggar-Cohen is a professor of Bible and Ancient Near Eastern studies, and the Head of the Program of Jewish Studies, at the School of Theology of Doshisha University, Kyoto, Japan. She earned her BA and MA degrees from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem at the Bible and History of Israel departments, and her PhD from Ben Gurion University in the Negev, under the supervision of Prof. Victor A. Hurowitz (ז״ל) and Prof. Theo van den Hout of the University of Chicago. Her research focuses on Hittite priesthood and comparative studies of issues related to Hittite and ancient Israelite cultures. Her book Hittite Priesthood (Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter, 2006) is a comprehensive work on this topic. She has recently co-edited with Roy E. Gane a volume in memory of Jacob Milgrom, Current Issues in Priestly and Related Literature: The Legacy of Jacob Milgrom and Beyond (Resources for Biblical Study 82; Atlanta: SBL Press, 2015).
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