Was There Ever an Ir Hannidahat (Subverted City)?
Ḥerem on the Subverted City
In Deuteronomy 13, Moses teaches the Israelites how to react to attempts to lead them astray. He begins with the case of a prophet who advocates for the worship of other gods and who must be executed (vv. 2-6). Next, he discusses the possibility that a family member will attempt to lead someone astray; such a person should be stoned publicly (vv. 7-12). Finally, he describes what the Israelites as a whole should do if an entire city has been led astray:
- Plotting to serve other gods
דברים יג:יג כִּי תִשְׁמַע בְּאַחַת עָרֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר ה’ 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,
- Investigating the claims
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 –
- Punishment: Killing all inhabitants and animals (ḥerem)
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. Doom it to destruction and all that is in it and put its cattle to the sword:
- Burning all property and on rebuilding the city
יג:יז וְאֶת כָּל שְׁלָלָהּ תִּקְבֹּץ אֶל תּוֹךְ רְחֹבָהּ וְשָׂרַפְתָּ בָאֵשׁ אֶת הָעִיר וְאֶת כָּל שְׁלָלָהּ כָּלִיל לַה’ אֱלֹהֶיךָ וְהָיְתָה תֵּל עוֹלָם לֹא תִבָּנֶה עוֹד.
13:17 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.
- Appeasing YHWH and rebuilding the population
יג:יח וְלֹא יִדְבַּק בְּיָדְךָ מְאוּמָה מִן הַחֵרֶם לְמַעַן יָשׁוּב ה’ מֵחֲרוֹן אַפּוֹ וְנָתַן לְךָ רַחֲמִים וְרִחַמְךָ וְהִרְבֶּךָ כַּאֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע לַאֲבֹתֶיךָ.
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.
Deuteronomy does not have a name for this kind of city, but the rabbis coined the term עיר הנדחת. The term נדחת is a niphʿal form derived from the biblical (hiphʿil) verb in v. 14, וַיַּדִּיחוּ, “and they subverted.” While the Torah is only speaking about how some “scoundrels” (אנשים בני בליעל) subverted their fellow townsfolk, and brought them to worship idols, the term appears as a descriptive term in the niphʿal form in a verse in Jeremiah describing Jerusalem:
ירמיהו ל:יז כִּי אַעֲלֶה אֲרֻכָה לָךְ וּמִמַּכּוֹתַיִךְ אֶרְפָּאֵךְ נְאֻם-ה’ כִּי נִדָּחָה קָרְאוּ לָךְ צִיּוֹן הִיא דֹּרֵשׁ אֵין לָהּ.
Jer 30:17 But I will bring a healing to you and cure you of your wounds, declares YHWH. Though they called you “Outcast,” that Zion whom no one seeks out.
It is likely that the rabbis connected Jer 30:17 to Deut 13;13-18, and thus derived the term, עיר הנדחת, “the subverted city.”
Rabbinic Approach: A Theoretical Exercise?
The subject of an ʿir hannidaḥat is treated extensively in rabbinic literature. The Mishnah already limits what kind of court can declare the city to be subverted and how many cities in a given locale can be subjected to such a declaration (m. Sanhedrin 1:5):
אין עושין עיר הנידחת, אלא על פי בית דין של שבעים ואחד; ואין עושין עיר הנידחת בספר, ולא שלוש עיר הנידחת, אבל עושין אחת או שתיים.
They declare a city to be a “subverted city” only on the instructions of a court of 71; And they do not declare a city to be a subverted city on the frontier, nor [do they declare] three [in one locale] to be [subverted cities], but they do so in the case of one or two.
The Mishnah is sensitive to how serious a matter it is to kill an entire city, and thus requires the highest court’s approval. It further legislates that it cannot be carried out in such a way as to make the land vulnerable to attack, by depopulating a border town or a contiguous area.
What was implicit in the Mishnah is made explicit in the Tosefta (Sanhedrin 14:1):
אין עושין שלש עיירות נידחות בארץ ישר’ כדי שלא יחריבו את ארץ ישראל אבל עושין אחת שתים ר’ שמעון אומ’ אף שתים לא יעשו אלא אחת ביהודה ואחת בגליל בסמוך לספר אפילו אחת לא יעשו כדי שלא יפרצו גוים ויחריבו את ארץ ישראל.
They do not declare three towns to be subverted towns in the Land of Israel, so as not to wipe out settlement in the Land of Israel. But they declare one or two [to be subverted cities]. R. Simeon says, “Even two [in one locale] they may not declare, but they may declare one town in Judah and one town in Galilee.” And near the frontier they may not declare even one town to be a subverted town, so that gentiles will not break through and wipe out settlement in the Land of Israel.
The rabbis’ concern about this law goes beyond just the practical question of making Israel vulnerable. They seem to have qualms about the law itself, which is likely why some rabbinic texts present ʿir hannidaḥat as a theoretical case. For example, the same Tosefta quoted above opens:
עיר הנדחת לא הייתה ולא עתידה להיות ולמה נכתבה לומר דרוש וקבל שכר.
A subverted city never was and never will be. And why was the matter written? To say, “Expound upon it, and receive a reward.”
In the Babylonian Talmud, the rabbis list the subverted city together with the law of the disloyal and defiant son (בן סורר ומורה), who is to be executed (Deut 21:18-21), and that of a house with tzara’at, which is to be knocked down (Lev 14:33-57), as “theoretical occurrences that never came about in reality” (b. Sanh. 71a; 111b- 113a).
And yet, in each of these cases, the Talmud record a dissenting opinion. In the case of the subverted city, it is R. Yonatan (b.Sanh. 71a):
אמר רבי יונתן: אני ראיתיה וישבתי על תילה.
R. Yonatan said: “I saw one and sat on its mound.”
R. Yonatan never specifies where this mound was, and this may have been meant more as a rhetorical point than an historical attestation, as the same style response is given to defend the historicity of each of the laws the rabbis claim never happened. Nevertheless, I believe we can support the notion that subverted cities or something like this, where the Israelites destroy one of their own cities as a punishment for sinful behavior, were a real part of ancient Israel’s by looking at the biblical narrative describing the destruction of Gibeah.
The War with Benjamin (Judg 19-21)
Judges 19-21 tells the story of war between the tribe of Benjamin and the rest of Israel that began when a woman, the concubine of a Levite man travelling from Judah to his home in Ephraim, was gang-raped to death while staying overnight in the Benjaminite city of Gibeah. Most scholars and commentators correctly note the literary connection between the concubine story and that of the attempted rape of the angels staying with Lot by the men of Sodom in Genesis 19.
Indeed the two stories are connected intertextually.Nevertheless, whereas the Sodom story is about non-Israelite perpetrators and the punishment is divine through the agency of nature, the concubine story is about the tribe of Benjamin and the punishment is meted out by the Israelites themselves.
While the battle flares up into an internecine tribal conflict of national proportions, it begins as an attack on a specific offending city:
שופטים כ:יב וַיִּשְׁלְחוּ שִׁבְטֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲנָשִׁים בְּכָל שִׁבְטֵי בִנְיָמִן לֵאמֹר מָה הָרָעָה הַזֹּאת אֲשֶׁר נִהְיְתָה בָּכֶם. כ:יג וְעַתָּה תְּנוּ אֶת הָאֲנָשִׁים בְּנֵי בְלִיַּעַל אֲשֶׁר בַּגִּבְעָה וּנְמִיתֵם וּנְבַעֲרָה רָעָה מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל וְלֹא אָבוּ [בְּנֵי] בִּנְיָמִן לִשְׁמֹעַ בְּקוֹל אֲחֵיהֶם בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.כ:יד וַיֵּאָסְפוּ בְנֵי בִנְיָמִן מִן הֶעָרִים הַגִּבְעָתָה לָצֵאת לַמִּלְחָמָה עִם בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
Judg 20:12 And the tribes of Israel sent men through the whole tribe of Benjamin, saying, “What is this evil thing that has happened among you?20:13 Come, hand over those scoundrels in Gibeah so that we may put them to death and stamp out the evil from Israel.” But the Benjaminites would not yield to the demand of their fellow Israelites. 20:14 So the Benjaminites gathered from their towns to Gibeah in order to take the field against the Israelites.
In short, according to the story, the Israelites originally intend to kill the perpetrators alone, but the war develops into a tribal conflict since Benjamin expresses tribal loyalty to their town, despite the base actions of its inhabitants. After two days of brutal and unsuccessful battle, the Israelites play a trick on the Benjaminite army, akin to what Joshua does to the city of Ai (Josh 8), by feinting defeat and drawing the main force of Benjamin’s troops out of the city. Once this happens, an ambushing force of Israelites enters the city, puts everyone in Gibeah to the sword, and lights it on fire.
Eventually the Israelite forces defeat those of Benjamin and proceed to destroy other Benjaminite cities as well.
שופטים כ:מח וְאִישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל שָׁבוּ אֶל בְּנֵי בִנְיָמִן וַיַּכּוּם לְפִי חֶרֶב מֵעִיר מְתֹם עַד בְּהֵמָה עַד כָּל הַנִּמְצָא גַּם כָּל הֶעָרִים הַנִּמְצָאוֹת שִׁלְּחוּ בָאֵשׁ.
Judg 20:48 The men of Israel, meanwhile, turned back to the rest of the Benjaminites and put them to the sword — towns, people, cattle — everything that remained. Also, they set fire to all the towns that were left.
The destruction here is ḥerem style, including the otherwise surprising destruction of the booty, and it is apparently applied to many cities in Benjamin. Nevertheless, it all started with the assault on Gibeah.
Is Gibeah Treated Like a Subverted City?
I suggest that some version of the ʿir hannidaḥat law lies behind the Gibeah story. Note the similarities between the two passages:
- The destruction of the city and its contents by fire (Deut 13:17; Judg 20:48);
- The killing of the entire population (Deut 13:16; Judg 20:37);
- The killing of the animals (Deut 13:16; Judg 20:48).
The similarities are not only conceptual and structural in nature, but the passages share some intertextual resonances and overlapping terminology:
|Subverted City (Deut 13)
|Gibeah (Judg 20)
|some scoundrels from among you (v. 14)
יָצְאוּ אֲנָשִׁים בְּנֵי בְלִיַּעַל מִקִּרְבֶּךָ
תְּנוּ אֶת הָאֲנָשִׁים בְּנֵי בְלִיַּעַל אֲשֶׁר בַּגִּבְעָה
|hand over those scoundrels in Gibeah (v. 13)
|put the inhabitants of that town to the sword (v. 16)
הַכֵּה תַכֶּה אֶת יֹשְׁבֵי הָעִיר הַהִוא לְפִי-חָרֶב
וַיַּךְ אֶת כָּל הָעִיר לְפִי חָרֶב
|and put the whole town to the sword (v. 37)
|Doom it to destruction and all that is in it and put its cattle to the sword (v. 16)
הַחֲרֵם אֹתָהּ וְאֶת כָּל אֲשֶׁר בָּהּ וְאֶת בְּהֶמְתָּהּ לְפִי חָרֶב
וַיַּכּוּםלְפִי-חֶרֶב מֵעִיר מְתֹם עַד בְּהֵמָה עַד כָּל הַנִּמְצָא
|and put them to the sword: towns, people, cattle, everything that remained (v. 48)
|gather all its spoil into the open square, and burn the town and all its spoil burnt entirely to YHWH your God (v. 17)
וְאֶת כָּל שְׁלָלָהּ תִּקְבֹּץ אֶל תּוֹךְ רְחֹבָהּ וְשָׂרַפְתָּ בָאֵשׁ אֶת הָעִיר וְאֶת כָּל שְׁלָלָהּ כָּלִיל לַי-הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ
וְהַמַּשְׂאֵת הֵחֵלָּה לַעֲלוֹת מִן הָעִיר עַמּוּד עָשָׁן… וְהִנֵּה עָלָה כְלִיל הָעִיר הַשָּׁמָיְמָה. …גַּם כָּל הֶעָרִים הַנִּמְצָאוֹת שִׁלְּחוּ בָאֵשׁ
|But when the column, the pillar of smoke, began to rise from the city… and there was the town going up entirely in smoke to the sky! (v. 40) Finally, they set fire to all the towns that were left. (v. 48)
What Sin Counts as Subversion?
One glaring difference between Deuteronomy’s law of the subverted city and the story of Gibeah in Judges is the nature of the sin. Deuteronomy is expressly concerned with idolatry whereas the Judges story is concerned first with sexual violence, though later the internecine conflict focuses on the Benjaminites’ refusal to hand over the perpetrators.Nevertheless, this could simply reflect different applications of the principle that a city that has become wicked beyond redemption must be destroyed, with each text focusing on what it imagines as the pinnacle of wickedness. 
So Was There Ever a Subverted City?
It is difficult to judge the historicity of biblical stories so we do not know if there is any historical basis to the claim that the city of Gibeah was destroyed by Israelites. Archaeology too has a hard time answering this question.
In 1923, the great American biblical archaeologist, William Foxwell Albright (1891-1971), excavated a site in the Benjamin region called Tel el-Ful. He uncovered a number of fortresses there, and a destruction layer, which he dated to the late Iron Age I (11th cent.). He identified the site as Gibeah and the destruction layer as reflecting the burning of Gibeah as described in Judges.
Since then, much of his dating has been challenged, and Tel el-Ful remains an enigmatic site. That said, even if the identification of Gibeah with Tel el-Ful was certain (it is debated), and even if all were in agreement about its destruction and abandonment in the late Iron I (this too is unclear), we still would not know who it was who destroyed it.
That said, the account of the destruction at Gibeah implies that, like Deuteronomy, the author of Judges 19-21 was working with a concept of “internal ḥerem” for a subverted city, i.e., the reality that in certain circumstances an Israelite city may be destroyed by the Israelites themselves and put under the ban.
According to the story, once the Israelites learn of the horrible behavior in Gibeah and determine the Levite’s story to be true, they decide to punish the perpetrators. Once the Benjaminites refuse to allow this to occur, the Israelites conclude that all of Gibeah are scoundrels, even all of Benjamin, and decide to destroy them with a ḥerem style ban.
Thus, it would seem that Deuteronomy and Judges both have in mind something that was a reality in biblical times, and that “internal ḥerem” was indeed practiced. Recognizing the human tragedy and hardship and the potential for internecine conflict, rabbinic Judaism rejected the subverted city as a practical concept, claiming that it never happened and never will. Nevertheless, R. Yonatan, who claims to have sat on the mound (tell) of such a city, was likely correct after all.
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Prof. Aaron Demsky is Professor (emeritus) of Biblical History at The Israel and Golda Koschitsky Department of Jewish History and Contemporary Jewry, Bar Ilan University. He is also the founder and director of The Project for the Study of Jewish Names. Demsky received the Bialik Prize (2014) for his book, Literacy in Ancient Israel.
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