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It is written:
Leviticus 27:28-29-Nevertheless no devoted offering that a man may devote to the LORD of all that he has, both man and beast, or the field of his possession, shall be sold or redeemed; every devoted offering is most holy to the LORD. 29 No person under the ban, who may become doomed to destruction among men, shall be redeemed, but shall surely be put to death.
Leviticus 27 deals with the issue of selling and redeeming property (i.e., people who sell their property or buy property from the Levitical priest). Verse 27 implies that there are certain objects and persons who may not be used as payment for such, and that there are (apparently) some individuals who may not only be used for such but who must be “put to death.” Some skeptics of the Bible have claimed that this is a reference to human slaves being offered as sacrifices.
What are we to make of this?
First, this passage deals with “the ban.” This is the Hebrew word herem. Quite often, this phrase is interpreted as meaning something which must be annihilated. However, the word itself is much deeper and richer meaning than this. By noting how the word is used in both biblical and extra-biblical texts, we have a much better idea of its’ meaning.
“The common English translations of the Hebrew word ḥerem (ASV “utterly destroy”; NIV “destroy totally”; CEB “place under the ban”; NET “utterly annihilate”; ESV “devote to destruction”) are misleading because they imply that the word specifies something that happens to the object (that is, it is destroyed). Alternatively, we suggest that the word actually refers to the removal of something from human use. 1 The emphasis is not on the object but on everyone around the object; “no one shall make use of this.” 2 When ḥerem objects are destroyed, the purpose of the destruction is to make sure that nobody can use it, but not all ḥerem objects are destroyed. Most notably, Joshua 11: 12-13 reports that all of the northern cities were ḥerem, yet Joshua destroys only one of them (Hazor). Likewise, a field that is ḥerem is not destroyed but becomes the property of the priests (Lev 27: 21). Destruction, when it occurs, is a means to an end. A Hittite document describes the devotion of a city in terms comparable to the Hebrew ḥerem, complete with imprecations against rebuilders reminiscent of Joshua 6: 26: 3 Tešub [a storm god] my lord . . . handed it over to me and I have desolated it and [made it sacred]. As long as heaven and earth and mankind will be, in future no son of man may inhabit it! [I have offered] it to Tešub my lord, together with fields, farmyards, vineyards. . . . [Let] your bulls Šeri and Hurri [make it] their own grazing-land. . . . He who nevertheless will inhabit it and will take the grazing-land away from the bulls of Tešub . . . let him be averse party to Tešub my lord. 4 Ḥerem may often involve destruction, but “destruction” is not the essential meaning of ḥerem because not everything that is ḥerem is destroyed. Ḥerem occurs first, and because the thing is ḥerem, therefore the thing must be [blank], where [blank] is typically (but not always) some variant of “destroyed.” The comparison with the Hittite document here demonstrates what ḥerem signifies (removal from human use) and why therefore the destruction is necessary. The Hittite king Mursili levels a rebellious city and offers the site to the god Tešub as a pasture for his bulls. Because the god is using the site as a pasture, nobody else can use it for anything; this is the thrust of the imprecation directed at “[ whoever] . . . will take the grazing-land away from the bulls”: An area is granted in absolute ownership to the God but in it no temple was permitted to be build [sic], no economic activity was allowed to be carried on; on the contrary, the exploitation of the banned area was deemed as an “abomination” (natta ara) to the deity, the perpetrator of such an abomination was handed over to the divine judgment and put to death. 5 Compare this judgment with the accusation in Joshua 7: 15, where violating the ban is “an outrageous thing in Israel,” 6 and also Joshua 7: 25, where Yahweh brings trouble on Achan. 7 The imprecation of the Hittite document is aimed at anyone who makes use of the site that has been set aside for the use of the deity. It is not aimed at the citizens of the town. Thus we see the following sequence of events: 1. The necessity of the town’s military defeat is determined. In the Hittite document, the reason is rebellion; in the case of Israel it is so the residents will not “become barbs in [Israel’s] eyes and thorns in [Israel’s] side” (Num 33: 55). 2. The town is attacked by the army, and the defenders are defeated. The battle is not a consequence of the ḥerem; ḥerem happens after the battle is over. 3. The site is declared ḥerem (forbidden from human use). 4. Violators of the ban (actual or hypothetical) are punished. Of course, ḥerem in the Old Testament is not limited to cities. There are four distinct categories of things that can be ḥerem: inanimate objects, including plots of land; living individuals (people or animals); abstractions representing communities of people; and cities. What specifically happens to these varies depending on how they might be used and therefore on how that use might be prevented.” (John H. Walton, J. Harvey Walton, The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest: Covenant, Retribution, and the Fate of the Canaanites, 169-172 (Kindle Edition); Downers Grove, Illinois; IVP Academic)
Copan provides an excellent summary of this word:
“We see, then, that the term haram as “utterly destroy” needs to be revisited. It can convey “decisive defeat,” “consecration/ removal from ordinary use,” “exile,” or “identity removal.” In the next chapter, we build on this haram theme, looking at how the book of Deuteronomy appropriates and dramatically intensifies this rhetorical language.”
” (Paul Copan, Is God a Vindictive Bully?: Reconciling Portrayals of God in the Old and New Testaments, 210 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; Baker Academic)
“The word for “devote,” the word often translated “annihilate,” strictly denotes giving something over to God—hence my use of that English word to translate it. Previously in the Torah, the verb and the related noun that means something devoted (herem) have been used in connection with giving something over to God in a way that doesn’t involve their death at all (see Lev 27: 21-28), though it’s also been used for capital punishment in connection with an Israelite worshiping other gods (Ex 22: 20; cf. Lev 27: 29). So the word doesn’t simply mean slaughtering people.” (John Goldingay, Old Testament Ethics: A Guided Tour, 269 (Kindle Edition); Downers Grove, IL; IVP Academic)
Second, with this definition in mind, we come now to consider other interpretations of the passage.. Some believe this passage is teaching that the ones in consideration here are to be allowed to continue in their work until death, i.e., their service to God is lifelong.
Adam Clarke tells us:
“Every man who is devoted shall surely be put to death; or, as some understand it, be the Lord’s property, or be employed in his service, till death.“ (Clarke’s Commentary)
Third, it is more likely that the person under consideration in this passage is one who had been condemned to death for some serious crimes; and that the penalty had to be carried out.
In other words, a person could not give a person who had been condemned to death as payment!
“The death sentence is imposed by an authorized body after due process of law. This interpretation is bolstered by the absence of the object “to YHWH””” and by the fact that this passive is once again attested in “He who sacrifices to any god shall be proscribed” (Exod 22:19a [Eng. 20a]; see also Deut 13:13-19 19 IEng. 12-181), a law that again implies a judicial sentence.” My student S. Nikaido adds the argument that whereas “a man” in Lev 27:28 testifies that an individual is proscribing, the unstated subject in v. 29 indicates that the subject is no longer an individual but a collective body. What would motivate an authorized body to impose the extreme proscription, the death penalty, on a human being’? R. Akiba avers that the king of the Sanhedrin (i.e., the highest court) might impose the death penalty on Israel’s enemies, citing the example of the oath taken by the Israelite tribes against the people of Jabesh-gilead (Judg 21:5).12 In other words, this law reflects the war proscription-for example, Achan (Josh 7:25),13 Arad (Num 21:2), Mesha- which would bespeak its antiquity. Verses 28-29 speak of two different fates that await a proscribed person: consigned as a slave to the sanctuary by his owner (v. 28), and sentenced to death by a judicial body (v. 29). The proscription imposed voluntarily by the owner on his property, , whether it is his slaves, animals, or tenured fields, transfers it to permanent sanctuary ownership where it may be neither sold nor redeemed because of its most sacred status. But persons who are proscribed by some outside body (presumably, an authorized court) must be put to death.” (Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus (Continental Commentary) (Continental Commentaries), 4883-4895 (Kindle Edition); Minneapolis, Minnesota; Fortress Press)
The ones who were thus condemned to death included those who had committed crimes against humanity such as the Canaanites who had been involved in ritualistic murder of children for centuries, and those who had committed premeditated murder (Numbers 31:7-17; 35:31-34).
This is far from human sacrifice taking place!
Fourth, it is possible that both of these interpretations are at play here. Those who are under the ban could (in certain circumstances) be shown mercy if they were willing to convert to Yahweh and serve Him “until death”: yet if they persisted in their wickedness, they must be put to death.
Finally, as to the charge of slavery: we must remember that slavery in the Bible was quite often a form of indentured servitude-and not slavery as it is often understood in modern times.
“A mistake critics make is associating servanthood in the Old Testament with antebellum (prewar) slavery in the South-like the kind of scenario Douglass described. By contrast, Hebrew (debt) servanthood could be compared to similar conditions in colonial America. Paying fares for passage to America was too costly for many individuals to afford. So they’d contract themselves out, working in the households-often in apprentice-like positions-until they paid back their debts. One-half to two-thirds of white immigrants to Britain’s colonies were indentured servants. “Likewise, an Israelite strapped for shekels might become an indentured servant to pay off his debt to a “boss” or “employer” (‘adon). Calling him a “master” is often way too strong a term, just as the term ‘ebed (“servant, employee”) typically shouldn’t be translated “slave.” John Goldingay comments that “there is nothing inherently lowly or undignified about being an ‘ebed.” “Even when the terms buy, sell, or acquire are used of servants/employees, they don’t mean the person in question is “just property.” Think of a sports player today who gets “traded” to another team, to which he “belongs.” Yes, teams have “owners,” but we’re hardly talking about slavery here! Rather, these are formal contractual agreements, which is what we find in Old Testament servanthood/employee arrangements. ..Contrary to the critics, this servanthood wasn’t much different experimentally from paid employment in a cash economy like ours.” (Paul Copan, Is God A Moral Monster? Making Sense Of The Old Testament God, 124-125 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; Baker Books)
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all. Amen.