In the parsha for last week, Parashat Eikev, Moses instructs the Israelites on how to enter the land of Israel. The general idea is that if the Israelites observe God’s commandments, they will be rewarded: they may enter, possess, and flourish in the land. Only one small obstacle stands in their way. The land that they are about to enter, possess, and flourish in is already occupied by a people called the Canaanites. This obstacle, however, can indeed be overcome, and Moses is clear on how. In 7:16, he states, “You shall destroy all the peoples that the LORD your God delivers to you, showing them no pity,” and in 7:23 he adds, “the LORD your God will deliver [these peoples] up to you, throwing them into utter panic until they are wiped out.” This practice of utter annihilation is related to the idea of herem. Essentially, herem refers to “the notion that something or someone belongs exclusively to Yahweh [the deity of the Hebrew Bible] as an inalienable possession.” In this situation, it is the Canaanites, and all they possess, that is herem; thus, they must be destroyed. No Canaanite person may be taken as a slave; he or she must be killed. None of the Canaanites’ livestock may be taken for use by the Israelites; they must be slaughtered. None of the Canaanites’ possessions may be taken as war booty; they must be destroyed. Herem is an intangible, inherent, and contagious quality. Total destruction of the Canaanite people and all that was theirs would thus ensure that the land would be free from their contaminating influence and ready for the godly nation of Israel to enter and possess it.
Many readers, myself included, find the terminology surrounding herem disturbing. The idea of “wiping out” and “destroying” an entire population is evocative of genocide, or ethnic cleansing. Unsurprisingly, these verses in Parashat Eikev (and other verses like them) have been used to justify some fairly heinous acts in human history. The Europeans who colonized the New World explicitly utilized this ideology to justify their destruction of the Native Americans; the Europeans saw themselves as the Israelites, with the divinely-given right to possess the land, and saw the Native Americans as the Canaanites, the indigenous population which had to be eliminated. In addition, when one reads of the potential threat the Canaanites were to Israelite purity, one cannot help but think of the Nazi desire to create a pure “master race” and exterminate all peoples who threatened to contaminate the gene pool.
It may be some comfort to note that according to both the Hebrew Bible and archaeological record, this proposed annihilation of the Canaanite people never actually occurred. The main function of the exhortations in Eikev seems to have been trumped-up war rhetoric, common enough in the ancient Near East. Yet despite its dubious historicity, the mere fact that such verses are included in the Torah has disturbed everyone from ancient rabbis to modern scholars. Countless apologetics have been written in an attempt to explain these verses, and others like them, which seem to advocate for senseless slaughter. Some of these explanations are convincing, others, not so much. I am neither academically nor spiritually qualified to evaluate which one is best. But perhaps the point of these verses is not their spiritual value, or their insight into ancient times. Perhaps the point is that we simply try to explain what they are doing in the Torah. It could be that Parashat Eikev, and other, similarly challenging texts, exist to inspire us to engage in these difficult discussions. In these conversations, we must ask: How do we reconcile our modern sense of the humanity of all people, with the biblical notion of the elevation of Israel above all people? How do we reconcile Deuteronomy’s concern, elsewhere in the text, with the stranger, widow, and orphan, with its callous disregard for the value of the Canaanites’ lives?  How does our own behavior, on both the individual and communal level, challenge or permit the ethnocentrism of this text?
Every year, we encounter Parashat Eikev, and are forced to wrestle with it. We are repeatedly forced to confront our issues and questions about the disturbing aspects of the text. In doing so, we must simultaneously confront the aspects of our past, and our present, that we are not proud of, and try to figure out ways to make our future better. And if we can accomplish that, even to a small degree, it is my opinion that that would make the disturbing nature of the text absolutely worth it.
 In this essay, I use the Jewish Publication Society translation of the Bible.
 Richard D. Nelson, “Herem and the Deuteronomic Social Conscience,” in Deuteronomy and Deuteronomic Literature, ed. Marc Vervenne, Chris H.W. Brekelmans, and Johan Lust (Peeters Publishers, 1997), 43-44. For more on the meaning of herem, see pp. 41-49.
 Sylvester Johnson, “New Israel, New Canaan: The Bible, the People of God, and the American Holocaust,” Union Seminary Quarterly Review 59, no 1-2 (2005): 33ff.
 For more on this topic, see Yair Hoffman, “The Deuteronomistic Concept of the Herem,” Zeitschrift fur die altestamenliche Wissenschafaft 111 (1999): 196-210.