The Hebrew word ḥērem is generally translated “ban” or “devoted (thing)” and means something set apart as belonging to Yahweh and therefore forbidden for profane use; the English word “harem” is derived from the Arabic cognate. It may refer to something set apart for cultic use (Lev. 27.21, 28), to be used only by priests, and thus understood as being holy. The word is also used in accounts of the early wars of Israel to mean the war booty, also understood as devoted to Yahweh and therefore not to be used by the Israelites. In victory nothing is to be spared; Israel must “utterly destroy” (Hebr. hḥrm) everything (Deut. 7.2; 20.16–17; etc.). It is this notion of the ban that characterizes the narratives of the conquest in Joshua (e.g., 6.17–18).
The story of the rejection of Saul as king of Israel in 1 Samuel 15 provides a vivid example of the ban. Yahweh commands Saul through Samuel to utterly destroy the Amalekites, “man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey” (v. 3). When Saul spares the king, Agag, and the best of the possessions of the Amalekites, he is pictured as having failed to obey Yahweh concerning the ban, and as a consequence Yahweh repents of having made Saul king over Israel. The story ends with Samuel taking his sword and hewing Agag to pieces, thus obeying the command to destroy utterly everything devoted to Yahweh.
The institution of the ban was not unique in Israel; the same terminology is used by the Moabite king Mesha (see Moabite Stone, The), and analogous practices are attested elsewhere.
Edgar W. Conrad