Notwithstanding the contradictory Hormah traditions in the book of Numbers (see #242, #269) there are other discrepancies in this tradition when we look beyond the Torah, and these give us variant views on when Hormah was conquered and by whom!
Numbers 21:1-3 places the defeat of Hormah at the hands of the Israelites under Moses. Although the exact location of Hormah has not been verified with any certainty by archaeologists (below), this tradition would seem to place it in the northeastern Negeb in the vicinity of Arad (cf. Judg 15:21-30). Additionally this tradition assigns herem to the inhabitants of the land—that is no survivors and no cattle are left alive (below)!
Yet both the traditions in Joshua and Judges contradict this. In Joshua 11:14, Arad and Hormah are both listed as towns Joshua took during the Canaanite conquest! Obviously this tradition knows nothing of the one presently at Numbers 21:1-3.
Conversely Judges 1:16-17 relates yet another tradition, and naming, of Hormah. Here, since this land is allotted to the tribe of Simeon, it is the Simeonites together with the Judhites who conquer this area, “the Negeb of Arad.”
Herem: A Sacrificial Ideology and Literary topos—not a real historical Genocide
The vow of herem to Yahweh in Numbers 21:2-3—“I vow to proscribe their towns as herem”—signifies a sacrificial slaughtering of all inhabitants, save virgin women, and all livestock to Yahweh. It is complete and utter destruction of a people and their towns. Today the term genocide conveys the same idea without the sacrificial ideology implicit in herem.
I will discuss the biblical notion of herem when we get to Deuteronomy 7 where it’s more prominent. Briefly however, it is more representative of a literary topos, even hyperbole, than an actual historical event. And at that it was a common literary convention employed by scribes throughout the ancient Near East.
In the Moabite stela cited in #269, for example, it is stated that the Moabites retake their land and proscribe all the Israelites as herem to their god, Chemosh.
And Chemosh said to me: “Go! Take Nebo from Israel!” So I went by night and fought against it from the break of dawn until noon, taking it and slaying all 7,000 men, boys, women, girls, and maid servants, and I devoted them to destruction (herem) for Chemosh. And I took from there the […] (priests?) of Yahweh, dragging them before Chemosh. And the king of Israel had built Jahaz, and he dwelt there while he was fighting against me, but Chemosh drove him out before me.
Like the proscribed herem to Yahweh in Number 21:1-3 and the whole land of Canaan in Deuteronomy 7, the Moabite stela above expresses the very same sacrificial ideology, except here the utter annihilation of a people, in this case Israel, is devoted to Chemosh. Similar to other biblical passages, this text also concludes in hyperbole—claiming that the Israelites have been destroyed forever!
This type of exaggeration was common among ancient Near Eastern martial texts, stelae, and epigrams. We will likewise encounter later a passage that suggests that the Amalekites are still around, who were also earlier wiped out and exterminated—another hyperbole. So it is no surprise to find out that these Canaanites in the Negeb associated with Arad and Hormah that were utterly destroyed in Numbers 21:1-3 still exist in the narratives of Joshua and Judges! This news should be comforting to those who fear god Yahweh’s immoral commandments of genocide!
What does the Archaeological Record say about Hormah?
Although archaeologists are still unsure of the exact location of Hormah in the Negeb, there is nevertheless confirmation from the archaeological layer of this region in general that no invasion or destruction happened in the years implied in the biblical narrative, that is the late Bronze Age. To cite two eminent archaeologists on the matter:
“Contrary to expectations, there was not found in the eastern Negeb a single site that was inhabited during the late Bronze Age, on the eve of the settlement of the Israelite tribes.” — Na’aman
“There are no Late Bronze Canaanite cities to be found anywhere in the northern Negev. . . so the Israelites could hardly have battled the native inhabitants of the land there.” — Dever
In other words, the conquest of the Negeb is a complete fabrication! — another form of literary hyperbole employed by ancient Near Eastern scribes. The “destruction” that Hormah alludes to was most likely a destruction that took place during the 9th century BCE and this historical reality was retrojected back into the archaic past. We will look at several examples of this creative literary technique when we get to Deuteronomy.