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   by Jacob Solomon

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Israel (the Israelites) sent messengers to Sichon, King of the Amorites, saying, “Please let (us) pass through your land, we shall not turn off to a field or a vineyard…” Sichon did not let Israel pass through his borders… he waged war against Israel. Israel killed (them) by the sword, and took possession of his land… (21:21-24)

This passage introduces the first instalment of the conquest of the Land that the twelve tribes would inherit. It presents several fundamental questions:

  1. Why was the King of the Amorites initially approached with a polite request? The Amonites were one of the Seven Nations of the Land of Canaan (Deut. 20:17). The Israelites were commanded to exterminate those Seven Nations: “From the cities that G-d gives you as an inheritance you shall not allow a single person to live” (ibid. 20:17).
  2. Elsewhere the Torah gives the reason for Sichon’s barring passage to the Israelites: “for G-d had hardened his spirit… in order to give him in your hand…” (Deut. 2:30). If G-d deprived Sichon of free choice, why were he and his people destroyed to the last human being (Deut. 2:34)?
  3. More basically – how is the order to exterminate the Canaanites to the last person consistent with King Solomon’s description of Torah teaching: “Its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace” (Prov. 3:17). Indeed, G-d wishes people to repent: as He expressed it to Ezekiel, “Do I wish for the death of the evil person? … If only he would turn away from his ways and (then) he will live” (Ez. 18:23).

Partly because of the above verses, the Ramban (unlike Rashi) understands that the Israelites were first required to attempt to make peace with the Canaanites, and they were only to exterminate them if they could not come to a halachically satisfactory modus vivendi. In fact the Tenach records several instances of Canaanites who were allowed to continue living in the Promised Land after the Israelite conquest (e.g. Josh. 16:10). In this context, the Rambam takes a similar view, stating the following:

No war of any kind (including against the Seven Nations) may be waged unless there has been an attempt to make peace first, as it says, “When you approach a city to make war, you must first call for peace” (Deut. 20:10)… If they make peace and keep the Seven Noachite Laws… and agree to pay tribute to you (by paying taxes and working for you)… you may not kill any of them (Rambam: Hilchot Melachim 6:1).

Even if they Canaanites were initially allowed to live, why does the Torah view them with such abhorrence?

A key to understanding this may be found in the text of G-d’s promise Abraham of the Land of Canaan to his descendants:

The fourth generation shall return here, for the sin of the Amorites will not be paid until them (Gen. 15:16).

Thus G-d gave the Amorites several centuries to repent (Rashi ad loc., based on Sotah 9b). Indeed, the Midrash implies that G-d revealed Himself through prophets to the nations practicing idolatry as well as to the Israelites. This was so that on the day of reckoning they should not claim that they would have lived differently if He had given them spiritual guidance like the Israelites (Midrash: Tanchuma Parashat Balak 1).

Of what heinous offences were the Seven Nations guilty so that they were deserving of such treatment?

One of these offences was idol worship. As implied by the Midrash (Sifri Devarim 61), idol worship was, by then, something deeply rooted within the Canaanite culture.

The Torah gives us a frightening insight into the consequences of following idolatry: ‘They even burn in fire their sons and daughters to their own gods’ (Deut. 12:31). R. Akiva said that he had personally witnessed an idolater tie up and throw his own father to savage dogs, as an act of idol worship (Sifri Devarim 81). Indeed, even within living memory, a third of the Jewish population were foully put to death under Nazism. This doctrine was presented to the Aryan population as what could at least in spirit be called idol worship - the ultimate ideal in social engineering. What objectively was the murder of innocents was transformed into a ‘call’ of ‘highest duty’.

In other words, the Torah gives evidence that the Canaanite culture was of such a nature as to be destructive of the Creation. Man was no longer, ‘in His image’: he had, over the centuries, channelled his intelligence and influence to develop a deep rooted national culture which perverted the Creation to the lowest depths. Allowing it to remain anywhere would create an untold amount of suffering to innocents for all time. Idolatry of the Canaanite variety could not exist at all in the Holy Land charged with His spirituality – which greatly increased when His people entered the Promised Land.

This helps to explain why the Israelites had to destroy idol worship and, given the appropriate conditions, the people that were infused with it. But what was the reason for the Torah’s appearing to sanction genocide in this case?

A look into the law of the ‘wayward and rebellious son’ could provide an insight into this issue. The Torah, as understood by the Talmud (Sanhedrin 72a) states that if a son is beyond all possible degree of correction, he has to be put to death. The Torah looks at this young man from the point of view of his soul. At the age of just over Bar Mitzva, he is still not fully liable for his actions, but his personality is sufficiently determined. As he is certain to live a life of evil and debauchery, it is better that he should die young, when not fully liable for his sins, than that he should be given the opportunity to blacken himself (and society) as an adult fully responsible for his actions. “It is better that he should die innocent than die with certain guilt.”

This principle may be applied to the Canaanite nations. Such were the moral abysses into which they plunged and were deeply established, that someone who was a member on that society could not, with the best will in the world, avoid becoming part of that culture and ideology. So it was better that the younger ones would die innocent rather than die with certain guilt…

Finally, why did G-d harden Sichon’s heart?

The Sforno (in commenting on Ex. 7:3) writes G-d hardened Pharaoh’s heart in the last five plagues did not take away Pharaoh’s free choice. His heart was hardened by G-d to the extent that he would release the Israelites not because of the anguish of the plagues, but because he believed that letting them go was the correct thing to do. Similarly, G-d hardened Sichon’s heart to the extent that he would not let the Israelites pass through, if the only reason was that he was scared of them. On the other hand, he still had the opportunity to give them passage if he really believed that he was fulfilling G-d’s will in doing so… But as the text relates, not only did he not let them through, but he also initiated war against them…

As an afterthought: the above issues are extremely difficult to come to terms with – whatever quality of argument. Many, many questions still remain – and this topic is especially difficult to face in this generation with the prevailing Western ideology of equal opportunities and freedom of religion. Perhaps the opening words of this Parasha… zot chukat ha-Torah – ‘this is the statute of the Torah’ may be applied to these issues as well. The Almighty who gave us the Torah understands His Creations and His laws better than we do and the Torah obligates us to carry out things even if we do not understand them…



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