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25.08.2020 19:19    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah shabbat devarim parasha ki tetze  

“Because they did not meet you with food and water”



The sweeping prohibition against marrying an Ammonite or Moabite, “No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted into the congregation of the Lord; none of their descendants, even in the tenth generation, shall ever be admitted into the congregation of the Lord” (Deut. 23:4) is given two reasons in Parashat Ki Tetze (Deut. 23:5):

Because they did not meet you with food and water on your journey after you left Egypt, and because they hired Balaam son of Beor, from Pethor of Aram-naharaim, to curse you.

The second reason is clearly understood, for an entire weekly reading of the Torah is devoted to the unsuccessful attempt of Balak, King of Moab, to curse the Israelites by employing the services of Balaam the diviner (Numbers, chapters 22-24).  The first reason, in contrast, is obscure and hard to understand, and has been challenged by exegetes in various ways:

  1. Contradictions in the text:  Some commentators point out a contradiction between what is implied by the verse at hand regarding Ammon and Moab not providing the Israelites food and water in the wilderness, and what Moses attests in his speech when he says that the Moabites, like the Edomites, sold food and water to the Israelites (Deut. 2:28-29).[1]

Three ways of resolving this difficulty have been proposed:  1. Only the Ammonites sold food and water to the Israelites.[2] 2. One should distinguish between supplying food and water for free as a brotherly act—something that the Ammonites and Moabites were accused of failing to do—and commerce in food and water on an economic basis, such as existed between the Moabites and Israelites.[3] 3.  In his speech, Moses was speaking only of a small number of Moabites who lived in Ar.[4]

  1. Substantive difficulties:  Some wonder what need the Israelites had of food, for according to the account of their wanderings in the wilderness, they received manna on a regular basis.  It should be noted that from the day the manna began, the Israelites did not complain about a lack of food.  Therefore some people interpret that the event to which this explanation alludes at must have taken place at the beginning of the exodus, before the manna was given.[5] Such an interpretation, however, ignores the fact that during this period the Israelites were nowhere near the lands of Ammon and Moab, so the question naturally arises:  what room was there for making demands of these nations?[6]
  2. Moral difficulties:  Some people have wondered about the moral criteria underlying this rule of halakhah:  Does refraining from an extreme act of grace—such as providing food to an entire nation, which can only be accomplished with great effort if it is not to harm one’s own people—does that justify such total lack of acceptance in the “community of Israel”?[7] This question is intensified when this sweeping prohibition is compared with the relatively light restrictions against other the people of other nations, such as Edomites or Egyptians.

Cohen-Zvi, for example, sees this explanation as “strange” (p.  175):[8]

It does not stand to reason that the Ammonites should have been so severely ostracized for a sin which amounted to no more than not meeting the Israelites with food and water, when the Edomites met the Israelites with the sword (Num. 20:14-21) and would not let them cross their territory; but nevertheless the attitude towards them is inestimably better than the attitude towards the Ammonites (Deut. 23:8).

Perhaps a new interpretation of the text, based on a better understanding of the political situation in which the Israelites found themselves at the time of the conquest of Sihon’s territory, can clear away the difficulties mentioned above.

Some commentators on Numbers view the poem in Numbers 21:27-30 as rare external evidence in Scripture, coming from an ancient source and attesting to the results of Sihon’s war against Moab.  According to this poem, at some time prior to the Israelite victory over Sihon, the Moabites lost control of part of their land as a result of its conquest by Sihon, king of the Amorites.

It turns out that at the end of this war the conquered land was not emptied of all its Moabite inhabitants.  The poem pokes fun at Chemosh, the god of the Moabites, who had abandoned his faithful followers, “His sons are rendered fugitive and his daughters captive by an Amorite king, Sihon” (Num. 21:29).  According to what this poem says, there were both Moabite war refugees who fled for their lives from the dreaded conqueror, as well as captives who were living under the domination of Sihon.

That portion of the Moabite population which had not fled presumably remained in the land and accepted the domination of Sihon’s regime.[9] The Israelites’ battle to conquer Sihon’s kingdom transpired in a region where the population was mixed and included Amorites, Moabites and Ammonites.  In conquering Sihon’s land, the Israelites apparently directed their fighting at routing the Amorites and kicking them out of the land, but refrained from harming the other nations who lived in that territory.[10]

Given this political setting, we surmise that Scriptures allude to a situation where the Israelite forces, fighting the Amorite army, needed to be supplied food and water by the Moabites and Ammonites living in Sihon’s land.  According to our hypothesis, it was not an entire nation, weary and worn from wandering in the wilderness, whom the Moabites and Ammonites were asked to assist by transporting food and water for them across the border of their land.  Rather, the food and water were intended for the Israelite troopers who had invaded Sihon’s land and had come close to population centers of Moabites and Ammonites but not harmed them.  Finding themselves far from the Israelite encampment and the manna that came down there, the Israelite forces needed to find food where they were.  In their hardship, they turned to these two peoples who, on account of their blood relationship with Abraham, had been spared attack by Israel.  Their request, however, was denied.

This wartime situation is reminiscent of the story about Gideon in the book of Judges.  Gideon, who had been pursuing the two kings of Midian into territory east of the Jordan River, turned to the two cities on his route, Succoth and Penuel, entreating them:  “Please give some loaves of bread to the men who are following me, for they are famished, and I am pursuing Zebah and Zalmunna” (Judges 8:5); but they refused.  There, too, the refusal of the two towns to help and provide food made Gideon and his warriors furious.[11]

We find that the two explanations given in Deuteronomy 23:5 reflect the problematic nature of the way the Ammonites and Moabites behaved at that time, when the Israelites had completed their conquest of Sihon’s land.  The Ammonite and Moabite populations living within the borders of Sihon’s kingdom were accused of refusing to aid the Israelite troops and of repaying good with evil.  The Moabite population within the kingdom of Moab is also accused of attempting to harm the Israelites by means of Balaam’s curse.

Translated by Rachel Rowen

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