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26.06.2017 13:50    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah  shabbat  parashah  chukat  klein  

"Let me pass through your country"

This week's reading tells us that Moses requested Sihon king of the Amorites to permit the Israelites to pass through his country and promised that they would cause no damage.  Sihon responded not only by refusing Moses' request but even by going to war against Israel, a war in which Sihon was defeated, his people totally wiped out, and the tribe of Reuben settled in his territory.

Now in Deuteronomy we are told that the Amorites must be wiped out:  "You shall not let a soul remain alive.  No, you must proscribe them—the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites—as the Lord your G-d has commanded you" (Deut. 20:16-17).  The question arises:  how could Moses have given in when it came to destroying Sihon and his people?  The Amorites, after all, were one of the seven nations which, according to the quote above, must be wiped out.  This is also implied by the remarks in Sifre on making overtures of peace:  "When you approach a town [to attack it, you shall offer it terms of peace]—Scripture speaks here of optional wars."[1] In other words, the option of offering terms of peace prior to going to war against a town applied only to more distant peoples.  This halakhic approach is in line with the plain sense of the text in the story of the Gibeonites:[2] the inhabitants of Gibeon deceived the Israelites, presenting themselves as people who had come from a distant land, since if the Israelites knew they were among the peoples inhabiting the land of Israel then they would have to wipe them out in accordance with the command, "You shall not let a soul remain alive."

However, from this week's reading and elsewhere in Scripture, it appears that leave was given to let the seven peoples survive, too; for it says in the book of Joshua (11:19), "Apart from the Hivites who dwelt in Gibeon, not a single city made terms with the Israelites."  It follows from this verse that if the seven nations were prepared to come to terms with the Israelites, the Israelites would have been permitted to let them live.  This is what the Sages had to say on the matter:[3]

Rabbi Samuel said:  Three proclamations were sent by Joshua to the land of Israel prior to their entering the land.  Whoever wished to leave, should leave; whoever wished to come to terms, should come to terms; and whoever wished to make war, let him go to battle.  The Girgasites left and went to Africa, and the Holy One, blessed to He, gave them credence…the Gibeonites came to terms…and thirty-one kings went to war and fell.

Accordingly, the story of the Gibeonites raises a grave question regarding the attitude of the Sages:  why did the inhabitants of Gibeon have to practice deceit and present themselves as coming from a distant land?  Even if they had presented themselves as inhabitants of the land who wished to conclude a peace treaty with the Israelites, they would have been accepted.





The early rabbinic authorities (rishonim) were divided on this matter, as follows:

Maimonides[4] held that it was permissible to allow the inhabitants of the land to remain alive and even considered an offer of peace obligatory.  Aware of the difficulties raised above, he reasoned as follows:[5]

Since the Gibeonites had not accepted Joshua's first overtures toward peace, they mistakenly thought that they had missed the moment and had no chance of coming to terms with Israel and consequently feared the Israelites would kill them.  Therefore they turned to deceit and presented themselves as coming from afar.  Maimonides' explanation of the people's complaints and the chieftains' response is that the chieftains made a treaty with them even though they should have enslaved them and made them pay tribute.

There are two difficulties in Maimonides' approach:

v  He does not distinguish between distant nations and the seven nations [living in the land of Israel].  In both cases the terms of peace include acceptance of the seven Noachian laws, bondage and tribute.  Therefore it is perplexing that Joshua did not see to imposing these obligations on the Gibeonites.

v  How is one to understand the complaint lodged by the people against the chieftains, that the Gibeonites were local residents?  According to Maimonides' approach no distinction had to be made between the peoples who were inhabitants of the land and peoples who were not.

According to the Tosafists, letting the seven nations survive is not allowed, even if they accept the seven Noachian laws, pay tribute, and are enslaved.[6] However, the obligation to wipe out these peoples became valid only after crossing the Jordan River, and the Gibeonites' request was made after the Israelites had entered the land.  This follows also from the remarks of Ibn Daud:  "Joshua did not send them an offer of terms until after they had crossed the Jordan River, but after they had crossed, [these peoples] are not to be accepted."[7]


Nahmanides[8] distinguishes three levels:

v  The seven nations:  entering a treaty with them is conditional upon their abandoning idolatry, paying tribute, and being enslaved.

v  Distant nations, e.g., nations that are geographically beyond the borders of the land of Israel, although the Israelites might consider conquering them at some point:  tribute and enslavement are required, but not abandoning idolatry.

v  Distant nations that the Israelites have no intention of conquering:  there are no preconditions to making peace with them.

According to Nahmanides, the episode with the Gibeonites should be understood as follows:  they practiced deceit against the Israelites when they maintained that they were inhabitants of a distant land, and thereby were accorded the status of a distant nation with whom a treaty might be made with no preconditions.

Even though there may be no overriding obligation to destroy the seven nations, Nahmanides points out the following difficulty:  even if by the laws of the Torah one may make overtures of peace to the seven nations, as well, if they submit they are to be required to observe the seven Noahide laws, according to Maimonides, or to abjure idolatry, according to Nahmanides, and be enslaved.  Yet it follows from the plain sense of the text that no such demand was made regarding Sihon and his people:  Moses intended to pass through his land on the way to the land of Israel, and nothing more.

Nahmanides resolves this difficulty as follows:[9] Moses made an ad hoc decision not to make any demands of the peoples living in Transjordan for the time being, especially since the main effort was focused on first conquering the peoples living with the borders of the land of Israel.

In the final analysis, Sihon refused to cooperate.  Moses' strategy was not carried out, since the Lord made Sihon king of the Amorites defiant, thus spoiling Moses' plan so that in the end the land of the Amorites was conquered and given as an inheritance to the tribe of Reuben.  According to Maimonides, this is one of the punishments given sinners; namely, not affording them the opportunity of repentance:

A person may commit a great sin or many sins causing the judgment rendered before the True Judge to be that the retribution [administered to] this transgressor for these sins which he willfully and consciously committed is that his repentance will be held back.  He will not be allowed the chance to repent from his wickedness so that he will die and be wiped out because of the sin he committed…Similarly, Sihon was held liable for repentance to be withheld from him, because of the sins he committed, as [Deut. 2:30] states:  "because the Lord had stiffened his will and hardened his heart."  In conclusion, the Almighty did not decree that…Sihon should sin in his land…They all sinned on their own initiative and they were obligated to have repentance held back from them.[10]

Maimonides does not specify Sihon's sins since they are not mentioned in Scripture.  Be that as it may, an interesting conclusion follows from this discussion:  according to Maimonides, Sihon and his people were wiped out because of Sihon's earlier sins, whatever these may have been, and the result was that Transjordan became available to be colonized by the Reubenites.  Had Sihon not sinned of his own free will, the Holy One, blessed be He, would not have prevented him from surrendering and thus he and his people might have survived.  This would undoubtedly have changed the fate of Transjordan in subsequent Israelite history.

Translated by Rachel Rowen

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