Thursday, 04 Aug 2011

Written by Rabbi Professor Marc Saperstein

After a five-verse introduction, this entire parashah is presented as a speech by Moses addressed to the Israelite people not long before his death. The content of this oration is a historical overview of events experienced by the listeners or their parents, beginning after the Revelation at Sinai and continuing to the present. The events have already been narrated in earlier books of the Torah, but there are subtle shifts that make this not simple repetition. If the original narratives are a source of history, this oration is evidence for historical memory. I would like to illustrate by focusing on one passage, relating to Sihon the Amorite, king of Heshbon.

The original narrative comes in parashat Hukkat, Numbers 21:21–25. The facts seem straightforward. Israel sent messengers to Sihon asking for permission to pass through his territory, promising not to despoil any of the agricultural produce of the land. Sihon refused, gathered a military force and challenged the Israelites in the wilderness. The Israelites won a decisive victory and took possession of all the Amorite lands. There is no mention of God in this narrative; it is presented as simple reporting of a political decision, a military encounter, and the geographical and demographic consequences.

How different is Moses’ more expansive recounting of the same events in Deuteronomy 2:24–37. It begins with Moses’ report of a message delivered to him by God:

See, I give unto your power Sihon the Amorite, king of Heshbon, and his land. Begin the occupation: engage him in battle. This day I begin to put the dread and fear of you upon the peoples everywhere under the heaven, so that they shall tremble and quake because of you whenever they hear you mentioned (Deut. 2:24–25).

In this version, the military encounter with Sihon was a divine command, intended to enhance the prestige of the Israelites in the consciousness of the surrounding peoples. In the following verses, God is never absent for long: He has given the land of Canaan to the Israelites (2:29), He hardened the heart of Sihon to refuse passage (2: 30), He urges Moses again to take possession of the Amorite lands (2:33), He causes the defeat of Sihon and his forces (2:35) including all the significant towns (2:36), His commandment to respect the borders of the neighboring Ammonites was respected (2:37).

Thus we have two accounts of the same events: one in which human decisions and military factors are decisive, the other—perhaps in retrospect—with a thick theological overlay, making God responsible for all that has happened. Many believers will think of the second version as preferable, more pious. Some of us may prefer the more secular narrative of Numbers, without casting God as a global puppeteer, controlling human decisions, the outcome of battles, and the supplanting of a native population.

There is a twist in our parashah, however. After the report of the initial instructions from God to “engage [Sihon] in battle” cited above, Moses continues with the following verse, “And I sent messengers from the wilderness of Kedemoth to King Sihon of Heshbon with an offer of peace, as follows…,” namely, the proposal in Numbers 21, including an offer (not mentioned in Numbers) of repayment for anything eaten by the Israelites. God instructs Moses to engage Sihon in battle (2:24), and Moses responds by sending Sihon divrei shalom (2:26). Was Moses violating God’s instruction? This is something that the Sages and medieval commentators, who take such details seriously, are bound to explain.

Nachmanides explains that the verses come out of order. It is as if Moses had used the pluperfect, referring to what preceded the divine command to engage in battle: “I had (previously) sent messengers with . . . an offer of peace,” which was rejected by Sihon. Other commentators suggest that this message of peace was itself the result of an unrecorded instruction from God to Moses. Don Isaac Abravanel, whose monumental biblical commentaries written before and after 1492 summarize much of the culture of Sefardi Jewry, was not convinced: “I have found no evidence” for such a separate communication.

Instead, Abravanel insists that this peace offering was indeed a diversion from God’s instruction—which was actually to find an excuse to go to war with Sihon—and it came at Moses’ own initiative, in order to communicate to the other nations that there is a real alternative to warfare. If there is an option for a peaceful resolution of a potentially violent conflict, it is worth taking the initiative even in violation of God’s direct command.

This would be a lovely message about the Jewish love for peace. But here too there is wrinkle. Numbers 31 of parashat Mattot begins with a divine command to “Avenge the children of Israel against the Midianites.” But then it is Moses who berates the victorious Israelite army for allowing the women and children to live, and orders his soldiers to kill every male, including children, and all mature women (Num. 31:15–18). Here Moses seems to be pushing God’s command in the direction not of peaceful co-existence but of a kind of violence that is horrifying to imagine.

Two ostensible conclusions. First, that we must be extremely careful about attributing divine sanction for anything relating to war, even when reading a biblical text. And second, that it is irresponsible to generalize about Judaism—or Christianity or Islam—as a religion either of peace or of violence. That Moses can be depicted in our parashah as taking the initiative for peace in apparent deviation from God’s instructions, yet in Numbers as ordering a genocidal massacre not explicitly sanctioned by God, reveals the complexity of our biblical literature in its teachings about war and violence, with a dark side along with its stirring visions of world peace. It is for us to choose which of these elements we will live by.2

Rabbi Professor Marc Saperstein
August 2011

1 On this issue, see Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Devarim (Deuteronomy) Jerusalem: WZO, 1980), pp. 26–32.
2 The complexity of classical Jewish texts on war and peace is the theme of a fine new book by a former colleague of mine at George Washington University, Prof. Robert Eisen, The Peace and Violence of Judaism: From the Bible to Modern Zionism (Oxford University Press 2011); he refers to midrashic sources about Moses and Sihon onpp. 90–91.

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.