Apologetics is the bastard child of biblical interpretation and is practiced primarily under duress. Apologetics is used, not to determine the meaning of the text but simply to defend a sacred text from detractors. I have always belittled this approach. I prefer to disagree and if necessary negate a biblical injunction then twist it to suite my modern palate. I believe that the Rabbis did this when they declared that “There never has been a ‘stubborn and rebellious son” [In the Biblical sense, to be executed Sanhedrin 71a] and when they virtually nullified the prohibition to take interest ribbit (ריבית) on a loan.
But in a world where there are fundamentalists who take a text at it’s face value and give it power to affect our shared world, it becomes necessary to address even the most archaic rules and practices preserved in scripture. And …. unless we are willing to censor the public reading of these texts in our places of worship, don’t we all have to become de facto apologists to make these texts acceptable for our children and grandchildren?
Which brings me to the subject of Israel’s biblical borders and apparent prescription for forced transfer of the resident population…. and how I struggle with it’s meaning and question its validity.
The first mention of what could be taken as an “ethnic cleansing” provision in the Hebrew Bible is found in Parshat Mishpatim, and appears not as a command, but a Divine promise (let the apologetics commence….)
See, I am sending an angel ahead of you to guard you along the way and to bring you to the place I have prepared. Pay attention to him and listen to what he says. Do not rebel against him; he will not forgive your rebellion, since my Name is in him. If you listen carefully to what he says and do all that I say, I will be an enemy to your enemies and will oppose those who oppose you. My angel will go ahead of you and bring you into the land of the Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hivites and Jebusites, and I will wipe them out. Do not bow down before their gods or worship them or follow their practices. You must demolish them and break their sacred stones to pieces. Worship the LORD your God, and His blessing will be on your food and water. I will take away sickness from among you, and none will miscarry or be barren in your land. I will give you a full life span. I will send my terror ahead of you and throw into confusion every nation you encounter. I will make all your enemies turn their backs and run. I will send the hornet ahead of you to drive the Hivites, Canaanites and Hittites out of your way. But I will not drive them out in a single year, because the land would become desolate and the wild animals too numerous for you. Little by little I will drive them out before you, until you have increased enough to take possession of the land.
And I will set thy border from the Red Sea even unto the sea of the Philistines, and from the wilderness unto the River; for I will deliver the inhabitants (alt. rulers) of the land into your hand; and thou shalt drive them out before thee.
וְשַׁתִּי אֶת-גְּבֻלְךָ, מִיַּם-סוּף וְעַד-יָם פְּלִשְׁתִּים, וּמִמִּדְבָּר, עַד-הַנָּהָר: כִּי אֶתֵּן בְּיֶדְכֶם, אֵת יֹשְׁבֵי הָאָרֶץ, וְגֵרַשְׁתָּמוֹ, מִפָּנֶיךָ.
Do not make a covenant with them or with their gods.
Do not let them dwell (alt. rule) in your land, or they will cause you to sin against me, because the worship of their gods will certainly be a snare to you.
לֹא יֵשְׁבוּ בְּאַרְצְךָ, פֶּן-יַחֲטִיאוּ אֹתְךָ לִי: כִּי תַעֲבֹד אֶת-אֱלֹהֵיהֶם, כִּי-יִהְיֶה לְךָ לְמוֹקֵשׁ (Exodus 23: 20-33)
The emphasis, in my view, is not on extermination or forced relocation of these peoples, but on not following their ways, of not making covenants with their rulers and on the positive side of spreading the Hebrew revolution. The conflict is not with the people that inhabit the land, but with the “petty monarchy and social stratification” that block the revolution. One scholar even suggests that “live in your land” Yoshev BeArtzeha, means not those who inhabit, but rather those who “rule”. Those who sit on the throne and seat of power… the “powers that be”. (Tribes of Yahweh: A Sociology of the Religion of Liberated Israel, 1250-1050 BCE, by Norman Gottwald, pp 530-534)
So next time your in Synagogue and they return the Torah to the ark and you sing Psalm 29 remember that we are not celbrating the God sat during the flood…. but that He ruled and that He will rule forever…
The LORD sat enthroned at the flood; yea, the LORD sitteth as King for ever. Psalms 29:10
יְהוָה, לַמַּבּוּל יָשָׁב; וַיֵּשֶׁב יְהוָה, מֶלֶךְ לְעוֹלָם.
And next time you hear someone claim that there is a biblical injunction to relocate inhabitants (yoshvei ha’aretz) in the Land of Israel suggest that the verse is referring to relocating autocratic rulers, not populations. (cf. Deuteronomy 7:24 where “kings into your hand” malkehem beyadeka is used in place of yoshvei ha’aretz) *
Ultimately, the Hebrew rebellion/revolution in Canaan is only a partial success; neither God nor the Hebrew nation overcome the resident cults and petty politics. Throughout the period of the Judges and Old Testament Prophets, the recurring problem is not of limited land conquest and failure to achieve racial purity, but of a failed rebellion against the mores and practices of the pagan religions and existing social structure. Just as the Hebrews compromise and ask Samuel for a an autocratic King; such as all the other nations have, so too, they continue to assimilate the pagan practices and social stratification of the indigenous culture. Yehezkel Kaufman points out that by the end of Joshua’s life (Joshua13:1-6) “a new conception makes its appearance: “the remaining country”… a region that does not exist in the Land of Canaan of the Pentateuch.
So the LORD left those nations, without driving them out hastily; neither delivered He them into the hand of Joshua. Now these are the nations which the LORD left, to prove [test] Israel by them, even as many as had not known all the wars of Canaan; (Joshua 2:23 – 3:1)
וַיַּנַּח יְהוָה אֶת-הַגּוֹיִם הָאֵלֶּה, לְבִלְתִּי הוֹרִישָׁם מַהֵר; וְלֹא נְתָנָם, בְּיַד-יְהוֹשֻׁעַ
וְאֵלֶּה הַגּוֹיִם אֲשֶׁר הִנִּיחַ יְהוָה, לְנַסּוֹת בָּם אֶת-יִשְׂרָאֵל, אֵת כָּל-אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יָדְעוּ, אֵת כָּל-מִלְחֲמוֹת כְּנָעַן
In “the remaining country” a new people is settled: the later Philistines…. Josh 23 contains the first mention of the conception of “the remaining peoples”. Here we meet, for the first time, the warning that, if the Israelites enter into relations with these remaining peoples, Jahweh will no longer (fulfill his promise to) expel them. By the time of the judges (Judges 2:11 – 3:6) the hope of completing the Conquest is entirely abandoned.” (The Biblical Account of the Conquest of Canaan, Yehezkel Kaufman, Magnes Press, Hebrew University 1953 pp 92-93 in chapter entitled “The Problem of the Complete Conquest”)
If we look back at the original Exodus 23 texts, we can’t help but notice the hesitation. At the time the text was written it is already clear that the roll-out did not go well and that a racially pure Greater Israel would (possibly, should) never be accomplished. As Kaufman writes, a Greater Israel would always be more ideal than real. Maybe the biblical order is placating a group of settlers who want it all. The text suggests patience and possibly hope that they will grow accustomed to what is achievable and ultimately desirable… “But I will not drive them out in a single year, because the land would become desolate and the wild animals too numerous for you. Little by little I will drive them out before you…” (for conquest-by- slow stages motif cf. Deuteronomy 7:22). At the end of the day, Greater Israel is a promise, not a command… and in Joshua, the promise morphs into a test, for which like the SAT, a perfect score is unattainable.
Let’s keep in mind that for all the rantings of the prophets against the children of Israel not achieving their goals, never are they criticized for not clearing the land of aliens. Never is the fall of the first and second Jewish Commonwealth blamed on a failure to expand the territory. The ultimate failure of the state is always blamed on how the Jews acted among themselves and within their borders, not for not expanding those borders.
Fast-forward to Maimonides’ code where the promise and law against the Seven Nations has become mute “Their memory has long since perished.” (Hilkhot Melakhim 5:4) As Maimonides writes: “War, whether a war of choice (milchemet hareshut) or a war of mitzvah, should not be waged against anybody until he is offered the opportunity of peace as [Deuteronomy 20:10] states: “when you approach a city to wage war against it, you must propose a peaceful settlement.” (Hilkhot Melakhim 6:1)
My read of the Torah is clear… The struggle to conquer and defeat the indigenous population in the Promised Land was always an ideological and political struggle. This struggle of cultures is the stuff that constitutes the majority of the rantings of the Hebrew Prophets. It was the loss of this cultural struggle between The God of Israel and the local idolatry that is blamed for the ultimate destruction. Any physical warfare in the conquest of the land is with the (yshvei HaAretz) rulers. The ultimate takeaway is that we need to make peace so that we can focus on our own growth and culture. This is the ultimate test give peace a chance and acknowledge that there is strong Biblical and historical precedent for a “remaining country” and a “remaining people”… otherwise known as a two state solution.
* As Gottwald writes: “If yashav is understood as “rule” in these contexts, the heavy emphasis on avoidance of ties with the Canaanites takes on a predominantly political, rather than ethnic, cast. Even the animus against Canaanite gods becomes an animus against the gods of the Canaanite rulers who stand in systematic oppostion to Yahweh, the God of the egalitarian Israelite.” ibid page 532
** see also: