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Relevant Verses: Deuteronomy 7; 9:1–6; 10:1–15

Theme: Law and Grace

Leading Question: What makes you feel better about yourself: following rules or accepting a gift?

Question: How important is it for you to show that you obey God’s commandments? Would you break the rules because of something/someone you care about?

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes about Deuteronomy as a book that calls us to obey the commandments of God.

Yet there is no verb in biblical Hebrew that means to obey. This is an astonishing fact. So glaring is the lacuna that when Hebrew was revived in modern times a verb had to be found that meant “to obey.” It was obviously necessary, for example, in the case of Israel’s defence forces. An army depends on obedience to the command of a superior officer. The word chosen was . . . an Aramaic word that does not appear in this sense in the Hebrew Bible. The Torah itself uses a quite different word, namely shema, meaning, “to hear, to listen.”1Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Covenant and Conversation Deuteronomy: Renewal of the Sinai Covenant (Jerusalem: Maggid Books, 2019), 66.

In Deuteronomy, the verb “to listen” appears ninety-two times. It’s meaning is wide-ranging:

  • To pay focused attention, as in “Be silent, Israel, and listen” (Deut 27:9)
  • To hear, as in “I heard your voice in the garden” (Gen 3:10)
  • To understand, as in “Let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other” (Gen 11:7)
  • To internelise, take to heart, as in “As for Ishmael, I have heard you” (Gen 17:20)
  • To respond in action, as in “What Sarah says to you, do as she tells you” (Gen 21:12).

It is in the last sense that the verb “listen” is closest to a sense of “obey,” and yet, it is not the same. The Hebrew verb shama is untranslatable in its full and deep meaning of the word. To listen in Hebrew is not to obey blindly, without thinking or questioning. The commands in Deuteronomy are nor the arbitrary will of God. To the contrary, they were given for the benefit of the people.

Read Deut 7 and 9:1–6.

Question: How do you reconcile the idea of a God who commands to dispossess and kill the Canaanites with a God of grace?

“God commanded the Israelites to kill the Canaanites because of their awful moral practices. When you consider the terrible things those people must have done, you can understand why God wanted to teach them a lesson.” This kind of logic may seem to work until you start considering the specifics. Notice that not all wicked people in the Old Testament are punished, and even when Israel or Judah sins grievously against God, never are they wiped out by God. God forgives and is merciful, even in the context of the Covenant in the Old Testament.

Question: What about the killing of those usually deemed innocent of atrocious acts like babies and young children?

Unless one subscribes to word for word dictation by God of the texts in Deut 7; 9; and similar ones that raise the moral and theological dilemma about God, the following questions could be asked: Could it be that the commands for conquest and killing entire nations have more to do with the foreign policy of ancient Israel about clearing the land of its prior inhabitants than with teaching a lesson about God? Could it be that the texts attribute these commands to God, so that warrior heroes like Moses, Joshua and David can claim divine authority when they do those things?

The JPS Torah Commentary: Deuteronomy by Jeffrey H. Tigay 1996 contains the following discussion about, “The Proscription of the Canaanites (7:1-2, 7:16and 20:15-18):

“According to Deuteronomy 7:1-2, 7:16 and 20:15-18, when the Israelites enter the promised land they are to wipe out the Canaanites living there. The terms referring to this requirement are the verb haHarem, “proscribe,” and the noun Herem, “proscription,” “a thing proscribed.” Deuteronomy states this as an unconditional mandate and leaves no room for sparing any Canaanites in the promised land. Modern critical scholars and traditional Jewish exegesis hold, each for different reasons, that at the time when Israel entered the promised land there was actually no such policy of unconditional proscription of the Canaanites. Traditional exegesis holds that Deuteronomy in fact does not require unconditional proscription. Modern scholars hold that it does, but that this policy is purely theoretical and did not exist when Israel entered the land.

“In 7:1-2, 7:16, the command to doom the Canaanites is clearly unconditional and offering them terms of submission is prohibited. That 20:15-18 is also meant unconditionally is indicated by its opening clause, “Thus you shall deal with all towns that lie very far from you,” that is, with foreign, non-Canaanite cities. “Thus” refers back to verse 10, which requires Israel to offer to spare cities that surrender. Verses 15-17 indicate that this offer is made only to cities outside the promised land and that the Canaanites in the land are to be denied this option. This interpretation of the law is consistent with Joshua 6-11 (except for 11:19-20, mentioned below), according to which surrender was not offered to the cities of Canaan when Joshua conquered them.

“According to 20:18, the aim of this unconditional requirement is to rid the land of Canaanites, who might influence Israelites to adopt their abhorrent rites, such as child sacrifice and various occult practices (12:31;18:9-12). Note that it is particularly abhorrent rites, and not beliefs, that prompt this policy. By itself, worship of astral bodies and other gods by Canaanites and other pagans is not counted against them as a sin, since Deuteronomy holds that God assigned such worship to them (see 4:19; 32:8; and Excursuses 7 and 31). Exodus, too, requires ridding the land of the Canaanites to prevent them from influencing Israel, though it prescribes expulsion rather than annihilation. The aim of these policies is defensive, and no action is prescribed against idolatry or idolaters outside Israelite territory. These policies are not based on ethnicity; Deuteronomy prescribes the same treatment for Israelite cities that lapse into idolatry (13:13-19).

“Modern scholars hold that this law is purely theoretical and was never in effect. In their view, the populations of only a few Canaanite cities were annihilated, but most were not. There is much evidence in favor of this view. Archaeology has found only a few Canaanite cities that seem to have been destroyed by the Israelites when they arrived in the land at the beginning of the Iron Age (ca. 1200 B.C.E.). As noted above, pre-Deuteronomic laws, in Exodus, speak of the Canaanites being expelled rather than annihilated, and the narratives of Judges, Kings, and Joshua 15-17 indicate that many were neither expelled nor annihilated but were spared and subjected to forced labor. Some scholars suggest that even Deuteronomy did not originally require annihilating the Canaanites. In their view, Deuteronomy’s original law consisted only of 20:10-14, according to which all cities are to be offered terms of submission. They note that Joshua 11:19; Joshua 15-17, and Judges all reflect this form of the law. In this view the following paragraph in Deuteronomy, verses 15-18, is a later supplement that modifies the original law by restricting the requirement to offer the option of surrender to foreign, non-Canaanite cities. This supplement is reflected in Deuteronomy 7:1-5, 16-26, and the narratives of Joshua 6-11 (except for Joshua 11:19-20), but it is based on a theoretical reconstruction, conceived at a later time when the Canaanites had ceased to exist as a discernible element of the population in Israel, to account for their disappearance.“

If this is the case, where did the idea of proscribing the Canaanites come from? The historical books, as noted, indicate that the invading Israelites did proscribe some Canaanite cities. Proscription was a well-known practice in the ancient world. One type of proscription was the religious practice of devoting property, cattle, or persons (perhaps the victims of sacrificial vows, such as Jephthah’s daughter) irrevocably to a deity, that is, to a sanctuary and the priests, sometimes by destruction or killing. Another type was punitive proscription, which consisted of executing those who committed severe offenses against the gods. This type is prescribed by Exodus 22:17 for individual idolaters, and by Deuteronomy 13:13-18 for idolatrous cities. Proscription of enemy armies and populations to the gods is known from various places in the ancient world. King Mesha of Moab proscribed the Israelite inhabitants of some towns in Transjordan to his god when he recaptured former Moabite territory there. Other parallels are known from Mesopotamia and ancient Europe. In the context of ancient warfare, in which the gods were believed to be the main fighters and human antagonists their enemies, proscription of the enemy’s population seemed to be a natural way for an army to express devotion to a deity. A case in point is God’s command to Saul to proscribe the Amalekites to avenge their ancient ambush of the Israelites. Proscription was not considered necessary or obligatory in most cases, but was something that an army might vow to do to induce divine aid in critical circumstances, such as before a crucial battle or a counterattack following a defeat. Examples of this are Israel’s proscription of Arad and Ai after initial defeats by them, and the proscription of Jericho at the start of Israel’s campaign for the promised land.

“Deuteronomy appears to have inferred from cases like these that the disappearance of the Canaanites was due to a systematic policy of proscription.  Aware that there were no discernible Canaanites left in Israel, aware from Exodus and Numbers that the land was to be rid of them, aware of Exodus 22:17, which requires proscription of Israelite idolaters, and mindful of its own law requiring proscription of idolatrous Israelite cities, Deuteronomy must have assumed that God, in His zeal to protect Israel from exposure to pagan abominations, had required eliminating the Canaanites by the same means. It is interesting, however, that Deuteronomy never speaks of proscribing the victims to God. It uses proscription in a purely secular way, meaning simply “destruction.” It is not a sacrifice to God but a practical measure to prevent the debasement of Israelite conduct.

“Traditional Jewish commentators, as mentioned, do not believe that Deuteronomy means to proscribe the Canaanites unconditionally. The Sifrei and other halakhic sources reason that since the express purpose of the law is to prevent the Canaanites from influencing the Israelites with their abhorrent religious practices (v. 18), if they abandoned their paganism and accepted the moral standards of the Noachide laws they were to be spared. Maimonides holds that verse 10 requires that Israel offer terms of surrender to all cities, Canaanite included. In his view, when verse 15says “thus you shall deal” with non-Canaanite cities, it is not referring to, and limiting, verse 10, but verse 14, which calls for sparing the women and children of a city taken in battle. In his view this means that all cities must be given the option of surrender; the difference between Canaanite and foreign cities is only that if foreign cities reject the offer, only their men are to be killed, but if Canaanite cities reject the offer, their entire population is to be killed. This view is compatible with Joshua 11:19, which implies that Canaanite cities could have saved themselves by surrendering: “Not a single city made terms [hishlimah] with the Israelites; all were taken in battle.”

“These arguments notwithstanding, it is clear from 7:1-2 and 16 that Deuteronomy’s demand for proscription of the Canaanites is indeed unconditional. The rabbis’ rejection of this view is a reflection of their own sensibilities. As M. Greenberg has observed, they must have regarded this understanding of the law as implausible because it is so harsh and inconsistent with other values, such as the prophetic concept of repentance and the prediction that idolaters will someday abandon false gods, and the halakhic principle that wrongdoers may not be punished unless they have been warned that their action is illegal and informed of the penalty. In effect, they used interpretation to modify and soften the law in deference to other, overriding principles.”

Question: Why are law and grace so often set in opposition to each other?

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