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Shabbat Shuvah  by Joe Nalven

Presented by Joe Nalven 10/8/16

Last year I gave a dvar on Shabbat Shuva. The path I will take today goes in a different direction.

Last year, I picked up the themes of Moses not being able to enter Israel, his struggle with envy over Joshua’s emerging relationship with God, and his impending death.

Last year, I focused on this Shabbat – between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — as a time for reflection, a time that leads us to atonement. It is the first Sabbath of the New Year.  This Sabbath is one of the two occasions that rabbis had historically given sermons to the community. Their themes for Shabbat Shuvah generally focused on prayer, repentance and charity.

Last year, I dwelt on the potent theme about the process of passing through a “charged space,”[1] about the heavenly gates opening for ten days and then closing:  We are now, once more, in the midst of that charged space. We pray to get through it before the gates close and the Book of Life is sealed for another year.

          This year, I would like us to consider the various ways that we can read Deuteronomy 31, verse 3. It is almost a throwaway verse since the event of destroying one’s enemies had been dealt with in earlier chapters of Deuteronomy as well as extensively in the Book of Joshua.

Verse 3 states:

The Lord will destroy these nations before you, so that you shall dispossess them    .  .  .

Some readers of this, and related verses, see this as an act of genocide whether done by God or as a command to his people, the Israelites.

Some have asked:  How can we have a text that has a command to annihilate other peoples — those Hittites, Amorites,  Canaanites,   Perizzites,  Hivites, and Jebusites? The command is Herem, to destroy.

Understanding that the word “genocide” was coined only in 1944, covering both the Armenian destruction and the German holocaust, we can still look back in time at ancient Middle East history and find that this destruction of other peoples was not uncommon in how nations conducted war against one another.

So, let us consider:  How did Israel stack up against other nations at the time in ancient warfare methodology?

Warfare Methodology

Quoting from Paul Copan (How Could God Command Killing the Canaanites?), we read:

The aftermath of Joshua’s victories are featherweight descriptions in comparison to those found in the annals of the ancient Near East’s major empires — whether Hittite and Egyptian, Aramaean, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, or Greek. The Neo-Assyrian annals of Ashurnasirpal II (883–859 B.C.) . . . boast about how the king mounded bodies and heads into piles; he bragged of gouging out troops’ eyes and cutting off their ears and limbs, followed by hanging their heads on posts around a city.

Israel’s battle accounts are quite tame in comparison.

Take a deep breath and reflect

We can infer that the Jews are historically, well, just like other human beings of that era. This does not excuse our God and our people from abhorrent acts, but it does require us to be honest. We should not act surprised that we too share the good, the bad and ugly with other peoples in the story of humanity.

The annihilation was also occurring to the Israelites

Before inquiring into a possible different contemporary perspective, it is worth noting that the Israelites were the victims of the Moabites in this same way. We can read from the Moabite Stone in the Louvre Museum in Paris the account of King Mesha and his vanquishing of Nebo:

And Chemosh said to me: “Go! Take Nebo against Israel. And I went by night and fought against it from break of dawn till noon. And I took it and slew all: 7,000 men, boys, women, girls, and pregnant women, because I had devoted it to Ashtar-Chemosh. And I took thence the altar-hearths of YHWH and I dragged them before Chemosh (lines 14-18).

There were altar hearths of Yahweh at Nebo – these were the spoils of war for King Mesha.  He “devoted” this destruction of peoples and altars to his own god(s) Ashtar-Chemosh. The word used for “devoted” is the same as the Hebrew word herem which was used when offering a city such as Jericho to Yahweh. (cf. Joshua 6:17, 21)

Rhetoric and the Hyperbole of Warfare

The descriptions in Middle East texts used extensive hyperbole – a lot of loud language and chest-beating, and sometimes overstating the imagined universal destruction of the city.  According to Copan, “Joshua uses ancient conventional warfare rhetoric. Many other ancient Near East military accounts are full of bravado and exaggeration, depicting total devastation. Ancient Near East readers knew this was massive hyperbole and not literally true. Interestingly, Deuteronomy 7:2–5 uses words like “utterly destroy” right next to “you shall not intermarry with them” (NASB). [The] chief concern is destroying Canaanite religion not the Canaanite people.”

When Deuteronomy was written there were no Canaanites

Deuteronomy was written at the time of King Josiah in the 7th century BCE.

“There were no longer any Canaanite nations. The seven nations that the Deuteronomist urges the Israelites to dispossess had long since ceased to exist, and the commandment to destroy them was by then purely hypothetical. The Deuteronomist’s real concern is idolatry, not Canaanites.”

Rabbi Larry Milder,

Of course, even if the text in Deuteronomy is more about vanquishing idolatry than genocidal warfare, such an explanation does not justify a genocidal impulse. The language of such warfare methods may well shock us – the more so since it was an expectation that permeated those ancient civilizations.

In this sense, as we read this text today, we may be more concerned about our own fear – a fear that somehow we are not really that different from the destructive aspect of human nature even though we can understand such behavior and impulse as part of the spirit of the times. Our fear may be that we – the Jews — might be blamed, once again, as the villains of history, that somehow our chosenness has been smeared with the very violence that has ironically consumed ourselves.

And like the ancient past, so too the present. We can leapfrog into the 20th and 21st centuries of the common era.  We discover that genocide has, in fact, been part of the uncomfortable present – and more often by secular villains, not religious ones.  Josef Stalin, Mao Tse-Tung, Adolf Hitler, Pol Pot, the Hutus in Rwanda. Our own American practice of war – though not designed to obliterate a people, still wiped out cities such as Dresden and Tokyo as well as Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Yes, way too much annihilation in contemporary civilization. Way too much.  Perhaps more than in those ancient texts.

So, is there some answer or response to this much too common practice of herem/annihilation, whether commanded by God or by the recurrent expression of the dark side of human nature?

Facing Our Fear

According to Jeffrey Tigay, noted Biblical scholar, post-Biblical interpretations made God’s words more congenial to evolving values ─ that when God spoke at Mount Sinai, he spoke with four faces:  with a fierce face in Scripture, with an intermediate one in the Mishnah, to speaking with a smiling face in the Talmud, and with a radiant face in speaking in the Aggadah.

We need to ask, how would we conduct warfare without the dreaded command to annihilate – to make such a command more in step with modern values?

For Israel, the answer cannot be pacifism – that would be a suicide pact. I would say the same for the United States.

There’s a more realistic approach that Jeffrey Tigay suggests – one that has been tried out in the Israel of today.

First, we must reject the command of herem or annihilation – whether from God or our own impulses. Tigay would have us remember Martin Buber’s response to the angry God of Scripture, especially when Saul failed to follow the command to kill all the Amalekites, but spared King Agag. Saul was condemned by Samuel as failing the command of God.

But if this is God, Buber said, ‘I don’t believe it. . . . I believe that Samuel has misunderstood God.’

Next, Tigay asks whether the Book of Joshua should be taught in Israeli schools.  Should it be taught at all – given its embrace of destroying the enemy?  Tigay argues that Joshua should be taught, but taught critically. We need to define our response and compare it to that ancient command of annihilation of the other ─ those who possess what we see as our land, or who profess idolatory in our eyes.

The Book of Joshua should be discussed, but that command should then be rejected.

But if we reject that ancient command, how should we engage in modern warfare? especially considering Israel’s experience with the Yom Kippur War or the recurrent intifadas of their Palestinian neighbors?

There is no option to avoid warfare, but there are options about how such wars should be fought. And here, we might understand God’s command in a different sense than herem/annihilation.

Maybe there is another face of God that appears to us – not radiant, not smiling, not fierce – but simply a sober face.

Tigay looks to the Israel Defense Forces code as the path to illuminate a modern warfare methodology – one would like to think as part of a contemporary ethic:

The values – The IDF and its soldiers are obligated to protect human dignity. Every human being is of value regardless of his or her origin, religion, nationality, gender, status or position.
Purity of Arms – The IDF servicemen and women will use their weapons and force only for the purpose of their mission, only to the necessary extent and will maintain their humanity even during combat.

Perhaps it is strange that we speak of ethics in modern warfare on Shabbat Shuvah – but if do not, if we hide from that throwaway verse of God destroying the nations who are in our way, then the reading of that verse will be a yoke tying us to the past and the allegation of genocide.

So, let us read that verse as spoken by the God of the sober face – where we can retain our humanity even when we confront today’s darkest moments.

Confession and Reflection

And when we recite the viduy (confession), asking for forgiveness for our transgressions, individual and collective, we might consider adding this struggle with herem – of annihilation – to the list of sins (Ashamnu – short form, al Cheyt – long form), especially as we juxtapose modern perspectives upon ancient warfare practices. Is such a command necessary to entering the promised land – or keeping it?

So, what should we do as we begin our confession of sins?

Reflect upon the promise.

Reflect upon entering the promised land.

Reflect that Israel no longer uses this command to annihilate in   defending the land of Israel.

Israel has changed.

And we have changed.

We have moved on.


[1]  From “Pausing at the Threshold: In Praise of Open Gates,” Rabbi Laura Lieber (In) Mishkan Hanefesh, Machzor for the Days of Awe, p. xvi, 2015/5776.

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