The Plan for Conquest of the Land

  • Harav Yaakov Medan
  1. The Angel
“Behold, I send an angel before you, to keep you in the way and to bring you to the place which I have prepared. Take heed of him and obey his voice; do not provoke him, for he will not pardon your transgressions, for My Name is in him. But if you shall indeed obey his voice and do all that I speak, then I will be an enemy to your enemies and an adversary to your adversaries. For my angel shall go before you and bring you in to the Emori, and the Chitti, and the Perizi, and the Cana’ani, and the Chivi, and the Yevusi, and I will cut them off.” (Shemot 23:20-23)
The commentators debate the question of why at this point there was a need for a change in the way God had led the nation from the exodus up until Mount Sinai. They also discuss the significance of the new mode of leading the nation – by means of an angel along with God's guidance via Moshe, His emissary.
Rashi explains that this was a regression in God's relations with His people, which resulted from sin. The angel represented an indirect form of guidance, which would replace God's overt and direct guidance at a time when the nation was not worthy of it. This is indeed the system that God sought to institute later, following the sin of the golden calf:
“And I will send an angel before you, and I will drive out the Cana’ani, the Emori, and the Chitti, and the Perizi, the Chivi, and the Yevusi, into a land flowing with milk and honey. For I shall not go up in your midst, for you are a stiff-necked people, lest I consume you on the way.” (Shemot 23:2-3)
Rashi comments:
Here they were informed that they were destined to sin, and the Divine Presence foretold, “for I shall not go up in your midst.” (Rashi, Shemot 23:20)
On a deeper level, these verses may be hinting to us that the departure from Mount Sinai and from the Divine Presence resting upon it entails – intrinsically and almost necessarily – sin and distance from God. Am Yisrael must know this in advance in order to be prepared to deal with this reality.
This principle of assuming a reality of sin even before it comes about is also reflected in the altar that is set up at the entrance to the Mishkan. The main purpose of this altar is to effect atonement for sin before the sinner enters God’s Sanctuary. The placement of the altar assumes in advance that there will be sin. Likewise, Chazal teach that teshuva (repentance) existed prior to the creation of the world, as a precondition of sorts, with the assumption that the very existence of the world will entail sin.
Ramban adopts a different approach. He argues that the angel that God appoints at this stage, as described in our parasha, is the closest possible representation of God’s Presence in all its majesty. As such, the angel’s appearance is not in any way related to sin or a regression in the relationship between God and His people.
Ramban’s explanation suggests that the very entry of God’s Presence into the Sanctuary – made out of gold, wood, and tapestries – requires the appearance of the angel, which is a faithful representation of the Divine Presence itself. The angel’s connection with these materials would be more intelligible than a connection between the Holy One, blessed be He – associated in our consciousness with Infinity – and artifacts made of wood and gold. Thus, the change in the manner of leading the nation flows from the circumstances of the journey to Eretz Yisrael, entailing a move of the Divine Presence from Mount Sinai to the Mishkan.
The Rambam (Moreh Nevukhim 2:34) and Chizkuni understand the malakh as a reference to the flesh-and-blood leader who will replace Moshe after his death – Yehoshua bin Nun, and all those who follow (as “malakh” can also mean “messenger”). From their words, it seems that by this stage it was already known that Moshe would not lead Bnei Yisrael in the conquest of the land.
Abravanel elaborates at great length here. The crux of his explanation is that the angel is not intended to replace God’s direct guidance of the nation, nor to replace Moshe’s leadership. Instead, the angel is a new element that comes to augment them.
But why is there a need for an angel specifically now, coinciding with the planned departure from Sinai? It seems to me that the answer lies in the planned entry into the land – bearing in mind that the decree of forty years in the desert has not yet come into existence. Upon Bnei Yisrael’s entry into the land, there will be a shift from a situation in which each of the six hundred thousand individuals comprising the nation was part of a single entity with a single path and fate, to a situation in which the nation is divided into tribes. God’s glory was revealed to Am Yisrael in its entirety at the time of the exodus, during the journey to Mount Sinai, and at the time of the giving of the Torah. But starting from the beginning of the conquest – and even in the journey leading up to it – different challenges will be faced by each tribe in its own place, and the Divine aid that is required varies accordingly. Hence, it is appropriate that God’s angel intervene on this level, while the revelation of the Holy One, blessed be He, is reserved for the entire nation as a single entity.[1] Since Am Yisrael will be divided into tribes – both in their war of conquest and in the settlement of the land – the Divine guidance in the land is reflected mainly through the angel of God, who has God’s Name within him.
(We discussed another way of understanding the significance of this angel in our discussion of Parashat Shemot and the episode of the burning bush. We will return to that approach in our discussion of Parashat Ki Tisa and the episode of the golden calf.)
  1. The Conquest of the Land
“And you shall serve the Lord your God, and He shall bless your bread and your water, and I will take sickness away from your midst. None shall miscarry, nor be barren, in your land; the number of your days I will fulfill. I will send My fear before you, and I will destroy all the people to whom you shall come, and I will make all your enemies turn their backs to you. And I will send hornets before you, which shall drive out the Chivi, the Cana’ani, and the Chitti, from before you. I will not drive them out from before you in one year, lest the land become desolate and the wild beasts multiply against you. Little by little I will drive them out from before you, until you are increased and inherit the land. And I will set your bounds from the Red Sea to the Sea of the Pelishtim, and from the desert to the river, for I will deliver the inhabitants of the land into your hand, and you shall drive them out before you. You shall make no covenant with them, nor with their gods. They shall not dwell in your land, lest they make you sin against Me, for if you serve their gods it will surely be a snare to you.” (Shemot 23:25-33)
These verses tell us about the way in which God's angel will act in the future, during the conquest of the land. The statement conditioning the blessing of bread and water on serving God may indicate that at the time of Am Yisrael's entry into the land, its bread and water were cursed and in need of blessing. The promise, “None shall miscarry, nor be barren… your days I will fulfill,” may indicate that at the time of the entry into the land, the mortality rate among infants in Canaan was high, miscarriages were common, women ceased bearing children, and people died at a young age. It may be that there were plagues as a result of the water being poisoned – as, for example, the episode of the water in Jericho in the days of Elisha:
And the men of the city said to Elisha, “Behold, I pray you, the situation of this city is pleasant, as my lord may see, but the water is bad, and the ground causes untimely births.” (Melakhim II 2:19)
The poor quality of the water caused the produce of the land – the bread – to be cursed, too.
Similar scenarios are known to us from the period of the early Zionist pioneers, who battled with the malaria-infested swamps in different areas of the country (the Hula, the Yarkon, Hadera, and many other places). Many of the pioneers died of disease. Malaria-bearing insects (as described in the parasha: "And I shall send the hornet before you…") exacerbated the situation. Such phenomena arise when the hydrological equilibrium is disturbed. However, water levels can be controlled, stagnant water can be drained, and the land can be returned to its fertile, healthy state through prudent and conscientious work. Indeed, the early pioneers effected a remarkable recovery. Just a few years prior to their arrival, Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) had visited Eretz Yisrael, describing it in the following terms:
Of all the lands there are for dismal scenery, I think Palestine must be the prince. The hills are barren, they are dull of color, they are unpicturesque in shape. The valleys are unsightly deserts fringed with a feeble vegetation that has an expression about it of being sorrowful and despondent… Every outline is harsh, every feature is distinct, there is no perspective – distance works no enchantment here.  It is a hopeless, dreary, heart-broken land. (Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad, 1869)
It is clear that the good land that God gave to us can also be bad and cursed. However, within the space of just a few years, it can turn itself completely around and be incomparably good.
We may assume that the angel had been sent by God well in advance –perhaps even some years prior to the exodus – in order to bring the plagues upon the land, to raise the water levels in the malaria-infested swamps, to bring the mosquitos, and to curse the produce of the land and the inhabitants who were nourished by it. All of this was done with the intention of diminishing the Canaanite population and bringing about a situation whereby, when Yehoshua offered them the option of leaving the land peacefully, the greatest possible number would accede. They would head for places where they could live without watching their children die and without their wives miscarrying or becoming infertile.
Chazal teach that the Girgashi people, faced with the Israelite conquest and ultimatum, indeed got up and left, seeking a new homeland in Africa.[2] At around the same time as the conquest of the land, the Phoenicians vacated the region of Eretz Yisrael and headed for North Africa, where they established the powerful Carthaginian kingdom. Apparently, they are the “Girgashi” referred to by Chazal. Thus, through voluntary migration to seemingly “better” places, many bloody battles over the conquest of the land were avoided.
This may explain the seemingly contradictory words of the spies, who were sent to Eretz Yisrael a short time after the nation left Mount Sinai:
And they spread an evil report of the land which they had spied out to Bnei Yisrael, saying, “The land through which we have gone, to spy it out, is a land that devours its inhabitants, and all the people that we saw in it are men of great stature. And there we saw the Nefilim, the sons of Anak, who came from the Nefilim…” (Bamidbar 13:32-33)
On the one hand, the spies describe the inhabitants of the land as giants – implying that the land is good and healthy, but its inhabitants are dangerous. On the other hand, they describe the land as one that “devours its inhabitants.” If this is so, how can its inhabitants be giants?[3]
According to what we have said, the land was and had always been good; it has always produced great and powerful inhabitants. However, in the years immediately preceding the spies' visit, a curse had prevailed over the land. This was the work of the angel, who had been sent in advance of Bnei Yisrael in order to diminish the population of the land and to facilitate the conquest.
As soon as Bnei Yisrael settled in the land, it responded to them and revealed its goodness – just as the land responded to the Jews who returned to the land a century ago. The early Zionist pioneers also found a land that was sparsely populated, as the land had not respond to its non-Jewish inhabitants throughout the period of our exile, in fulfillment of the Divine promise:
And I will bring the land to desolation, and your enemies who dwell in it shall be astonished at it. (Vayikra 26:32)[4]
Had Bnei Yisrael merited to enter the land immediately after departing from Mount Sinai – as per the original plan – they would have found a sparse population ready to leave the land, which was devouring its inhabitants. If we add to this scenario our assumption (see beginning of Parashat Beshalach) that in parallel to the exodus from Egypt, the seafaring peoples of the Greek isles arrived in the land, vanquishing the coastal Canaanites in vicious battles, we see that the conquest could have been easier, with no need for ongoing war over the course of fourteen years, by the end of which there still remained many Canaanites in the land, up until the time of King David.[5] In our parasha, the Torah describes the gradual removal of the Canaanites from the land by God’s angel. However, since Bnei Yisrael ended up entering the land only forty years later, as a result of the sin of the spies, the angel was no longer there to prepare the conquest for them. The Canaanites survived the years of the curse upon the land, and they regained their strength. The seafaring peoples who had conquered the coastal strip became entrenched there, along with the iron chariots that they introduced and developed. The real conquest of the land was thus delayed not by forty years, but by more than four hundred years, until the time of King David.
Translated by Kaeren Fish

[1]  Although the first part of the conquest is undertaken by the entire nation, the main process of settling the land is accomplished by the individual tribes; the situation is no longer like that of the nation at Mount Sinai.
[2]  “R. Shemuel bar Nachmani said: This was fulfilled by Yehoshua. What did Yehoshua do? He sent a proclamation to each place that he was about to conquer, which stated: ‘Whoever wishes to make peace – let him come and make peace; whoever wishes to leave – let him leave; and whoever wishes to wage war – let him come and wage war.’ What did the Girgashi do? They turned and departed from before them, and the Holy One, blessed be He, gave them a land as beautiful as theirs; this is Africa” (Devarim Rabba, Shoftim).
[3] Ramban notes the contradiction and offers a different explanation.
[4] Ramban (ad loc) likewise explains that the curse of the land became a blessing for Am Yisrael, ensuring that other nations would not be able to survive in it. Ramban witnessed this at first hand when he arrived in the land and saw its desolation with his own eyes, some 750 years ago.
[5]  The Phoenicians fought only for the coast; the Canaanites who were not wiped out withdrew from the coast eastward.