Waging War against the Canaanites

  • Rav Michael Hattin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion

This shiur is dedicated in memory of
Dr. William Major z"l.


Parashat Shoftim


Waging War against the Canaanites

By Rav Michael Hattin





With the people of Israel poised on the Jordan’s eastern bank, anxious to enter the new land but also filled with apprehension, Moshe continues his final address.  He has already reviewed with them the pivotal episodes of their brief but dynamic national history, recalling the revelation, the golden calf and the incident of the spies.  He has reminded them of their astounding victories, first over Pharaoh and later over the Amorite kings, emphasizing to them in no uncertain terms that they need not fear as long as they remain steadfast in their faith.  And he has impressed upon them repeatedly that their success will exclusively depend upon the choices that they make: keep God’s charge and succeed; abrogate it and perish.


Now Moshe turns his attention to national concerns, to the instruments and to the institutions that will regulate Israel’s life as a people in the new land.  First, he describes the need for a functioning judiciary, for devoted judges who are accessible but impartial, learned but involved.  He calls for officers, who will fearlessly enforce the rulings of the judges and ensure that the laws are taken seriously (16:18-20).  Next, he emphasizes the necessity of a priesthood, not only to perform the rituals but also to interpret the Torah, to instruct the people in God’s ways and to inspire them to follow Him (17:8-13).  Then, he raises the issue of a king, setting out the parameters of a monarchial system that is meant not to replace God with a temporal ruler but rather to complement His dominion with good and equitable governance (17:14-20).  Finally, Moshe mentions the matter of a prophet, reassuring the people that God’s direct communications to them will continue even after his demise (18:15-22).  The discussion concerning these four critical offices – judiciary, priesthood, king and prophet – that together constitute a rudimentary but effective system of checks and balances, is not unexpectedly interspersed with a number of references to the hazards of idolatry and to the attendant need to extirpate it utterly.  Where idolatry thrives, Moshe indicates, Godliness withers and moral corruption holds sway.





There is of course another topic that is featured prominently in our Parasha and in many other sections of Sefer Devarim, a matter that is especially pertinent to a people about to enter a new land, and that concerns the issue of warfare.  In fact, most of the second half of Parashat Shoftim is devoted to this subject (Chapter 20), and the discussion continues into the next Parasha as well.  And as Sefer Devarim progresses and the people draw closer and closer to their destiny, the discussion takes on a progressively more practical as well as more urgent quality.  According to Torah law, warfare, like every other facet of human endeavor, must be waged in accordance with Divinely-delineated principles.  The Israelite combatants are expected to adhere to guidelines that govern their conduct in conflict and that set limitations on their behavior. 


The passage opens with an injunction to be fearless even in the face of overwhelming odds and to trust in God's deliverance, for He can prevail just as surely as He liberated the Israelite slaves from their much more powerful Egyptian overlords.  The text goes on to single out a number of individuals who are exempt from waging wars of expansion, namely the builder of a new house, the planter of a new vineyard, or one who betroths a new wife.  The final exemption pertains to the one who is "afraid and faint of heart" (20:8), who is sent home in order to not undermine the morale of the fighting troops.


The next section in the passage addresses the treatment of the enemy forces:


When you draw near to a city to wage war against it, then you shall first proclaim peace.  If they respond in kind and open the gates for you, then all of the people that are in the city will pay tribute and serve you.  If they do not surrender peacefully but rather fight against you, then you shall besiege them.  When God gives the city into your hands, then you shall smite all of its men by the sword.  But the women, the children, the animals and all of the goods that are in the city you may take, for so shall you consume the spoils of your enemy that God your Lord gives you.  Thus shall you do to all of the cities that are very far from you, that are not the cities of these nations here.  But from the cities of these people that God your Lord gives you as an inheritance, you shall not spare any soul.  Rather, you shall completely destroy them, the Chittite, the Emorite, the Canaanite, the Perizite, the Chivite, and the Yevusite, just as God your Lord commands you.  This is in order that they not teach you to perform all of the abominations that they do in the service of their gods, for then you shall transgress against God your Lord (20:10-18).


Finally, the concluding verses address the treatment of the enemy's environs, and put forth the remarkable command to refrain from cutting down the fruit trees of the besieged city.  In so doing, the Torah effectively outlaws a "scorched earth" policy of wanton and reckless destruction, even as the enemy forces are besieged and conquered.





It is of course the middle section that concerns us here, for it outlines how the Israelite army is to relate to their adversaries on the battlefield and in its aftermath.  At the outset, the text asserts, an enemy city must be offered the option of surrender.  If the terms of surrender – tribute and servitude – are accepted, then none of its inhabitants are to be harmed.  If, on the other hand, the enemy city insists on warfare, it may be attacked and all of the combatants may be killed.  The women and children civilians, though, may not be hurt but can be taken captive, and the city's goods may be taken as spoils.  But concerning the cities of the Canaanites, the cities of "these nations" that are comprised of six specific tribal groups, the passage draws a sharp distinction.  In the event of warfare, none of the inhabitants of such cities are to be spared, lest they lead the conquering Israelites astray by enticing them to worship their gods and to perform the licentious rites associated with that worship, thus distancing them from God. 


There is an inherent ambiguity in the text of the relevant passage, and the commentaries are in sharp disagreement concerning the most plausible reading.  Recall that in discussing the treatment of the "far-off" enemy city, the text outlines two separate elements: firstly, an overture of peace must be extended.  Secondly, in the event of warfare, only the male combatants may be killed.  In sharp contrast, the passage then goes on to insist that a distinction must be drawn between these "far-off cities" and the "close cities", between non-Canaanite combatants and Canaanites.  What is clear from the text is that in the event of warfare, non-Canaanite civilians are not to be harmed, whereas Canaanites are to be wholly destroyed: "you shall not spare any soul".  What is unclear, however, is whether the peace overture that must be extended to non-Canaanites must also be proclaimed to Canaanite cities, or whether in contrast, the Canaanites are not to be offered any possibility of surrender at the outset. 





Textually, the resolution of the matter is a function of interpreting the phrase: "thus shall you do to all of the cities that are very far from you, that are not the cities of these nations here", a directive that follows immediately after the description of the peace overture, its refusal, the ensuing battle and conquest, the killing of the male fighters, and the preservation of the women and children.  Does this phrase modify everything that precedes it, including the opening statement that spells out the necessity of offering peace terms?  If so, then the implication is that such overtures are to be denied to the Canaanites – thus shall you do, to extend offers of peace and protection of civilians, to all nations far from you, but not to the Canaanites who constitute "these nations here". 


On the other hand, perhaps the phrase modifies ONLY the action to be taken in the event of actual warfare, thus implying that the offering of peace terms is to be applied equally to the Canaanites as well, that they too are accorded the opportunity to surrender and to thereby spare their populations from the harsh consequences of defeat.  In this case, the opening passage of "when you draw near to a city to wage war against it, then you shall first proclaim peace.  If they respond in kind and open the gates for you, then all of the people that are in the city will pay tribute and serve you" applies to ALL enemy cities, including those of the Canaanites.  According to this reading, a difference between non-Canaanite and Canaanite cities would only be enjoined in the event of actual combat that follows a spurned offer of peace: non-Canaanite civilians may be spared, but all Canaanite civilians are to be killed!





Significantly, Rashi (11th century, France) adopts the more straightforward but also more severe first reading, and understands that in fact the overture of peace had be extended only towards those cities that did not lie within Canaan's borders.  According to Rashi, the nations that inhabited Canaan were not to be offered any possibility of surrender, but were instead to be wholly obliterated (see his comments to BeMidbar 21:21, Devarim 20:10, as well as his explanation to the Talmudic passage in Tractate Sotah 35b).  While raising troubling moral issues, Rashi's explanation has the distinct advantage of readily explaining the motives of the Giv'onites, who employed a ruse in order to secure a treaty with the invading Israelites, as recounted in Sefer Yehoshu’a Chapter 9.  As members of the "Chivite" tribe, one of the so-called "Seven Nations" that inhabited the land of Canaan, the Giv'onites were therefore slated for extinction, and their deception was a desperate attempt to avoid that eventuality by instead securing an oath of preservation from their unsuspecting vanquishers:


The inhabitants of Giv'on heard about all that Yehoshu’a had done to Yericho and to the A'i.  They also employed clever strategy, and disguised themselves as emissaries.  They took faded sacks for their donkeys, and worn-out wineskins that were cracked and mended.  They donned old and patched footwear and worn-out clothing, and took bread and provisions that were dried out and decayed.  They approached Yehoshu’a at the encampment at Gilgal and they said to him and to the people of Israel: “We have come from a far-off land to conclude a pact with you…we are your servants…who hail from a very distant land and come to honor God your Lord, for we have heard of His exploits and all that He did in Egypt, and to the two Amorite kings east of the Yarden, Sichon king of Cheshbon and 'Og king of the Bashan who dwelt in Ashtarot.  Our elders and the people of our land told us to take provisions for the journey and approach you, saying that we are your servants and wish to now conclude a pact with you" (9:3-11).


In the end, of course, the ruse was discovered.  To their dismay, Yehoshu’a and the people of Israel ascertained that in fact the people of the “far-off land” were none other than the Giv'onites who dwelt scarcely 30 kilometers distant from the Israelite encampment at Gilgal.  But bound by their oath, Yehoshu’a and the elders were prevented from attacking their new but involuntarily-acquired allies, for to abrogate their treaty now would have constituted a desecration of God's name by which they had pledged.  Instead, Yehoshu’a designated them as “hewers of wood and drawers of water” for the congregation of Israel and the Tabernacle, a sort of manual labor force responsible for the performance of the necessary but thankless daily chores that characterized life in antiquity.


As for the Rabbinic sources (see Jerusalem Talmud Tractate Shevi’it 6:1 and Midrash Devarim Rabbah 5:14) that indicate that on the eve of the Israelite invasion Yehoshu’a sent a vanguard of messengers to the nations inhabiting Canaan bearing triple proclamations of retreat, surrender, or war, we must submit that according to Rashi the possibility of surrender was only extended to the Canaanites BEFORE Israel crossed the Yarden.  Once they crossed over, however, the option of surrender was no longer offered, thus prompting the Giv’onites to implement their desperate plan.





In contrast to Rashi's explanation, the Ramban (13th century, Spain) avers that the overture of peace spoken of in Deuteronomy 20 was in fact extended to all enemy cities, including those of the Canaanites:


…indeed, the passage from Deuteronomy distinguishes between both types [of enemy, but only insofar as combat is concerned].  The injunction to extend an offer of peace, however, applies even to obligatory wars such as those waged against the "Seven Nations" of Canaan.  After all, didn't Moshe send a communiquי of peace to Sichon the King of the Emorites (see BeMidbar 21:21, and Devarim 2:26-30)?  Surely, Moshe would not have abrogated the commandments enjoined by this passage of "destroy them utterly" (Devarim 20:17), and "spare not a soul" (20:16)!  Rather, there is a difference between the Canaanites and non-Canaanites only when the terms of surrender are refused and battle is joined.  In that case, the women and children of "far-off" cities are to be spared, while those of Canaan are to be killed… (Commentary to Devarim/Deuteronomy 20:10).


Concerning the ruse of the Giv'onites, now made more incomprehensible since surrender was apparently a viable option from the start, the Ramban goes on to explain:


Realize that the duplicitous plan of the Giv'onites was precipitated by the fact that they were unfamiliar with the Israelite convention to offer peace.  They dispatched their messengers even before the peace overture from Yehoshu’a had been received.  Thus they said: "We were very afraid for our lives…" (Yehoshu’a 9:24).  Alternatively, perhaps they first spurned the overtures of Yehoshu’a but then became afraid and had to therefore make themselves disguised [in order to secure a peaceful surrender].  The text therefore says that "the people of Giv'on heard of all that Yehoshu’a had done to Yericho and to the A'i, and they then acted craftily…" (Yehoshu’a 9:3-4).  Additionally, their ruse was effective in securing the Israelites as their allies bound by treaty rather than simply their overlords.  This explains the ire of the people of Israel who would have killed them if not for the oath extended to them by the tribal elders.  By rights, the Giv'onites should have become tributaries and servants.  Instead, they became Israel's equals and allies, bound by a treaty of mutual assistance and peaceful relations…therefore, Yehoshu’a cursed them and imposed upon them to become "hewers of wood and water bearers", both expressions of tribute and servitude… (Commentary to Devarim 20:11).





In all, Ramban offers three possible explanations for the conduct of the Giv'onites, who could have seemingly surrendered without a fight: 1) they were unaware that the policy of the Israelite forces was to accept surrender, 2) they initially rejected the Israelite offer but then reconsidered.  While these first two explanations are mutually exclusive, the third explanation, that they sought ally status, could accord with either of them.  The first possibility seems unlikely in light of the abundant publicity that the text indicates attended the news of the Israelite conquest of Yericho and A'i.  After all, the Giv'onites only launched their plan in the aftermath of the overthrow of those cities (Yehoshu’a 9:3), astonishing events that must have been widely (and wildly!) recounted.  How could the proclamations of Yehoshu’a's messengers have been completely overlooked or disregarded?


It is therefore the Ramban's second explanation that seems most plausible.  When we in fact consider the broader context of the Giv'onite episode, we discover that it takes place against the backdrop of a widespread Canaanite hostility to any consideration of peaceful surrender.  The Canaanite city-states were completely united in their resolve to repel the Israelite invaders and to prevent them from acquiring a foothold in the land.  Obviously, the Giv'onites were also buffeted by these prevailing winds blowing across the Canaanite countryside, and in all probability they too initially embraced the belligerent posture of their brethren.  Thus, Ramban can claim with justification that the Giv'onites, like the rest of the "Seven Nations", may have rejected Yehoshu’a's messengers and spurned their generous offer. 


After a time though, especially in light of the fall of Yericho and the A'i (see Sefer Yehoshu’a Chapters 6 and 8 respectively), the people of Giv'on came to the sobering realization that they could not best the Israelites in battle, and would do better to sue for peace rather than to perish.  The Canaanite confederacy, however, could not be opposed openly, for to break ranks with it would be correctly interpreted as an act of treachery that would invite its immediate and overwhelming retribution.  Thus, the Giv'onites were forced to adopt disingenuous methods to seal their treaty with Yehoshu’a and Israel.  While the deceptive approach cost them Israel's goodwill and thus condemned them to lives of menial toil, it did provide them with a reliable pact that in the end was instrumental for securing their survival.  The Giv'onim, in fact, continued to dwell among the people of Israel during the entire Biblical period, and their descendents were still tenuously aligned with the Jewish people during the time of the return from Babylon.





Significantly, there is a further disagreement between Rashi and the Ramban, and it concerns the contents of the said peace overture discussed above.  Ramban maintains, based upon the conclusion of the above passage – "This is in order that they not teach you to perform all of the abominations that they do in the service of their gods, for then you shall transgress against God your Lord" (20:18) – that the harsh decree of obliteration only applies when the Canaanites persist in their corrupt practices, for then the acute danger exists that Israel will learn from their ways.  However, in accordance with the Rabbinic tradition preserved in the Halakhic Midrash of the Sifre (Shoftim 202) that "if they do teshuva, then they are not to be killed", the Ramban maintains that if they "abandon their gods" and adopt the other Noachide principals, then they may be permitted to continue dwelling in the land of Canaan in the very midst of the Jewish state. 


Rashi, in contrast, insists that such grace is only to be extended to non-Canaanite cities, but concerning the Canaanites, "even if they repent, we do not accept them, for they do so out of fear".  Since, according to Rashi, when Canaanite repentance takes place it is insincere and only motivated by dread, the presumption remains that they will return to their depraved ways when the imminent danger of conquest subsides, and then the people of Israel will become corrupted by following their example.


Thus, there are two points of disagreement between Rashi and Ramban.  Rashi explains that Canaanite cities are not to be offered any terms of peace, whereas besieged cities beyond Canaan's borders must accept the Seven Noachide Principals or else perish.  Ramban, on the other hand, insists that even Canaanite cities can sue for peace as long as they agree to abide by the Noachide laws, but distant cities that surrender and accept tribute can be spared even when they persist to practice idolatry.


The straightforward reading of the relevant Scriptural and Rabbinic texts (including the passage from Tractate Sotah 35b) is in accordance with the Ramban, and such appears to be the view of Maimonides as well (see Hilchot Melachim Umilchimoteihem/Laws of Kings and Warfare, Chapter 6:4).  What emerges from the discussion then, is that Canaanite towns that abandoned idolatry and its associated moral deficiencies and instead adopt the Seven Noachide Principals, could continue to dwell in the land unmolested!  These seven principals, of course, are the basic tenets of civilized behavior and can be succinctly listed as follows: 1) not to worship idols, 2) not to blaspheme God, 3) not to kill, 4) not to commit adultery, 5) not to steal, 6) not to eat the limb of a living creature, 7) to establish a functional judiciary.  We must therefore conclude from this dual line of evidence that THE WAR AGAINST THE CANAANITES SPOKEN OF IN OUR PARASHA WAS NOT MEANT TO BE A WAR AGAINST A RACE OR A PEOPLE, BUT RATHER AGAINST A NOXIOUS MORAL SYSTEM THAT REFUSED TO EMBRACE EVEN THE MOST ELEMENTARY EXPRESSIONS OF HUMANE CONDUCT AND CIVILIZED BEHAVIOR.  After all, what functioning society could object to at least the final five of those seven ideas?  And as for the first two commands that pertain to our relationship with God, in the Torah's worldview they are the necessary basis for the other five, for otherwise even these five would tend to be observed superficially and then jettisoned when convenient.





From the above analysis, it emerges that the sensationalist readings of the Israelite conquest of Canaan, first intimated in our Parasha and later described in detail in the first half of Sefer Yehoshu’a, are gratuitous and unwarranted.  Those that perfunctorily read that first half of Sefer Yehoshu’a in isolation, as a bloodthirsty account of wanton Israelite conduct, do a disservice to the text and to the ancient traditions behind it.  Of course, no one can deny the tragedy of war or its cruelty but that must not blind us to the awful truth that some wars are nevertheless justified and even obligatory. 


The nation of Israel was the only people of antiquity to proclaim the existence of an absolute moral code, a revolutionary idea that was the direct consequence of their championing the existence of an Absolute, single and incorporeal Deity.  These were ideas that transformed history, and that continue to guide humanity, incrementally it seems, towards the good.  But they are ideas that could not have survived at all had they not first been firmly planted in Canaan's fertile earth, to be nurtured by the nascent nation that first proclaimed God's name.  And though Israel later abrogated its mandate and was eventually exiled from that land, those ideas were not nullified.  Like the people of Israel, they continue to endure, to one day be accepted by all nations.


Shabbat Shalom