The Israelites are camped on the east bank of the Jordan River, ready and willing to cross over and do to the native populations of Canaan what they have already done to the Amorites and Midianites east of the Jordan: burn all their towns, kill all their men, and take over all their land—with God’s explicit approval and assistance.1
I will explore the evolution of and biblical justifications for this ethnic cleansing in next week’s post, Re-eih: Ownership. This week, let’s look at how Moses says the Israelites should act after their conquest.
In last week’s Torah portion, Va-etchannan, Moses warns the Israelites not to feel entitled after they have taken everything the Canaanites own.
And it will happen when God, your God, brings you into the land that was sworn to your forefathers … cities great and good that lo vanita, and houses filled with everything good that you did not fill, stone-hewn cisterns that you did not hew out of stone, vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant. And you will eat and you will be satisfied. Guard yourself, lest you forget God who brought you out from the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 6:10-12)
lo vanita you did not build. lo (לֺא) = not + banita (בָּנִיתָ) = you built. (A form of the verb banah, בָּנָה = built, constructed, fortified, rebuilt; built up a family.)
Once the Israelites own everything the previous inhabitants built and planted, they will have an easy head start in their new life. But Moses does not tell the Israelites to be grateful for the labor of generations of Canaanites. He only warns them not to forget that everything they own is a gift from God.
This week’s Torah portion, Eikev, takes the idea of God’s gift farther.
Guard yourself lest you forget God, your God, and fail to guard [God’s] commandments and laws and decrees, which I, myself, am commanding you this day—lest you eat and you are satisfied, and tivneh good houses, and you dwell in them; and your herds and flocks increase, and silver and gold increases for you, and everything that is yours increases; and then your heart is arrogant and you forget God, your God, who brought you out from the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery. (Deuteronomy 8:11-14)
tivneh (תִּבְנֶה) = you build, fortify, build up. (Another form of the verb banah.)
Here Moses points out that even if the Israelites do build their own houses and bring in their own livestock, wealth in the land they have conquered is not guaranteed. What you build yourself, as well as what you take from someone else, is a gift from God.
In general, the Hebrew Bible uses the verb “create” (bara, בָּרָא) for what God does, and “build” (banah, בָּנָה) for what humans do, using materials God created.2 People in the bible build many things just to improve their lives, including houses, towns, walls, and livestock pens. But sometimes humans build for the sake of their own self-importance, and sometimes they build to honor God.
Building a name
After the story of Noah and the flood, the humans on earth figure out how to make bricks and mortar them with bitumen.
And they said: “Come, nivneh for ourselves a city and a tower [with] its head in the heavens, and we will make for ourselves a name, lest we scatter over the face of all the earth.” And God went down to look at the city and the tower than the descendants of the human banu. (Genesis 11:4-5)
nivneh (נִבִנֶה) = let us build.
banu (בָּנוּ) = they built.
Noah’s descendants start to build a single city for the whole human population, with a tower that intrudes on God’s realm, the heavens. They want to make a “name” or reputation for themselves. (Since there are no other humans, perhaps that want a reputation among creatures in the heavens.) God takes them seriously, believing that humankind is indeed capable of doing too much. So God decides to scatter them—just what the city-builders fear most—so that they will develop different languages and become mutually incomprehensible.
And [God] scattered them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off libanot the city. Therefore it was called by the name Bavel, because there God confused the lips of the whole earth … (Genesis 11:8)
libanot (לִבְנֺת) = building.
Bavel (בָּבֶל) = Babylon.3
Building a city can be problematic in the Torah. The building of the city and tower of Bavel is portrayed as an exercise in arrogance. In Egypt, the Israelites are forced to build two brick storage-cities for Pharaoh, Pitom and Rameses.4 Later, King Solomon embarks on building projects in the cities of Jerusalem, Megiddo, Chatzor, and Gazer, all using the forced labor of the remaining natives of Canaan.5 Building a city, palace, or fortress means that the some human beings are likely to lord it over others.
In the Torah portion Va-etchannan, Moses warns the Israelites not to feel self-important when they are living in cities and towns that the natives had already built. After all, they could not kill or drive away those natives without God’s help.
In the Torah portion Eikev, Moses reminds the Israelites not to let their prosperity in their “promised land” make them arrogant, and not to forget that God brought them out of slavery in Egypt.
Building for God
Living in cities built by other people leads to egotism. But other kinds of building are for the sake of God.
Noah builds the ark at God’s command, but after the flood has receded he builds an altar for animal sacrifices to God on his own initiative. 6 It is the first of many altars men build to worship God. In the book of Exodus, all the Israelites, men and women, cooperate to build the portable tent-sanctuary for God. In the first book of Kings, King Solomon enslaves native Canaanites to build his own palace and several fortresses, but he uses the same forced labor to build the first temple for God in Jerusalem.
The bible praises those who build altars and sanctuaries for God, just as it criticizes those who forget their debt to God when they build or take over cities. But what about the overlords’ dependence on people they defeated and enslaved? The bible considers only the Israelite point of view. No gratitude for the labor of non-Israelites is required.
I pray that all of us today may recognize that nobody becomes wealthy without help. Nobody builds something without the raw materials this world provides, and nobody builds something without the present or past work of other human beings.
As Moses reminds us, may we be grateful to what is not human (whether we call it God or nature) for everything we have, even the air we breathe. And as Moses fails to remind us, may we also be grateful for the labor of other human beings—even if we consider them Canaanites.
- Numbers 21:21-25, 21:33-35, and 31:1-12.
- One exception is when God uses the side of the human protype, adam, to “build” a female counterpart (Genesis 2:22), although in Genesis 1:27 and 5:2 God “creates” female and male humans. Psalms 69, 78, and 102 refer poetically to God as the builder of Tzion or the cities of Judah. Another exception is when Joshua tells the Josephites to “create” farmland for themselves by clear-cutting forests in the hill-country (Joshua 17:15-18), although they will only be using materials God created, i.e. trees, fire, and dirt.
- The name Bavel comes from the Babylonian god Beil, but the Torah might also be alluding to the sound of foreign languages the Israelites encountered during their enforced exile in Babylonia in the 6th century BCE.
- Exodus 1:11.
- 1 Kings 9:15-20.
- Although both Cain and Abel make offerings to God, the first altar mentioned in the Torah is built by Noah after the flood (Genesis 8:20).