Mine! I own this land, these people, this enterprise!
Human beings instinctively claim things as their own—and justify their ownership. Sometimes the reasons why we own things are ethical. (She gave her painting to me. I bought this house from the previous owner.) But sometimes our justifications boil down to “Because I’m better” or “Because God gave it to us”.
Why did Israelites own a significant part of Canaan (later called Palestine) from the 10th to 6th centuries BCE? The Hebrew Bible repeats again and again that God gave the land of Canaan to the Israelites. This “gift” is the premise behind Moses’ instructions in this week’s Torah portion, Re-eih (“See!”).
For you will be crossing the Jordan to enter and lareshet of the land that God, your God, is giving to you, vireshtem of it and you will settle in it. Then take care to carry out all the decrees and the laws that I am placing before you this day. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 11:31-32)
lareshet (לָרֶשֶׁת) = to take possession. (A form of the verb yarash, יָרַשׁ = took possession, inherited, dispossessed.)
vireshtem (וִירְשׁתֶּם) = and you will take possession. (Another form of the verb yarash.)
How will God give possession of Canaan to the Israelites? And why?
When Moses gets his marching orders at the burning bush, God tells him:
I have come down to bring them [the Israelites] out from the hand of Egypt and to bring them up from that land to a good and spacious land, to a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanites and the Hittites and the Emorites and the Perizzites and the Hivites and the Jebusites. (Exodus/Shemot 3:8)
The land of Canaan is already occupied by six nations.1 How will God transfer their land to hundreds of thousands of Israelites?
It turns out that the inhabitants of Canaan do not give, sell, or trade land to the newcomers.2 They do not conveniently decide to move elsewhere. Instead, they are willing to fight to keep the land they planted, and the houses and cities they and their ancestors built.
In the book of Exodus/Shemot, God promises to “erase” or “drive out” the native inhabitants.3 But in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar it becomes clear that the Israelites must do the driving out. They get a head start on military conquest before they cross the Jordan. At God’s urging, the Israelites fight and win battles against three nations on the east side of the river: Cheshbon (the city and its territory), Bashan, and the Midianites north of Moab. The Israelite men burn towns, kill all the men, and seize all the land.4
When the tribes of Reuven and Gad ask Moses if they can have this newly captured land instead of future allotments in Canaan, Moses agrees on the condition that their fighting men enter Canaan with the rest of the Israelites, and participate in every battle there until Canaan has been conquered.5 Everyone knows, now, that the Israelites will take Canaan through war.
The book of Deuteronomy/Devarim assumes that God will give the Israelites the land of Canaan by ensuring them victory in battle—and that the Israelites will be the aggressors. In last week’s Torah portion, Eikev, Moses reminds his people:
Listen, Israel! You are crossing the Jordan this day lareshet nations greater and stronger [than you]. And you shall realize this day that God, your God … will subdue them before you, vehorashtam, and you shall exterminate them quickly, as God has spoken to you. (Deuteronomy 9:1-3)
vehorashtam (וְהוֹרַשְׁתָּם) = and you shall dispossess them. (A form of the verb yarash.)
Not because of your righteousness or because of the uprightness of your heart shall you come lareshet their land. God, your God, shall be morisham in front of you because these nations are wicked, and in order to carry out the word that God swore to your forefathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 9:5)
morisham (מוֹרִשָׁם) = taking possession of them, dispossessing them, driving them out. (Another form of yarash.)
You are not so perfect that you deserve to own Canaan, Moses tells the Israelites. God will help you to conquer it only because God made a promise to your ancestors, and because the present inhabitants of Canaan are even worse than you are.
In the book of Genesis/Bereishit, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all hear God promise that their descendants will someday own the land of Canaan.6 The sixth time God makes this promise, it is part of a covenant: Abraham and his male descendants will be circumcised and follow God; God will give them the land of Canaan and look after them.
“And I will give to you, and to your seed after you, land from your sojourning: all the land of Canaan, as a holding forever. And I will be their God.” (Genesis/Bereishit 17:8)
The nations of Canaan are “wicked” because they engage in practices the God of Israel despises, according to the book of Leviticus/Vayikra. These practices include sexual unions forbidden in Leviticus, and child sacrifice to Molech.7
In this week’s Torah portion, God tells the Israelites not only to exterminate all the inhabitants of Canaan, but also to destroy their shrines and religious objects.8
These are the decrees and the laws that you must take care to carry out in the land that God, the God of your forefathers, gave to you lerishtah all the days that you live on the earth. You must utterly destroy all the places where the nations that you are yoreshim worshiped their gods, on the high mountains and on the hills and under every luxuriant tree. And you shall tear down their altars, and shatter their standing-stones, and burn their goddess-posts in the fire, and break into pieces the statues of their gods; and you shall eliminate their name from that place. (Deuteronomy 12:1-3)
lerishtah (לְרִשְׁתָּה) = to possess it. (A form of the verb yarash.)
yoreshim (יֺרְשִׁם) = taking possession of. (Another form of the verb yarash.)
Ethnic cleansing is not enough, Moses says. Even after the inhabitants of Canaan have been eliminated, some Israelites might still be tempted to adopt their religious practices.
When God, your God, cuts down the nations where you come lareshet them from before you, veyarashta them and you have settled in their land, guard yourselves lest you become ensnared [in] following them, after they have been exterminated from before you; and lest you inquire about their gods, saying: “How did these nations serve their gods? Then I will do this too, even I.” You must not do thus for God, your God, because everything abhorrent to God, [everything] that he hates, they do for their gods. For they even burn their sons and daughters in the fire for their gods! (Deuteronomuy 12:29-31)
veyarashta (וְיָרַשְׁתָּ) = and you dispossess. (Yes, another form of yarash.)
This is the other justification in the Torah for taking over Canaan and eliminating its natives. The inhabitants of Canaan, like the Israelites, worshipped their gods primarily through burning animal offerings on altars. But other religious practices of the six groups of Canaanites were so awful that they did not deserve to own the land. They did not even deserve to live.
The Torah speaks with many voices. When the context is the period when Israelites own the land, the Torah urges them to treat the foreigners living among them with love and justice.9 But when the context is the period before the Israelites own the land, the Torah urges them to exterminate the foreigners who do own it.
Although modern scholars disagree on when each of the first five books of the bible was first written down, they agree that all five were written down no earlier than the 10th century BCE, when Israelites ruled one or two kingdoms in eastern Canaan.10 Perhaps those who wrote down the old stories noticed the conflict between the injunctions to treat resident aliens with fairness, and tales of the brutal conquest of non-Israelite natives. How could they justify the aggression of their ancestors?
The solution of those early scribes was to explain that God took Canaan away from its previous inhabitants and gave it to the Israelites. The conquest by the Israelite army merely carried out God’s will.
Today some groups still believe in a divine right to own land and the people living on it. When there are rival claims to territory, people of different religions point to their sacred books and their ancient histories rather than working toward an ethical solution for sharing the land.
Today some individuals still believe that might makes right, and the fact that they succeeded in acquiring control over a business or a branch of government means God is on their side.
I pray that someday everyone in the world is blessed with humility.
- The same six peoples are mentioned as inhabiting Canaan in Exodus 23:23, 33:2, and 34:11.
- Abraham buys one field with a burial site in Canaan (Genesis 23:3-16), and Jacob buys a parcel of land where he is camping (Genesis 33:19), but there are no other purchases of land in Canaan in the biblical record until after the Israelites have occupied a large part of Canaan.
- God promises “and I will erase them” (וְהִכְחַדְתִּיו) in Exodus 23:23. God plans to drive the natives out of Canaan in Exodus 23:27-30 (through psychological means), 33:1-3, and 34:11 (as well as in Leviticus 18:24-25 and 20:23).
- Numbers 21:21-25, 21:33-35, 31:1-18.
- Numbers 32:6-27. See my post Mattot: From Confrontation to Understanding.
- The God character makes this promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:7, 13:15, 15:7, 15:18, and 17:8; to Isaac in Genesis 26:3; and to Jacob in Genesis 28:13-14 and 35:12.
- Leviticus 18:3-30.
- This instruction also appears in Numbers 33:52-53.
- Geirim (גֵּרִים) = resident aliens (in biblical Hebrew). Geirim are included in God’s covenant in Deuteronomy 29:9-11 and 31:12, Joshua 8:33-35, and Ezekiel 47:21-23. The same laws and rights apply to citizens and geirim in Exodus 12:19, 12:48-49, and 20:10; Leviticus 16:29, 17:8-15, 18:26, 20:2, 22:18, 24:16, and 24:22; Numbers 9:14, 15:14-16, 15:26, 15:29-30, 19:10, and 35:15; Deuteronomy 1:16, 5:14, 16:14, 24:14, and 26:11-13; Joshua 20:9; and Ezekiel 14:7. The Israelites are warned not to oppress geirim in Exodus 22:20 and 23:9; Leviticus 19:33-34; and Ezekiel 22:7 and 22:29. The Torah orders the Israelites to love geirim or treat them like brothers in Leviticus 19:33-34 and Deuteronomy 10:18-19 and 24:14.
- The united kingdom of Israel ascribed to kings David and Solomon in the bible dates to the mid-900’s BCE. Its existence has not yet been confirmed by archaeologists. Hoever, there is evidence supporting the biblical claim that there were two Israelite kingdoms from the 920’s to the 720’s BCE: the northern kingdom of Israel/Samaria and the southern kingdom of Judah.