And God spoke to Moses on the plain of Moab at the Jordan at Jericho, saying: “Speak to the children of Israel, and you shall say to them: When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, vehorashtem all the inhabitants of the land from before yourselves. And you must destroy all their carved images, and all their cast-metal images you must destroy, and all their high worship places you must demolish. Vehorashtem of the land and you must settle down in it yourselves; I have given the land to you lareshet it. (Numbers/Bemidbar 33:51-53)
vehorashtem (וְהוֹרַשְׁתֶּם) = and you must take possession of, inherit; dispossess, drive out. (A form of the verb yarash.)
lareshet (לָרֶשֶׁת) = to possess. (Another form of the verb yarash.)
This communication combines two orders: take over all the Canaanites’ land, and eliminate all their places and objects of worship. Carrying out these orders would clear the way for the Israelites to have their own nation-state and to establish their own exclusive religion.
The anthropomorphic God presented in the books of Exodus through Numbers does talk about taking the Israelites to be “his” own people. This God-character is willing to disregard the needs of other peoples in order to give “his” people their own land. And naturally “he” wants theirhis people’s exclusive devotion, with no distractions from other religions.
Yet some later passages in the Hebrew Bible posit one God who creates, rules, and administers justice to all the peoples of the earth.1 This early monotheism influences our ideas today (although some people still apply a different standard of justice to people of other nations compared to those born in their own nation).
If conquering a land and driving out its inhabitants does strike us as immoral, can we find any value in the God-character’s orders above?
One possibility is to read it as an allegory for how some individuals can consciously change when they want to move into a new way of life:
When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan — or, when have decided to cross the watery boundary between your old life and the new —
you must dispossess all the inhabitants of the land from before yourself — you must uproot all the old, habitual beliefs in the land of your mind.
And you must destroy all their carved images — and you must keep on examining your reactions and identifying the prejudices and myths they are based on, the ones you learned from your parents and other influences; and then replace them with your new insights —
and all their cast-metal images you must destroy — and you may need to give up some old possessions too, if they entrap you —
and all their high worship places you must demolish — and you must question what you once admired and stop worshipping your old idols.
You must take possession of the land and you must settle down in it — You must take conscious responsibility for your own mental habits.
I have given the land to you to take possession of it — God has given you a mind capable of self-reflection and conscious choice.
How many people marry a second person who has the same character flaw as the first? How many people keep losing their jobs for the same reason? How many people keep losing their tempers? All real change requires a change inside, and it is hard work to keep fighting to pay attention and question yourself until your old habits have been mostly driven out. (Even then, I find, the old habits lurk in the background, and may pop up again in a time of weakness.)
May more and more human beings dedicate themselves to these inner battles for new lives. And may outer battles of conquest among nations cease as we discard the myths that fueled them and invent peaceful resolutions.
(Based on an essay I wrote in July 2010.)
- The book of Deuteronomy combines monotheistic statements with the assumption that God prefers the Israelites and expects more from them. But the second half of Isaiah not only declares that there is only one god, but also points toward a more universal god in 41:3, 45:5-7, and 45:20-22.