Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought

Vol. 36, N0. 3, Summer Issue 1987

The Torah and the West Bank


OF ALL THE CLAIMS TO THE WEST BANK AND Gaza put forward by the right-wing parties in Israel today, none has seemed more difficult to answer than the Biblical one. Little wonder that they use it so often. Thus, Gush Emunim (“The Bloc of the Faithful”), which has played a crucial part in spearheading the West Bank settlements, justifies its role with the argument that the Torah gives Israel an unconditional title to the land of greater Israel (Ere; Israel), including all of the territories occupied in the Six Day War. More recently, Rabbi (and now Knesset member) Meir Kahane and his Kach party have gone even further; they advocate, in the name of Orthodoxy, expelling the Palestinians from their homes on the West Bank (indeed, from throughout Israel) into Jordan or whatever country will have them. And, as Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon showed all along, the names “Judea and Samaria" have cast a spell over the uncritical masses who are a primary constituency of the Likud coalition.

The proponents of territorial compromise, by contrast, have thus far been content to rest their case on what, in their own view, are the perfectly adequate grounds of fairness and the long-term interests of the state: internally for democracy, and externally for peace with Israel’s neighbors. What is more, the leaders of the peace movement (as they will be the first to admit) are not really conversant with the governing religious texts in this matter. Neither do they care to be — an attitude that springs, no doubt, from the deep sense of aversion that many of them must feel, as intellectuals, to the whole Orthodox enterprise of bibliolatry (or rather Torah-olatry) with its sacerdotalism and fetishism of the texts. As secularly educated individuals they are repelled by the posture of superstitious awe. The result, however, is a curio us one for intellectuals. They refuse to debate the meaning of a book. And not just any book, but one that is, by all accounts, a primary document of Western culture and civilization. Rather than engage zealots in controversy over the interpretation of Scriptures, they prefer to remain silent. And so they allow the Biblical claim to pass unchallenged.

But in ceding this point the doves are committing a serious tactical error. I say this partly because, in a closely contested parliamentary system such as Israel’s, every segment of opinion holds the balance of power. Even a comparatively minor shift could -- and some day very well may — prove decisive in the final disposition of the occupied territories. Hence, no stone should be left unturned. But there is an even more important reason why the Orthodox right needs to be challenged on the question of the territories. A close, critical reading of the Torah reveals that no such unqualified or exclusive claim to the West Bank and Gaza (or to any other part of Eretz Israel for that matter) can be made. Here I want to review what the relevant texts do say, for the benefit of readers who may be unfamiliar with them.


The first thing to note is how little there is in the Talmud or in the responsa literature that bears on the issue. While this might seem surprising at first sight, the reason is not far to find. It follows from the fact that this enormous and enormously complex body of literature (over million words) arose long after the ancient Hebrews had settled the historic land of Israel. By its very nature, the oral law (halakhah) deals with the application of the written law to situations that were met in the periods that produced it. The great bulk of the halakhic tradition, consequently, reflects the problems and circumstances that were current in the period of the Second Temple and during the more than two thousand years of the Diaspora. This much is commonplace. Furthermore, throughout the whole of this immensely long era of rabbinic Judaism there was simply no occasion — does anyone dispute it? — on which the Jewish people had to confront the question before them today: namely, by what principles are they, as Jews, to conduct themselves upon entering the promised land, in relation to the native inhabitants of the land who are living there before them?(1)

To say the least, this simplifies our task. For it means that, with minor exceptions,(2) only the written Torah the five books of Moses relates to the question. And of these five books, Genesis, clearly, has the first claim on our attention. Not so much because it is the first book of the Torah, but because in it we find, spelled out for the first time in the so-called patriarchal narratives,(2) the nature of the covenant between God and Abraham, including the conditions of the promise whereby Abraham and his descendants are to find a new home for themselves in Palestine. As we shall see, nothing that happens later on Mt. Sinai nullifies or in anyway contradicts — what is written in Genesis. (Indeed, Orthodox tradition maintains that the book of Genesis itself was handed down by God to Moses on Mt. Sinai along with the other four books of the Pentateuch.)

What, then, does Genesis have to say? Three or four different things, as it turns out.

To begin with, at the very outset of the patriarchal narratives, when Abraham and his household are still in Mesopotamia, we read a straightforward promise from God to Abraham with no apparent conditions attached, beyond a simple going into the land:

Now the Lord has said unto Abram [Abraham], “Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto the land that I will show thee. And I will make a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing. And I will bless them that bless thee, and him that curseth thee I will curse; and in thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed” (Genesis 12: 1-4).

(Notice, incidentally, the universal element that is present in the promise from the very beginning: not only will Abraham be “blessed” and “be a blessing” but in him “shall all the families of the earth be blessed.”) Abraham then journeys together with Lot, his brother’s son, and their two families into Palestine, where God’s promise is repeated, this second time in terms suggestive of a proud new landowner initially surveying his domain:

And the Lord said unto Abram, after that Lot was separated from him, “Lift up now thine eyes, and look from the place where thou art, northward and southward and eastward and westward;

For all the land which thou seest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed for ever.

And I will make thy seed as the dust of the earth; so that if a man can number the dust of the earth, then shall thy seed also be numbered.

Arise, walk through the land in the length of it and in the breadth of it; for unto thee will I give it”(Genesis l3:l4-17).

There follow a series of incidents, including a curious episode between Abraham and the kings of Salem and Sodom to which I shall return, after which promise is repeated yet again, only in this instance in maximalist terms, and again without any apparent qualification or condition:

And that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “Unto thy seed have 1 given this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates” (Genesis 15:18).

As we continue further in the narratives, however, something distinctly new begins to appear. We encounter, for the first time, a series of qualifications to the covenant, in which God’s promise to Abraham assumes the form of a bilateral contract — that is, is made conditional upon the performance of certain commandments (mitzvot) to be kept by Abraham and his descendants. At one point in the 18th chapter, for example, we read that the rite of circumcision is to be both identical with, and “a token of,” the covenant:

“This is My covenant, which ye shall keep, between Me and you and thy seed after thee: every male among be circumcised.

And ye shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of a covenant betwixt Me and you” (Genesis 17:10-11).

Finally, something that is potentially of great significance for us here, at two other points in the narratives we encounter what, for the moment, can only be described as obscure ethical injunctions attached to the covenant. The first occurs in the 17th chapter, immediately preceding the injunction of circumcision cited above.

And when Abram was ninety years old and nine, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said unto him: “I am God Almighty; walk before Me and be thou whole-hearted [Hebrew tamim, also translated as “perfect”] and I will make My covenant between Me and thee, and will multiply thee exceedingly" (Genesis 17:1-2).

(Note, by the way, the preambular form of this fragment, which suggests that it may be the earliest one in the group.) The second instance, similar except for tense and mood, occurs in the 18th chapter:

“For I [the Lord] have known him [Abraham], to the end that he may command his children and his household after him, that they may keep the way of the Lord, to do righteousness and justice [Hebrew zedeq] to the end that the Lord may bring it upon Abraham that which He hath spoken of him” (Genesis 18:19).

Immediately we confront a classic problem of biblical interpretation: How to reconcile different descriptions of what purports to be a single, everlasting covenant between God and the Jewish people? One approach, long favored by the fundamentalist mind, is simply to quote the particular verse or verses that suit one’s purposes (taking them completely out of context if necessary) and to ignore the rest. But, while convenient, this approach unfortunately itself violates a fundamental injunction of the Torah: not to take away from, nor to add to, anything in it (Deuteronomy 4:2, 13:1). A second, not unrelated approach is the one favored by many on the left today, who blandly assert that the Torah is inconsistent on the issue of the covenant and that one can support contradictory positions with carefully chosen citations. In view of the antics of Gush Emunim, Kach and their like, this position has a certain surface plausibility. But, nonetheless, so far as the issue before us is concerned, it makes an assumption of the fact which may or may not be true: that the various passages of the Torah describing the conditions of the covenant are self-contradictory and cannot be reconciled.

A third approach frankly admits that we are dealing with a primitive text here which, for whatever reasons,(4) does not progress linearly but, rather, circles around its object and gradually defines what it is trying to say. Thus, for instance, if at one point we read X and at another point Y, then unless X and Y are mutually exclusive (in which case the text is absurd and the second approach wins) the meaning is X and Y, or X modified by Y. This agrees with the Talmudic maxim that “there is no earlier or later in the Torah" (Pesahim 7 b); in other words, all of its meanings are to be read simultaneously. It also happens to be the only intellectually honest approach, in the sense of being the only approach that allows for the possibility of the Torah’s being a meaningful and self-consistent whole on the subject of the covenant, while also leaving room for the possibility of its being absurd and self-contradictory. The third approach is the one that we will take.

Let us go back, then, and look more closely at the two words tamim and zedeq that were introduced in the quotations above and at the way they are used to define the conditions of the covenant— that is, the terms that Abraham and his descendants were to fulfill as their part of the bargain so that God, in turn, would fulfill His:

“Be thou whole-hearted [tamim]. And I will make my covenant between me and thee. . . .” (Genesis 17:1-2).

‘. . . do righteousness and justice [zedeq] to the end that the Lord may bring upon Abraham that which he hath spoken. . . . " (Genesis 18:19).

Originally, the Hebrew word tamim meant and zedeq meant “hard”, “straight”, “rigid”.(5)  From very early on, and throughout the Bible, we find these two words used to describe the proper conditions of the weights and balances that were used in ancient commerce to measure commodities. A proper weight was tamim — i.e. whole, complete, not lacking; a proper balance beam was zedek i.e., straight, true, rigid. (See, for example, Deuteronomy 25:13-15, Leviticus 19:36, Micah 6:11, Amos 8:5. and elsewhere.) The reason for the tamim of the weights is, of course obvious; the use of short weights would be tantamount to cheating the party with whom one was dealing. As for the zedek of the balance beam, the following technical observation is perhaps in order:

[F]or the justness of an equal armed balance it is requisite. . . . [t]hat the two points of suspension of the pans from the beam be in exactly the same line as the center of motion of the fulcrum on which the beam turns when set in motion. The line joining these three points is the axis of the beam.(6)

So, by metaphorical extension -- or is it literal interpretation? — the terms of the covenant can be reduced to fair dealing. Abraham and his descendants are to treat honestly and fairly with those whom they encounter in the promised land if they are to find there a new home for themselves in which to live out their lives in peace and prosperity.

This interpretation gathers plausibility when we examine it against the sociological background of the patriarchal age. Thus, even though, as I have noted, some experts dispute it, both the established academic view and the Torah itself agree on the point that, before Moses, the ancient Hebrews were a stateless, semi-nomadic people who migrated to Palestine sometime in the first half of the second millennium B.C.E.. Like all such pastoral peoples in the ancient Near East, and the Semitic peoples especially, they did not dwell in splendid isolation off by themselves, together with their flocks and their gold. On the contrary, they existed in a close symbiotic relationship with the surrounding agricultural states, among which they lived and moved and had their being. In Ancient Iraq, the eminent French Sumerologist, Georges Roux, has reconstructed a picture of life in those days:

Before that time, i.e., before the introduction of the camel around 1200 B.C., which made long-distance travel possible, the nomads, who rode on asses and practiced sheep-rearing, were much more restricted in their movements than the  Bedouins of today and could not wander far beyond the limits of the grassy steppe which extends between the Tigris and Euphrates and at the foot of the Zagros, the Taurus and the Lebanon. There they were in close and constant touch with the agricultural populations which bought their sheep and supplied them with grain, dates, tools, weapons, and other utilitarian objects and amenities. . . . In general the two groups met regularly in villages or in market-places outside the gates of the cities, and exchanged goods, together, no doubt, with a number of ideas. Then the nomads returned to the steppe, perhaps only a few miles away. Occasionally, individuals left the tribe as Lot did in Sodom to Find work in the towns as mercenaries, craftsmen, or merchants. Sometimes a family, a clan, or a whole tribe would acquire (or be granted) land and devote itself partly to agriculture, partly to sheep-breeding. Not infrequently the local governments exercised some control over the nomads, using them in particular as auxiliary troops whenever required.(7)

Commercial intercourse, in other words, played an integral part in the livelihood of the nomadic peoples of the ancient Near East. It follows that, to a very considerable degree, they depended for their welfare and survival upon the good-will of their agricultural hosts with whom they had an on-going exchange. This was part — the peaceful part of the age-old relationship between the Steppe and the Sown.

In the case of Abraham and his descendants, the situation was made still more precarious by the fact of their having left the traditional home of their ancestors in Mesopotamia, where, in time of trouble, they could expect to find allies among their own kith and kin. Having moved to Palestine, they traded in this security and became, instead, “strangers in a strange land." Indeed, it is an old scholarly conjecture that the word, “Hebrew,” itself, may be derived from the ancient Semitic word hapiru, meaning "stranger” or “foreigner.” But be that as it may, it is easy to see why the ancient Hebrews in the patriarchal age should find the strongest practical motive for straight-dealing with the settled agricultural peoples among whom they lived. Any attempt to cheat or defraud their hosts; as by short weights, for example was bound to arouse hostility and prove counter-productive in the long-run.

Illustrative is an episode recorded in the 34th chapter of Genesis. Jacob and his household are dwelling peacefully among the Hivites in the land of Canaan when the son of the king of the Hivites seduces daughter and falls in love with her. He wants to marry her and asks his father to ask Jacob for her hand. The latter does so and, at the same time, extends an open invitation toJacob and all of his household to intermarry with, and live permanently among, the Hivites as one people. The sons of Jacob, who are outraged that the Hivite prince has their sister, reply that this is possible only on the condition that all the male Hivites agree to be circumcised. The Hivites agree and are duly circumcised; but, on the third day afterward, when they are still sore from the operation, the sons of Jacob “deceitfully” fall upon them and slay them, carrying off all of their wives, children, and possessions. When Jacob learns of this treachery, he exclaims:

“Ye have troubled me, to make me odious unto the inhabitants of the land, even unto the Canaanites and the Perizzites; and, I being few in number, they shall gather themselves together against me and srnight me; and I shall be destroyed, I and my house" (Genesis 34:30).

In sum, it was perfectly natural for the small tribe of Hebrews who were migrating along the arc of the Fertile Crescent in the second millennium B.C.E., to find in the tamim of the weights and the zedeq of the balance beam the ideal image of a wise foreign policy. Being stateless, “few in number,” and shorn of reliable allies, their reputation for integrity and straight-dealing was, for them, the very touchstone of survival. It was the special genius of Abraham or whoever was responsible for the Abrahamic legends -- to take this idea a step further and proclaim a Most High God (“maker of heaven and earth”) who was likewise “just” (Genesis 18:25); who judged all people everywhere by the standards of justice (Genesis 18:20-33); and who, in His capacity as just judge of the earth, watched over Abraham and his descendants as their shield and protector (Genesis 15:5). (Incidentally, this helps shed light on an historical riddle: How was it that a tiny, insignificant people like the ancient Hebrews should have their peculiar conception of God taken up by the peasant and proletarian masses of the Roman Empire and, later, throughout the whole Western world? The answer would seem to lie, at least in part, in the fact that, like the ancient Hebrews, common people everywhere were exposed to the depredations of powers and principalities and found in the Bible the only organized body of belief —before Marxism, at any rate — which systematically championed the interests of the poor, the weak, the defenseless, and the oppressed.)

Lending substance to this interpretation of the covenant is the actual behavior of Abraham and his household upon entering the promised land. For, as recounted in Genesis, we find them there putting into practice those self-same principles of equity and fair-dealing with the native inhabitants whom they meet.

The first example, to which I have already alluded, occurs in the 14th chapter in an episode known as the war of the four kings against the five. In the course of this war the city of Sodom is sacked and Lot, Abraham’s. brother who was living in Sodom, is taken away captive along with many others. When Abraham hears of this he sets out with three hundred and eighteen men from his camp in pursuit of the plunderers, with whom he catches up and whom he defeats in battle near Damascus. (This incident, by the way, belies the notion sometimes advanced that Abraham was a pacifist.) Returning home with Lot and the other captives and booty that were taken from Sodom, Abraham is met by the kings of Sodom and Salem along the way in the vale of Shaveh. Significantly, the king of Salem (on the West Bank, possibly Jerusalem?) is named Melchizedek (literally, “the king is justice”) and is described as a priest of God Most High, like the God of Abraham. Melchizedek blesses Abraham in the name of God Most High, “Maker of heaven and earth,” “who hath delivered thine enemies into thy hand,” and gives him a tithe. Whereupon the king of Sodom goes further and offers to let Abraham keep all of the goods that were taken out of his city and asks only for the return of the human captives. Abraham rejects this offer out of hand, explaining:

“I have lifted up my hand unto the Lord, God Most High, Makér of heaven and earth, that I will not take a thread nor a shoe-latchet nor aught that is thine, lest thou shouldest say: I have made Abram rich” (Genesis 14:22-23).

(Notice the past tense of the oath: not “I lift up” but “I have lifted up” my hand unto the Lord, indicating that this is but the particular application of a more general oath which has already been taken in the past.)

A second, even more telling incident is recorded in the 21st chapter of Genesis. It takes place between Abraham and a king of Gerar (from near Gaza) named Abimelech. The place is Beersheba. Because of its centrality to the argument which I am making, as well as the economy of the narrative, I will quote it in full:

And it came to pass at that time, that Abimelech and Phicol the captain of his host spoke unto Abraham, saying: “God is with thee in all that thou doest. Now therefore swear unto me here by God that thou wilt not deal falsely with me, nor with my son, nor with my son's son: but according to the kindness that 1 have done unto thee, thou shalt do unto me, and unto the [and wherein thou hast sojourned.” And Abraham said: “I will swear.”

And Abraham reproved Abimelech because of the well of water, which Abimelech’s servants had violently taken away. And Abimelech said: “I know not who hath done this thing: neither didst thou tell me, neither yet heard I of it, but today."

And Abraham took sheep and oxen, and gave them unto Abimelech; and they two made a covenant. And Abraham set seven ewe-lambs of the flock by themselves. And Abimelech said unto Abraham: “What mean these seven ewe lambs, which thou has set by themselves?” And he said: “Verily, these seven ewe lambs shalt thou take of my hand, that it may be a witness unto me, that I have digged this well."

Wherefore that place was called Beersheba; because there they sware both of them. So they made a covenant at Beersheba; and Abimelech rose up, and Phicol the captain of the host, and they returned into the land of the Philistines.

And Abraham planted a tamarisk-tree in Beersheba, and called there on the name of the Lord, the Everlasting God (Genesis 21:22-33)[emphasis added].

What we are witnessing here at Beersheba — which, if tradition be right, took place nearly four millennia ago — is more than just an early formulation of the golden rule. In the annals of international law it must be counted as, if not the earliest example on record, then, certainly, the earliest example on continuous record of two peoples attempting to substitute principles and equity in the place of force and violence as the means of settling international disputes. Together with the other materials that are found in Genesis, it contains the seeds of that universalistic, ethical core of the ancient Hebrew faith which is its root idea and gives to it a world-historical importance. It is, quite simply, where Judaism begins.


But, then, what are we to make of Yahweh, God of batties, and the whole bloody saga of Israel’s history that starts in Exodus?

For, as every schoolchild knows, when the Israelites re-enter the promised land for the second time after being led out of Egypt under Moses, they do so in a manner which is diametrically the opposite of Abraham’s. This time arms, not treaties, are the order of the day. Who can forget the story of blowing down the walls of Jericho, of David killing Goliath with his sling, or of Samson slaying the Philistines with the jawbone of an ass? And let us not forget the reason why Moses and the children of Israel were condemned to wander forty years in the wilderness, in the first place. It was specifically and solely because they refused to fight the Anakites when God commanded them to do so (Numbers 13-14).

Alas, it is true, and there is no use denying it. From Exodus on we find the Torah explicitly and repeatedly warning the Israelites not to make covenants with the native inhabitants of Palestine. Instead, they are to go in fighting and "The Lord, The Lord God” who is “A Man of War” will “drive out before thee the Amorite, and the Canaanite, and the Hittite, and the Perizzite, and the Hivite, and the Jebusite" (Exodus 33:2).

Now there is a natural temptation at this point to resort once more to a sociological interpretation. It might be conjectured, for example, that in the days of Abraham the Hebrews were weak and “few in number” and Palestine was a lightly populated region with ample room for newcomers. Tamim and zedeq made sense then. But, by the time of Moses more than four centuries later, according to Exodus the number and strength of the Israelites was reportedly much greater, measuring in the thousands instead of the hundreds. Possibly the demographic situation in Palestine may have likewise altered for the worse. In that case, there may have been no room for a peaceful incursion of new settlers into the area. In such circumstances — and assuming, as seems probable from everything else that we know about the history of warring states in ancient times, a Hobbesean world of all against all — it is quite conceivable that military force was the only way in.

But however tempting — or even true this hypothesis may happen to be, it is important to realize that it has nothing to do with the reason that the Torah gives for the change in policy. The Torah, is by definition, a book of religious instruction; sociological interpretations, therefore, can have no standing in it. Accordingly it should come as no surprise to learn that the reason which the Torah states for Israel's dispossessing the native inhabitants of the promised land are purely religious in nature. But what exactly are they?

Before we see, I want to dispose of a canard that we are sure to meet. Rabbinic tradition has long held that the revelation on Mt. Sinai contains the whole of the law. We should not dispute it. However, there is no warrant in this (or in Rabbinic tradition) for concluding that the covenant on Mt. Sinai somehow cancels or replaces rather than qualifies and expands covenant with Abraham “and his seed after him” as described in the patriarchal narratives. We can say this despite the fact that, at one point, in Deuteronomy 5:3, we read that the covenant which God made on Mt. Sinai with the children of Israel is “not" the same covenant that God made with “our fathers” (immediately after which there follows an enumeration of the ten commandents, none of which are found in Genesis). On what evidence can we claim that the covenant on Mt. Sinai does not nullify or supersede the covenant in Genesis, but, rather, modifies and extends it?

On ample evidence. To begin with, there is the fact to which I have already alluded, that Genesis is itself part of the Torah and as such must be included in the covenant on Mt. Sinai,(8) In a similar vein, we know that the covenant with Abraham is described by the Torah as “everlasting" (Hebrew, 01am) on at least three occasions (Genesis 17:7, 17:13, 17:19). To describe it as everlasting at one point and then to void it soon after, involves a contradiction. But even more to the point, we find that throughout the last four books of Moses the covenant with Abraham is reaffirmed on at leasta dozen different occasions. (See, for example, Exodus 2:24, Leviticus 26:42, Numbers 32:11, and Deuteronomy 9:5.) These citations by themselves are enough to prove that God's covenant with Abraham does not assume the status of a dead letter in the final four books of the Torah. Now, it is true, the majority of these verses speak only of the promises rather than of the covenant as a whole. This might lead one to suppose that it is oniy the promises that are everlasting, not the conditions (migvot) which are attached to the promises. But against this we can point to the fact that the specific mizvot which are prescribed in Genesis are repeated again. The commandment of circumcision re-occurs in Leviticus 12:3, where it takes its place alongside the ten commandments as well as numerous other mizvot not found in Genesis. Finaliy, the point , . . that concerns us here, the commandment of zedeq itself re-occurs, emphatically, in Deuteronomy as a mitzva attached directly and explicitly to the promises:

Justice, Justice(zedeq, zedeq) shalt thou follow, that thou mayest live, and inherit the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee. (Deuteronomy 16:20).

We are on firm ground, therefore, in maintaining that the Sinaitic covenant in no way replaces the Abrahamic one. Instead, it complements and extends it. The old promises and the old mizvot remain, and to them new mizvot are added. If we must delineate the differences between them, they are differences of logic and scope. With Abraham the focus is almost exclusively on the realm of foreign affairs. Principles are set forth which are to guide the tiny tribe of Hebrews in its dealings with the other tribes around it. With Moses, by contrast, the emphasis shifts to the intra-communal or domestic side of the equation. He sets forth rules to regulate the life of the newly re-constituted tribe of Israel in all its internal affairs. “Observe the Sabbath,” “Honor thy father and mother,” “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor,” “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house,” and so forth. In the most basic terms: Abraham was a visionary in the field of international relations, Moses was a nation builder. And, as has happened on more than one occasion since in the history of institutions, it is the routinizer who eclipses the founder: the figure with the organizational genius comes gradually to overshadow the figure with the original germ of inspiration.

But if we are justified in maintaining that the mitzvah of zedeq is not repealed by the covenant on Mt. Sinai, we are back to the question I posed above: On what grounds were the Israelites under Moses allowed -- indeed, commanded by God -- to dispossess the native inhabitants of the promised land who were living there before them?

The answer appears many times in the last four books of Moses, where it is always explicit and everywhere the same. Quite simply, it was because the seven nations that were in the land in the time of Moses were pagans. That is, unlike Abimelech and Melchizedek in Genesis, they did not profess the God of Abraham. Instead, they bowed down before graven images, worshipped idols, and engaged in all manner of occult practices. The following two passages from Exodus and Deuteronomy are representative:

“Take heed to thyself, lest thou make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land whither thou goest, lest they be for a snare in the midst of thee. But ye shall break down their altars, and dash in pieces their pillars, and ye shall cut down their Asherim. For thou shalt bow down to no other god; for the Lord, whose name is jealous, is a jealous God” (Exodus 34:12-14).

And again:

When thou art come into the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee, thou shalt not learn to do after the abominations of those nations. There shall not be found among you any one that maketh his son or his daughter to pass through the fire: one that useth divination, a soothsayer, or an enchanter, or a sorcerer. or a charmer, or one that consulteth a ghost or a familiar spirit, or a necromancer. For whosoever doeth these things is an abomination unto the Lord: and because of these abominations the Lord thy God is driving them out from before thee. (Deuteronomy 18:9-12)

(See also Exodus 23:23~33, Numbers 33:50-56, Deuteronomy 7:1-5, 12:29-32, 20: 1648, etc..) These, then, were the offenses, this the wickedness, of which they were guilty — and nothing more! (The only possible exceptions are certain sexual practices detailed in the 18th chapter of Leviticus.) And for these “abominations,” according to the stern ethic of the Torah, they deserved to die: to be wiped out, exterminated, and expelled from the land. But note, the Torah is commendably symmetrical on the issue: any Israelite who follows “after strange gods" is likewise to be killed (Deuteronomy 13:1-5). If the people as a whole stray from their exclusive allegiance to God and His commandments, then they will be treated to the same terrible fate at the hands of the Israelites (Leviticus 26:15-20). So militant monotheism — or, rather, strictly speaking, militant monolatry — is the Torah’s justification for aggression in the promised land.

Thus we arrive at a paradox. The same Hebrew people who introduced into Western world the idea of justice as the supreme ethical ideal governing human relationships — and who, for a fit foundation to support that ideal, proclaimed the essential unity and equality of all humankind this same people, at a somewhat later date, pioneered in the ways of religious intolerance with extreme prejudice. (Which intolerance, it is only fair to add, was subsequently taken up with gusto by Christians and Muslims alike.) Human beings having been created in the image of God, the Mosaic inference seemed to be that only those who recognized God were fully human. In short, the Torah makes monolatry the criterion for covenant-making with the native inhabitants of the promised land. Only with those peoples (goyim) who professed a strict and exclusive worship of the God of Abraham could Jews substitute a principled relationship of peace and equity in the place of violence and treachery. Those who lacked this monolatry lacked the indispensable basis in belief “the fear (Hebrew yirah, literally “reverence”, see Genesis 20:11) — to enter into such a relationship. They were “heathens," “idolators”: in effect, uncivilized barbarians, to be shown but little mercy.

Regardless of what one thinks nowadays about such “lesser breeds without the law,” it is a moot point in the case at hand. For there can be no question that the Palestinian people today are free from any taint of paganism or idolatry. Ninety-five percent of the population are Muslim and the other five percent Christian. In both cases and especially with the Muslims — we find an explicit and exclusive monotheism derived directly from Judaism. The God of Abraham is the only God whom the Palestinian people recognize. Neither is the native population given to occult practices: Islamic monotheism is pure to the point of austerity. It follows, then, that the grounds stated in the Torah on the basis of which Jews were allowed — indeed, commanded — to dispossess the native inhabitants of the promised land, do not apply. On the contrary, in this situation the Torah would seem to instruct just the opposite: that Jews are duty bound to make a mutually acceptable peace treaty with the Palestinian people of today, based on principles of justice and equity and a common belief in the God of Abraham. The only precondition, albeit an exceedingly crucial one, is that the Palestinian people must “in the name of Allah” — be prepared to do likewise.

So, irony of ironies, it turns out that the moderates in Israel today who urge the course of peace through territorial compromise and base their case on an intuitive sense of what is right and just regarding the Palestinian issue, are, in actuality, pursuing the true orthodox position. Those hawks and so-called “Orthodox” parties on the other hand, who argue on the basis of short-run defense needs and advance blind, uncritical claims to “Judea and Samaria,” are the real traducers of the Law.  If anyone can find anything anywhere in the Torah or the Talmud that contradicts this conclusion, let them produce it now for everyone to see.

Subpages (1): Footnotes