1: "When the LORD your God brings
you into the land which you are entering to take possession of it, and clears
away many nations before you, the Hittites, the Gir'gashites, the Amorites, the
Canaanites, the Per'izzites, the Hivites, and the Jeb'usites, seven nations
greater and mightier than yourselves,
2: and when the LORD your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them; then you must utterly destroy them; you shall make no covenant with them, and show no mercy to them.
3: You shall not make marriages with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons.
4: For they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods; then the anger of the LORD would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly.
5: But thus shall you deal with them: you shall break down their altars, and dash in pieces their pillars, and hew down their Ashe'rim, and burn their graven images with fire.
6: "For you are a people holy to the LORD your God; the LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for his own possession, out of all the peoples that are on the face of the earth.
16: And you shall destroy all the peoples that the LORD your God will give over to you, your eye shall not pity them; neither shall you serve their gods, for that would be a snare to you.
16: But in the cities of these peoples
that the LORD your God gives you for an inheritance, you shall save alive
nothing that breathes,
17: but you shall utterly destroy them, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Per'izzites, the Hivites and the Jeb'usites, as the LORD your God has commanded;
18: that they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices which they have done in the service of their gods, and so to sin against the LORD your God.
10: And Joshua turned back at that
time, and took Hazor, and smote its king with the sword; for Hazor formerly was
the head of all those kingdoms.
11: And they put to the sword all who were in it, utterly destroying them; there was none left that breathed, and he burned Hazor with fire.
12: And all the cities of those kings, and all their kings, Joshua took, and smote them with the edge of the sword, utterly destroying them, as Moses the servant of the LORD had commanded.
13: But none of the cities that stood on mounds did
14: And all the spoil of these cities and the cattle, the people of
Given the importance of this issue in the post-Holocaust period, I had expected Etz Hayim to deal with it seriously and at length. Regrettably the treatment in Etz Hayim is inferior even to that in the old, pre-Holocaust, Hertz Humash. This is astonishing as its prime source for Deuteronomy - the JTS Commentary by Tigai - has a whole excursus (pp. 470-472) on the subject.
Plaut does a rather better job (Following is quoted from The Torah: A Modern Commentary by W. Gunther Plaut)
“The Treatment of Conquered Nations
Torah instructs the Israelites to "doom"
the idolatrous nations in
“An early attempt was made in Talmudic days. The Hebrew for "show them no pity" (lo teHannem) was read as "do not grant them [land]," as if the text read lo taHnem), that is, do not sell real estate to "them-a rendering which leaned on the warning in Exod. not to let them dwell "in your land". But even if one would deem this interpretation feasible (which. it is not, in view of the clear Masoretic text), one could not argue away the provision of Deut. 20:16 which, using another word, unequivocally says, "You shall not let a soul remain alive."
has further been defended on the grounds of necessity: unless the native people
were done away with, they would ensnare
comes closer to an understanding of the Torah if one abandons efforts to shield
it from criticism and sees it in the light of its own time, its values, and
standards. "The custom to
'dedicate' an enemy to the deity, or to ban him, or after a victory to
annihilate him, is told us of various Near Eastern nations as well as of the
Greeks, Romans, Celts, and Germans. Since the sensitivities of the ancients
were not offended by the rigor of this procedure, Moses could use this harsh
war practice as a means to shield
“But even this interpretation does not do the text full justice, for it ascribes to Moses a point of view which may not have been his at all. Moreover, and most important: the unyielding tenor of these provisions stands in sharp contrast to the fact that such a policy of annihilation was, never carried out-the Canaanites were not annihilated. In fact, in Judg. 3:1, God himself is said to have abrogated His original command (see above, at verse 22). Later, in retrospect-taking Deuteronomy to be a post-settlement and not a Mosaic document-the reader was told that the rampant idolatry which characterized Israel's history for centuries could have been avoided had the native peoples been destroyed. Note that the sermon warns the Israelites not to intermarry with the idolaters -the very idolaters who were supposed to be doomed!
“A proper understanding, then, would view these passages as retrojections of what could and might have been, and the sentiments were acceptable in view of the common practices of the times.”
This last view is well stated by G H Davies in Peake’s Commentary on the Bible (Nelson 1962)
and their Neighbours- The Levitical preacher returns to his transition theme
and takes his hearers back in imagination to the eve of their entry into the
promised land. He instructs his people in the duties proper to that situation.
They are to destroy their idolatrous neighbours, to have no dealings of any
kind such as commerce or matrimony, and they are to destroy the shrines and
their contents. The command to destroy utterly, that is to put to the ban,
the different peoples of
however be remembered that the preacher was only laying down what he considered
to be the ideal policy, namely, extermination. In actual fact he was preaching
to people who had long settled in the land, had long lived with these groups
and had frequently been idolatrous. His words show the situation confronting
him. He bids his hearers exterminate idolatry. That is what had not happened.
He then bids his hearers to make no covenants or marriages with them. That is
what in fact did happen. So Deuteronomy faces the problem of
Accordingly his second solution is the destruction of Canaanite altars with their accompanying stone and wooden ('ashe'rim) symbols of deity and images. The sanctuaries are the centres of holiness, blessing amd life for the Canaanites, and to destroy them is to destroy the life and body of Canaanite religion.”
Tigay also has an interesting discussion in The JPS Torah Commentary: Deuteronomy by Jeffrey H. Tigay 1996
“The Proscription of the Canaanites (7:1-2, 7:16and -18)
“According to Deuteronomy
7:1-2, and -18, when the Israelites
enter the promised land they are to wipe out the Canaanites living there. The
terms referring to this requirement are the verb haHarem, "proscribe,"
and the noun Herem, "proscription," "a thing
proscribed." Deuteronomy states this as an unconditional mandate and
leaves no room for sparing any Canaanites in the promised land. Modern critical
scholars and traditional Jewish exegesis hold, each for different reasons, that
at the time when
“In 7:1-2, , the command to doom the Canaanites is clearly unconditional and
offering them terms of submission is prohibited. That -18 is also meant
unconditionally is indicated by its opening clause, "Thus you shall deal
with all towns that lie very far from you," that is, with foreign,
non-Canaanite cities. "Thus" refers back to verse 10, which
“According to , the aim of this unconditional requirement is to rid the
“Modern scholars hold that this law is purely theoretical and was never in effect. In their view, the populations of only a few Canaanite cities were annihilated, but most were not. There is much evidence in favor of this view. Archaeology has found only a few Canaanite cities that seem to have been destroyed by the Israelites when they arrived in the land at the beginning of the Iron Age (ca. 1200 B.C.E.). As noted above, pre-Deuteronomic laws, in Exodus, speak of the Canaanites being expelled rather than annihilated, and the narratives of Judges, Kings, and Joshua 15-17 indicate that many were neither expelled nor annihilated but were spared and subjected to forced labor.3 Some scholars suggest that even Deuteronomy did not originally require annihilating the Canaanites. In their view, Deuteronomy's original law consisted only of -14, according to which all cities are to be offered terms of submission. They note that Joshua ,Joshua 15-17, and Judges all reflect this form of the law. In this view the following paragraph in Deuteronomy, verses 15-18, is a later supplement that modifies the original law by restricting the requirement to offer the option of surrender to foreign, non-Canaanite cities. This supplement is reflected in Deuteronomy 7:1-5, 16-26, and the narratives of Joshua 6-11 (except for Joshua 11:19-20), but it is based on a theoretical reconstruction, conceived at a later time when the Canaanites had ceased to exist as a discernible element of the population in Israel, to account for their disappearance.
“If this is the case, where
did the idea of proscribing the Canaanites come from? The historical books, as
noted, indicate that the invading Israelites did proscribe some Canaanite
cities. Proscription was a well-known practice in the ancient world. One type
of proscription was the religious practice of devoting property, cattle, or
persons (perhaps the victims of sacrificial vows, such as Jephthah's daughter)
irrevocably to a deity, that is, to a sanctuary and the priests, sometimes by
destruction or killing. Another type was punitive proscription, which consisted
of executing those who committed severe offenses against the gods. This type is
prescribed by Exodus 22:17 for individual idolaters, and by Deuteronomy
13:13-18for idolatrous cities. Proscription of enemy armies and populations to
the gods is known from various places in the ancient world. King Mesha of
“Deuteronomy appears to have inferred from cases like these that the disappearance of the Canaanites was due to a systematic policy of proscription. Aware that there were no discernible Canaanites left in Israel, aware from Exodus and Numbers that the land was to be rid of them, aware of Exodus 22:17,which requires proscription of Israelite idolaters, and mindful of its own law requiring proscription of idolatrous Israelite cities, Deuteronomy must have assumed that God, in His zeal to protect Israel from exposure to pagan abominations, had required eliminating the Canaanites by the same means. It is interesting, however, that Deuteronomy never speaks of proscribing the victims to God. It uses proscription in a purely secular way, meaning simply "destruction." It is not a sacrifice to God but a practical measure to prevent the debasement of Israelite conduct.
commentators, as mentioned, do not believe that Deuteronomy means to proscribe
the Canaanites unconditionally. The Sifrei and other halakhic sources reason
that since the express purpose of the law is to prevent the Canaanites from
influencing the Israelites with their abhorrent religious practices (v. 18), if
they abandoned their paganism and accepted the moral standards of the Noachide
laws they were to be spared. Maimonides holds that verse 10 requires that
“These arguments notwithstanding, it is clear from 7:1-2 and 16 that Deuteronomy's demand for proscription of the Canaanites is indeed unconditional. The rabbis' rejection of this view is a reflection of their own sensibilities. As M. Greenberg has observed, they must have regarded this understanding of the law as implausible because it is so harsh and inconsistent with other values, such as the prophetic concept of repentance and the prediction that idolaters will someday abandon false gods, and the halakhic principle that wrongdoers may not be punished unless they have been warned that their action is illegal and informed of the penalty. In effect, they used interpretation to modify and soften the law in deference to other, overriding principles.”
Ethically Unacceptable Elements in the Scriptures of Judaism, Christianity and Islam
“Jews, Christians, and Muslims encourage violence because they refuse to fully challenge the authority of "sacred texts" that overflow with violent images of God and stories justifying human violence in God's name….
“Jews, Christians, and Muslims must address the problem of violence and "sacred" text if we are to have any reasonable hope for an alternative future. A world being destroyed by violence, much of it done with justifying reference to God and "sacred" text, is a world in desperate need of new understandings of divine and human power. The futility of violence and resiliency of injustice requires us to unleash our imaginations in order to move beyond religious certainties into unfamiliar terrain where patriarchal assumptions that dominate "sacred" texts and political life are challenged in light of historical need and human experience. …
“The violence-of-God traditions at the heart of the Bible and the Quran have invaded our own hearts. By sanctioning violence in "sacred" texts and in reference to them, we invariably progress along a treacherous pathway. God is powerful and proves to be God through superior violence. The God of superior violence justifies human violence in the name of God and in pursuit of God's objectives that with frightening regularity mirror our own objectives. In the end, violence replaces or becomes God. Violence is widely embraced because it is embedded and sanctified in "sacred" texts and because its use seems logical in a violent world.”
Quoted from Is Religion Killing Us?: Violence in the Bible and the Quran -- by Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, Trinity Press International 2003
And, on a different topic,
August 15, 2003
The following may be of interest
The First Word: Are Jews still commanded to blot out Amalek?
By David Golinkin
Jews defeating Amalek's Army,'Adolf
Photo: Hungarian National Gallery
On Purim, we are rightly appalled by Haman's attempt to destroy the Jewish people. Yet we seldom notice that we are twice commanded to do the same thing to Haman's people, to Amalek: in Exodus 17, which we read on Purim morning, and in Deuteronomy 25, which we read on Shabbat Zachor.
In the Haftara of Shabbat Zachor, the Prophet Samuel orders King Saul to "attack Amalek … spare no one, but kill alike men and women, infants and sucklings, oxen and sheep, camels and asses."
In short, we are instructed to commit genocide. This is morally problematic in and of itself; it is doubly problematic after the Holocaust.
During the biblical period, we were attacked by many peoples. Why blot out the memory of Amalek, as opposed to other peoples who have attacked us throughout history?
Some rabbis say that Amalek, by attacking a defenseless bunch of slaves on the road, deviated from the norms of war. It was an unjust war that offered no conceivable gain, and therefore was motivated solely by hatred.
Shmuel Sofer (
DESPITE THE clarity of the biblical commandment, a number of rabbinic sources express clear discomfort with the requirement to blot out the memory of Amalek.
Rabbi Mani says (Yoma 22b) that King Saul argued with God: If the Torah says that if you find an anonymous dead body between two cities you must bring a sacrifice as a form of atonement for that one death, how much the more so all of these souls! And if an Amalekite sinned, did his animal sin? If adults sinned, did children sin?
Rabbi Ya'acov Haim Sofer (Jerusalem, d. 1939) asked why we don't recite a blessing before Parashat Zachor on the Shabbat before Purim.
"Because we do not bless regarding
destruction, even the destruction of non-Jews, as we see that God said [to the
angels after the Egyptians drowned in the
This type of discomfort led to
allegorical interpretations of the commandment to destroy Amalek.
The Zohar says Amalek is Samael or Satan, while in
Indeed, the commandment to blot out Amalek is omitted entirely by two of the most important codifiers of Jewish law - Rabbi Ya'acov ben Asher in hisTur and Rabbi Yosef Caro in his Shulhan Aruch. Other important rabbis eliminated the obligation by explaining that, in our day, Amalek no longer exists.
Nonetheless, there were many important
rabbis, such as Maimonides and Rabbi Pinhas Halevi of
In 1898, Rabbi Yosef Haim Sonnenfeld refused to go out to greet Kaiser Wilhelm II when he visited
Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik and others say that anyone who hates the Jewish people is from the seed of Amalek e.g. the Nazis, the Soviets, Nasser and the Mufti. More recently, Rabbi Jack Riemer has written that the Muslim fundamentalists are Amalek.
Sadly, some Jews have identified other
Jews as Amalek. Rabbi Elhanan
Bunem Wasserman (1875-1941) said that Jews who defy
Jewish law are of the seed of Amalek. Rabbi Yisrael Meir Hacohen, the Hafetz Haim, associated Jewish
Finally, various Christians have
referred to themselves as
I SHARE the discomfort regarding the commandment to destroy an entire people, despite the gravity of their original deed. I agree with the many rabbis throughout history who eliminated this mitzva from their codices, or who said that Amalek no longer exists. We have seen just how dangerous it is to identify your current enemy with Amalek. The identification changes over time and place, and is even used by Christians against us!
Though it would seem that the Amalek story is entirely negative in nature, there are two positive, ethical lessons which we can learn from it.
In Pesikta d'rav Kahana, Proverbs 11:1-2 is interpreted that if you use unjust weights and measures, a non-Jewish nation will wage war against your generation. According to this midrash, Amalek's attack was a punishment for unethical behavior. Thus, the message of the story is not hatred but repentance. In order to prevent another Amalek, we must behave ethically.
Professor Nehama Leibowitz noted that in all four biblical passages which use the expression, the litmus test for "undeterred by fear of God" is the attitude to the weak and the stranger. Amalek is the archetype of the Godless who attack the weak because they are weak, who cut down the stragglers in every generation.
In our day, perhaps the most important
lesson is not hatred of Amalek but aversion to their
The writer is president of the Schechter Institute of
Jewish Studies in
Director of Communications
Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies,
tel: 972-2-6790755, ext. 124