The Torah never tried to sell anyone on the Zionist myth that the Jewish people were traveling to a “land without a people”. From God’s first conversation with Moshe, the land of Israel is the place of many nations whose names end in “-ite”. What hasn’t been discussed until chapter 23 is what is to be done with all those people when the Jews arrive.
The Torah’s plan for what we can accurately call “ethnic cleansing” of the natives poses a tremendously difficult moral quandary. There are two reactions to this which are polar opposites of one another, but share something important. The first is to embrace the Torah and dismiss any revulsion at this “authentic Torah-true” policy as owing to the influence of non-Jewish values, precisely those values the Torah wants to distance us from by expelling or annihilating all non-Jews. The second is to embrace the morally intuitive revulsion and to dismiss the Torah as an archaic, barbaric text. What these reactions share is their understanding that there is only one way to honestly read the text, that the Torah demands Israel be “pure” of all non-Jews.
I believe in a third way, which seeks to appreciate the complexity and multiplicity of readings built into the text, even in a text as seemingly unequivocal as this one.
Firstly, the careful reader will notice that there is much repetition in the last half of chapter 23. Essentially, there are two parallel descriptions, which overlap and also contradict one another, in particular regarding the fate of the indigenous peoples of Canaan. While the first narrative has them destroyed by a heavenly angel, the second has them chased away by the mysterious ‘tzir’a‘, understood by commentators to be hornets, or disease, or perhaps even a metaphoric description of fear.
But not only is the method of expulsion unclear, so too are its parameters. Consider that earlier in the chapter, the Torah speaks twice of the ger, which can’t really be understood in context as ‘convert’, because we were not converts in the land of Egypt. Who is this ger whose soul we know, and whose soul-rest is the goal of our Shabbat, and what is he doing in the land purged of all non-Jews? Rabbinic understandings are beyond the scope of this essay, but suffice it to say that they go a long way both in resolving these contradictions and in softening the moral challenge.
“Behold my words are like fire, says God, and like a hammer which smashes the rock”. One can be more or less convinced by any particular reading. What can never be claimed when learning Torah is that you have the one and only authentic interpretation.
This is my own little insight about the 929 chapter of the day, in 300 words or so. Chapter 23 was yesterday. I’d love to hear your comments and start a conversation
What’s 929? A near-impossible challenge of consistency. A song of Jewish unity. A beautiful project worth checking out. Learn more at 929.org.il