And the Avvim who dwelt in villages all the way to Gaza, the Caphtorim, who came forth out of Caphtor, destroyed them, and dwelt in their stead. (Deut. 2:23)
This verse is a striking one in the middle of this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Devarim. Moses is giving a recap of the conquest of the East Bank, explaining why the Israelites avoided conflict with some nations and engaged others: the former were cousins to the Jews, part of the Abrahamic covenant, and so protected by God; the latter were Amorites, one of the seven nations whose lands Israel was to inherit.
However, this verse interrupts the flow. The previous ones discuss the rightful inheritances of the descendants of Esau and Lot, Abraham’s grandson and nephew respectively; in the next one, Moses relates God’s words to him, “Behold I have given into your hand Sihon the Amorite, king of Heshbon, and his land.” The discussion is exclusively about the nations residing on the East Bank of the Jordan; why does the Torah suddenly throw in this random detail about the inhabitants of the Mediterranean coast of the Promised Land–literally on the other side of the country?
The fact is that this phrase, “all the way to Gaza (‘ad ‘Azza)” is quite a momentous one. The previous time it appears, in the beginning of the Torah, it defines the furthest extreme of Canaanite expansion (Gen. 10:18-19):
And afterward were the families of the Canaanites spread abroad. And the border of the Canaanites was from Sidon, as you come to Gerar, all the way to Gaza.
So, we have the Canaanites moving south, along the coast, from Sidon (still a major port city in Lebanon). But our verse speaks of two other peoples: the Avvim and the Caphtorim.
We don’t know the who of the Avvim, but we know the whence: they came from the east. That much is clear from their appearances in chapters 17-19 of II Kings, where their city is one of the early conquests of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, in modern-day Iraq or Iran. Their migration westward is indicated by the fact that a city in the land given to the tribe of Benjamin, stretching from Jericho to Jerusalem, is called “The Avvim” (Josh. 18:23).
So we have Semites coming westward “all the way to Gaza,” Phoenicians coming southward “all the way to Gaza”–but that is not who’s in possession in Moses’ time. It’s now the Caphtorim. Where do they come from? Once again, we turn to the global genealogy of Gen. 10, where the Torah clearly states that the Caphtorim are of Egyptian origin. That would be yet another invading force, this time from the southwest, through the Sinai (or possibly just sailing up the coast).
Gaza is the nexus, the fulcrum, the crucible of empires–not only in Canaanite times, but for the Israelites as well.
So Joshua struck all the country of the hills, and of the South, and of the lowland, and of the slopes, and all their kings… And Joshua struck them from Kadesh Barnea all the way to Gaza… And all these kings and their land did Joshua take at one time, because the LORD God of Israel fought for Israel. (Josh. 10:40-42)
Joshua first sets out from Kadesh Barnea as one of the Scouts, only completing his mission and making it “all the way to Gaza” 45 years later.
Similarly, the verse says of Solomon (I Kings 4:24; 5:4 in Tanakh):
For he had dominion over all the region on this side of the river, from Tiphsah all the way to Gaza, over all the kings on this side of the river: and he had peace on all sides round about him.
Indeed, the effusive praise for King Hezekiah, the Davidic heir whose righteousness made him a candidate for Messiah (according to the Talmud) concludes (II Kings 18:8): “He struck the Philistines all the way to Gaza, and the borders thereof, from the tower of the watchmen to the fortified city.”
Gaza has been the farthest extent of at least four ancient empires, and its symbolism has not been diminished over four millennia. The fates of nations are decided in Gaza, and the decisions Israelis, Palestinians and the world must make now are fateful ones. We must call on the bravery of Joshua, the wisdom of Solomon and the piety of Hezekiah to find a solution that brings justice, peace and truth all the way to Gaza.