Bloodguilt and amnesty

As an American-born Israeli who has lived and worked in Canada, I have seen the issue of immigration from a number of different perspectives, but the biblical perspective is one rarely mentioned. The terms ger (sojourner) and toshav (resident) appear over a hundred times in Scripture, but it’s hard to get a handle on exactly what these terms mean in each case, and the translations range from alien to stranger to convert to foreigner.

I would like instead to focus on a different term, one which appears for the first time in this week’s Torah portion (Num. 25:4): hokaa. (See my guest post on DovBear’s blog, “Impale Sunlight, for an analysis of who was supposed to receive this punishment; the answer may surprise you!) This punishment is one mentioned nowhere else in the Torah, probably best rendered “impalement”, although others render it “hanging” or “crucifixion”. Moses and the judges do not have the heart to apply it here (v. 6), and it remains a drastically cruel and unusual theoretical penalty–until we get to the Prophets, specifically II Samuel. There (ch. 21), we read the following:

Now there was a famine in the days of David for three years, year after year; and David inquired of the Lord. The Lord said, “There is bloodguilt on Saul and on his house, because he put the Gibeonites to death.” So the king called the Gibeonites and spoke to them. Now the Gibeonites were not of the people of Israel, but of the remnant of the Amorites; although the people of Israel had sworn to spare them, Saul had tried to wipe them out in his zeal for the people of Israel and Judah… They said to the king, “The man who consumed us and planned to destroy us, so that we should have no place in all the territory of Israel— let seven of his sons be handed over to us, and we will impale them before the Lord.”

Scripture is rather cryptic about Saul’s (attempted) crime, but the story of the Gibeonites is recorded in the Book of Joshua, Chapter 9, during the Israelite conquest of the Holy Land. Not wanting to suffer the fate of the other nations of Canaan, the inhabitants of the Gibeon region dress in tattered clothing and stock their bags with moldy bread, “And Joshua made peace with them, guaranteeing their lives by a treaty; and the leaders of the congregation swore an oath to them.” Three days later, the subterfuge is discovered, “but the Israelites did not attack them, because the leaders of the congregation had sworn to them by the Lord, the God of Israel.” Joshua is furious, so he makes them “hewers of wood and drawers of water for the congregation.”

Joshua 9:22, from The Brick Testament. However, recent archaeological discoveries indicate that the Israelites did have noses.

We do not know why Saul wanted to clear out the Gibeonites, but we do know that his own family hailed from the area. In any case, the famine occurs years after Saul’s death in battle. Nevertheless, the Gibeonites demand the right to impale seven of his descendants, and David hands them over.

The Talmud is troubled by this story, but it explains (Yevamot 79a) that this was necessary in order to sanctify God’s name publicly: Saul’s family was of the blood royal and the Gibeonites were illegal aliens, but harsh justice was on the side of the latter. Even a thousand years after Joshua, their descendants, the Nethinim, were still an integral part of the Jewish community (Ezra 2:43; Mishna, Kiddushin 4:1).

Now, Joshua is clearly tricked into granting the Gibeonites legal residency; nevertheless, the idea of turfing those who have come to be a part of the nation, who have joined their destiny to that of Israel, is unconscionable. When Saul tries to do exactly that, he incites divine wrath. These people end up doing the menial tasks that the Israelites shun, and they thus become indispensable. (In fact, some Midrashic sources suggest that Joshua is following Moses’ example, as even in the desert we find a segment of the Israelite camp defined as “the hewers of your wood” and “the drawers of your water,” Deut. 29:10.)

The questions of immigration are certainly hard ones. But we must be very careful not to be so zealous for our own national homes that we follow Saul’s destructive path.





About the Author
Yoseif Bloch is a rabbi who has taught at Yeshivat HaKotel, Yeshivat Har Etzion and Yeshivat Shvilei Hatorah and served as a congregational rabbi in Canada. He currently works as an editor, translator and publisher. As a blogger and podcaster, he is known as Rabbi Joe in Jerusalem.