A moment before you begin reading chapter 13, you can’t help wonder what’s left to talk about. Chapter 11 finished with Yehoshua taking “all of the land, in accordance with all God spoke to Moshe” and giving it as an inheritance to the tribes, after which ” the land fell quiet from wars.” As a finishing flourish, chapter 12 adds a victory song listing all of the vanquished kings. The inheritance of the land has gone off without a hitch, following all of God’s instructions perfectly. It all seems a little too good to be true. And it is.
After reading the first verse of chapter 13, you realize that the rumors of Canaan’s demise have, apparently, been greatly exaggerated. Large swaths of land remain which have been unconquered. What is more, even within conquered areas, not all cities were inherited by the people through active settlement.
Nor was this a new problem. Even in the conquest of the lands of Sichon and Og, some of the native peoples were left to live amongst the Jews. Despite all the commandments, all the prohibitions, and all of the warnings of the detrimental influence and dangerous liability the continued existence of a native population would pose, the real fell short of the absolute Divine ideal.
Perhaps this was out of laziness, or a lack of absolute commitment to God. But Yehoshua’s generation generally gets excellent grades, better than any other generation ever, on obedience and good behavior. Could it be that this overall commitment itself was what made them incapable of following through with God’s plan to the end? As we are, unfortunately, witness in our day and age, there are ways to create a religious society that sanctifies death, and educates about the divine approval of genocide. But if I believe that, on the whole, the Torah teaches a way of life whose “paths are paths of pleasantness, and all whose ways are peace,” I can readily understand that good Jews make bad killers.
There is a price to be paid for this failure. The warnings God gave about the ways that the native peoples will lead us astray religiously and threaten us militarily are all realized, again and again, over the course of hundreds of years. They couldn’t have been truer. But that doesn’t mean we’re the type of people that could follow through with genocide. Or that we should be.
This blog follows the 929 project’s daily study of Tanach, offering short reflections, in English, on every chapter. Learn more about the project at 929.org.il