Parashat Devarim

Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22

Haftarah:  Isaiah 1:1-27

Topic:  The Promised Land

This week, synagogues begin to read Deuteronomy, the fifth and final book of the Torah.  It is the Sabbath that precedes the Fast of the 9th of Av.  The fast commemorates the destruction of Jerusalem and of the first and second Temples, the former by the Babylonians and the latter by the Romans in 70 CE.  The Haftarah is from the first chapter of Isaiah.

Deuteronomy is Moses’ final address to the people, who are about to enter the promised land.  The opening chapters are clearly intended as encouragement on the eve of battle but, as in previous weeks, many contemporary readers will find the material disturbing.  Taken at face value, two verses, 2:34 and 3:3 appear to endorse genocide and 2:25:  “This day I will begin to put the dread and fear of you upon the peoples everywhere under heaven …” leaves one full of foreboding.  Many readers will also have problems with the whole notion of a promised land to be obtained by conquest and force of arms.

Traditional Jewish readers accept the passages are difficult but see them as the will of God and respond accordingly.  The passages are not seen as precedents for purely human initiatives and readers have usually assumed that the peoples in question must have deserved their fate.

The approach that I am drawn to is based on recent scholarly reports of comparable Near-Eastern literature.  It would not be acceptable for most orthodox Jewish readers because it assumes that the texts are later than their agreed dating and this would compromise their belief that the whole Torah was revealed at Sinai.  There is also a tension for them in comparing revealed truth with very different material from idolatrous cultures.

Recent scholarship has uncovered interesting parallels linking the Book of Joshua and similar material in Deuteronomy with Assyrian war propaganda dating from the 7th century BCE.  Professor Thomas Romer of Lausanne University argues that Joshua has “strong parallels” with Assyrian military narratives which relate their victorious campaigns to the intervention of the Assyrian gods against their enemies;  the narratives involve the slaughter and annihilation of the opposing forces and Romer cites some striking parallels with Joshua.  (For Romer’s article, see John Barton (ed.) The Hebrew Bible:  A Critical Companion [Princeton U.P. 2016] pp. 119-120.)  The admittedly speculative inference is that scribes adapted the material in an attempt to counter fear of Assyria.

Deuteronomy opens (1:8) with the commandment to take possession of the land that God had promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob centuries earlier.  Jews read the Bible in many different ways but most of the community see the biblical link to the land as an important part of their heritage and identity.

Beyond Jewish boundaries there are significant difficulties.  For Palestinian Christians, the biblical narrative as deployed by both Jewish settlers and America’s numerous and very influential Christian Zionist lobby is fiercely debated as it is seen as quite literally taking the ground from beneath their feet, and they argue that the narrative has no significance at all for Christianity.

For peoples in many different parts of the world, the narrative evokes their colonial past, the more so as it was often used to their detriment by European settlers who saw themselves as the new people of Israel and claimed that divine providence was guiding their activities as it had in days of old:  very sadly, the narrative also provided warrant and religious justification for their atrocities which are very well remembered.

However, virtually all of the political appropriations of the Hebrew Bible land traditions are highly selective.  The conquest material, albeit much cited, was not definitive for later development.  Today, Jewish settlers often cite the medieval authority of Nachmanides, who ruled that settling the land (Deuteronomy 1:8) was a commandment in perpetuity, but they are rarely aware that he ruled out the use of military force.  Even at the beginning of the second Temple period the Jerusalem community that produced Chronicles evidently managed without the conquest narratives and famously (1 Chronicles 28:3) has King David being forbidden to build a Temple because he was a warrior and had shed much blood.

For classical Judaism, the land is far more than a place of national self determination.  It is to be a land where Jews live in relation to God as an ideal society that will be an inspiration for all humanity.  From the very beginning of Abraham’s call the land is not seen only as a homeland or birthplace – on the contrary, those conceptions are precisely what Abraham is called upon to leave behind in order that he and his descendants will be a blessing for all the families of the earth (Genesis 12).

The conquest material offers little prospect for different communities to live together in the land peaceably, but this is not true of the tradition as a whole.  The Abraham traditions, especially the foundation narrative of Hebron in Genesis 23, the obligation to look after people from different communities (‘ger ve toshav’) and the identification with and concern for strangers are very promising, as is the extraordinary openness of Isaiah 56 which tells the ‘b’nei nechar’ or ‘foreign’ individuals who are drawn to God that they shall suffer no discrimination or exclusion on grounds of ethnic prejudice.  All this is rooted in what one might call the spirituality of the stranger – we are to see ourselves as strangers with God, rather than masters of all that we survey (Leviticus 25:24).

Isaiah 2 is the polar opposite of the relationship with world – dread and fear – that I cited above from Deuteronomy 2:25, and its vision of universality and peace for all nations is far better known and more frequently quoted.  The vision of Jerusalem is not political – the ‘eternal capital’ – but of a place of peace and inspiration for all humanity, where all the peoples of the world will turn to God in prayer and supplication.

Finally, the full land tradition identifies justice as being key to the relationship of God and the people of Israel.  This is true in the parashah (1:9-18), where Moses focuses on justice in his reflection on his own role, and the matter is made very clear indeed in Jeremiah 7:5-7 and many other sources:  “For if you truly amend your ways … if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the stranger, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place … then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave your ancestors forever and ever.”

Jonathan Gorsky