“Establishing the Rightful Owners of the Land”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

According to tradition, the entire book of Devarim, Deuteronomy, was spoken by Moses in the last five weeks of his life.

In his last will and testament to his beloved people, Moses begins by reminding the people of the long litany of sins and rebellious acts that marked the forty years since the Exodus. By emphasizing the trespasses of their parents who were surrounded by constant miracles, Moses hoped that he would convince the new generation of Israelites not to follow in their ancestors’ unfaithful footsteps. Moses, however, chooses to cajole the new generation gently and not rebuke them directly. By listing the names of the locations where their parents encamped and transgressed, Moses hoped that the children would absorb the message loud and clear.

In the first two chapters of parashat Devarim, Moses recapitulates the journeys of the people in the wilderness and the nations that they encountered. He makes mention of the Children of Esau who dwell in Seir, the People of Moab, the Amonites, the Refaim, the Zamzumim, and a host of other contemporary nations. Moses concludes by recalling the great victory over Og and the giving of the land of Gilead and Bashan to the tribes of Reuven, Gad, and half of Menashe.

There are, however, many aspects of this parasha that are rather puzzling. Why is it necessary to share all these mundane facts and seemingly insignificant details about the ancient nations that don’t appear to teach anything? From the brief and shrouded details of these ancient encampments we seem to learn very little history and even fewer ethical lessons. Why is it necessary to know that Amon dwelled in a particular area previously inhabited by a great, populous people who were as tall as giants (Deuteronomy 2:10)? Is it of any significance to acknowledge that the Sidonians referred to Mount Hermon as Sirion and that the Amorites would call it Senir (Deuteronomy 3:9)?

Avraham Shtal, in his analysis of parashat Devarim that appears in his edifying volumes of Shabbat b’Shabbato, points out that upon studying these verses within the context of the ancient times–on the eve of Israel’s embarking on the battle to capture the land of Canaan, important insights and meanings are revealed.

From the details that Scripture provides about the contemporary nations, despite the many shrouded facts, a major theme emerges–that the land of Canaan and its surrounding areas were never settled by a single nation for any substantial amount of time. In fact, the land of Canaan is distinguished from virtually all other ancient lands and countries that were inhabited by the same tribe for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. During those years, only kings and monarchs changed, but not the people (e.g., Egypt).

That is why we are told in Deuteronomy 2:10 that the Moabites captured the land of Emim. As the biblical narrative unfolds, we learn that many nations who inhabited Canaan were there very briefly, only to be soon overrun by new invaders. The Children of Esau captured the land of the Horites (Deuteronomy 2:12), the Children of Amon captured the land of Refaim (Deuteronomy 2:19), the Avvim were defeated by the Caphtorim (Deuteronomy 2:23).

It is also important to note that the battles that took place in Canaan were not conventional conquests in which one monarchy was overthrown and replaced by the new conqueror. In Deuteronomy 2 alone, the word to destroy, “l’hash’meed,” appears repeatedly in verses 12, 21, 22, and 23, underscoring that the conquering nation apparently killed the majority of the native male inhabitants, and most likely sold the rest of the captives as slaves. These battles were not simply an exchange of monarchs, they were an exchange of people and nations.

In many instances, the destruction of these places was so complete that there were no remaining references to any ancient names as there usually are when one nation is defeated by another in battle. That is why Scripture underscores that Mount Hermon was called Sirion by the Sidonians, while the Amorites call it Senir (Deuteronomy 3:9). Nations came and went, but not a single one left its permanent imprint on the land.

Even the names of the mountains and the settlements never became permanent. In fact, the history of the time is so nebulous and the changes in sovereignty so rapid, that it was even impossible for the contemporaries to identify clearly the identities of the various nations. Notice the lack of definitiveness in Deuteronomy 2:10-11, which states that the Emim dwelled there previously, a great and numerous people, tall as the giants. They too were considered Refaim, like the giants; and the Moabites called them Emim. Were the Refaim and the Emim one nation or two? Is it possible that they were the conqueror and the conquered who then assimilated together? Who are the “giants,” people of great stature or the name of an ancient nation?

The critical point that Scripture makes here is that not a single nation has the right to claim ownership of the land of Canaan. Every one of the Canaanite nations captured its territory in battle, and, therefore, cannot come with any justified complaint when it itself falls before a more powerful enemy. It is clearly G-d’s land to give to His people.

Yet, despite the Bible’s clear declaration mandating Israel’s right to capture and settle Canaan, there are, nevertheless, several local regions where G-d declares that Israel has no rights. The Al-mighty declares in Deuteronomy 2:9, “You shall not distress Moab and you shall not provoke war with them, for I shall not give you an inheritance from their land, for to the Children of Lot have I given Ar as an inheritance.”

Similarly, in Deuteronomy 2:19, the People of Israel are warned not to provoke the Children of Amon, “For I shall not give any of the land of the Children of Amon to you as an inheritance, for to the Children of Lot have I given it as an inheritance.”

The net result of this entire narrative is that we see that the Al-mighty is indeed the Master of the World. It is He who apportions the land according to His will to those whom He has promised. As Scripture states (Deuteronomy 3:24), “See, into your hand have I delivered Sihon, king of Cheshbon the Amorite and his land.”

The Al-mighty drove out many nations in order to present the land of Canaan to the Children of Israel. It is the historical record. The “mundane facts” and seemingly “insignificant details” about the ancient nations that appear in parashat Devarim confirm beyond any doubt that the land is undisputedly “G-d’s land” to apportion according to His will.

Important reminder: This year, the Fast of Tisha b’Av, commemorating the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, will start at sundown on Saturday, August 9th, and continue through nightfall on Sunday, August 10, 2008. Have a meaningful fast.

May you be blessed.