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   by Jacob Solomon

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The later part of the parasha brings the guidelines for military operations in conquering Canaan and further afield:

But in the case of those (Canaanite) nations… let no person be allowed to live. You shall utterly destroy them… so that they will not teach you to perform the abominations they do to for their idols… (20:10-18).

As Moses states earlier on the forthcoming conquest of the Canaanite occupants of the Promised Land: 'It is not due to your merits, but because of their wickedness that G-d drives them out before you' (9:5); their idolatry having the consequences of 'they even burn to their own sons and daughters in their idol's honor' (12:31).

The two passages above appear ambiguous. Clearly, a peace treaty was on offer to those in more distant lands. What about those in Canaan? Was the war against them to be with the option of accepting peace terms or total destruction (following the Ramban's reading), or were they to be destroyed unconditionally unless they renounced idolatry (following Rashi's reading)? Rashi bases the option of renouncing idolatry on: 'so that they will not teach you to perform the abominations they do to for their idols' - should they reject idolatry, they would be allowed to live.

It seems that Joshua's test case with the Gibeonites showed that he was also in doubt, and as such gave the people of Gibeon the benefit. The story is contained in the Book of Joshua (9:3-26). The Canaanite people of Gibeon heard how Joshua had wiped out the cities of Jericho and Ai. In order to save themselves, they attempted to deceive Joshua pretending they were an exhausted people who had traveled from a distant land to make peace with the people of the G-d of Israel. Though 'the men of Israel' had suspected the ruse, Joshua made a treaty of peace with them to let them live, and the leaders of the assembly ratified it by oath.

Soon afterwards, they were found out. In their defense, they said that their attempt to 'take Joshua in' was their only hope in facing certain extermination at the hands of the Israelites.

Joshua was in a quandary. Following the interpretation that a treaty was always permitted, he could accept the Gibeonites. But following the interpretation that a treaty was forbidden unless they converted to monotheism - which he did not believe they would do - the treaty was forbidden to have been made, and was only achieved by deceit.

Therefore Joshua made them into permanent laborers - 'hewers of wood and drawers of water'. Joshua's genius was such that by putting them to such heavy labor, they would never get a chance to indulge in idolatry in the first place… In doing so, he took a leaf out of Pharaoh's book: 'Make the people work all the harder, and make sure that they do it' (Ex 5:9), so that they may not even think of 'going to sacrifice to G-d' (Ex. 5:8).

For those looking for more comprehensive material, questions and answers on the Parasha may be found at and on the material on the Haftara at .

Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.

Parashiot from the First, Second, and Third Series may be viewed on the Shema Yisrael web-site:

Also by Jacob Solomon:
From the Prophets on the Haftara

Test Yourself - Questions and Answers


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