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Why does the Bible require Israelites
to treat Canaanites brutally?
By Israel Drazin
The Torah appears to lack respect for Canaanites and seems to order that they be mistreated. In Deuteronomy 7:2, for example, the Torah states: “You must smite them, utterly destroy them; make no covenant with them, and don’t be kind to them.”
In my articles such as the one on the biblical portion Ki Tzeitzie, I pointed out that Maimonides taught in his Guide of the Perplexed 3:41that God could not instruct the Israelites to do things contrary to their stage of development and, therefore, “allowed” certain ancient practices although they are contrary to the Torah goal. The biblical Israelites lived in an age where slavery was the norm, sacrifices were considered necessary, and capital punishment made sense. Therefore the Torah had to legislate about slavery, sacrifices, and capital punishment, even though a careful reading of the Torah shows it is against these practices. However, the Torah legislation made the slave’s life much easier than in other cultures, so much so that rabbis later said, he who acquires a slave secures a master over himself. Sacrifices were restricted to only certain animals and minimized. The rabbis’ understanding of the Torah’s abhorrence of capital punishment made its infliction nearly impossible.
In another prior article I wrote that the tenth century Midrash Rabbah 5:13 mentions that Moses violated God’s clear instructions twice. God told Moses to deliver two tablets upon which the Decalogue was written to the Israelites. Instead, Moses broke them when he saw Israelites worshipping the golden calf. The Midrash states that despite Moses flouting the divine decree, God forgave him. God thereby approved Humans to change divine law.
The second breach and change that Moses made in the divine instruction that Midrash Rabbah recognizes is in Deuteronomy. Moses tells his people that prior to the battle with Sichon, the Israelites must seek peace with his kingdom. The Midrash notes that this is a clear violation of God’s instruction to begin the battle without seeking peace. The Midrash acknowledges that Moses contravened God’s decree, but adds that God approved what he did.
These two examples are significant because we have Midrash Rabbah, an important document of traditional Judaism, recognizing that Jews can change biblical laws, even developing contrary legislation, and God approves Jews doing so, even wanting them to do it.
These two sources tell us that much of what is stated in the Torah was said in a way that addressed the people’s worldview, but encouraged advancement. The sources also show that the rabbis recognized this and implemented the changes.
The Torah spoke to a nation that was moving forward to conquer Canaan, a land whose inhabitants worshipped idols. Reflecting the thought processes of these Israelites, it advised that the Canaanites be destroyed. Yet, as we saw, Moses changed the Torah rule and sought peace, which is the higher goal of the Torah.
The Torah emphasizes that Israelites must treat non-Israelites fairly. They are told to remember that they were once slaves. The Torah stresses that Israelites must love strangers, non-Israelites, emphasizing it in an extraordinary thirty-six time; some people say it is over forty times. If strangers, for instance, became impoverished, Israelites are obligated to help them (Leviticus 25:35).
The rabbis understood the true Torah message. Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai greeted everyone, including pagans, with blessings of peace (Berakhot 17a). Rabban Gamliel handed bread to a passing pagan whom he did not know and had never met because the man was in need (Eruvin 64b). Non-Jews poor were supported, together with impoverished Jews from Jewish charity funds (Tosefta Gittin 3:13). Jews were encouraged to visit and pray for the recovery of sick non-Jews and comfort the non-Jewish bereaved (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 151:12).
Thus, the statement to destroy Canaanites was a temporary injunction made to the nation who needed to hear the call to conquer Canaan in these words. But when one reads the bible, one will see that just as Moses changed this command, so, too, his people never conquered and destroyed the inhabitants of Canaan.