D'var Torah: Devarim
Torah reading: Deuteronomy 1:1 to 3:22.
Third Haftarah of Rebuke: Isaiah 1:1-27.
Today's Torah reading comes from the beginning of Deuteronomy, which I've always found a very difficult book to deal with. Essentially, the book consists of a speech or sermon delivered by Moses as the people of Israel are about to cross the Jordan, slaughter the people living in Canaan and seize their land -- all, apparently, on God's explicit orders. When we come up against passages like Deuteronomy 7:2 ("When the Lord your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy") -- what are we to make of such a bloodthirsty command? Is God actually in favour of war and ethnic cleansing?
Having said that, when I read through today's excerpt I was struck not by how bloodthirsty it was, but instead by the repeated emphasis on -- amazingly -- peace.
"Then the Lord said to me [i.e. Moses], “You have made your way around this hill country long enough; now turn north. Give the people these orders: ‘You are about to pass through the territory of your relatives the descendants of Esau, who live in Seir. They will be afraid of you, but be very careful. Do not provoke them to war, for I will not give you any of their land, not even enough to put your foot on. I have given Esau the hill country of Seir as his own. You are to pay them in silver for the food you eat and the water you drink....So we went on past our relatives the descendants of Esau, who live in Seir. We turned from the Arabah road, which comes up from Elath and Ezion Geber, and traveled along the desert road of Moab.Three times God reiterates that the Israelites are not to conquer the territory they pass through, but to respect their fellow nations -- even to the point of carefully paying for all food and water they consume on their way. Instead of emphasizing differences, God reminds Israel that these tribes are their distant relatives and must be respected.
Then the Lord said to me, “Do not harass the Moabites or provoke them to war, for I will not give you any part of their land. I have given Ar to the descendants of Lot as a possession.”…And the Lord said, “Now get up and cross the Zered Valley.” So we crossed the valley…
The Lord said to me, "Today you are to pass by the region of Moab at Ar. When you come to the Ammonites, do not harass them or provoke them to war, for I will not give you possession of any land belonging to the Ammonites. I have given it as a possession to the descendants of Lot.”
Even when Israel finally does come to battle, it is only after an attempt at peaceful resolution:
From the Desert of Kedemoth I sent messengers to Sihon king of Heshbon offering peace and saying, “Let us pass through your country. We will stay on the main road; we will not turn aside to the right or to the left. Sell us food to eat and water to drink for their price in silver. Only let us pass through on foot— as the descendants of Esau, who live in Seir, and the Moabites, who live in Ar, did for us—until we cross the Jordan into the land the Lord our God is giving us.” But Sihon king of Heshbon refused to let us pass through. For the Lord your God had made his spirit stubborn and his heart obstinate in order to give him into your hands, as he has now done.
The message is clear. Israel is not to be an expansionist, warlike nation, seeking to conquer more and more territory for itself. God has given the Israelites the land of Canaan, and no more. Other nations are to be respected and treated peacefully. War is not a tool to be used at will to gain resources, plunder other nations or enhance prestige -- it takes place only at God's specific command.
Of course, to modern ears even this seems outrageous. Did the tribes living in Canaan "deserve" to be slaughtered any more than Moab or Seir's inhabitants? Does limiting genocide to a particular geographic area make it right? Obviously, no. All the same, it is rather fascinating how the emphasis in this reading is not on conquest, but on restraint. Compare a passage from Plato's Republic, written several centuries after Deuteronomy:
[Socrates, describing the ideal State:] Will they not produce corn, and wine, and clothes, and shoes, and build houses for themselves? And when they are housed, they will work, in summer, commonly, stripped and barefoot, but in winter substantially clothed and shod. They will feed on barley-meal and flour of wheat, baking and kneading them, making noble cakes and loaves; these they will serve up on a mat of reeds or on clean leaves, themselves reclining the while upon beds strewn with yew or myrtle. And they and their children will feast, drinking of the wine which they have made, wearing garlands on their heads, and hymning the praises of the gods, in happy converse with one another. And they will take care that their families do not exceed their means; having an eye to poverty or war.Though Socrates states that he personally sees a pastoral, simple existence as being humanity's "ideal" state, Plato's overall message is unmistakable: war is inevitable, and all countries will try to enhance their own lifestyle by plundering the resources and land of their neighbours. In this model, all nations are engaged in continual conflict, each vying for supremacy. Sadly, Israel would too eventually fall into this trap: the book of Amos in particular makes a very clear connection between the spoiled, luxurious lifestyle of the elite classes and Israel's final catastrophic defeat. In this zero-sum game, everyone loses eventually.
…Yes, Socrates, [Glaucon] said, and if you were providing for a city of pigs, how else would you feed the beasts?
But what would you have, Glaucon? I replied.
Why, he said, you should give them the ordinary conveniences of life. People who are to be comfortable are accustomed to lie on sofas, and dine off tables, and they should have sauces and sweets in the modern style.
Yes, I said, now I understand: the question which you would have me consider is, not only how a State, but how a luxurious State is created…For I suspect that many will not be satisfied with the simpler way of life. They will be for adding sofas, and tables, and other furniture; also dainties, and perfumes, and incense, and courtesans, and cakes, all these not of one sort only, but in every variety…And the country which was enough to support the original inhabitants will be too small now, and not enough?
Then a slice of our neighbours' land will be wanted by us for pasture and tillage, and they will want a slice of ours, if, like ourselves, they exceed the limit of necessity, and give themselves up to the unlimited accumulation of wealth?
That, Socrates, will be inevitable.
And so we shall go to war, Glaucon. Shall we not?
Most certainly, he replied.
However, God had a very different plan for the nation of Israel. It is remarkable how similar many of the prophetic writings are to Socrates' original vision of a world where all people live within their means and are at peace with their neighbours:
"They will rebuild the ruined cities and live in them.Today, we find ourselves in a similar situation. Perhaps military conflict is less of an overt threat to most countries in the Western world -- but all around us companies and advertisers urge us to buy, buy, buy. Like the inhabitants of Plato's imagined city, we demand countless luxuries and possessions to enhance our personal prestige. Most of us own more "things" than we can really enjoy or even keep track of. But "stuff" has to come from somewhere, and the costs -- both to the people of the developing world and to our planet's ecology and climate -- are immense.
They will plant vineyards and drink their wine;
they will make gardens and eat their fruit." (Amos 9:14)
"He will judge between many peoples
and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.
Everyone will sit under their own vine
and under their own fig tree,
and no one will make them afraid,
for the Lord Almighty has spoken." (Micah 4:3-4)
Our prophets today, as in ancient Israel, speak with one voice: live more simply. Stop consuming. Continual growth is not an option if we want to create this ideal world, a "peaceable kingdom" where all can live in harmony with one another and with nature…or even if we want to survive the next hundred years.
This week, I want to encourage everyone to think about how to live more simply. From small to large changes, what can we do to reduce our own "footprint" on the world and on our fellow human beings? How can we best help to bring God's vision into reality?