Weekly Torah Commentary


Does God Command Going to War?

D’varim, Deuteronomy 1:1−3:22

D’var Torah By: 
Rabbi Professor Marc Saperstein



After a five-verse introduction, Parashat D’varim is presented as the beginning of the text of a speech by Moses addressed to the Israelite people not long before his death. The content of this oration is historical: an overview of events experienced by the listeners or their parents, beginning after the Revelation at Sinai and continuing to the present. The events have already been narrated in earlier books of the Torah, but there are subtle shifts that make this not just simple repetition. If the original narratives are a source for history, the Deuteronomy oration is evidence for historical memory. This may be illustrated by focusing on one passage, relating to Sihon the Amorite, king of Heshbon.

The first narrative comes in Parashat Chukat, Numbers 21:21–25. The facts seem straightforward. Israel sent messengers to Sihon, king of the Amorites, asking for permission to pass through his territory, promising not to despoil any of the agricultural produce of the land. Sihon refused, gathered a military force, and challenged the Israelites in the wilderness. The Israelites won a decisive victory and took possession of all the Amorite lands. There is no mention of God in this narrative; it is presented as straightforward reporting of a political decision, a military encounter, and the geographical and demographic consequences.

Yet Moses’ more expansive recounting of the same events in Deuteronomy has significant differences. It begins with Moses’ report of a message delivered to him by God:

See, I give into your power Sihon the Amorite, king of Heshbon, and his land. Begin the occupation: engage him in battle. This day I begin to put the dread and fear of you upon the peoples everywhere under the heaven, so that they shall tremble and quake because of you whenever they hear you mentioned. (Deuteronomy 2:24–25)

In this version, the military encounter with Sihon was a response to a divine command, intended to enhance the prestige of the Israelites in the consciousness of the surrounding peoples. In the following verses, God is never absent for long: He has given the Land of Canaan to the Israelites (Deuteronomy 2:29), He hardened the heart of Sihon to refuse passage (Deuteronomy 2:30), He commanded Moses to take possession of the Amorite lands (Deuteronomy 2:31), He caused the defeat of Sihon and his forces (Deuteronomy 2:33), He “delivered everything to us” (Deuteronomy 2:36).

Here we have two accounts of the same events: one in which human decisions and military factors are decisive, the other — perhaps in retrospect — with a thick theological overlay, making God responsible for all that has happened. Many believers will think of the second version as preferable: more pious. Some of us may prefer the more secular narrative of Numbers, without casting God as a global puppeteer controlling human decisions, the outcome of battles, and the supplanting of a native population.

There is a twist in our parashah, however. After the report of the initial instructions from God to “engage [Sihon] in battle” cited above, Moses continues with the following verse, “And I sent messengers from the wilderness of Kedemoth to King Sihon of Heshbon with an offer of peace, as follows … ” (Deuteronomy 2:26), namely, the proposal in Numbers 21, including an offer (not mentioned in Numbers) of repayment for anything eaten by the Israelites (Deuteronomy 2:28). God instructs Moses to engage Sihon in battle (Deuteronomy 2:24), and Moses responds by sending Sihon divrei shalom, “words of peace” (Deuteronomy 2:26). Was Moses violating God’s instruction? This is something that the Sages and medieval commentators, who took such details seriously, were bound to explain.1

Nachmanides explains that the verses come out of order. It is as if Moses had used the pluperfect, referring to what preceded the divine command to engage in battle: “I had (previously) sent messengers with … an offer of peace,” which was rejected by Sihon. Other commentators suggest that this message of peace was itself the result of an unrecorded instruction from God to Moses. Don Isaac Abravanel, whose monumental biblical commentaries written before and after the Expulsion of 1492 summarize much of the culture of Sephardi Jewry, was not convinced: “I have found no evidence” for such a separate communication.

Instead, Abravanel insists that this peace offering was indeed a diversion from God’s instruction — which was actually to find an excuse to go to war with Sihon — and it came at Moses’ own initiative, in order to communicate to the other nations that there is a genuine alternative to warfare.2 If there is an option for a peaceful resolution of a potentially violent conflict, it is worth taking the initiative even in violation of God’s direct command.

This would be a lovely message about the Jewish love for peace and the role of human initiative in attaining it. But here too there is wrinkle. Numbers 31 of Parashat Parashat Matot begins with a divine command to “Avenge the children of Israel against the Midianites.” But then it is Moses who berates the victorious Israelite army for allowing the women and children to live, and orders his soldiers to kill every male, including children, and all mature women (Numbers 31:15–18).3 Here Moses seems to be pushing God’s command in the direction not of peaceful coexistence but of a kind of violence that is horrifying to imagine.

There are two ostensible conclusions. First, that we should be careful about attributing divine sanction to anything relating to war, even when reading a biblical text. And second, that it is irresponsible to generalize about Judaism — or Christianity or Islam — as a religion either of peace or of violence. That Moses can be depicted in our parashah as taking the initiative for peace in apparent deviation from God’s instructions, yet in Numbers as ordering a genocidal massacre not explicitly sanctioned by God, reveals the complexity of our biblical literature in its teachings about war and violence, with a dark side along with its stirring visions of world peace. It is for us to choose which of these elements we will live by.4

  1. See Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Devarim (Deuteronomy) (Jerusalem: WZO, 1980), pp. 26–32
  2. Ibid., Leibowitz
  3. A colleague of mine considers these three words attributed to Moses in Number 31:15 to be the most appalling short phrase in the Bible: ha-cḥiyyitem kol-n’keivah, “You have spared every female!” (NJPS and Plaut, revised); Have ye saved all the women alive? (old JPS)
  4. The complexity of classical Jewish texts on war and peace is the theme of a fine book by a former colleague of mine at George Washington University, Prof. Robert Eisen, The Peace and Violence of Judaism: From the Bible to Modern Zionism (Oxford University Press, 2011); he refers to midrashic sources about Moses and Sihon on pp. 90–91. And for comparison see: Reuven Firestone, JIHĀD: The Origin of Holy War in Islam (Oxford University Press, 1999).

Rabbi Professor Marc Saperstein, after having taught Jewish Studies at American universities for 29 years (Harvard, Washington University in St. Louis, George Washington University in D.C.), relocated in 2006 to England for a five-year term as Principal of Leo Baeck College. His recently completed book, Agony in the Pulpit: Jewish Preaching in Response to Nazi Persecution and Mass Murder, will be published by Hebrew Union College Press.


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