Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Devarim 5763/ August 2, 2003

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Devarim 5763/ August 2, 2003

The Peoples of Transjordan
Menahem Ben- Yashar
Dept. of Bible


The book of Deuteronomy, its name meaning a second statement of the Teaching, contains a review of subjects found in Exodus and Numbers, sometimes with further elaboration and explanation of various ideas. This is especially true of the first few readings in Deuteronomy: Devarim, Va-Ethanan, and Ekev. For example, in the story of appointment of judges, in Exodus (18:13-27) we are provided a description of the advice given Moses in this regard and an account of its implementation; at the beginning of Deuteronomy (1:9-17), along with the brief review of the actual appointment of the judges, various points are added: a blessing that the Israelites increase (vv. 10-11); reproach of the Israelites for being troublesome and complaining (vv. 9, 12), and moral admonishment to the judges to rule justly (vv. 16, 17).

The same goes for the conquests of the Israelites in the Transjordan. The account in Parashat Hukkat, in the book of Numbers, says that they did not conquer Edom, in the southern Transjordan, rather they went around it (Num. 20:14-21). But this is surprising, since the same Edom of whom it was said in the Song on the Sea, "Now are the clans of Edom dismayed" (Ex. 15:15), in Numbers caused the Israelites dismay by their threats and their refusal to let them pass! The continuation of the description of the Israelites travels (Num. 21:10-13) indicates that they went around Moab as well, taking a route through the wilderness.[1] Later (21:21-35) the text describes the conquest of the land of the Emorites and the Bashan, in central and northern Transjordan. A detail is added to the account in Numbers, which establishes a point of principle: it is told that the land of the Emorites that was conquered by Israel had belonged to Moab before the Emorites took it from them. This detail is even documented in a victory song recited by bards (Num. 21:26-30). Numbers does not reveal why this detail was so important that it had to be documented in song, but Moses' words in Deuteronomy clarify why Israel retreated before Edom, and why they circumvented the land of Moab, taking a difficult route through the wilderness instead. Verses 2-5 of chapter 2 state that G-d forbade Israel to attack Edom, or provoke them to fight: "For I will not give you of their land so much as a foot can tread on; I have given the hill country of Seir as a possession to Esau" (v. 5).

Likewise, G-d says later (Deut. 2:9-10), regarding Moab, that they are not to be provoked to war, "For I will not give you any of their land as a possession; I have assigned it to the descendants of Lot." The nations descended of Lot included the Moabites and the Ammonites, therefore further on in Deuteronomy (2:17-19), the same is said of Ammon. But regarding the Ammonites a new element is introduced, insofar as Numbers did not mention the possibility of a confrontation between the Israelites and Ammonites at all. Such a confrontation was not expected because the land of Ammon, situated in the heart of the Transjordan, did not lie on the route that Israel had to take to pass from the eastern side to the borders of Canaan, opposite Jericho on the Jordan River. Nevertheless, Deuteronomy warns the Israelites not to attack Ammon, lest Israel, in the course of the conquests necessary for them to traverse the Transjordan, also expand into that territory, the way families in the tribe of Manasseh conquered and took possession of land there (Num. 32:39-42).

Now it becomes clear why the Torah stressed (Num. 21) that the region of the Transjordan across from Jericho, which the Israelites captured from the Emorites, originally belonged to Moab. Had the region remained in the hands of Moab, the Israelites would not have been permitted to conquer it. But the Emorites came and took it, and as we read in the Babylonian Talmud, Hullin 60b, "The Holy One, blessed be He, said: Sihon will arise and take it from Moab; Israel will come and take it from Sihon. That is as Rav Pappa said: Ammon and Moab were cleansed by Sihon." It turns out that Sihon the Emorite also conquered the western part of the land of Ammon, and this territory was included in the Israelite conquest from the Emorites, for the inheritance of the tribe of Gad in Transjordan included "part of the country of the Ammonites" (Josh. 13:25). In general it seems that the boundary between the two brother nations, Ammon and Moab, was not clear or definite from the outset, for in the days of the Judges (Judges, chapter 11), the king of Ammon demanded of the Israelites the land of Moab which they had conquered. Jephthah, judge of the Israelites, answered the king of Ammon in line with our discussion here: "Israel did not seize the land of Moab or the land of Ammonites" from them, but from the Emorites (Judges 11:15).

G-d gave parts of the Transjordan as an inheritance to the sons of Lot and Edom, i.e., to Abraham's non-Israelite heirs (except for the sons of Ishmael and the sons of Keturah, who were sent off by Abraham; see Gen. 25:6). From this we learn that the land of Canaan, west of the Jordan River, where the principle holiness of the land pertains, was chosen as the exclusive inheritance of the Israelites. The rest of Abraham's heirs were apportioned land on the eastern side of the Jordan, where the sanctity of the land is lesser (see Josh. 22:19; Sifre Zuta on Naso, 5.2, p. 229; cf. Numbers Rabbah 7.8).

Another surprising point becomes clear from the attitude taken by this week's parasha to Abraham and his heirs. The parasha lists the ancient peoples from whom Edom, Moab and Ammon conquered their territory in the Transjordan: Emim in Moab (Deut. 2:10-11) and Zamzummim in Ammon (Deut. 2:20-21) - two nations from the race of the Rephaim, who were Anakites; the Rephaim (without further specification, Deut. 3:13) in the Bashan; and the Horim (Deut. 2:12) in Seir, which is Edom. Why, we might ask as we read this passage, need we know these details? Was the Torah truly interested in telling us about ancient tribes and the ethnography of the Transjordan?

The answer, indeed, lies in the Abraham narrative. Chapter 14 of Genesis tells of an expedition sent by four imperialist kings from Mesopotamia, that conquered the Transjordan and the Negev, and on their return route to the northeast probably also conquered parts of the land of Canaan. In order to rescue his relative Lot from them, Abraham pursued them with his men and allies, and in a surprise nighttime attack sent the invading forces into retreat. Abraham returned from this action the victor (Gen. 14:17-24), which meant that formally speaking Abraham took over from the conquerors and became lord of the land. Ostensibly, the Lord's promise to give him the land of Canaan had been fulfilled. But only ostensibly, since the question immediately arises: how was he to inherit a land populated with many people? Abraham did not yet have any offspring, and even when he was promised progeny of his own (Gen. 15:4), the question remains: how were they to multiply in the land of Canaan without assimilating into the nations living there? The answer to this is provided in the Covenant of the Pieces: "Your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years" (Gen. 15:13). Abraham's seed would multiply in a land not their own, under conditions of bondage and humiliation, which would not make it possible to assimilate; and afterwards they would return to Canaan to inherit the land.

All this was told to Abraham in the formal setting of a covenant (Gen. 15:18) promising that his offspring would inherit the land. Now the peoples that the four imperialist kings defeated and conquered in the Transjordan were: Rephaim, Zuzim, Emim and Horites (Gen. 14:5-6). The same peoples that Abraham was given when he defeated the kings, were now given to the non-Israelite heirs of Abraham: the Moabites were given the land of the Emim, the Ammonites were give the land of the Zamzumim, who are the Zuzim, and the sons of Esau were given the land of the Horites. The Torah also stresses in Deuteronomy that the Zuzim and Emim belonged to the race of Rephaim - the same Rephaim whose land was promised to Abraham in the Covenant of the Pieces (Gen. 15:20). The Rephaim themselves were not taken over by Abraham's heirs until the time of the exodus from Egypt, therefore the Israelites were able to take them over from Og, king of the Bashan, who survived from the race of Rephaim (3:11 sic). Thus we see that the historical and ethnographic details are essential in order to tell us what land was inherited by Abraham's non-Israelite descendants, and how their inherited it; and how Israel was given what the former had lost in their war with the Emorites, as well as which territories in the Transjordan were not inherited by Abraham's other heirs and hence could be conquered by Israel from the Emorites, who were ruled by a line of kings descended from the Rephaim.

At what point were the Israelites also permitted to conquer territories that remained in the hands of Ammon and Moab? Perhaps from the time that these peoples began hostilities against the Israelite tribes in the Transjordan and even went on to attack those west of the Jordan: the Moabites, in the days of the judge Ehud son of Gera (Judges ch. 3); and the Ammonites in the days of Jephthah (Judges, chs. 10-11). So on what grounds was David allowed to conquer Edom? According to the midrash (Shoher Tov, printed edition, 9), one could say: "When David saw how Esau was enslaving Jacob, he said to the Holy One, blessed be He: 'You blast the nations; You destroy the wicked' (Ps. 9:6)." Recall that the border separating Edom in general from the land of his descendant Amalek is somewhat blurred in Scriptures (see I Chron. 4:42-43), and very much so in the writings of the Sages (cf. Lamentations Rabbah 5.1; Deuteronomy Rabbah 2.20).

According to Rashi's commentary on Deuteronomy 2:23, the reference to the Abbim and Caphtorim (from Crete) originates in deeds of the patriarchs. Slightly modifying Rashi's interpretation, we could say point out that Abraham made a peace treaty with the Philistines in Gerar, in the Negev (Gen. 21:22-23), and ask whether that meant that in the time of Joshua the Israelites were forbidden to conquer the region of Gaza, which belonged to the Philistines?[2] The answer given by Scriptures is that these were not the same Philistines; those on the Gaza coast were recent arrivals from the islands of Crete, not the ancient Philistines from the time of the patriarchs, as has been established by the research of Prof. Grintz.[3] Moreoever, since they came from Crete, they were descendants of Ham (Gen. 10:13-14); that made them related to the Canaanites and hence permissible for Israel to conquer.

[1] The reference from Sefer Milhamot Ha-Shem," loc. sit., 21.14-21, is apparently a parenthetical remark describing a different event.
[2] This is assuming that the words, "with me or with my kith and kin" (lit.: with me or with my great grandchild or grandchild), spoken by Abimelech (Gen. 21:23) is a metaphorical expression meaning many generations. If we take it literally as including only three generations, then the oath was not binding on the "fourth generation" whom G-d promised "shall return here" (Gen. 15:16). This also answers Rashbam's argument against Abraham, in his commentary on Gen. 21:1.
[3] Cf. Y. M. Grintz, "Ha-Pelishtim ha-Rishonim," in Motza'ei Dorot, Tel Aviv 1969, pp. 99-129.