Bar-Ilan University 's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Devarim 5764/ July 24, 2004

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. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar- Ilan University . Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,




An Offer of Peace

Rabbi Ophir Cohen

Kefar Darom



Up!   Set out across the wadi Arnon!  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 heaven, so that they shall tremble and quake because of you whenever they hear you mentioned.

Then I sent messengers from the wilderness of Kedemoth to King Sihon of Heshbon with an offer of peace, as follows, “Let me pass through your country.  I will keep strictly to the highway, turning off neither to the right nor to the left.”  (Deut. 2:24-27)

G-d commanded the people to “begin the occupation:  engage him in battle,” while at the same time Moses, as we read, “sent messengers … to King Sihon … with an offer of peace.”   Was Moses acting contrary to G- d’s command?  Was Moses, who sought peace, in a sense more moral than G-d, Who sought war?  Did G-d agree with Moses’ action, and if so, why was Moses not commanded to act accordingly from the outset?

These questions were well-put by R. Isaac Abarbanel (introduction to Deuteronomy, question fourteen):

Namely:  if the Almighty said to Moses, “Up!  Set out across…  See, I give…   Begin the occupation:   engage him in battle,” how is it that Moses sent him messengers with an offer of peace, turning the Divine command on its head?  Had Sihon answered him, “The entire land lies open before you, for you to choose your way through it,” what would Moses have done?  Would he have desisted from engaging him in battle?   This would have been a crime, rebelling against the word of G-d, Who told him to begin the occupation and engage him in battle.  But had he [Moses] fought him after a conceding peace, that undoubtedly would have been unworthy of such a man as Moses, to violate his promise and not keep his word, killing him after making an overture towards peace and being answered in peace, love and brotherhood.

Rashi, basing his commentary on the Midrash, explained that Moses learned to act as he did from the Holy One, blessed be He, Himself:

From the wilderness of Kedemoth – Although the Omnipresent had not commanded me to make an offer of peace to Sihon, I learned to do so from what happened in the wilderness of Sinai, from the Torah which existed prior to the world [a play on the word kedemoth meaning “prior”].   For when the Holy One, blessed be He, was about to give it to Israel, he took it around to Esau and Ishmael, knowing full well that they would not accept it, yet nevertheless he made them an offer of peace.   Similarly, I first approached Sihon with words of peace.  Another interpretation of from the wilderness of Kedemoth:   I learned it from You, Who were in existence prior [ a play on Kedemoth] to the world.  You could have sent one flash of lightning and burned up Egypt.   But instead, You sent me from the wilderness to Pharaoh to say to him gently, “Let my people go.”

According to this Midrash, Moses was commanded outright to “engage him in war,” but he learned from the behavior of the Holy One, blessed be He, Himself, from incidents relating to the giving of the Torah and the exodus from Egypt, that first one must call for peace, and if they do not accept peaceful ways, then one must move on to the next stage and fight.

The Netziv’s interpretation sharpens the distinction between conquest of the land of Israel and the present case of requesting right of passage (Ha’amek Davar, Deut. 2:24):

Begin the occupation –coming to the land in order to pass through would be the beginning of the actual occupation, unlike the case had been with Edom and Moab, had these kings wished [to allow free transit].  Engage him in war – if they do not let you pass through, do not hesitate to fight them. But Moses was not commanded to fight them necessarily at that moment.  This is a precise interpretation of the word hitgar, “engage,” namely, an act of challenging which leads to battle. In truth, it would have been better if Sihon permitted them to pass through his land, and if the land of the seven nations, which is more sacred, had been conquered first; then the Reubenites and the Gaddites would not have settled in the Transjordan, they would not have been exiled first, and things would not have turned out as badly for Israel as they did in the end.

According to Ha’amek Davar, G-d did not command the Israelites to enter battle immediately, but only if they not be given permission to pass through.  That being so, Moses’ offer of peace did not contradict G-d’s command.

According to Nahmanides’ explanation, Moses sent the messengers before G-d commanded, “begin the occupation:   engage him in war”:

See, I give into your power Sihon – this utterance refers to what is said further on (verse 31), “See, I begin by placing Sihon and his land at your disposal.”   Prior to that Moses sent him messengers from the wilderness of Kedemoth.   For, he would not have sent an offer of peace, saying, “Let me pass through your country,” after G-d had commanded him, “begin the occupation; engage him in battle,” since if he [Sihon] had complied, then he [Moses] would have transgressed the Lord’s command; and if he knew that he would not comply, then his offer would have been for nought. 

Further, do not think to say that this is a fulfillment of the commandment, “When you approach a town to attack it, you shall offer it terms of peace” (Deut. 20:10), for Scripture continues there (v. 11), “If it responds peaceably and lets you in, all the people present there shall serve you at forced labor”; but in the case at hand, had they [Sihon and his people] complied they would not have been touched at all.   “Then I sent messengers” (2:26) means he had already sent them, yet he preceded this with what the Lord had said in order to explain how “the Lord had stiffened his will”(2:30), indicating that all was caused by G-d, for thus He told me.

This interpretation, as well, has its problems, and as Abarbanel noted in his commentary referenced above, “the order of the verses does not bear it out.”

Nahmanides ruled out the possibility that perhaps Moses had been following the general commandment applicable             any time one goes to war:   “you shall offer it terms of peace.”   Such an interpretation was accepted by Ralbag, who held that there was no difference between the war on Sihon and any other war, which must be commenced with an offer of peace.  Support for Ralbag’s view can be found in the Midrash, in Sifre (on Numbers, par. 42):

Peace is great and controversy despicable.  Peace is great, for even in time of war peace is necessary, as it is said:   “When you approach a town to attack it, you shall offer it terms of peace” (Deut. 20:10), and “Then I sent messengers from the wilderness of Kedemoth to King Sihon of Heshbon with an offer of peace… “(Deut. 2:26).

Ralbag concluded “that this brings us to the following conclusion” (end of Deut., toelet 15):

It is to inform us that one ought to pursue peace and keep controversy and war at a distance, even when it is clear that one would be victorious.  Note that the Lord, blessed be He, wished an offer of peace be made to Sihon before engaging him in battle.   Albeit He stiffened his will and hardened his heart, and He did likewise to all the nations that Joshua conquered – for the blessed Lord stiffened their wills and hardened their hearts in order to deliver them into the hands of Israel, as it is made clear there – yet it is so that we take to heart that peace ought to be pursued everywhere, as far as possible, for the Almighty does not desire the death of the wicked.

From these commentaries we see that, on one hand, Moses indeed was subordinate to the definitive commands of the Holy One, blessed be He, regarding inheriting the land and requesting rights of passage from the King of Sihon.  These things were immutable and non-negotiable.   On the other hand, the Creator provided guidance in implementing this Divine imperative.   One must call for peace, and if the nations agree to follow G-d’s word and allow the people of Israel to pass through or inherit the land, then there will be peace.   But if they do not agree, there is no other option than to carry out the command in its entirety:   “engage him in war.”

Even though G-d made them stubborn, the act of offering peace remains an educational force, “so that we take to heart that peace ought to be pursued everywhere.”  This is what it means to walk in the ways of the Holy One, blessed be He, as Rashi pointed out, following the Midrash:   “I learned it from You, Who were in existence prior to the world” – from the actions of the Holy One, blessed be He, when He gave the Torah and when He took the Israelites out of Egypt.