In the Book of Deuteronomy we encounter wonderful expressions of the love of God for the People of Israel and the demands that derive from that love together with the warnings that repeat and are reiterated lest “we forget” ADONAI our God. However, with this there is some rather extreme language relating to the conquest of the land of Canaan and its inhabitants compared to the other books of the Torah. An example of this is found in the beginning of our portion for this week, “You must destroy all the peoples ADONAI your God gives over to you. Do not look on them with pity and do not serve their gods, for that will be a snare to you” (Deut. 7:16). And more, “ADONAI your God will drive out those nations before you, little by little. You will not be allowed to eliminate them all at once, or the wild animals will multiply around you. But ADONAI your God will deliver them over to you, throwing them into great confusion until they are destroyed. He will give their kings into your hand, and you will wipe out their names from under heaven. No one will be able to stand up against you; you will destroy them” (Deut. 7:22-24).
These verses are difficult for those with a liberal perspective, indeed in general. But lest we assume that the Israelites were exemplary and superior to the other peoples, the text states, “After ADONAI your God has driven them out before you, do not say to yourself, ‘ADONAI has brought me here to take possession of this land because of my righteousness.’ No, it is on account of the wickedness of these nations that ADONAI is going to drive them out before you. It is not because of your righteousness or your integrity that you are going in to take possession of their land; but on account of the wickedness of these nations, ADONAI your God will drive them out before you, to accomplish what he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” (Deut. 9:4-5). It was not because of the Israelite’s righteousness that they found themselves at the border of the land in order to inherit it; it was due to God’s will. Israel was a kind of experiment for God in the world of humanity and the land of Israel was to be the laboratory. It was already stated in the previous portion, Va-Ethanan, “For you are a people holy to ADONAI your God. ADONAI your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured people. ADONAI did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because ADONAI loved you and kept the oath he swore to your forefathers that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt” (Deut. 7:6-8).
And in this week’s portion it is written, “And now, O Israel, what does ADONAI your God ask of you but to fear ADONAI your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve ADONAI your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to observe ADONAI commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good? To ADONAI your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it. Yet ADONAI set his affection on your forefathers and loved them, and he chose you, their descendants, above all the nations, as it is today. Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer. For ADONAI your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing. And you are to love those who are aliens, for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt. Revere ADONAI your God and serve him. Hold fast to him and take your oaths in his name” (Deut. 10:12-20).
- Why did God choose Israel and what do you think is its mission?
- How do you understand the meaning of “עם סגולה/treasured people”? How do you personally deal with the difficult passages about the Canaanites peoples?
- If the land of Israel is the laboratory of the experiment of the people of Israel in the world, what is the meaning of this experiment?