Eikev, 4 August 2007
Destroying the Caananites
and the Atomic Bomb

This upcoming week poses difficult ethical questions. Monday (August 6) is the anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Thursday (August 9), Nagasaki. All week, portion Eikev.

At Deuteronomy 7:16, Moses declares:

“You shall destroy all the peoples that the LORD your God delivers to you, showing them no pity.” (NJPS).

God’s command goes far beyond normal warfare. The Canaanites are offered no warning, no mitigation, no chance of redemption. Deuteronomy 7:16 says nothing about mercy for the widow, orphan or stranger. This sentence appears to be outside the category of an ethical teaching.

It plays out in the Book of Joshua. In Chapter 2, Joshua sends two spies to Jericho. They are hidden by Rahab. Rahab tells them:

“I know that the LORD has given the country to you, because dread of you has fallen upon us, and all the inhabitants of the land are quaking before you.” (NJPS, Joshua 2:8)

I imagine the people of Jericho gathered inside the walls, under dark clouds, awaiting doom with no hope.

In Chapter 6, God tells Joshua,

“See, I will deliver Jericho and her king and her warriors in your hands.” (NJPS, Joshua 6:2)

God instructs Joshua to march around the walls of the city. After the walls collapse:

“The people rushed into the city, every man straight in front of him, and they captured the city. They exterminated everything in the city with the sword: man and woman, young and old, ox and sheep and ass.” (NJPS, Joshua 6:20)

Jericho receives no warning and no mercy.

The absoluteness of Deuteronomy 7:16 stands out when compared to the dropping of the atomic bomb. Regardless what can be said about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese were warned.

The Allies issued the Potsdam Declaration on 26 July 1945:

“We call upon the government of Japan to proclaim now the unconditional surrender of all Japanese armed forces, and to provide proper and adequate assurances of their good faith in such action. The alternative for Japan is prompt and utter destruction.”

How can we understand Deuteronomy 7:16?

The Reform scholar W. Gunther Plaut writes that Deuteronomy addresses the religious challenge of the Promised Land. How to avoid the allure of idolatry and foreign culture? God gives a simple and extreme rule---Destroy everything. No mixed marriage. Destroy the idols and shrines. Destroys the people who would corrupt Israelite religion.

Plaut notes that the Canaanites were not destroyed. They were around in the later books of the Bible. Plaut understands Deuteronomy not as Mosaic but as post-settlement.

The writer of Deuteronomy means that idolatry --- practiced in his day --- could have been avoided had the Canaanites been destroyed. Deuteronomy 7:16 is a retrojection of what could and might have been. The writer of Deuteronomy sees the destruction of the Canaanites as acceptable in view of the common practices of those times. (Plaut, The Torah A Modern Commentary, UAHC, New York 1981, pages 1376, 1381, 1382).

The Babylonia Talmud derives an ethical lesson from Deuteronomy 7:16. Rav Huna lived during 200’s. He was head of the Academy at Sura.

Rav Huna taught that the command of Deuteronomy 7:16:

“You shall destroy all the peoples that the LORD your God delivers to you, showing them no pity.”

prohibits a Jew from robbing a non-Jew. At Baba Kamma 113b, Rav Huna explains that Deuteronomy 7:16 provided that the Israelites were to take from the enemies that God would deliver to them in time of war. By implication, the Israelites could not take from now Jews in times of peace.