As their forty years in the wilderness drew to a close, the fact that the people of Israel were to occupy the Promised Land through military conquest became an ever more present reality. When the tribes of Gad and Reuben asked if they could remain outside of Canaan (biblical Israel) where there was good grazing land for their cattle, Moses’ immediate and outraged response was “Will your brothers go to war while you stay here!” (Numbers 32).
God Commands War, Moses Seeks Peace
As the people passed through the neighboring lands on the way to Canaan, God warned them not to wage war or take land from Seir, the land which had been given to the descendants of Jacob’s brother Esau, nor to conquer any of the land of Moab, which had been given to the children of Abraham’s nephew Lot (Deuteronomy 2).
This was not the case, however, with the Amorite King Sihon, against whom God commanded Moses to wage war in order to “put the dread and fear of [Israel] upon the people under heaven” (Deuteronomy 2:25). Nevertheless, Moses pauses before war and sends “words of peace” to Sihon, requesting a peaceful passage through Sihon’s land. Moses assures Sihon that the Israelites will not forage for food and that they will pay for the water that they use.
How did God respond to Moses’ offering of peace when God demanded war? God “stiffened the will [of Sihon] and hardened his heart” (as had been done to Pharoah in Egypt), and the people of Israel wiped out the Amorite kings Sihon and Og.
The interaction seems similar to the narrative of Abraham pleading with God not to destroy Sodom (Genesis 18). God announces that the city will be destroyed, Abraham and Moses in turn attempt to prevent that destruction but, because Sodom is truly evil, and because Sihon refuses Moses’ offer of peace, the cities are ultimately destroyed.
God is More Militant than People
Why are humans, or at least these humans, more willing to offer terms of peace? Maybe, as God implies with respect to Og, King of Bashan, “Do not fear him for I will give him and all his people and his land into your hand” (Numbers 21:34 and Deuteronomy 3:2). Moses is reasonably afraid of war, but God does not know fear. Indeed, as noted above, God wants to “put the dread and fear of [Israel] upon the people under heaven.”
Yet, when God later legislates the conduct of war, God requires Israel to seek peace first:
When you come near a city to attack it, you shall offer it words of peace. If it responds with peace and lets you in, then all the people shall serve you at forced labor. But if it will not make peace but war, then you shall besiege it (Deuteronomy 20:10-12).
God Adopts Moses’ Approach
God’s decision to destroy the Amorites (and even to harden Sihon’s heart) may be seen as a political necessity. In order to allow Israel the opportunity to offer terms of peace in the future, God recognized the importance of establishing Israel as a military power first. Alternatively, perhaps God had a change of heart. According to a midrash, God not only annulled the earlier decree, but did so based on Moses’ teaching:
“‘This is the Torah of the peace offering’ (Leviticus 7:11). Scripture says, ‘[The Torah’s] ways are ways of pleasantness and all of its paths are peace’ (Proverbs 3:17). Everything which was written in the Torah was written in order to create peace. Even though the Torah writes of war, even the wars were written to create peace.”
“So you find that the Holy Blessed One annulled the decree of destruction for the sake of peace. When? God had commanded Moses ‘When you lay siege to a city for many days…’ (Deuteronomy 20:19), God said ‘You shall utterly destroy them’ (Deuteronomy 20:17). But Moses did not do this. Rather, Moses said, I will kill those who have sinned, but those who have not sinned I will approach peacefully, as it says ‘And I sent messengers from the wilderness of Kedemot…words of peace…’ (Deuteronomy 2:26). When Moses saw that they did not accept peace, he killed them…”
“The Holy Blessed One said, ‘I said “you shall utterly destroy them” but you did not do that. By your life! Just as you, Moses, have said, so will I do!’ as it says, ‘When you come close to a city to attack it, you will call out to it in peace’ (Deuteronomy 20:10). Therefore it is written, ‘[The Torah’s] ways are ways of pleasantness and all of its paths are peace'” (Midrash Tanhuma Tzav 3).
Abarbanel: God Wants Peacemaking
According to the midrash, Moses taught God the necessity of offering peace. The 15th century Portuguese commentator Isaac Abarbanel, however, rejects this approach. God is the source of peace and clemency. Abarbanel expresses this idea in his explanation of the reasons for offering terms of peace:
The first reason is that it is appropriate to “walk in God’s ways” (Deuteronomy 28:9), and God does not desire death or the destruction of the world but repentance. God extends God’s right hand to welcome the penitent, and that includes mortal kings and other people….
Abarbanel continues with more “political” explanations:
The second reason [to extend terms of peace] is that conquering through peaceful means demonstrates both ability and good character and peacefulness…but conquering a city through military means might demonstrate ability but also cruelty and bad characteristics, which is dangerous for an enduring kingship, as Isaiah says “Through mercy a throne is established” (Isaiah 15:5)….
The third reason is that military victory is always unsure…Have we not seen the many fall to the few or the strong to the weak?…Therefore it is appropriate to choose true peace rather than to trust in a doubtful victory. That is the reason why, when laying siege to a city, an avenue for escape is always left for the besieged, lest a person who has given up on his chances for a life of peace endanger his life just to strike at his enemies. Therefore, it is always better to choose peace.
But that does not mean that peace is mandated in all circumstances. There are wars that are obligatory (like the wars against Amalek or against the Canaanites) and wars that are discretionary (like the wars of King David to expand the borders of the land of Israel).
The Terms of Peace
According to Maimonides (although not according to Rashi), in all wars, even obligatory wars, Israel is commanded to seek peace first. Furthermore, the terms of that peace include conditions that will help assure Israel that the peace will be real:
One does not wage war with anyone in the world until one first seeks peace. This is equally true of both discretionary and obligatory wars, as it says, “When you come near a city to attack it, you shall offer it words of peace.” If they agree to peace and accept the seven commandments incumbent upon the descendants of Noah, not a single soul among them may be killed, and they shall pay tribute… (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings 6:1).
The Noahide commandments, described in tractate Sanhedrin (56b) of the Babylonian Talmud, form a rabbinic vision of basic, universal ethics. These rules–which include the prohibition on murder and the requirement to set up courts of justice–establish the norms of civil society and responsible government, which would ensure that a peace treaty was indeed an assurance of peace.
According to the Talmud Yerushalmi and other sources, Joshua followed this policy of offering peace.
Before entering the land of Israel, Joshua sent out a message, announcing that any people who want to leave, could do so; any who would make peace, could do so; any who would make war, could do so (Shevi’it 6:1, 16b).
The results, however, describe a stark reality. According to the Talmudic retelling of the biblical story, the Girgashites left, the Gibeonites made peace, and the other 31 kingdoms fell to Joshua’s army. Then as now, finding partners for peace was and remains no small challenge.
Pronounced: TALL-mud, Origin: Hebrew, the set of teachings and commentaries on the Torah that form the basis for Jewish law. Comprised of the Mishnah and the Gemara, it contains the opinions of thousands of rabbis from different periods in Jewish history.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.