Jewish Peace Offerings

Deuteronomy's laws of warfare include the requirement that a nation seek a peaceful settlement before engaging in war.


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).

jewish peace offeringsThis 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.”

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Jeffrey Spitzer is Chair of the Department of Talmud and Rabbinics at Gann Academy, The New Jewish High School, Waltham, Mass., and a member of the Institute's Tichon Fellows Program.

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