Facing Longstanding Foes

Were the Canaanites the nation of Amalek?

Commentary on Parashat Chukat, Numbers 19:1 - 22:1

Imperceptibly, the Torah has skimmed over nearly 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. The generation of the Exodus has expired, and the generation of the wilderness has taken its place. Two beloved leaders of the Exodus generation–Miriam and Aaron–were taken from them. A new reality crystallizes: this will be the generation that will conquer and settle the Land of Israel, and will establish a society based upon the Torah.

The wilderness generation will fight many wars. Their parents had fought only once against Amalek in Refidim (Exodus 17:8-16). And when they themselves are faced with the threat of war against Edom, they are constrained to withdraw:

And Edom refused to allow Israel to cross his border, and Israel turned away from him (Numbers 20:21).

But now, on the edge of the land of Edom, the new generation of the Children of Israel are about to encounter their first war:

And the Canaanite, the king of Arad, who dwelt in the Negev/South, heard that Israel was coming by the way of the Atarim, and he attacked Israel, and he took some of them captive. And Israel vowed a vow to Hashem, and said: “If You will surely deliver this people into my hand, then I will consecrate their cities” (root ch-r-m). And Hashem listened to the voice of Israel, and He delivered the Canaanite, and he (Israel) consecrated them and their cities (root ch-r-m). And he (Israel) called the name of the place Chormah (Numbers 21:1-3).

This incident echoes earlier events. “The way of the Atarim,” according to the Targumim (Aramaic translations), Rashi, Ibn-Ezra (12th century Spain), and others, is the way of the tarim, referring to the scouts of Chapter 13 above.  The report reaches “the Canaanite, the king of Arad” that the Children of Israel are approaching their Promised Land, intending to follow the same route used by their scouts a generation earlier. Certainly, the inhabitants of the land would remember this, and, fearing an invasion, they launch a preemptive strike.

As to the identity of “the Canaanite, the king of Arad,” Rashi notes a problem: Canaan is a descendant of Cham (Genesis 10:6), but from the report of the scouts (Numbers 13:29) we know that those “who dwelt in the Negev/South” refers to Amalek, a descendant of Esav/Edom (Genesis 36:12)! In addition, the expression used here, “and he attacked (vayilachem b’) Israel,” is reminiscent of the earlier battle against Amalek:

And Amalek came, and he attacked (vayilachem im) Israel at Refidim (Exodus 17:8).

Therefore, Rashi, quoting a number of midrashic sources, explains that the nation “who dwelt in the Negev/South” was indeed Amalek. However, they disguised themselves by adopting the language of Canaan, expecting to be immune to Israel’s prayers when they would ask Hashem to deliver them from the “Canaanites.” Israel saw their attackers dressed as Amalekites but speaking Canaanite, so they outwitted them by praying that Hashem “deliver this people into my hand” without specifying which nation.

How are we to understand this midrash? How do the Children of Israel meet the challenge of their recurring encounter with Amalek? A close examination of Rashi’s original source (Yalkut Shimoni 764) reveals profound insights into what becomes Israel’s first battle for Eretz Yisrael (land of Israel).

Israel was forbidden to provoke the descendants of Esau/Edom: Do not provoke them, for I will not give you of their land . . . (Deuteronomy 2:5), but when Amalek attacked again and again, Hashem declared that Israel treat them like other nations of the land:

But you shall utterly destroy (ha-charem ta-charimem) them (Deuteronomy 20:17).

The root word ch-r-m in this pasuk (verse) refers to killing all the inhabitants. In the incident of “the Canaanite,” ch-r-m means “consecrating;” the Children of Israel vow to consecrate the material items to Hashem, rather than take the spoils of war for themselves.

[Since Rashi states that “the Canaanite” is really Amalek, one might raise the point that nothing should have been spared, in order to fulfill the command to “blot out the remembrance of Amalek” (Deuteronomy 25:19; Samuel I 15:2-3). However, as the Rambam teaches (“Laws of Kings and Their Wars” 1:1,2), this command will not take effect until after the conquest and secure settlement of the land and the appointment of a king.]

The development of Israel has been demonically paralleled by the growing sophistication of Amalek’s strategies. At Refidim, Amalek and Israel engaged each other in battle (vayilachem im); now, Amalek is able to enter into the Israelite camp and attack them (vayilachem b‘); (see Malbim on Joshua 10:29). Before, they attacked without planning, but now Amalek plans its attack.

Amalek/Esav knows full well where his strength lies, and where Israel/Yaakov‘s strength lies: The voice is the voice of Yaakov, and the hands are the hands of Esav (Genesis: 27:22). This time, Amalek wants to forestall Israel’s verbal power. If Amalek, grandson of Esav, desires to use his power, which is in his hands, against the descendants of Yaakov, whose power is in their voice, then he must use his voice, and disguise his language.

But Amalek, who is all surface and no substance, is incapable of altering his outward appearance, whereas Israel defeats him by combining prayer and vowing with military might:

And Israel vowed a vow to Hashem, and said: If You will surely deliver this people into my hand, then I will consecrate their cities. And Hashem listened to the voice of Israel, and He delivered the Canaanite.

Israel is thus able to overcome Amalek/Esav in Esav’s area of strength.

Haamek Davar (R. Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, 1817-1893) says that this incident was designed by Hashem to prepare the Children of Israel for the wars of conquest of Eretz Yisrael, and teach them the natural means of battle. Consequently, they learn that, even in the realm of war, the realm of “the hands of Esav,” Israel can prevail when they appeal to Hashem using “the voice of Yaakov.”

Reprinted with permission from the Orthodox Union.


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