Joshua in Battle with Gibeonites
Joshua doing battle with the Gibeonites. (Getty Images)

Reckoning — Not Revenge

Are there stories in the Jewish canon that shed light on how to reckon with evil without losing one's moral foundation?

They say that while the Torah doesn’t change each year, we — its readers — do, and so we experience it differently each time we read it. This was true for me as I read the story of the flood and Noah’s ark that will be chanted in synagogues around the world this Shabbat. 

In the Genesis story, wicked violence pushes God over the edge to wipe out humanity. In my mind, that became the violence that Hamas inflicted upon Israelis in the towns near the Gaza border last week. Noah’s ark became a metaphor for the safe rooms that allowed a few of those targeted Israelis to escape the massacre. This season, we are reading the Torah thinking about life, death — and reckoning.

After the flood, God makes a promise: “Never again will I doom the earth because of humankind, since the devisings of the human mind are evil from youth.” (Genesis 8:21) The narrative assumes that humans will still act wickedly. But instead of God judging and punishing evil behavior, that responsibility will now fall on humans. 

We get some specific instruction on the human responsibility to deal with violence in the very next chapter, where we learn that when someone takes another human life, a “reckoning” is required: “Whosoever sheds human blood, by human [hands] shall that one’s blood be shed; for in the image of God was humankind made.” While some rules in the Torah come with no rationale, this one is justified by a teaching: Humans are made in the image of God

The context of the verse is important too. At the beginning of chapter 9, God instructs Noah and his sons to “be fertile and increase, and fill the earth.” To sustain themselves, humans are given plants and (most) animals to eat, provided they do not eat the “life-blood” in animal flesh. The Torah permits taking animal life to sustain human life, but killing a person is different because humans are made in the image of God. So when a human is killed, a reckoning must take place. If the taking of a single human life requires a reckoning, how much more so does the murder of 1,200? 

There are tough questions now facing Israelis and the Jewish people. What constitutes a reckoning? How do we act morally, rooted in our values, as we carry that out? And can Jewish tradition guide us as we do? 

Alongside the value of human beings created in the image of God, Jewish tradition offers other models of how our ancestors understood God’s instruction to reckon with wickedness. There’s the story of Jacob’s sons, Shimon and Levi, who massacred a whole town in response to their sister’s defilement. And there’s the Purim story, in which the Jews kill not only Haman and his sons, but 75,000 others. Yet these stories don’t feel up to the task of this moment because they don’t struggle with the moral challenges of being sovereign, of wielding power over others.

But there is a story from our texts that comes close, about a moment when the Israelites did wield power in the land. In the books of Joshua and 2 Samuel we find the story of the Gibeonites, a Canaanite people who lived alongside the Israelites for generations but were slaughtered by King Saul. Years later, when David was king, the Israelites faced an extended famine, and when David inquired of God, he was told that it was a result of the injustice inflicted upon the Gibeonites. David is then faced with the daunting task of making restitution with the few surviving Gibeonites in order to save his people. 

This is a story worthy of our present moment. While the text doesn’t tell us what precipitated Saul’s slaughter of the Gibeonites, the killing was evidently so unjust that it became a moral blot on the Israelites that spanned a generation. An act of injustice now can trigger another crisis later.

The challenge of this moment is to hold on to our values and moral commitments as we fight those who would destroy us — and only those who would destroy us. As my colleague and teacher Yossi Klein Halevi recently wrote, “Fighting evil does not mean a suspension of moral ground rules; the opposite is true. One must be careful not to become tainted by the evil you are fighting, for both practical and spiritual reasons.”

Wielding power is, by definition, morally fraught. The lesson of the Gibeonites is that if we lose our moral compass during this reckoning, we will pay the price — by the hand of the next generation of our enemies, by the international community, or by our own spiritual decay. And yet, a reckoning is still required. It may not be possible to be morally pure in war time, but it is possible to be morally grounded. This is the challenge for Israelis, and for the Jewish people who love them and support them, in this moment.

This article initially appeared in My Jewish Learning’s Shabbat newsletter Recharge on Oct. 21, 2023. To sign up to receive Recharge each week in your inbox, click here.

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