Shemot 23:23-33, Shemot 34:11-16, Bemidbar 21:21-26, Bemidbar 33:51-56, Devarim 2:24-36, Devarim 7:1-6, Devarim 20:10-18.
There are verses that seem to explicitly declare that all Canaanites must be obliterated and that no possibility of peaceful coexistence exists and speak of the need to rid the land of Israel of its Canaanite inhabitants.
However, a different picture emerges from Yehoshua 11 which summarizes the Wars of Conquest:
(19) There was not a city that made peace with the children of Israel, save the Hivites the inhabitants of Gibeon; they took all in battle. (20) For it was of the Lord to harden their hearts, to come against Israel in battle, that they might be utterly destroyed, that they might have no favour, but that they might be destroyed, as the Lord commanded Moses.
According to these verses, it seems that had it not been for Hashem hardening their hearts, some of the Canaanite cities might have made peace with Israel, implying that peace was, in fact, an option! How can this be reconciled with the verses in Torah? Were the Israelites supposed to negotiate for peace or not
- Prohibition of marriage & covenants – Devarim 7 also speaks of annihilating the Seven Nations, but then continues to warn the people against making covenants with or marrying the Canaanites. If the people are supposed to be utterly destroyed, why is there a concern lest the nation make alliances? What is the relationship between the two commandments?
- Calling to Sichon – In recounting the battle with Sichon the Emorite in Devarim 2, Moshe says that before fighting, he sent Sichon "דִּבְרֵי שָׁלוֹם", asking permission to pass through his lands. Is this equivalent to the seeking of peace discussed in Devarim 20? If so, what does it teach about the lawfulness of negotiating with Canaanites? Does the fact that Sichon lived on the eastern side of the Jordan make a difference?
- Saving Rachav – If all Canaanites were supposed to be destroyed, why were the spies allowed to save Rachav, as described in Yehoshua 6? Was she an exceptional case or just one example of a larger accepted practice?
- The Gibeonites' trickery – Yehoshua 9 describes how the Gibeonites felt a need to pretend that they hailed from a distant city so as to convince the Israelites to make a treaty with them, implying that peace was not an option. If so, however, why did the Israelites not kill them when they discovered that they were duped?
- Canaanites in Shofetim and Melakhim – Both Shofetim 1 and Melakhim I 9 speak of Canaanites who remained in the land and were forced to pay tribute/ labor tax. In Shofetim 2, the tribes are then chastised for making treaties with the inhabitants, while in Melakhim, Shelomo's similar actions receive no rebuke. Is subduing rather than conquering the Canaanites allowed or not?
- The divine command In Devarim 2 to Sichon clearly means going into battle. But strangely enough, the Moses’ first measure consists of sending messengers carrying an offer of peace!
The Manassites were unable to occupy these towns; the Canaanites maintained their hold on that part of the country. When the Israelites grew stronger, they put the Canaanites to forced labor, but did not drive them out (Joshua 17:12-13).
Later, in the history of Israel, Solomon spares the Canaanites in his day:
All the survivors of the Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites who did not belong to Israel—that is, those of their descendants who survived in the land wherever the Israelites had been unable to annihilate (lehaharimam) them—all were employed by Solomon as perpetual forced labor, which they still are (I Kings 9:20-21)
Isaac Arama (c. 1420–1494),
contends that the Torah’s commandment to proclaim peace requires:
“Entreaties and supplications offered in the most conciliatory possible
way, in order to turn their hearts (…) for this follows necessarily from
the human wisdom of peace, and the Divine will consent (…) For if we
find that He commanded ‘You shall not destroy its tree [that is, that
found in the city of the enemy], to lift against it an axe’ [Deut. 20:19], all
the more so should we take care not to commit damage and destruction
to human beings.”
Isaac Abravanel (1437–1508), commenting on Deuteronomy 20:10,
advances three reasons to justify an offer of peace prior to the commencement
of hostilities: (a) it is proper to follow the ways of God, Who does not desire
[people’s] death and the destruction of the world, but forgives the penitent;
(b) peaceful conquest denotes the power and magnanimity of the ruler; (c) the
outcome of war is at best uncertain and at worst catastrophic. He argues that
women and children are to be spared since they are by nature non-combatants
Then I send messengers from the wilderness of Kedemoth - Although the Omnipresent had not commanded me to proclaim peace unto Sihon, I learnt to do so from what happened in the wilderness of Sinai, i.e. from an incident that relates to the Torah which existed before (kedmah) the world. For when the Holy One, blessed be God, was about to give it (the Torah) to Israel, God took it round to Esau and Ishmael. It was manifest before God that they would not accept it, but yet God opened unto them with peace. Similarly I first approached Sihon with words of peace. — Another explanation: Moses said to God, "I learnt this from what you, who existed before (kedmah) the world, did to Egypt. You could have burned them up with one flash of lightening, but you sent me to tell Pharaoh "let my people go" (Exodus 5:1).
Rashi Devarim 20:10-18
|(10) כי תקרב אל עיר WHEN THOU APPROACHEST UNTO A CITY [TO FIGHT AGAINST IT]– Scripture is speaking of a war which is not obligatory upon them (as was the war against the seven nations of Canaan, referred to in v. 16), as it is distinctly stated in this section (v. 15) "Thus thou shalt do unto all the cities which are very far [from thee]" etc. (Sifrei Devarim 199:1).
(11) כל העם הנמצא בה ALL THE PEOPLE THAT IS FOUND THEREIN [SHALL BE TRIBUTARIES] – all: even if you find in it persons belonging to the seven nations which you have been commanded to exterminate, you are allowed to keep them alive (Sifrei Devarim 200:2).
למס ועבדוך [ALL THE PEOPLE … SHALL BE] TRIBUTARIES [UNTO THEE], AND THEY SHALL SERVE THEE – You must not accept their surrender until they take upon themselves both the payment of tribute and servitude (one alone is not sufficient) (Sifrei Devarim 200:3).
(12) ואם לא תשלים עמך ועשתה עמך מלחמה – Scripture tells you that if it does not make peace with you it will in the end make war against you (attack you) — if you leave it alone and go away (Sifrei Devarim 200:4). (The translation therefore is: AND IF IT WILL MAKE NO PEACE WITH THEE. IT WILL WAR AGAINST THEE).
וצרת עליה THEN THOU SHALT BESIEGE IT – This implies that you are entitled even to starve it out, to make it suffer thirst and to kill it (the inhabitants) by mortal diseases (Sifrei Devarim 200:5).
(13) ונתנה ה' אלהיך בידך means THEN THE LORD THY GOD WILL GIVE IT INTO THY HANDS – if you have done all that is prescribed in this section the Lord will in the end give it into your hands (Sifrei Devarim 200:6).
(14) והטף AND THE LITTLE ONES [… SHALT THOU TAKE UNTO THYSELF] – the male children, too. But how am I to understand (v. 13) "and thou shalt smite every male thereof"? As referring to the male adults (Sifrei Devarim 200:7).
(17) כאשר צוך [BUT THOU SHALT DOOM THEM TO DESTRUCTION: THE HITTITES, … AND THE JEBUSITES,] AS [THE LORD THY GOD] HATH COMMANDED THEE — The words: "as God hath commanded thee" are intended to include the Girgashites (the seventh nation that is not mentioned here) (Sifrei Devarim 201:4).
(18) למען אשר לא ילמדו [BUT THOU SHALT DOOM THEM TO DESTRUCTION …] THAT THEY TEACH YOU NOT TO DO [AFTER THEIR ABOMINATIONS] – Consequently if they repent of their abominations and wish to become proselytes you are allowed to accept them as such (Sifrei Devarim 202:1).
Before entering the land, Joshua presented the peoples living in the land of Israel with an ultimatum proposing three options: he who wishes to leave may leave, he who wishes to make peace (i.e. to submit) may make peace; and he who wishes to make war may make war. The Girgashite left, having had faith in the words of the Eternal who had bequeathed that land to the children of Israel, and settled in Africa. The Gibeonites made a submission agreement whereas thirty-one kings of Canaan chose to make war and perished (Talmud Yerushalmi, Shebi’it 6:1, 16b).
Nahmanides (13th c.) disagrees with Rashi on the basis of this contradiction:7 “Rashi wrote this based on the Sifre (Shoftim 199) where a similar text is taught; “Scripture is speaking of a battle waged of free choice.”
But the intent of our Rabbis with reference to this verse [before us] was not to say that the requirement of proclaiming peace applies exclusively to permissible, but not obligatory wars; rather their teaching [in the Sifre] refers only to the later section wherein there is a differentiation between the two kinds of wars [i.e in verses 13-14 declaring that if the enemy insists on war, then only the man are to be killed, but the women and 5 children are to be spared – the law applies only to a permissible but not to an obligatory war]. But the obligation to offer terms of peace before going into battle applies even to an obligatory war. It requires us to offer peace-terms even to the seven nations (of Canaan), for Moses proclaimed peace to Sihon, king of the Amorites, and he would not have transgressed both the positive and negative commandments in this section: “but you shall utterly annihilate them” (Dt 20:17), and “you shall let no soul remain alive” (Dt 20:16).
Rather, the difference between them (i.e. obligatory and permissible wars) is when the enemy does not make peace and continues to make war. Then, in case of the cities which are very far off, Scripture commands us to smite every male thereof and keep alive the women and male children, but in the cities of these peoples (i.e. the seven nations of Canaan in the event they refuse the call for peace), it commanded us to destroy even the women and children.
And so did our Rabbis say in Deuteronomy Rabbah, and also in Tanchuma and in the Talmud Yerushalmi: “Joshua the son of Nun fulfilled the laws of this section. What did Joshua do? Wherever he went to conquer, he would send a proclamation in which he wrote : “He who wishes to make peace may come forward and make peace; he who wishes to leave may leave, and he who wishes to make war may make war.” The Girgashite left. With the Gibeonites who made peace, Joshua made peace. The thirty-one kings who came to wage war—the Holy One, blessed be He, cast them down etc.” And, so indeed Scriptures states with reference to all cities (including those of the seven nations), “there was not a city that made peace with the children of Israel, save the Hivites the inhabitants of Gibeon; they took all in battle. For it was of the Eternal to harden their hearts, to come against Israel in battle, that they might be utterly annihilated (lema‘an haharimam; Joshua 11:19-20).” Obviously, if they had wanted to make peace, the Israelites would have made peace with them. (Ramban to Dt. 20:10).
The Maharal adds a principle from the midrash by saying that Joshua's initiative was in accordance with the ethics of the Torah, even if it was not legally founded: It seems obvious that the Torah a priori encourages making an offer of peace to every city, as the quest for peace is a virtue of its own. Thus the Rabbis said: the greatness of peace can be gauged from the fact that even dealing with war, God said: “When you go to make war, begin with proclaiming peace”. (DtR 5:12 ; Yalkut Shimoni, Shoftim 923)