Jewish Military Strategy
Based on Parasha U’Pishra by Rabbi Moshe Grylak
Translated and Adapted by Braha Bender
Travelling through the Sinai desert wasn’t all manna and pillars of fire, you know. Sometimes the Children of Israel had to go to war. But their foreign relations policies were puzzling. Some enemies were attacked and ravaged to their foundations. Others were retreated from. In some cases, even when diplomatic measures failed against blatant offenses, military measures were still entirely avoided. What determined Jewish foreign relations policies?
Following the exodus from Egypt and the coalescing of the former slave conglomerate into a single, albeit fledgling, nation, the first Jewish foreign relations encounter recorded in the Torah took place with the Edomites. As the Children of Israel made their way towards the Promised Land, the borders of Edom stood in their direct route. In keeping, Moshe (Moses) sent messengers to the King of Edom respectfully stating:
“So said your brother Israel: You know all the hardship that has befallen us. Our forefathers descended to Egypt and we dwelled in Egypt many years, and the Egyptians did evil to us and our forefathers. We cried out to Hashem and He heard our voice; He sent an emissary and took us out of Egypt. Now behold, we are in Kadesh, a city at the edge of your border. Let us pass through your land; we shall not pass through field or vineyard, and we shall not drink well water; on the king’s road shall we travel – we shall not veer right or left – until we pass through your border.” (Numbers-Bamidbar 20:14-17)
What more could they have said? Please? The respectful promises of absolute consideration to the Edomites’ land were there, as was the proposition of alliance as brothers. Even the circumstances of the Jews’ journey were explained in full. Yet the Edomite King’s response left nothing to the imagination:
“Edom said to him, ‘You shall not pass through me – lest I come against you with the sword!’” (Ibid 18)
And just in case the matter wasn’t perfectly clear, “Then Edom went out against him with a massive throng and a strong hand.” (Ibid 20)
Well, gee, thanks. Thanks a lot.
Yet Israel retreated and completely relinquished the desire to pass through. Were they frightened of military conflict? Did their soldiers lack the conviction to fight the good fight?
Just a few verses later, the Torah describes a very different sort of diplomatic process. The Canaanite king of Arad, just as charming a fellow as the Edomite ruler, heard that Israel was heading his way and decided to launch a military offensive. A Jewish captive was taken. Suddenly, all hell broke loose.
“Israel made a vow to Hashem and said, ‘If You will deliver this people into my hand, I will consecrate their cities.” The Jews promised to take over and clean up the area’s rampant promiscuity and idolatry.
In response, “Hashem heard the voice of Israel, and He delivered the Canaanite, and it consecrated them and their cities. It named the place Hormah.” It consecrated them good and thorough. Canaanite jerks.
A few verses later, another example indicated that the Jews were not afraid of military conflict:
“Sihon did not permit Israel to pass through his border, and Sihon assembled his entire people and went out against Israel to the Wilderness.” What was with those obnoxious biblical kings? I can’t call them anti-semites, since they were aboriginal Semitic peoples as well, but they certainly set the standard for future generations.
Anyway, “He arrived at Jahaz and waged war against Israel. Israel smote him with the edge of the sword and took possession of his land, from Arnon to Jabbok to the children of Ammon – for the border of the children of Ammon was powerful.” (ibid 21:23-24)
The obvious question is, why did Israel retreat from Edom when they could have conquered their lands just as they did with the Emorites? The Children of Israel obviously weren’t afraid to fight. What factors distinguished between the different nations they encountered?
In Deuteronomy-Devarim 2:5, the Almighty says it straight:
“You shall not provoke them [Edom], for I shall not give you of their land even the right to set foot, for as an inheritance to the children of Esav (Esau) have I given Mount Seir.”
Edom’s land belonged to them by divine inheritance. If they wanted to tell the Children of Israel not to pass through it, they had every right to do so. Today intermarriage between all peoples has obscured the identity of nations. Back then, though, nations were distinct and the rules of Jewish foreign policy were perfectly clear. Divinely appointed legal rights stood behind Edom with the practical implication that, were the Jews to attack the Edomites for use of their land, the Almighty would not back the Jews up in doing so.
The Emorites, on the other hand, held no divine claim to their property. The Moabites before them had received it on temporary loan until the Emorites had kicked them out to take over. The ultimate divinely appointed inheritors of the region were the Jews themselves. In the future, the country was destined to be included within the borders of the Promised Land.
When the Emorites insolently refused to allow the Jewish People to even pass through their disputed territory, the Almighty commanded the conquering of the entire land. The land that was never really theirs to begin with.
It is interesting to note that the battles stopped short at the borders of the children of Ammon. The verse says that they were “powerful”, but now we see that it does not primarily mean powerful in the military sense. Rashi explains that the borders of Ammon were powerful because of “the warning of the Almighty, that told them [the Jewish People] not to cause them hardship”. The Children of Ammon were powerful in the sense that divine law stood behind them.
Even in war, the lesson was one of anti-violence. The lesson the Jews were trained to internalize from the very start was that aggression may not take place unless the Almighty explicitly commands it. Acts of force were never permitted for worldly motivations alone.
Further, the Jewish acts of retreat in the face of military challenge taught them that in entering the Promised Land their true mission was not to conquer it but simply to release it from captivity. Just as other lands had been assigned to other people and were none of the Jews’ business, Israel was meant for the Jews because the true proprietor was and still is the Almighty.
Empire-building has been one of the driving forces of history. Not Jewish history. The military theatre little records non-violence as a motivating value behind the foreign relations policies of nations declining and accepting offensive engagement in high-conflict situations. The Children of Israel’s foreign relations’ inconsistency has a simple explanation that applies to positions of conflict throughout all of life: let the Almighty be your commander. Whenever we have listened to Him, He has led us to victory. Charge!