The weekly Torah portion and its lessons for all people

Devarim, Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22
Lands and their owners

by Avraham ben Yaakov

Structure of the book of Deuteronomy

The entire book of Deuteronomy consists of Moses' discourses to the people of Israel in the concluding weeks of his life. The people were encamped in the Plains of Moab, poised to enter their ancestral land. The earlier sections of the book (especially from Deuteronomy 3:23-11:25) mainly review the basic foundations of faith, belief, love and fear of God, awareness of the Exodus and Sinaitic Covenant upon which Israel's global mission is based. The central sections (Deut. 11:26-26:15) give a detailed exposition of the laws that are to rule all aspects of their lives, including the Temple, judiciary, government, marriage, divorce, domestic, business and social life. The closing discourses (from Deut. 26:16 until the end of the book) give Moses' final reproof to the people and his warnings and blessings before his death.

An Historical Excursus

In the present opening portion of the book of Deuteronomy, which is called by the same Hebrew name as the whole book - DEVARIM - Moses prefaces these final discourses with an extensive historical excursus reviewing some key aspects of Israel's journey through the wilderness to their Land, paying special attention to their encounters and relations with the peoples who dwelled in the neighboring territories, especially Edom (descendants of Isaac's son Esau), Moab and Ammon (descendants of Abraham's nephew, Lot; Deuteronomy 2:2-23).

God forbade Israel to provoke Edom: "For I will not give you of their land, not so much as for the sole of the foot to tread upon; because I have given Mount Seir to Esau for a possession" (Deut. 2:5). The same applied to Moab: "For I will not give you of their land as an inheritance, for I have given Ar to the children of Lot for a possession" (ibid. v. 9). The same also applied to Ammon: "For I will not give you from the land of the children of Ammon for an inheritance, for I have given it to the children of Lot as an inheritance" (ibid. v. 19).

In the course of this section the Torah mentions a variety of indigenous peoples that had previously inhabited those territories (Deut. chapter 2 vv. 10-12 & 20-23), noting how Children of Esau and the Children of Moab usurped and destroyed the original dwellers in their respective lands (vv. 12 & 22). They were able to do so because "God destroyed them before them and they succeeded them and dwelt in their stead" (v. 21).

"The Earth is the Lord's" (Psalms 24:1)

The Torah teaches us that the various peoples of the world own and dwell in their lands - or may be dispossessed from them - only because "the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, He separated the children of men, He set the borders of the peoples." (Deuteronomy 32:8).

The Five Books of Moses must indeed be seen as the oldest deed of land ownership in the world. God gave the Land of Israel to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and their descendants for ever. The Torah defines the exact boundaries of this (Genesis 15:18-21 & Numbers 34:1-12), stipulating that the essential condition for Israel's ownership is observance of God's commandments (Deuteronomy 11:13-17 etc.).

It is the very height of irony that today, practically all the nations of the world as represented in the United Nations and other international organizations are engaged in a concerted campaign contesting the legitimacy of the Jewish national homeland in Israel's ancestral territories. However, this is not a new phenomenon. Nearly a thousand years ago, Rashi, prince of the Torah commentators (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki 1040-1105), opened his commentary on Genesis by explaining that the Torah itself is the answer to this challenge:

"'He has declared to His people the power of His works, in giving them the heritage of the nations' (Psalms 111:6). For if the nations of the world say to Israel, 'You are robbers because you conquered the lands of the seven (Canaanite) nations', they say to them: 'All the earth belongs to the Holy One blessed-be-He; He created it and gave it to whoever was fit in His eyes; through His favor He gave it to them and through His favor He took it from them and gave it to us'" (Rashi on Genesis 1:1).

Conquests and occupations

Practically the whole of human history is the story of the occupation of lands by various ethnic groups and their subsequent conquest and occupation by other groups.

When the Children of Noah first began to spread in all directions across the world, they consisted of tiny family groups and clans that discovered vast expanses of lands of every kind ready for them to take, conquer from nature and develop. In the case of ownerless land and the resources it contains, Torah law explicitly grants ownership to the first comer (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Property Rights and Gifts 1:1).

As populations grew and developed in different ways, various groups were frequently tempted to try to improve their lives by migrating to better territories, which they often conquered from their previous inhabitants, whom they either drove out or enslaved. The Bible itself records some of the history of such conquests, such as those of the Edomites and Moabites recounted in our present portion of DEVARIM (see above). The Book of Kings, Daniel, Ezra and Nehemiah, Esther etc. trace the rise and fall of the great ancient "world" empires of Assyria, Babylon, the Medes and Persians, under which enormous tracts of lands were seized from their native inhabitants, who were often forcibly deported. The Persian Empire was defeated by Alexander the Great, and the Greek Empire was then superseded by the Roman Empire.

In the "Dark Ages" various different "barbarians" spread in many directions. Britain was conquered by the Angles and Saxons, and then by the Normans. The last five hundred and more years since the "discovery" of America by Christopher Columbus witnessed unparalleled conquests of territories throughout the world by European powers such as Britain, Holland, France, Italy and Spain. It was normal practice for the colonial powers to plunder the lands and resources they conquered and either enslave the indigenous peoples or consign them to lives of inferiority, disenfranchisement and poverty.

The European colonial empires have officially been dismantled, yet Britain continues to occupy Northern Ireland and also regards the far-off Falkland Islands as its territory. British forces are currently operating side by side with American and other NATO forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, even though these countries are thousands of miles from their own countries. Turkey occupies large parts of Kurdistan even though the Turks and Kurds are ethnically different. China occupies Tibet even though the Tibetans are a different people. Russia occupies parts of Chechnya and Georgia, Spain and France occupy the Basque country, the United States of America occupies the lands of the indigenous American Indians.

Legitimate business

Our portion of DEVARIM teaches that while Israel were authorized to conquer the territories that God promised to the patriarchs, they were forbidden to conquer the land of the Edomites since this was not part of God's gift. On the contrary, they were explicitly commanded to conduct themselves towards them in a civil manner, buying any food supplies they needed on their way, including even the basic necessity of water, for which they were to pay ready money (Deuteronomy 2:6).

From this we learn that even where the national aspirations of one nation are different from those of another, they must not regard one another as objects for conquest and plunder. On the contrary, they must relate to one another peacefully, buying or selling in order to benefit one another.




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