Parshat Ekev is filled with memorable poetic passages that resonate in Jewish religious tradition: the Sh’ma (Deut. 11:18-21); “Man cannot live by bread alone…” (8:3); “Circumscribe the foreskins of your hearts…” (10:16)
Yet it also contains disturbing passages commanding the Israelites to exterminate the tribes who preceeded them in the land of Israel.
Chapters 7-10 describe an angry, threatening God, whose relationship with Israel is that of a stern, authoritarian father to a recalcitrant child. It contains chilly admonitions to the Israelites about the curses that will befall them if they stray from the path God has chosen.
These chapters also outline the brutal fate that awaits the tribes living in the land:
When the Lord your God brings you into the land which you are entering to occupy and drives out many nations before you…you must put them to death. You must not make a treaty with them or spare them…He will spread panic among them until all who are left or have gone into hiding perish before you…He will drive out these nations before you little by little. You will not be able to exterminate them quickly, for fear the wild beasts become too numerous for you. The Lord your God will deliver these nations over to you and will throw them into great panic in the hour of their destruction. He will put their kings into your hands, and you shall wipe out their name from under heaven. (7:1-24)
Genocide was not understood as a crime in ancient times. It appears that a people’s claim to territory was decided by brute force, rather than by any sort of merit. And the losers in territorial disputes were treated brutally. However, this gives the contemporary reader little comfort. By today’s standards, is this passage not an exhortation to genocide? Given the terrible sufferings of our people in the 20th century, how can this Biblical passage not cause us great moral anguish?
In chapter 10:12, Moses’ tone changes from a chill winter wind into a summer breeze. Anger turns to gentleness, threats turn to persuasion, prose turns to poetry:
What then, O Israel, does the Lord your God ask of you? Only to fear the Lord your God, to conform to all his ways, to love him and to serve him with all your heart and soul. To the Lord your God belong heaven itself, the highest heaven, the earth and everything in it; yet the Lord cared for your forefathers in his love for them…”
God is transformed from a theological autocrat into a moral exemplar:
He is no respecter of persons and is not to be bribed; he secures justice for widows and orphans, and loves the alien who lives among you, giving him food and clothing. You too must love the alien, for you once lived as aliens in Egypt” (10:18-20)
Personally, as a dedicated gardener and lover of the land, I point to an important theme which 20th century Biblical scholars have noted: the critical importance of agriculture to every aspect of Israelite society. In our time, isolated from nature in an urban environment, many of us are completely divorced from the cycles of nature. Therefore, it is worthwhile to focus again on the beautiful descriptions of nature and land in this portion:
For the Lord your God is bringing you to a rich land, a land of streams, of springs and underground waters gushing out in hill and valley, a land of wheat and barley, of vines, fig trees, and pomegranates, a land of olives, oil, and honey. It is a land where you will never live in poverty nor want for anything, a land whose stones are iron-ore and from whose hills you will dig copper. You will have plenty to eat and will bless the Lord your God for the rich land that he has given you” (8:7-10)
The land which you are entering to occupy is not like the land of Egypt from which you have come, where, after sowing your seed, you irrigated it by foot like a vegetable garden. But the land into which you are crossing to occupy is a land of mountains and valleys watered by the rain of heaven. It is a land which the Lord you God tends and on which his eye rests from year’s end to year’s end. If you pay heed to the commandments which I give you this day…I will send rain for your land in season, both autumn and spring rains, and you will gather your corn and new wine and oil, and I will provide pasture in the fields for your cattle: you shall eat your fill” (11:10-15)
To better understand the lives our ancestors led, we should become more attuned to the rhythms of nature…the changing of seasons, plantings and harvests. When we curse snow and ice in winter or pouring rain in spring, we should remember that this is all part of a cycle that allows nature to provide us fruit, flower and sustenance.