Jewish Peace Offerings

Deuteronomy's laws of warfare include the requirement that a nation seek a peaceful settlement before engaging in war.

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God Adopts Moses' Approach

God's decision to destroy the Amorites (and even to harden Sihon's heart) may be seen as a political necessity. In order to allow Israel the opportunity to offer terms of peace in the future, God recognized the importance of establishing Israel as a military power first. Alternatively, perhaps God had a change of heart. According to a midrash, God not only annulled the earlier decree, but did so based on Moses' teaching:

"'This is the Torah of the peace offering' (Leviticus 7:11). Scripture says, '[The Torah's] ways are ways of pleasantness and all of its paths are peace' (Proverbs 3:17). Everything which was written in the Torah was written in order to create peace. Even though the Torah writes of war, even the wars were written to create peace."

"So you find that the Holy Blessed One annulled the decree of destruction for the sake of peace. When? God had commanded Moses 'When you lay siege to a city for many days…' (Deuteronomy 20:19), God said 'You shall utterly destroy them' (Deuteronomy 20:17). But Moses did not do this. Rather, Moses said, I will kill those who have sinned, but those who have not sinned I will approach peacefully, as it says 'And I sent messengers from the wilderness of Kedemot…words of peace…' (Deuteronomy 2:26). When Moses saw that they did not accept peace, he killed them…"

"The Holy Blessed One said, 'I said "you shall utterly destroy them" but you did not do that. By your life! Just as you, Moses, have said, so will I do!' as it says, 'When you come close to a city to attack it, you will call out to it in peace' (Deuteronomy 20:10). Therefore it is written, '[The Torah's] ways are ways of pleasantness and all of its paths are peace'" (Midrash Tanhuma Tzav 3).

Abarbanel: God Wants Peacemaking

According to the midrash, Moses taught God the necessity of offering peace. The 15th century Portuguese commentator Isaac Abarbanel, however, rejects this approach. God is the source of peace and clemency. Abarbanel expresses this idea in his explanation of the reasons for offering terms of peace:

The first reason is that it is appropriate to "walk in God's ways" (Deuteronomy 28:9), and God does not desire death or the destruction of the world but repentance. God extends God's right hand to welcome the penitent, and that includes mortal kings and other people….

Abarbanel continues with more "political" explanations:

The second reason [to extend terms of peace] is that conquering through peaceful means demonstrates both ability and good character and peacefulness…but conquering a city through military means might demonstrate ability but also cruelty and bad characteristics, which is dangerous for an enduring kingship, as Isaiah says "Through mercy a throne is established" (Isaiah 15:5)….

The third reason is that military victory is always unsure…Have we not seen the many fall to the few or the strong to the weak?…Therefore it is appropriate to choose true peace rather than to trust in a doubtful victory. That is the reason why, when laying siege to a city, an avenue for escape is always left for the besieged, lest a person who has given up on his chances for a life of peace endanger his life just to strike at his enemies. Therefore, it is always better to choose peace.

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Jeffrey Spitzer is Chair of the Department of Talmud and Rabbinics at Gann Academy, The New Jewish High School, Waltham, Mass., and a member of the Institute's Tichon Fellows Program.