There’s No Business Like Sword Business: Hukkat 2016

by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Pre-Game Chatter: Should some of the more brutal stories in the Torah be understood as models for modern policy? Is it more appropriate to see these accounts as products of their time and place? Or are we better off saying that these stories enable us to understand what not to do?

The Torah portion of Hukkat recounts the Israelite battle with the Canaanites, a struggle started by the Canaanites but finished by the Israelites in brutal fashion.

The Pitch: “When the Canaanite, the king of Arad, who dwelt in the Negeb, learned that Israel was coming by the way of Atharim, he engaged Israel in battle and took some of them captive. Then Israel made a vow to Adonai and said, ‘If you deliver this people into our hand, we will proscribe their towns.’ Adonai heeded Israel’s plea and delivered up the Canaanites, and they and their cities were proscribed. So that place was named Hormah.” (Numbers 21:1-3)

Swing #1: “In Numbers 21, the Canaanite king of Arad fought against Israel and took captives. Now the Israelites promised God that, if God delivered the enemy into their hands, they would destroy his cities. God agreed to the transaction, and both sides kept their word: God by delivering the Canaanites and the Israelites by destroying the cities. It may be assumed that, in the course of the destruction, men, women, and children of the vanquished were also killed. There is considerable similarity between a ban leading to destruction of booty and the offering of sacrifice, but it is unlikely that the killing and destruction were in the frame of a religious ceremony.” – Daniel Friedmann, To Kill and Take Possession: Law, Morality, and Society in Biblical Stories

Swing #2: “Archaeologists have disagreed on the identification of both Arad and Hormah as represented in this account. Evidence of urban settlement in the western Negeb is lacking for the late 13th or early 12th centuries B.C.E., when the battle here recorded between the Israelites and the Canaanites would have occurred. … [It is likely] that we have in Numbers 21:1-3 a composite account, representing yet another probable instance of historiographic refraction.” – Baruch A. Levine, Numbers 21-36

Swing #3: “The people tried once again to enter Canaan from the south but were challenged by the king of Arad. Although the account suggests, perhaps wistfully, that the band of former slaves actually won this battle, they apparently did not continue into Canaan but rather retreated and set out once again to the east into Moab.” – Arthur J. Bellinzoni, The Old Testament

Late-Inning Questions: Whether or not this story actually happened, it seems clear that it had a negligible impact on the Israelites’ wanderings (since they were unable to enter the Promised Land) and only caused destruction. Is such an assessment an accurate way to see modern warfare? As we struggle with increasing violence in America and abroad, what can we learn from this story about the necessity (or, in many cases, the lack thereof) of battling with other nations and nationalities?

On Deck at Emanu-El: It isn’t too late to give blood this afternoon at Emanu-El. The American Red Cross is always in need of more donations. If you’re able, please consider coming to the synagogue (5 Windsor Drive, Charleston) between 1:00 and 6:00PM today. All donors will receive a complimentary Shabbat dinner, which follows our 6:00PM services.

The Big Inning at the End: It’s high time that the All-Star Game drop its gimmick of awarding home-field advantage in the World Series to the league that wins the game. There are too many elements of the All-Star Game that make it an exhibition (i.e., requiring at least one player from every team to make the roster, allowing pitchers to pitch a maximum of three innings) to make the game also “count”. It would be better to utilize the game to celebrate baseball for what it is – a game. Let the players fight it out once the season resumes. (As you can tell, I don’t have particularly strong thoughts on the matter …)

Shabbat Shalom!