Judaism: Israel's First War
The Torah portion of Vayishlach opens with Ya’akov and his household approaching the Land of Canaan, returning home 34 years after fleeing his twin brother’s murderous rage, intending at the time to stay away for no more than several days (Genesis 27:44).
Now, more than a third of a century later, the destitute fugitive returns to his homeland as a wealthy patriarch with two wives, two concubines, twelve sons and a daughter, hundreds of goats, sheep and camels, and servants and maidservants.
After having fought his way past an angel and becoming Israel in the process (32:25-29), and after encountering his long-estranged twin brother and successfully avoiding conflict with him (33:1-17), at last “Ya’akov came in peace to the city of Shechem which is in the Land of Canaan, when coming from Paddan-Aram” (33:18).
The expression “va-yavo Ya’akov shalem”, which we have translated here “Ya’akov came in peace…” is unusual. The Rashbam (Rabbi Shmu’el ben Meir, c1080-c.1160), grandson and close student of Rashi, has a unique interpretation: according to him, this means that Ya’akov came to the city called Shalem; and “the city of Shechem” means, the city which belonged to Shechem.
Most authorities, however, understand “shalem” here to be an adjective, hence our translation.
The Talmud (Shabbat 33b) cites Rav’s interpretation: “complete [i.e. uninjured] in his body, complete in his possessions, complete in his Torah”. Rashi explains: “‘complete in his body’ – he had been cured of his limp [where the angel had struck him]; ‘complete in his Torah’ – the rigours of travel had not caused him to forget what he had learned”.
The Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 79:5) has a similar understanding: “Complete in his body: earlier ‘he was limping on his hip’ (Genesis 32:32), but now he was complete in his body. Complete in his children: earlier he had said, ‘If Esau comes against one camp and smites it, then the remaining camp will survive’ (Genesis 32:9), however now all his children were complete. Complete in his possessions: even though, as Rabbi Avun quoting Rabbi Acha said, that our father Ya’akov honoured Esau for nine years with that gift, nevertheless here he was complete in his possessions. Rabbi Yochanan said, complete in his learning”.
Ya’akov must have hoped that his tribulations were over. After being threatened with death by his twin brother, fleeing to exile when h was 63 years old, spending 20 years in servitude to his mendacious uncle, fighting an angel to return to his homeland – had he not suffered enough?!
Because as soon as he came to Shechem, his daughter Dinah, who went sight-seeing through Shechem, was abducted and raped by Shechem the son of Hamor, the Hivvite, the local ruler.
Shechem must have felt safe. He was, after all, the prince of one of the powerful nations in the Land of Canaan, and the girl he raped was one of the Hebrews – a single family. What consequence could he possibly suffer?
We know how the events developed. Hamor, Shechem’s father, asked Ya’akov, Dinah’s father, to agree that the Shechem and Dinah marry. His offer, on the surface, sounded reasonable: “Intermarry with us; give us your daughters, and take our daughters for yourselves. Thus you shall dwell with us, and the Land will be before you; settle and trade therein, and take possession of it” (Genesis 34:9-10).
The Rashbam (commentary to verse 9) notes Hamor’s duplicity: in his offer to Ya’akov – “give us your daughters, and take our daughters for yourselves” – he suggests that he will leave the decision of which Jewish girls to give the Hivvites, and which Hivvite girls to take for themselves, with the Hebrew family. But immediately afterwards, when Hamor addresses his own people, he subtly changes the terms: “We can take their daughters for ourselves as wives, and we will give them our daughters” (34:22) – that is, they, the Hivvites, will decide which Hebrew girls they take for marriage and which Hivvite girls they give the Hebrews.
So much for Hamor’s offer of coexistence with the Hebrews in Shechem!
In fact, Ya’akov and his family hardly needed this subtle indication to realise Hamor and his nation’s evil intentions. Obviously, no agreement based upon rape could ever bring genuine peace and coexistence between the Hebrews and the nations occupying the Land of Israel.
And Ya’akov had already experienced the false smiles and hugs of his uncle Lavan and his twin brother Esau. If he had learned not to trust his own family, then he certainly knew not to trust a stranger.
Ya’akov’s sons gave Hamor a logical response: “We cannot do this – to give our sister to an uncircumcised man, because that would be a disgrace for us. There’s only one way we’ll agree: if you become like us, circumcising every male. Then we’ll give you our daughters and take your daughters for ourselves, we’ll dwell with you, and we’ll become a single nation. But if you will not listen to us to be circumcised, then we’ll take our daughter and go” (vs. 14-16).
Hamor succeeded in convincing his people to agree, whereupon all their men were circumcised. And on the third day, when the wound of circumcision was at its most painful, Ya’akov’s two hot-headed sons, Shimon and Levi, went way beyond what the other brothers had planned: “They came upon the city confidently, killing every male; they killed Hamor and his son Shechem by the sword, they took Dinah from Shechem’s house, and they left” (vs. 25-26).
Several commentators have given different rationales for Shimon and Levi’s response. The Rambam, as one would expect, has a purely halachic analysis. In Laws of Kings 9:1, based on Sanhedrin 56a, he lists the seven mitzvot which apply to the sons of Noah (i.e. the whole of humanity: the prohibitions against idolatry, blasphemy, murder, sexual immorality (homosexuality, incest, bestiality, adultery), theft, and eating the limb torn from a living animal; and the obligation to establish law courts to enforce these.
And then he specifies: “A son of Noah who transgresses any of these laws is killed by decapitation, which is why all the men of Shechem were punishable by death; after all, Shechem kidnapped [Dinah], and they saw and knew, but did not bring him to justice” (Laws of Kings 9:14).
The Mahara”l of Prague (Rabbi Yehudah Loew ben Betzalel, c. 1520-1609) disagrees with the Rambam. In his commentary on the Torah, Gur Aryeh, he argues: “How could they possibly have brought ruler of the land, whom they feared, to justice? Even though they had been commanded to set up a system of law courts, that would only apply when they are able to judging a perpetrator; but in case of duress the Torah exempts them – because how they could possibly judge him?”
And the Mahara”l then provides a different rationale for Shimon and Levi’s actions: “They were permitted to fight against them, following the law of one nation which comes to fight against another nation, which the Torah has permitted. And even though the Torah commands, ‘When you draw near to a city to wage war against it, you shall call out to it for peace’ (Deuteronomy 20:10) – that only applies when they have not caused any harm to Israel; but where they have caused harm to Israel, such as where they [the leaders of the city] overstepped their natural barriers to perform their perverse deed [against Dinah], even though only one of them acted in this manner, since he is a part of the nation, and since they made the first belligerent move, they are permitted to take revenge against them”.
That is to say, the Hivvites constituted a recognised and unified nation, as did the Children of Israel (literally, Israel and his sons and daughter). For sure, Shechem and his son Hamor act as king and prince, giving orders which their subjects follow; they act as rulers of the country, adjudicating who can live among them and under what conditions. And when informing their people of the agreement with the Hebrews, they announce that “these people will dwell with us, becoming a single nation” (Genesis 34:22) – implicitly recognising that both they and the Hebrews constituted nations.
The inference is that because the Hivvites recognised and declared themselves to be a distinct nation, the principle of collective responsibility in warfare applied to them.
Afterwards, Ya’akov castigated his sons Shimon and Levi: “You have troubled me by making me odious among the inhabitants of the Land – the Canaanites and the Perizzites – and I am few in number; and if they gather against me and attack me, then I will be annihilated – I and my household” (v. 30).
Notice that Ya’akov does not accuse them of doing anything morally wrong: he does not argue that “you have violated the civil rights of the Hivvites”, or that “you have committed a war-crime”. His sole argument is that attacking Shechem and killing all the men therein was tactically ill-advised.
Shimon and Levi do not argue the issue; they simply respond, “Will he make our sister as a harlot?!” (v. 34) – and with those words the Torah closes the episode. If Ya’akov responded, the Torah does not record his response. It deliberately gives the final word to Shimon and Levi.
Yet there is a riposte.
Immediately afterwards, “G-d said to Ya’akov: Arise, go up to Beit El and dwell there, and make there an altar to the G-d Who appeared to you when you were fleeing from Esau your brother” (35:1). The journey from Shechem to Beit El is potentially hazardous, particularly with an entourage which includes little children. But when “they travelled, the terror of G-d was on the cities which surrounded them, so they did not pursue Ya’akov’s sons” (v. 5).
The Malbim (Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yechiel Michael Weiser, Volhynia, Poland, Romania, France, and Ukraine, 1809-1879) expounds: “The fear of G-d fell upon all the inhabitants of the cities because they believed that it was a miracle of G-d that two men could kill an entire city, and that it was HaShem’s punishment for the violence that they had committed; thus their fear of HaShem prevented them from pursuing the sons of Ya’akov”.
And the Malbim continues, and in his final words we find a crucial message for our time: “Because Ya’akov’s sons dedicated their hearts to HaShem and feared HaShem, Ya’akov’s sons’ fear of HaShem spread forth and was cast upon all the cities”.
Fearing the enemy – this is the surest way to lose a war. Fearing G-d, particularly for a Jew in the Land of Israel – this is the surest way to win a war. As long as we fear G-d above man, and as long as we are open about fearing Him, the fear of G-d will inexorably fall upon the inhabitants of the Land.