Challenging foundational stories

Challenging foundational stories

Ekev | Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25

Conflicting reports exist within the Bible about the Israelite entry into the Land of Canaan. The basic contrast emerges in the books that follow the Five Books of Moses. Joshua suggests that the Israelite conquest was a rapid and thorough military enterprise; Judges indicates that the conquest was incremental, of long duration, and less than a total success.

This week’s portion sides with the version in Judges, stating that “The Lord your God will dislodge those peoples before you little by little; you will not be able to put an end to them at once, else the wild beasts would multiply to your hurt.” (Deuteronomy 7:22; see also Exodus 23:29-30)

The correlative passages in Judges suggest that the slow conquest of Canaan was a result either of God’s punishment of Israel for faithlessness, a test of Israel’s willingness to follow the stipulations of the Covenant, or a necessary means for the new generation born in the desert to experience the hardening that results from war and builds the capacity to endure.

By contrast, the record of conquest in Joshua is dazzling and decisive, the stuff of which myths and movies are made, with heroes and villains clearly drawn and the righteousness of the cause never in doubt.

As in other places in the Bible where differing versions of the same events are recorded, the remarkable thing here is that the biblical editors have left competing narratives.

The image of instantaneous incursion is appealing, but is the version most likely to be questioned by historians. Evidence in Judges, Samuel, and Kings indicates that the Israelites gradually infiltrated Canaan. Some indigenous populations seems to have been put to the sword, but others, including that of Jebusite Jerusalem, appear to have resisted the Israelites.

Put differently, given the complexity of the political, military, social, and cultural forces at play, it is likely that, as Rabbi Gunther Plaut puts it in his commentary, “the actual and full acquisition took several hundred years, and the native population was assimilated and not driven off or killed.”

Like the differing accounts in Joshua and Judges, some contemporary Israeli scholarship presents conflicting versions of the events and issues associated with the beginning of the State of Israel, some that challenge essential parts of Israeli culture and history. 

The Bible’s openness to preserving differing accounts of the establishment of the first Jewish state should provide guidance in meditating the inevitable tensions that arise when foundational myths yield to historical reassessment. In the immediacy of events, a normative myth emerges. The further one gets from the events, the more complex become the analyses and explanations. 

To challenge foundational stories is, to some, to undercut the legitimacy of the moral and historical claims that are the foundation of Israel itself. But re-visiting and re-visioning does not diminish the centrality or the vitality of Jewish political autonomy. As the biblical writers were able to accommodate alternative accounts, so too must contemporary Jews enter into discussion and debate, whether about the ways ancient Israel came to the Promised Land, or the ways contemporary Jews reclaimed a place in that same land for the modern State of Israel. 

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