Shofetim Chapter 3
This chapter opens with a list of the groups of indigenous Canaanites who were not driven out of the land by the Jewish people. Interestingly, here these populations are characterized as having been left there by Hashem so as to test the Jews, and “so that the generations of the Children of Israel will know – to teach them the art of war, which before they had not known…” Another reason given for their continued presence in the land is to test the Jewish people “if they will listen to the commandments of Hashem that he commanded their fathers through Moshe.”
The Jews began intermarrying with their non-Jewish neighbors and eventually started worshiping idolatrous gods – the Baalim and Asherot, which were the most popular deities in the region during that period. As predicted by the “cycle of Shofetim” described in the previous chapter, this led to the emergence and dominance of Kushan Rishatayim, King of Aram Naharayim, over Israel. He subjugated them for eight years, until they “cried out to Hashem”, signifying a return to Torah and mitzvot; as a result, Otniel Ben Qenaz was inspired by Hashem to save them from oppression. He mobilized the Jewish military and defeated Kushan Rishatayim, thereby restoring Jewish independence. The situation was stable for forty years, until the death of Otniel ben Qenaz.
Following the death of their leader, Israel sank even more deeply into idolatry and found itself once again dominated by a foreign power – Eglon, King of Moav. After eighteen years of suffering, the Jews turned to Hashem for salvation and He provided them with another Shofet, Ehud ben Gera. After bringing Eglon a tribute from the Jewish people, Ehud returned to the palace and requested a private audience with the King. Eglon granted his wish and ordered his officers to leave the chamber immediately.
Upon being told that Ehud had a divine message to share with him, Eglon rose from his throne, and Ehud quickly thrust a double-edged spear into his belly (Ehud was left handed, and kept his sword on the right side of his body – a place that the security guards had apparently neglected to search when they allowed him entry!) Because Eglon was so corpulent, the entire sword, including the handle, was sucked into his belly, and his guts spilled everywhere. Ehud departed from the chamber and closed the door behind him, making his escape.
Meanwhile, the guards did not check on Eglon for some time, assuming that perhaps he was using the bathroom inside and could not be disturbed…When they finally investigated and found him dead, it was already too late to seize the perpetrator who was long gone. The ensuing battle culminated in political freedom, secure borders and independence for the Jews that would last another eighty years.
The chapter concludes with a brief vignette about Shamgar ben Anat, a Shofet about whom we are not told much. All we know is that he managed to slaughter six hundred Pelishtim single-handedly with little more than a cattle prod.
One question worth exploring in this chapter is the multiple messages we are given regarding who is responsible for the Canaanites remaining in the land. Previous chapters have indicated that this was the fault of the Jews, or even of Yehoshua, for not having removed them forcibly as they were commanded. Our chapter suggests that Hashem planned for them to stay, either in order to “teach the art of war” to the Jews or to test their obedience to the Torah. Which one of these explanations is correct?
Rashi, Radaq and others explain that the “teaching of war” here was actually a PUNISHMENT for the Jewish people. Prior battles had been one with divine assistance alone, no military training necessary. The fact that they now needed to prepare physically and tactically for war was a sign that they had lost the divine support that allowed previous generations to succeed without such preparations. According to this interpretation, earlier chapters that described the laxity of the Jews with respect to the conquest were in fact accurate; here, we read about the consequences of that laxity, the absence of divine providence and the challenges and temptations that interfere with Torah observance were of their own making!
I would like to tentatively suggest another possibility for your consideration. Perhaps the “learning of war” mentioned here is actually a blessing, not a curse. The transition into Israel had to be accompanied by greater self-reliance and a decreased dependence upon supernatural help. True, the Jews were obligated to remove the Canaanites and create a territory free of idolatrous influence that would undermine their adherence to the Torah. However, had Hashem enabled them to drive out all of these enemies in Yehoshua’s time, they may not have been compelled to develop the “inner strength” and military capabilities necessary for functioning as an independent nation-state on the international scene.
Hashem saw that the Jewish people had become reticent and resistant to pursuing the military campaigns in Israel. When Hashem had taken care of them in a miraculous fashion, all was well. But the more they had to rely upon their own sweat and tears to secure their borders, the more they lost their passion for the fight. The “test” was to see if the Jews would continue to wait for miracles in the establishment of their community or would gain the knowledge, wisdom and practicality needed to take care of and defend themselves.
From this perspective, all of the explanations for the continued presence of Canaanites in the land are also true. However, rather than seeing the mastery of the art of war as a punishment for not removing the Canaanites, this training could have actually been the GOAL of that experience. Ideally, they would have developed this competence during the initial military campaigns and conquest under the leadership of Yehoshua; since they did not, they were left with a complicated political landscape that demanded they continue to engage in war without supernatural assistance. Note that, in the language of the verse, there is no clear indication that learning the art of war was a bad thing, which provides some support for this explanation.
I see a precedent for this line of reasoning in the words of HaRambam, who comments that the reason the First Temple was destroyed was that, rather than focusing on mastering the art of war and learning how to defend themselves properly in battle, the Jews of that time turned to astrology, superstition, mysticism and other supernatural means of protection when their existence in the land was threatened. This lack of wisdom and failure to act intelligently led to their exile to Babylonia.
The interpretation of HaRambam teaches us that it is possible to view the possession of military skill as a blessing and not a curse. In fact, it is the ultimate example of divine providence – Hashem’s gracious act of giving us intelligence that we can use to protect and advance our interests every moment of every day, even in the absence of miracles. Only when the Jewish people mature out of a framework of magical thinking and dependence on the supernatural and can live as a wise and understanding nation in the world are they truly worthy of representing Hashem in His chosen land.