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We and They

John D. Rayner
Fall 2000

Those of you who have been to Israel will almost certainly agree with me that the view from the top of Massada across the Dead Sea towards the Moabite mountains is one of the most glorious sights on earth. Those mountains are, of course, named after the people who inhabited the region during the biblical period—the Moabites.  

What do we know about them? They first appeared in the region in the 14th century, just before the time of the Exodus, when they changed their nomadic way of life to one of agriculture and cattle raising. To defend their territory, they often engaged in warfare with neighboring peoples, including the Israelites, and were often defeated, but sometimes victorious. A rare victory of theirs over the Israelites, in the ninth century, is recorded on the famous Mesha Stone, named after their king of the time (II Kings 3:4), now in the Louvre in Paris. It is written in the same script as ancient Hebrew and shows that their language was extremely similar to Hebrew.  

Polytheists and Idolaters  

Religiously, they were, like everybody else in the ancient Near East except the Israelites, polytheists and idolaters. Their principal god was Chemosh (I Kings 11:7), and human sacrifice was not unknown among them. On one occasion, recorded in the Bible, their king sacrificed his firstborn son as a burnt offering (II Kings 3:27), which gives an edge to our Haftarah, where Micah mentions Moab and in the same breath pours scorn on sacrifices and goes on to say: `Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?' (6:7)  

Eventually the Moabites were conquered by the Assyrians under king Sennacherib and a century or two later by the Babylonians. Then they were dispersed and disappeared from history in the same way as the Ten Tribes of Northern Israel did around the same time.  

What is interesting about the Moabites to me, and I hope to you, is that what the Bible has to say about them throws a whole lot of light on how our Israelite ancestors related to adjoining peoples. To put it mildly, there was no love lost between them and the Moabites, and that in spite of the fact that they were next-door neighbors and spoke virtually the same language. There was even a tradition that they came from common Hebrew stock, for according to the Bible the Moabites' ancestor was none other than Abraham's nephew Lot. In other words, they were, so to speak, cousins.  

Common Ancestry  

But notice how that story of a common ancestry is told. According to the biblical account (which should be marked `parental guidance') it went back to an unsavory incident when Lot's two daughters got their father drunk and themselves pregnant by him, with the result that the elder daughter gave birth to Moab, ancestor of the Moabites, and the younger to Ammon, ancestor of the Ammonites (Gen. 19:30-38). Obviously, the Moabites, like the Ammonites, were already much hated when that story was written. It was a way of saying that they were a misbegotten people, a bunch of bastards.  

Why were they so hated? Because of a series of hostile encounters. The first occurred at the time of the Exodus, when the Israelites, unable to enter the Promised Land from the south because it was too heavily fortified by the Canaanites chose the second-best route, via Transjordan with the intention of making their incursion across the Jordan from the east. But that meant going through the territory of the Moabites, so they demanded of them a guarantee of safe passage as well as provisions - in twentieth-century terms, that they should set up a series of NAAFI canteens along the route where food and drink would be freely available with the compliments of the king.  

Precautionary Measures  

To that request the king of Moab did not respond well. In fact he was rather less enthusiastic about it than the Catholics of Northern Ireland are about the marches of Orangemen through their areas. Knowing what a formidable reputation the Israelites had as warriors, he first panicked, then took precautionary measures. A modern ruler would have ordered a general call-up, built air-raid shelters and perhaps consulted an astrologer. King Balak summoned the greatest of the pagan prophets, Balaam, and bribed him to curse the Israelites. And though, by divine intervention, the curse was turned into a blessing, Balak's intention was ever after held against him.  

To make things worse, the story went round that a group of Moabite women had seduced some of the Israelites into taking part in a debauched ritual in honor of a god of theirs called Baal-peor (Num. 25:1-5).  

Bitter fighting ensued, and renewed itself from time to time in the following centuries. On one occasion, for instance, King David defeated the Moabites, then made them lie down on the ground and measured them off with a cord, a longer one for those who were to be put to death, a shorter one for those who were to be spared (II Sam. 8:1f) - an early form of Selektion.  

Forbidding Intermarriage  

Finally, a law was promulgated forbidding Israelites to intermarry with Moabites, even if they converted to Judaism, for ever. And the reason for the law is clearly stated: `Because they did not meet you with food and water on your journey after you left Egypt, and because they hired Balaam...to curse you' (Deut. 23:4-7).  

From the evidence so far, what shall we say about the attitude of our Israelite ancestors to their neighboring peoples? Surely we must say that it was on a level with the attitude of most nations engaged in territorial disputes with other nations in most times and places: no worse, but also no better. And when we read that the law forbidding intermarriage with Moabites - motivated by an eternal vindictiveness - was a divine command, surely we must respond with Mel Calman's cartoon depicting God as an old man with a long beard sitting on a cloud, holding a book and shaking his head, with the caption `I've been misquoted'. Surely this one example alone, even if there were not many more, would furnish proof positive that the fundamentalist view of the Bible as `the Word of God' is mistaken.  

In Anglo-Jewry, the first religious leader to face that fact with complete frankness was the founder of our Synagogue, Claude Montefiore. As he wrote, the Bible `is not good because it is from God; it is from God so far as it is good' (JRU Manifesto, 1909). And the first Orthodox scholar to come to the same conclusion is Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs, to whom we send our best wishes on his eightieth birthday. As he says in his latest book, the Bible contains `higher and lower, error as well as truth, the ignoble as well as the noble' (Beyond Reasonable Doubt, p. 51).  

Positive Evidence  

Clearly the evidence we have considered so far belongs to the `lower' level, since it shows that the Israelites related to their enemies just like other nations. But that is not the end of the story! There is also positive evidence. Take for instance the Edomites, another people closely related to the Israelites who lived on their borders and engaged in warfare with them. What does the book of Deuteronomy say about them? `You shall not abhor an Edomite, for he is your brother' (23:7). Or take the two mighty empires which enslaved and conquered Israel. What according to Isaiah, does God say about them? `Blessed be Egypt My people, and Assyria the work of My hands, and Israel My inheritance' (19:25). Surely you will not find anything like that in any other ancient literature. In these instances the Hebrew Bible is centuries and even millennia ahead of its time. They belong to the `higher' level.  

Or take the Moabites themselves. Considering the bitter hatred in which they were held, is it not astonishing that an Israelite author had the courage to write a short story with a Moabitess, Ruth, as its heroine, asserting that she was none other than the great-grandmother of David, the most beloved of Israelite kings? And even more astonishing that the book was admitted into the sacred canon of the Hebrew Bible?  

Book of Ruth  

But even that is not the end of the story. Because the book of Ruth was admitted into the canon, therefore the Rabbis decided that the intermarriage prohibition applied only to male, not to female, Moabites (Yev. 8:3). And only a short time later, one of the greatest of the Rabbis, Joshua ben Chananya, argued successfully against his colleagues that the law should be rescinded altogether on the ground that Sennacherib, king of Assyria, had long ago mixed up the nations, so that the descendants of the ancient Moabites were no longer identifiable (Yad. 4:4).  

Coming Full Circle  

For the greater part of the last two thousand years, therefore, all non-Jews, regardless of their racial or national origin, have been in principle entitled to become members of the Jewish people, subject to conversion, although, as we all know, Orthodox Judaism makes that process more difficult than Progressive Judaism. And in the most recent years we have gone one step further still, known as `outreach', by declaring that non-Jews, even if they don`t convert, are welcome in our community as honored guests. And so we have come full circle from our starting point and the universalism, which has always been inherent in Judaism, has finally been carried to its logical conclusion. I hope and believe that the God of Israel and all Humanity, who would never have commanded irreconcilable vindictiveness towards the Moabites, may be pleased with us on that account.

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