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SBL e-journal

Adele Reinhartz





God, Israelites and Non-Israelites: Embracing Ambivalence



APA e-journal

Adele Reinhartz





God, Israelites and Non-Israelites: Embracing Ambivalence






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God, Israelites and Non-Israelites: Embracing Ambivalence

A postmodern look at Deuteronomy’s view on God’s role in politics, the challenge of monotheism in biblical times, and the relative positions of Israel and her neighbors in God’s eyes.


God, Israelites and Non-Israelites: Embracing Ambivalence

Extermination of the Canaanites, by F. Philippoteaux, from Ridpath's Universal History 1897

I have been listening to divrei torah and sermons in mainstream Conservative and Orthodox synagogues off and on for most of my adult life. From this long experience I have gathered that rabbis, especially but not only those of a certain age – my age – are trained to draw connections between the Torah portion and contemporary issues. Parashat Ekev provides plenty of fodder for such a treatment.

What a Rabbi Might Talk About on the Torah Portion

At this point in Deuteronomy, the Israelites are nearing the end of their long period of wandering in the wilderness and preparing themselves to enter the land. Moses assures them that they will be blessed if they observe God’s ordinances, and they will suffer if they do not. He also urges them to place the divine words.

דברים יא:יח וְשַׂמְתֶּם אֶת דְּבָרַי אֵלֶּה עַל לְבַבְכֶם וְעַל נַפְשְׁכֶם וּקְשַׁרְתֶּם אֹתָם לְאוֹת עַל יֶדְכֶם וְהָיוּ לְטוֹטָפֹת בֵּין עֵינֵיכֶם.
Deut 11:18 Place these words of mine on your hearts and souls, bind them as a sign on your hands, and they shall be an emblem on your foreheads.

He further emphasizes the need to “teach them to your children,” וְלִמַּדְתֶּם אֹתָם אֶת בְּנֵיכֶם (Deut 11:19).

In between the blessings, curses, and exhortations, Moses prophesies that God will destroy the inhabitants of the land and clear away the nations, burn their images, and hand over their kings, so that the Israelites may settle in this good land (8:7-8),

דברים ח:ז ...אֶרֶץ נַחֲלֵי מָיִם עֲיָנֹת וּתְהֹמֹת... ח:ח אֶרֶץ חִטָּה וּשְׂעֹרָה וְגֶפֶן וּתְאֵנָה וְרִמּוֹן אֶרֶץ זֵית שֶׁמֶן וּדְבָשׁ.
Deut 8:7 ...a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters... 8:8 a land of wheat and barley of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey.

A land where they will lack for nothing and eat their fill (8:9-10).

With these weighty topics, the Torah portion can easily be a jumping off point for any number of sermons on the observance of mitzvot such as tefillin, on the importance of Jewish education, and on whether God supports Jewish hegemony in the land of Israel.

Seeing the Ancient Worldview: The Torah Portion Beyond the Pulpit

Nevertheless, what strikes me on reading the Torah portion is not so much its contemporary resonances but its strangeness. By strangeness I mean that there are elements in these chapters that underscore the profound differences between the worldview expressed in the Torah portion and that of many Jews today, myself included.

God’s Direct Control of the Land Based on Israel’s Behavior

One such element is the interpretation of military and political events as a function of the tumultuous and hierarchical relationship between God and Israel. According to the Torah portion, Israel’s obedience will be rewarded by success in establishing herself in the land, for God will send pestilence against the nations, destroy their survivors, and ensure that:

דברים ז:כד …לֹא יִתְיַצֵּב אִישׁ בְּפָנֶיךָ עַד הִשְׁמִדְךָ אֹתָם.
Deut 7:24 one will be able to stand against you, until you have destroyed them.

Disobedience, on the other hand, will kindle God’s anger, so that:

דברים יא:יז וְעָצַר אֶת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְלֹא יִהְיֶה מָטָר וְהָאֲדָמָה לֹא תִתֵּן אֶת יְבוּלָהּ וַאֲבַדְתֶּם מְהֵרָה מֵעַל הָאָרֶץ הַטֹּבָה אֲשֶׁר יְ־הוָה נֹתֵן לָכֶם.
Deut 11:17 [YHWH] will shut up the heavens, so that there will be no rain and the land will yield no fruit and you will perish quickly off the good land that YHWH is giving you.

Biblical scholars refer to this mechanism of reward and punishment as the Deuteronomistic view of history, due to its appearance here and elsewhere in Deuteronomy. And while there are Jews and non-Jews who still think this is how the world works, most, I believe (and hope), acknowledge that there are numerous other factors – economic, geographic, cultural, political, technological, meteorological, to name some of the most obvious – that govern events such as military victory or defeat, drought or plenitude.

The Difficult Struggle to Establish YHWH as the One God

A second element is the emphasis on idolatry as the sin most to be avoided on the part of the Israelites. Today idolatry is often understood metaphorically, for example, as the blind worship of money or celebrity. But this and many other sections of the Torah and the Tanakh as a whole should remind us that the main challenge for the Israelites in this period, and indeed for many centuries thereafter, was their attraction to the worship of many gods, in addition to or instead of the God of Israel.

The Torah portion’s repetition of the Golden Calf event, the echoing of the Shema (10:12), and the tefillin passage – which may or may not have referred to a ritual in its original historical context[1] – themselves testify to the long and difficult process by which the God of Israel came to be seen as the one, sole, universal creator God instead of simply the god of a particular people who engaged in combat with the gods of other peoples such as the Egyptians and the Canaanites.

Ancients and Postmodern’s Shared Ambivalence

At least one element in this Torah portion, however, does resonate with our modern sensibilities, or, to be more accurate, with the postmodern sensibilities of a broad range of disciplines, including biblical studies. That element is ambivalence, and its close relative, contradiction. In particular, the Torah portion implies two different assessments of the non-Israelites, and two different ways of viewing the terms of God’s relationship with the Israelites.

God’s Attitude to Non-Israelites

The first part of the Torah portion (7:16) paints the non-Israelites as public enemy number one, and lumps them together as “all the peoples (כל העמים)” that God will eradicate in order for Israel to return to the land. Later, in 9:4-5, God clarifies that the miserable fate of these nations is a punishment for their wickedness.

And yet, in 10:17-19, Moshe tells Israel,

דברים י:יז כִּי יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם הוּא אֱלֹהֵי הָאֱלֹהִים וַאֲדֹנֵי הָאֲדֹנִים הָאֵל הַגָּדֹל הַגִּבֹּר וְהַנּוֹרָא אֲשֶׁר לֹא יִשָּׂא פָנִים וְלֹא יִקַּח שֹׁחַד. י:יחעֹשֶׂה מִשְׁפַּט יָתוֹם וְאַלְמָנָה וְאֹהֵב גֵּר לָתֶת לוֹ לֶחֶם וְשִׂמְלָה.
Deut 10:17 For YHWH your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, 10:18 who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.

And further, Israel is commanded to:

י:יט וַאֲהַבְתֶּם אֶת הַגֵּר כִּי גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם.
10:19 Love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

These two views may express a before-and-after perspective: hostility reflects the process of settling a land that was already occupied by other peoples; the imperative to love the stranger reflects the ethical stance of a sovereign nation. For modern readers, however, they sit uncomfortably together in the same Torah portion.

God and Israel’s Relationship

The first part of the Torah portion, from 7:12-22, describes the ease with which Israel will conquer the nations occupying the land as a reward for good behavior.

דברים ז:יב וְהָיָה עֵקֶב תִּשְׁמְעוּן אֵת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים הָאֵלֶּה וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֹתָם וְשָׁמַר יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לְךָ אֶת הַבְּרִית וְאֶת הַחֶסֶד אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע לַאֲבֹתֶיךָ. ז:יגוַאֲהֵבְךָ וּבֵרַכְךָ וְהִרְבֶּךָ וּבֵרַךְ פְּרִי בִטְנְךָ וּפְרִי אַדְמָתֶךָ…
Deut 7:12 If you heed these ordinances, by diligently observing them, YHWH your God will maintain with you the covenant loyalty that he swore to your ancestors; 7:13 he will love you, bless you, and multiply you; he will bless the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground…

Israel will not be afflicted with barrenness or disease, and they are told,

ז:טז וְאָכַלְתָּ אֶת כָּל הָעַמִּים אֲשֶׁר יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ…
7:16 You shall devour all the peoples that YHWH your God is giving over to you, showing them no pity….

Given that Israel did enter the land, it is not unreasonable to presume that she fulfilled the terms as described here. And yet, in 9:4-6, God clarifies that these nations are being removed as a punishment for their wickedness, not as a reward for Israel’s obedience.

דברים ט:ה לֹא בְצִדְקָתְךָ וּבְיֹשֶׁר לְבָבְךָ אַתָּה בָא לָרֶשֶׁת אֶת אַרְצָם כִּי בְּרִשְׁעַת הַגּוֹיִם הָאֵלֶּה יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ מוֹרִישָׁם מִפָּנֶיךָ… ט:ו וְיָדַעְתָּ כִּי לֹא בְצִדְקָתְךָ יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ אֶת הָאָרֶץ הַטּוֹבָה הַזֹּאת לְרִשְׁתָּהּ…
Deut 9:5 It is not because of your virtues and your rectitude that you will be able to possess their country; but it is because of their wickedness that YHWH your God is dispossessing those nations before you… 9:6 Know, then, that it is not for any virtue of yours that YHWH your God is giving you this good land to possess…

Even worse, the passage continues with a very negative description of Israel,

ט:ו ...כִּי עַם קְשֵׁה עֹרֶף אָתָּה.ט:ז זְכֹר אַל תִּשְׁכַּח אֵת אֲשֶׁר הִקְצַפְתָּ אֶת יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בַּמִּדְבָּר לְמִן הַיּוֹם אֲשֶׁר יָצָאתָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם עַד בֹּאֲכֶם עַד הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה מַמְרִים הֱיִיתֶם עִם יְ־הוָה.
9:6 ...a stubborn people. 9:7 Remember, never forget, how you provoked YHWH your God to wrath in the wilderness [and] have been rebellious against YHWH from the day you came out of the land of Egypt until you came to this place.

And then, just in case they’ve forgotten, Moshe retells the whole story of the Golden Calf and the broken tablets, emphasizing how it was only through his own intervention that God did not carry out God’s intention to destroy the people for their sins (9:26).

Appreciating—not Reconciling—Contradiction

One could, of course, reconcile these contradictions in various ways. One might say, for example, that while the nations writ large were wicked, especially when they stood in the way of God’s intention to have Israel return to the land, individual non-Israelites who lived among the Israelites—the “strangers”—were deserving of compassion and humane treatment. This does not fully solve the problem, but it may satisfy some.

The contradictory elements in the relationship between God and Israel are less easily smoothed over. But that is at it should be, since these contradictions contribute to the complexity and depth of this relationship.

The Relationship between God and Israel: Emotional Entanglement

On the surface, the relationship between God and Israel can be described as a hierarchical covenant or agreement in which the dominant and powerful partner – God – promises protection to the subordinate party – Israel – in exchange for exclusive allegiance that includes obedience to a specified set of commandments.

What this straightforward description ignores is emotion. Parashat Ekev describes God’s emotional entanglement with the people Israel. This entanglement, like many human relationships, entails love but also ambivalence, satisfaction but also disappointment, the desire to protect and the impulse to hurt.

It seems that the only way that God’s complex, ambivalent, and, apparently, deep-seated emotions towards Israel can be expressed is by taking refuge in the power differential inscribed in the covenant formula itself. This formula asserts that God has the right, and the means, to reward faithfulness and punish disloyalty. Underlying God’s destructive anger after the Golden Calf event is the pain of betrayal; underlying God’s warm description of the bounty of the land is the desire to please and provide God’s beloved, and demonstrate that divine love is steadfast.[2]

Israel’s Wrestling to Understand Its Place in the Cosmos

For those who view the Torah as the literal words that God spoke to Moshe on Mount Sinai, the Torah portion might be seen as God’s own attempt to wrestle with and give expression to God’s relationship with an unruly and stubborn people that God has chosen for God’s own. For those like me, who view the Torah as the product of oral tradition, passed down through many generations, and shaped into an extraordinary work of literature, poetry, law, theology and perhaps even some history, the Torah portion is a fascinating glimpse of Israel’s struggle to understand her place in the cosmos and her relationship to the peoples both more and less powerful than herself over the course of many centuries.

It is also a valiant effort to come to terms with both the randomness and the logic of human existence. As such, it extends an invitation to all of its readers, not to draw straight bold lines between its words and contemporary imperatives, but to use it as a resource in our own attempts to figure out who, where, and why, we are, as individuals, in our communities, and as members of the people Israel.


August 24, 2016


Last Updated

March 21, 2024


View Footnotes

Prof. Adele Reinhartz is Distinguished University Professor at the University of Ottawa, where she teaches in the Department of Classics and Religious Studies. She has an M.A. and Ph.D. from McMaster University. Among Reinhartz’s nine books are Befriending the Beloved Disciple: A Jewish Reading of the Gospel of John and Bible and Cinema: An Introduction (2nd edition 2022). She served as the General Editor of the Journal of Biblical Literature from 2012-18 and as President of the Society of Biblical Literature in 2020.