When God Punishes Israel: What Will the Gentiles Say?
Parashat Nitzavim continues the theme of the rebuke from Parashat Ki Tavo, which describes in detail the punishment that the children of Israel will receive if they do not follow God’s laws (Deut 28:15-68), but adds something new (Deut 29:21-27): the reaction of later generations to the destruction of the land of Israel. Surprisingly, this is presented in a question and answer format:
Later generations and foreigners notice the destruction and exile.
דברים כט:כא וְאָמַ֞ר הַדּ֣וֹר הָֽאַחֲר֗וֹן בְּנֵיכֶם֙ אֲשֶׁ֤ר יָק֙וּמוּ֙ מֵאַ֣חֲרֵיכֶ֔ם וְהַ֨נָּכְרִ֔י אֲשֶׁ֥ר יָבֹ֖א מֵאֶ֣רֶץ רְחוֹקָ֑ה וְ֠רָאוּ אֶת מַכּ֞וֹת הָאָ֤רֶץ הַהִוא֙ וְאֶת תַּ֣חֲלֻאֶ֔יהָ אֲשֶׁר חִלָּ֥ה ה֖’ בָּֽהּ…
Deut 29:21 And later generations will ask—the children who succeed you, and foreigners who come from distant lands and see the plagues and diseases that YHWH has inflicted upon that land…
The nations ask why YHWH did this?
כט:כג וְאָֽמְרוּ֙ כָּל הַגּוֹיִ֔ם עַל מֶ֨ה עָשָׂ֧ה ה֛’ כָּ֖כָה לָאָ֣רֶץ הַזֹּ֑את מֶ֥ה חֳרִ֛י הָאַ֥ף הַגָּד֖וֹל הַזֶּֽה:
29:23 all nations will say,“Why did YHWH do thus to this land? Wherefore that awful wrath?”
They (?) explain that it is because Israel abandoned YHWH to worship other gods.
כט:כד וְאָ֣מְר֔וּ עַ֚ל אֲשֶׁ֣ר עָֽזְב֔וּ אֶת בְּרִ֥ית ה֖’ אֱלֹהֵ֣י אֲבֹתָ֑ם אֲשֶׁר֙ כָּרַ֣ת עִמָּ֔ם בְּהוֹצִיא֥וֹ אֹתָ֖ם מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם: כט:כה וַיֵּלְכ֗וּ וַיַּֽעַבְדוּ֙ אֱלֹהִ֣ים אֲחֵרִ֔ים וַיִּֽשְׁתַּחֲו֖וּ לָהֶ֑ם אֱלֹהִים֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר לֹֽא יְדָע֔וּם וְלֹ֥א חָלַ֖ק לָהֶֽם: כט:כו וַיִּֽחַר אַ֥ף ה֖’ בָּאָ֣רֶץ הַהִ֑וא לְהָבִ֤יא עָלֶ֙יהָ֙ אֶת כָּל הַקְּלָלָ֔ה הַכְּתוּבָ֖ה בַּסֵּ֥פֶר הַזֶּֽה: כט:כז וַיִּתְּשֵׁ֤ם ה֙’ מֵעַ֣ל אַדְמָתָ֔ם בְּאַ֥ף וּבְחֵמָ֖ה וּבְקֶ֣צֶף גָּד֑וֹל וַיַּשְׁלִכֵ֛ם אֶל אֶ֥רֶץ אַחֶ֖רֶת כַּיּ֥וֹם הַזֶּֽה:
29:24 They will say, “Because they forsook the covenant that YHWH, God of their fathers, made with them when He freed them from the land of Egypt; 29:25 they turned to the service of other gods and worshiped them, gods whom they had not experienced and whom He had not allotted to them. 29:26So YHWH was incensed at that land and brought upon it all the curses recorded in this book. 29:27 YHWH uprooted them from their soil in anger, fury, and great wrath, and cast them into another land, as is still the case.”
Parallel with the Annals of Ashurbanipal
Several modern scholars have pointed out that the question and answer in this section (“Why did YHWH do thus?” “Because they forsook the covenant….”) is similar both in style and content to the Annals of Ashurbanipal (687-627 BCE), King of Assyria, describing his military victories over states that rebelled against him. As Jeffrey Tigay explains: “Ashurbanipal records how the king of Arabia violated his treaty obligations and rebelled against Assyria, and how the gods afflicted Arabia with all the curses written in the treaty.” The text in the Annals reads in part:
Whenever the inhabitants of Arabia asked each other: “On account of what have these calamities befallen Arabia?” (they answered themselves:) “Because we did not keep the solemn oaths (sworn by) Ashur, because we offended the friendliness of Ashurbanipal, the king, beloved by Enlil!”
Tigay explains further: “In the Assyrian text, it is a political treaty that was violated, whereas Deuteronomy refers to Israel’s covenant with God. This is another example of how political treaties served as the model for Israel’s understanding of its relationship with God.” Tigay is alluding to the scholarly approach that the book of Deuteronomy presents God as the suzerain to whom the Israelites, God’s vassals, owe fealty in exchange for the protection and blessings that they receive from the suzerain.
Parallels in Kings and Jeremiah
This question and answer style (Why this destruction? Because of Israel’s sin) is also found in other biblical books. In language very reminiscent of Deuteronomy, 1Kings 9:8-9 reads:
מלכים א ט:חוְהַבַּ֤יִת הַזֶּה֙ יִהְיֶ֣ה עֶלְי֔וֹן כָּל עֹבֵ֥ר עָלָ֖יו יִשֹּׁ֣ם וְשָׁרָ֑ק וְאָמְר֗וּ עַל מֶ֨ה עָשָׂ֤ה ה֙’ כָּ֔כָה לָאָ֥רֶץ הַזֹּ֖את וְלַבַּ֥יִת הַזֶּֽה: ט:ט וְאָמְר֗וּ עַל֩ אֲשֶׁ֨ר עָזְב֜וּ אֶת ה֣’ אֱלֹהֵיהֶ֗ם אֲשֶׁ֨ר הוֹצִ֣יא אֶת אֲבֹתָם֘ מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַיִם֒ וַֽיַּחֲזִ֙קוּ֙ בֵּאלֹהִ֣ים אֲחֵרִ֔ים וישתחו וַיִּשְׁתַּחֲו֥וּ לָהֶ֖ם וַיַּעַבְדֻ֑ם עַל כֵּ֗ן הֵבִ֤יא ה֙’ עֲלֵיהֶ֔ם אֵ֥ת כָּל הָרָעָ֖ה הַזֹּֽאת:
1Kings 9:8And as for this House, once so exalted, everyone passing by it shall be appalled and shall hiss. And they will say, ‘Why did YHWH do thus to the land and to this House?’ 9:9 and they will say, “It is because they forsook YHWH their God who freed them from the land of Egypt, and they embraced other gods and worshiped them and served them; therefore YHWH has brought all this calamity upon them.’”
God also instructs Jeremiah to give this same explanation of the exile to the Israelites, when they ask (16:10-11):
ירמיה טז:יוְהָיָ֗ה כִּ֤י תַגִּיד֙ לָעָ֣ם הַזֶּ֔ה אֵ֥ת כָּל הַדְּבָרִ֖ים הָאֵ֑לֶּה וְאָמְר֣וּ אֵלֶ֗יךָ עַל מֶה֩ דִבֶּ֨ר ה֤’ עָלֵ֙ינוּ֙ אֵ֣ת כָּל הָרָעָ֤ה הַגְּדוֹלָה֙ הַזֹּ֔את וּמֶ֤ה עֲוֹנֵ֙נוּ֙ וּמֶ֣ה חַטָּאתֵ֔נוּ אֲשֶׁ֥ר חָטָ֖אנוּ לַֽה֥’ אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ: טז:יאוְאָמַרְתָּ֣ אֲלֵיהֶ֗ם עַל֩ אֲשֶׁר עָזְב֨וּ אֲבוֹתֵיכֶ֤ם אוֹתִי֙ נְאֻם ה֔’ וַיֵּלְכ֗וּ אַֽחֲרֵי֙ אֱלֹהִ֣ים אֲחֵרִ֔ים וַיַּעַבְד֖וּם וַיִּשְׁתַּחֲו֣וּ לָהֶ֑ם וְאֹתִ֣י עָזָ֔בוּ וְאֶת תּוֹרָתִ֖י לֹ֥א שָׁמָֽרוּ:
Jer 16:10And when you announce all these things to that people, and they ask you, “Why has YHWH decreed upon us all this fearful evil? What is the iniquity and what the sin that we have committed against YHWH our God?” Jer 16:11say to them, “Because your fathers deserted Me—declares YHWH—and followed other gods and served them and worshiped them; they deserted Me and did not keep My Instruction.
This last text from Jeremiah is easier to understand than the others. The theological explanation that promotes the values of God’s torah is given by Jeremiah himself, at God’s instruction, not by the gentiles, and is addressed to the Israelites themselves.
But the texts from Kings and from Parashat Nitzavim seem odd, for there non-Israelites are asking and apparently answering the questions. Why would the gentiles assume that the Israelites are being punished for Israelite religious infractions? Could they reasonably reach this conclusion? Would they not be more likely to conclude that the Israelites lost to their enemies because the enemy’s army was stronger? Or, if they were looking for a theological explanation, wouldn’t polytheists conclude that the God of Israel was weaker than the gods of the nation that brought on the devastation?
Abarbanel’s Creative (Partial) Solution: Two Groups
Deuteronomy 29:23-24 contains a doubled formulation: Verse 23 begins by saying וְאָֽמְרוּ כָּל הַגּוֹיִם (all the nations will say), followed by verse 24, which begins by saying וְאָמְרוּ, with no subject. It is possible that the same group that is speaking in v. 23 is also speaking in v. 24.
Don Isaac Abarbanel (1437-1508), however, in his commentary on Deuteronomy (ad loc.), suggests that in Deut 29:21, two different groups ask why the destruction occurred: (1) the (Israelite) children who succeed you, and (2) foreigners who come from distant lands. Taking this into account, Abarbanel understands verses 23 and 24 as a discussion between these two groups.
Group two, “the foreigners who come from distant lands” ask “Why did the Lord do thus to this land? Wherefore that awful wrath?” Then group one, “the children who succeed you,” in other words, Israelites living in that later generation, give them the answer, “Because they (our ancestors) forsook the covenant that the Lord, God of their fathers, made with them….” In other words, the theologically appropriate answer is given by Israelites, not by gentiles.
It is striking, however, that Abarbanel does not explain the verses in I Kings this way. In his commentary there, he writes:
ויכירו כל בני עולם שהיה כל זה בחטאת ישראל על עזבם את ה’ אלקיהם.
All the inhabitants of the world will understand that this [destruction] is because of the sin of Israel, when they deserted the Lord their God.
The More Complete Solution of the NJPS Translation
The New JPS English translation (= NJPS) solves this problem for its readers with an astute grammatical insight. To recap, in each of these verses, the theological explanation that the Torah supports is introduced by the word וְאָמְרוּ, which I translated above as “they will say.” NJPS, though, understands וְאָמְרוּ as being the type of verb that the Hebrew grammarian, Friedrich Wilhelm Gesenius, describes as having an “indefinite personal subject (our they, one, the French on, and the German man).” In other words, the word “they” as an impersonal pronoun does not refer back to the gentiles, who would never come to this conclusion on their own. Rather, some unidentified person or people—probably an Israelite group or individual—will say that the destruction came from God as punishment for covenantal disloyalty.
The NJPS translation thus contrasts sharply with, e.g., the standard Protestant translation, the New Revised Standard Version (= NRSV; 1989 edition), for Deut 29:23-24:
|[A]ll nations will ask, “Why did the Lord do thus to this land?…” They will be told, “Because they forsook the covenant that the Lord, God of their fathers…”||[T]hey and indeed all the nationswill wonder, “Why has the Lord done thus to this land?…” They will conclude, “It is because they abandoned the covenant of the Lord, the God of their ancestors…”|
In other words, according to NJPS it is not that the gentiles will come to the correct Jewish theological understanding independently. Someone—presumably some Jewish person or group—will tell them.
These two translations show similar differences in their translation of 1 Kings 9:8:
|And when they ask, ‘Why did the Lord do thus to the land and to this House?’ they shall be told, ‘It is because they forsook the Lord their God….’||[A]nd they will say, ‘Why has the Lord done such a thing to this land and to this house?’ Then they will say, ‘Because they have forsaken the Lord their God….’|
The Tension between Deut 29 and Deut 9
In Deuteronomy 9, Moses prays after the sin of the Golden Calf, telling God why He should refrain from punishing the Israelites and why He should bring them to the promised land despite their sins. Here, Moses adduces a very different argument, one that plausibly gentiles might claim:
דברים ט:כו וָאֶתְפַּלֵּ֣ל אֶל ה֘’ וָאֹמַר֒ אֲדֹנָ֣י ה֗’ אַל תַּשְׁחֵ֤ת עַמְּךָ֙ וְנַחֲלָ֣תְךָ֔ אֲשֶׁ֥ר פָּדִ֖יתָ בְּגָדְלֶ֑ךָ אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵ֥אתָ מִמִּצְרַ֖יִם בְּיָ֥ד חֲזָקָֽה: ט:כז זְכֹר֙ לַעֲבָדֶ֔יךָ לְאַבְרָהָ֥ם לְיִצְחָ֖ק וּֽלְיַעֲקֹ֑ב אַל תֵּ֗פֶן אֶל קְשִׁי֙ הָעָ֣ם הַזֶּ֔ה וְאֶל רִשְׁע֖וֹ וְאֶל חַטָּאתֽוֹ: ט:כח פֶּן יֹאמְר֗וּ הָאָרֶץ֘ אֲשֶׁ֣ר הוֹצֵאתָ֣נוּ מִשָּׁם֒ מִבְּלִי֙ יְכֹ֣לֶת ה֔’ לַהֲבִיאָ֕ם אֶל הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּ֣ר לָהֶ֑ם וּמִשִּׂנְאָת֣וֹ אוֹתָ֔ם הוֹצִיאָ֖ם לַהֲמִתָ֥ם בַּמִּדְבָּֽר:
Deut 9:26 I prayed to YHWH and said, “O YHWH God, do not annihilate Your very own people, whom You redeemed in Your majesty and whom You freed from Egypt with a mighty hand. Deut 9:27Give thought to Your servants, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and pay no heed to the stubbornness of this people, its wickedness, and its sinfulness. Deut 9:28 Else the country from which You freed us will say, ‘It was because YHWH was powerless to bring them into the land that He had promised them, and because He rejected them, that He brought them out to have them die in the wilderness.’
It makes much more sense for a polytheist to believe that, when Israel suffers misfortune, it is because Israel’s God is not sufficiently powerful or has rejected them, rather than believing that Israel had sinned, citing such details as the covenant God made with Israel at the exodus (Deut. 29.24). Polytheists did understand the concept of a god being angry with his people, but connecting that anger to infractions of religious law is not common.
The Theme of Worrying about God’s Reputation in the Bible
Moses’ prayer here is not unique. Moshe Weinfeld, adducing many similar biblical texts, writes, “Appealing to the fame of God and his reputation is a common motif in the national prayers.” All of these passages seem to assume that the gentiles believe that God is weak, non-existent, or is rejecting Israel, rather than suggesting that God is punishing Israel, which is a most unlikely sentiment for gentiles to believe in. All these texts ask God to have mercy in order to preserve His own reputation as the powerful God of Israel.
So we find two approaches:
- The destruction will lead people to conclude that God is appropriately punishing sinful Israel (Deut 29 and other texts).
- The destruction will lead people to conclude that the Lord, God of Israel, is weak, or perhaps fickle, and has accordingly abandoned Israel (Deut 9 and other texts).
Can these two approaches be harmonized? Probably. As long as we adopt the NJPS understanding described above, we can say that Israelites will properly conclude that their misfortune is a result of their sin, but gentiles will be likely to conclude differently—that the God of the Israelites is powerless.
Rashbam’s Surprising Harmonization
Rabbi Samuel ben Meir (Rashbam; c. 1080 – c. 1160) offers a completely different way to harmonize these two approaches in his commentary to Deut 9. He begins by describing the Israelites’ purported mindset about repentance:
חכמה גדולה יש כאן ולהוכיח ישראל בא.
In this verse there is [a lesson of] great wisdom, whose purpose is to admonish the Israelites.
שמא תאמרו, והלא חטא גדול כמעשה העגל הועילה תפלתו של משה וניצלנו, אף בארץ ישראל אם נחטא יועילו לנו תפלות הנביאים.
Perhaps you are thinking: “Even after such a great sin as that of the golden calf, Moses prayed [using the formula found in vss. 26 to 29] efficaciously and we were saved. So, too, if we sin in the land of Israel we will be saved through the prayers of our prophets [who will use that same formula of prayer].”
Nevertheless, Moses is going to disabuse them of this notion, according to Rashbam’s interpretation, and explain to them that things will be different once they settle the land.
אמר להם משה לא תועיל לכם תפלה בארץ ישראל. כי עתה לא נתכפר לכם אלא כדי שלא יתחלל שמו, שהרי כך התפללתי זכור לעבדיך וגו’ פן יאמרו הארץ אשר הוצאתנו משם מבלתי יכולת י”י להביאם, ולכך לא נתחייבתם מיתה במדבר.
Accordingly, Moses said to them: [This] prayer will not be efficacious for you in the land of Israel. Now [in the wilderness before entering the land], the only reason you were forgiven was so that God’s Name would not be desecrated. That is what I said in my prayer: (vss. 27–28) “Remember Your servants. . . . Lest the country out of which you took us will say, ‘It was because the LORD was powerless to bring them [into the land].’” That is the reason that you were not sentenced to die in the wilderness.
אבל לאחר שיהרוג לפניכם שלשים ואחד מלכים וינחילכם את הארץ, אז יוציאכם ויגרש אתכם מן הארץ שאין כאן עוד חילול השם לאמר האומות מבלתי יכולת י”י, אלא יאמרו הגוים, ישראל חטאו לו.
However, after He kills [the] thirty-one kings [of the Canaanites] in front of you and gives you the land as an inheritance, He will punish you by taking you out and expelling you from the land. That [punishment, exile from the land of Israel,] would not entail any desecration of God’s Name by having the nations say that “it was because the LORD was powerless.” Rather, then the nations would say that [the expulsion was a result of the fact that] the Israelites had sinned against God.
Rashbam presents here his theory of historical progression. At an early point in history, before the original Israelite conquest of Canaan, God’s reputation was fragile. Had the conquest not succeeded, His Name would have been disgraced. Hence Moses’ prayer appealing to God’s reputation was efficacious. But once God’s people have successfully conquered the land (in a future that Deuteronomy envisions), the gentiles will know of God’s power and concern for Israel. So when they see the sorry state of the Israelites, they will conclude that the Israelites are being punished for covenantal disloyalty. Appealing to God to act for the sake of His Name is useless.
Rashbam’s prooftext comes from Parashat Nitzavim:
כמו שמפורש באתם נצבים ואמרו כל הגוים על מה עשה י”י ככה לארץ הזאת מה חרי האף וגו’ ואמרו על אשר עזבו את ברית י”י אלהי אבותם וגו’ ויתשם י”י מעל אדמתם באף ובחימה ובקצף גדול וישליכם אל ארץ אחרת כיום הזה:
So it is written explicitly in the Torah portion, Nitzavim(Deut 29:23–27), “All nations will ask, ‘Why did the LORD do thus to this land? Wherefore that awful wrath?’ They will say, ‘Because they forsook the covenant of the LORD, God of their fathers . . . the Lord uprooted them from their soil in anger, fury and great wrath, and cast them into another land, as is still the case’.”
A Comment in Tension with Exilic Hopes and Jewish Liturgy
Considering the subservient political situation in which Rashbam and the Jews of the world lived in the twelfth century, and particularly the fragility of the community after the ravages of the First Crusade, his comment is striking. First, his argument goes against the theological interests of his own community. Essentially, by saying that God will not save Israel to protect His own reputation, Rashbam has removed a Jewish reason for hope that God would intervene on their behalf. Even more surprising is the fact that this idea flies in the face of the standard Jewish liturgy, which (in Rashbam’s days and still today) calls upon God to end the desecration of His Name that results from the exile. For example, the Avinu Malkeinu prayer reads in part:
אבינו מלכנו, עשה עמנו למען שמך.
Our Father, our King, act for us for the sake of your name.
אבינו מלכנו, עשה למענך אם לא למעננו.
Our Father, our King, act for Your sake, if not for ours.
אבינו מלכנו, עשה למענך והושיענו.
Our Father, our King, act for Your sake and save us.
אבינו מלכנו, עשה למען שמך הגדול הגבור והנורא שנקרא עלינו.
Our Father, our King, act for the sake of Your great, mighty and awesome name by which we are called.
Similarly, the Tahanun prayer repeats the refrain “save us for your sake (הושיענו למען שמך)” multiple times, and includes phrases like:
ואם לא למעננו למענך פעל.
If not for our sake, act for Yours.
למענך עשה עמנו חסד ואל תאחר.
For Your own sake deal kindly with us and do not delay.
As Weinfeld writes, “this motif [=asking God to act for the sake of His reputation] together with the motifs of invoking the fathers’ merits and the recital of the gracious qualities of God became the three pillars of the Jewish prayers for forgiveness (selichot) prevalent until the present day.”
Rashbam, Abarbanel, and Medieval Reality
How Rashbam related to these common Jewish prayers asking God to act for the sake of His reputation is unclear. But that aside, why did he, and Abarbanel, conclude that it was reasonable to think that gentiles would understand that the Israelites’ misfortunes were their punishment from God?
Perhaps Rashbam and Abarbanel were influenced by what they heard from their Christian neighbors. In medieval Christian Europe, no one was saying that the Jews’ lowly status and statelessness was “because the Lord is powerless” (Deut 9:28); the Christian community believed in a powerful deity who was with them in their battle against the Moslems. The verse in Psalms that quotes the gentiles saying, “Why do the nations say, ‘Where now is their God?’” also did not reflect the experience of medieval Jews.
At least since the days of Saint Augustine, the teaching of the Church was similar to what we find in Deut 29, that the subjugation of the Israelites was their punishment from God. Of course, the sin that the Christians attributed to Jews—the rejection and murder of Jesus—was not the sin that Jews felt was causing their exile. But it may have been natural for Jews living in medieval Christian Europe to imagine that when Parashat Nitzavim writes, “They will say, ‘[the Jews/Israelites are powerless] because they forsook the covenant that the Lord, God of their fathers, made with them’,” “they” refers to the gentiles.
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September 26, 2016
May 9, 2023
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Prof. Rabbi Marty Lockshin is Professor Emeritus at York University and lives in Jerusalem. He received his Ph.D. in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from Brandeis University and his rabbinic ordination in Israel while studying in Yeshivat Merkaz HaRav Kook. Among Lockshin’s publications is his four-volume translation and annotation of Rashbam’s commentary on the Torah.
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