Devarim–Give Peace a Chance

“And I [Moses] sent messengers . . . to King Sihon of Heshbon with words of peace.”  (Deut. 2:26)

The final book of the Torah is a recapitulation of the law in the form of a speech by Moses, given just before Israel enters the land of Canaan.  This book, known as Deuteronomy in English, is called Devarim (“Words”) in Hebrew.  Moses begins Devarim by tracing Israel’s journey up to this point, including some of the military conflicts along the way.

God had instructed Moses, “I have handed over to you King Sihon the Amorite of Heshbon, and his land. Begin to take possession by engaging him in battle” (2:24).  But instead of attacking, Moses sends “messengers . . . with words of peace,” asking King Sihon if Israel can travel through his land in as peaceful, ”low-impact” and self-sufficient a manner as possible:  ”If you let me pass through your land, I will travel only along the road; I will turn aside neither to the right nor to the left. You shall sell me food for money, so that I may eat, and supply me water for money, so that I may drink.”  (2:27-28).

Sihon refuses, and the battle is joined, but we have to assume that had he accepted the terms, Moses would have honored them, even though this goes against the express command of 2:24.  In examining Moses’ actions, the ancient interpreters turn to Psalm 34:15, which not only says “seek peace” but adds “and pursue it.” This imparts a special urgency to acts done for the sake of peace, which not only justifies Moses’ action, but makes it exemplary.

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