Waging War Against Canaan
In 2009, when Israel went into Gaza and killed a lot of people, I was discussing religion with one of my friends, and he said that in the Torah, God told us to go out and murder people that we don't like. The verse he quoted was in Deuteronomy about the Jews driving out the Canaanite nations from the Land of Israel.
Does the Torah really say that, and if so, why does everything need to be so violent?
The Aish Rabbi Replies
The Canaanite nations were hardcore idol worshippers and as such, were an unacceptable influence on the holy Jewish nation building its home in the Land of Israel. Today, it is hard for us to imagine what could be so evil about a society, since we imagine idolaters as normal families who just happen to worship the sun or a statue. In reality, idol worship was much worse.
Rabbi Akiva (2nd century CE, Israel) reported that he saw a son bind up his father and feed him to ravaging dogs in service of one his idols. Part of their cult worship was to sacrifice children to the gods (Deut. 12:31), and modern archaeologists have found mounds of children's bones by their altars. These nations were also involved in various sexual immoralities like incest, bestiality and temple orgies (Leviticus 18:27).
Today, most Westerners grow up in quiet neighborhoods, and never experience war, persecution and racism. So they don't easily relate to the concept that if you don't destroy evil, it will destroy you. Questioning someone's sense of justice and morality is really not fair if you haven't dealt with the harsh reality of their experience.
Judaism taught the world the utopian ideal of world peace, yet sometimes war is necessary. We taught the value of life, yet we're not pacifists. Wiping out evil is part of justice. If you choose to leave evil alone, it will eventually attack you (Rashi, Deut. 20:12).
It is ironic that the Jewish people and Israel, who introduced to the world the concept of the sanctity of life, are now criticized as being "cruel" by today's Western civilizations which are built on that Jewish moral foundation! People today can only criticize the State of Israel because those very Jews taught the world that murder, conquest and abuse are wrong.
People mistakenly think that the Torah directive was to wipe out the Canaanites cruelly and indiscriminately. In truth, the Torah prefers that the Canaanites would avoid punishment; they were given many chances to accept peace terms. Even though abominable inhuman practice had been indoctrinated into the Canaanite psyche, the hope was that they'd change and adopt the basic pillars of human civilization which distinguish a community of humans from a jungle of wild animals.
Even as the Jews drew close to battle, they were commanded to act with mercy, as the Torah states, "When approaching a town to attack it, first offer them peace." (Deut. 20:10)
Before entering the Land of Israel, Joshua wrote three letters to the Canaanite nations. The first letter said, "Anyone who wants to leave Israel, has permission to leave." If they refused, a second letter said, "Whoever wants to make peace, can make peace." If they again refused, a final letter warned, "Whoever wants to fight, get ready to fight." Upon receiving these letters, only one of the Canaanite nations, the Girgashites, heeded the call and settled peacefully.
In the event that the Canaanite nations chose not to make a treaty, the Jewish people were still commanded to fight mercifully. For example, when besieging a city to conquer it, the Jews never surrounded it on all four sides. This way, one side was always left open to allow for anyone who wanted to escape. (see Maimonides – Laws of Kings 6:4-5, with Kesef Mishna)
It is interesting that throughout Jewish history, waging war has always been a tremendous personal and national ordeal which ran contrary to the Jews' peace-loving nature. At various stages throughout the 40-year trek in the desert, Moses was forced to reprimand the Jews for having the fear of war. He inspired them with various pep talks, and assurances of victory. Years later, King Saul lost his kingdom by showing misplaced mercy and allowing the Amalekite king to live. (see Exodus 14:3 with Ibn Ezra; Numbers 21:34 with Nachmanides; Deut. 31:6; 1-Samuel ch. 15)
In modern times, Israel has often shown tremendous restraint in dealing with its enemies, and regret at any loss of life. Israel absorbed 10,000 missiles before attacking Gaza. When Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir was asked if she could forgive Egypt for killing Israeli soldiers, she replied, "It is more difficult for me to forgive Egypt for making us kill their soldiers."
So let's put things into perspective before criticizing.