Conquest of Eretz Yisrael in Sefer Devarim

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Aminadav Grossman

Parashat Devarim opens with an introduction to Moshe’s address to the nation. Verse 1:4 gives the context of the speech as directly following the conquest of Sichon and Og. Why are the battles with Sichon and Og the only events explicitly mentioned in this opening?[1] Several other significant occurrences are recorded in the end of Sefer Bemidbar after the battles with Sichon and Og, such as the battle with Midian, and multiple episodes relating to division of the land. Again, in Devarim 4:46, Moshe mentions the conquest of Sichon before transitioning to a new part of his address. Why is it necessary to invoke this episode yet again as Moshe concludes the opening portion of his address to the people?

Later in the parsha we find further expansion of the battles with Sichon and Og explicated with numerous differences from the account in Sefer Bemidbar chapter 21. The focus in Bemidbar is on Sichon and his land, describing the conquest in three verses (21:23–25) and then the song of the מושלים about Sichon and his land. In Devarim chapter two, Moshe adds a directive from Hashem to initiate war with Sichon, two reassurances that the people will be successful in their campaign (2:25, 31), and a repeated directive and reassurance prior to war with Og (3:2). There is a universal aspect– “this day I will begin to instill your fear and terror in the faces of all nations…” (2:25). Devarim 2:30 mentions G-d’s hardening Sichon’s heart and spirit to embolden him to fight, omitted entirely in Bemidbar. Why the differences?

All of the additional elements in Devarim parallel the broader conquest of Eretz Yisrael as depicted in Sefer Yehoshua. With less fanfare than Sefer Yehoshua, not preceded by splitting of the Yarden or other supernatural miracles, Bnei Yisrael begin their conquest of Eretz Yisrael in the land of Sichon and Og. Indeed, Yehoshua chapter 12, which lists the kings vanquished in the process of conquering and inheriting the land, opens with Sichon and Og and the boundaries of their lands. In describing the process of distributing the conquered land, chapter 13 opens by mentioning the land of Sichon and Og, given to Reuven, Gad and half of Menashe.

The verbs לקח and ירש appear only once in the account of Sichon presented in Bemidbar but are used numerous times in the Devarim account, associating these battles with the broader inheritance of Eretz Yisrael described in Sefer Yehoshua.[2] The term חרם is used repeatedly in Devarim to categorize the absolute war with Sichon and Og, with no survivor from the battles, also a characteristic feature of כיבוש וחילוק ארץ ישראל.[3]

Further, the Canaanite nations’ fear predicted in Devarim 2:25 is manifest in Rachav’s citing the conquest of Sichon and Og along with the splitting of Yam Suf that combine to terrify the nations of Canaan (Yehoshua 2:10). The reassurances Hashem gives Moshe parallel the reassurances to Yehoshua in Yehoshua 1 and 3, and the hardening of Sichon’s heart in Devarim calls to mind the hardened hearts of Israelites’ enemies in the conquest of Eretz Yisrael (Yehoshua 11:20). The gemara in Avodah Zara 25a learns from these similarities that the sun stood still for Moshe during the battle with Sichon, just as it did for Yehoshua in Givon.[4]

According to this perspective that the battles with Sichon and Og and conquests of their land were included in כיבוש וחילוק הארץ, it is significant that Moshe Rabeinu was himself involved in that very process. While he may not have merited bringing Bnei Yisrael across the Jordan, he set the stage for a seamless transition, bolstering the confidence of the people.[5]

Returning to our original question, if we assume Sefer Devarim to be tailored towards preparing Bnei Yisrael for imminent entry into the land, milchemet Sichon and Og is the perfect frame for Moshe’s opening address in 1:4. Particularly on the heels of 38 years of slow erosion of the nation’s self–esteem, characterized only by the death of its אנשי מלחמה due to its mistakes (Devarim 2:14–16), these wars are a source of confidence, faith and practical example for how they are to act going forward into the land of Israel.[6]

Aminadav Grossman (SBM 2012) is currently a YU semicha student and will be returning to learn at Yeshivat Har Etzion in the upcoming year. 

[1] The midrash identifies numerous events alluded to implicitly in the opening verses but only places are mentioned without elaboration.

[2] A couple examples of these terms appearing in Sefer Yehoshua are 11:16, 23; 12:1, 7

[3] Devarim 7:1–2, 20:17; Yehoshua 10:40.

[4] Devarim 2:25 היום הזה אחל תת פחדך  and Yehoshua 3:7 היום הזה אחל גדלך בעיני כל ישראל or, according to a different opinion, Yehoshua 10:12 ביום תת ה’ את האמורי

[5] To be sure, Ramban Bemidbar 21:21 and others (based on chazal) point out that עבר הירדן has a lower level of קדשה from the rest of Eretz Yisrael. However, on Bemidbar 31:23 Ramban develops the distinction between מלחמת סיחון ועוג and מלחמת מדין, arguing that the land acquired in the former is part of the inheritance of Eretz Yisrael as part of the Emorite land that was divinely promised. One halakhic manifestation of this distinction between the different wars is the status of the spoils. Ramban Bemidbar 31:23 asks why the laws of טבילת כלים are mentioned following the war with Midian but not following the war with Sichon and Og. He answers that use of the Emorite vessels was permitted because the spoils of conquest of Eretz Yisrael was permitted for use during war whereas the war with Midian was entirely unrelated to conquering the land. Further, there was no concern of tuma/ ritual impurity following the wars of Sichon and Og unlike the war of Midian because all of the people were commanded in the former as part of Eretz Yisrael and the principle of טמאה הותרה בציבור therefore went into effect.

[6] This also might be the reason for Moshe’s description of the strength of Og and his kingdom in chapter 3:5 and 3:11. If divine providence could lead them to victory in convincing fashion over such imposing enemies surely they would be invincible with the help of Hashem in fighting on the other side of the Yarden. Finally, in 3:21, Moshe directly instructs Yehoshua to take heed in this regard.

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