The ultimate end of the Passover story has always bothered me. We talk about the Israelites’ liberation from slavery, and we acknowledge that many Egyptians had to suffer for this to happen. In the Seder, the spilling of a drop of wine for each plague is a deliberately grim memorial that blood was spilled to get us here, and there’s this lovely passage in many haggadot:
Midrash teaches that, while watching the Egyptians succumb to the ten plagues, the angels broke into songs of jubilation. God rebuked them, saying “My creatures are perishing, and you sing praises?”
In this spirit, I’ve always used this festival to commemorate the struggles of other people, not only my distant ancestors. This year, our Seder included a couple of passages from Jewish Solidarity with the Native American People, about the travails of the Navajo and the hopes of a Wabanaki chief. I know I’m not the only person who draws this connection; here’s a great piece Melinda found drawing the links between Exodus, the end of the Holocaust and the Emancipation of African Americans, and in the past week I had the honour of meeting the founder of the Jewish Abolitionist Movement.
And yet, for all that grand universalism, the prior inhabitants of the Promised Land are just an enemy to be shoved aside. Here’s the passage where God tells the Israelites how they’ll get their land:
Exodus XXIII:20-24 “Behold, I send an Angel before thee, to keep thee in the way, and to bring thee into the place which I have prepared. Beware of him, and obey his voice, provoke him not; for he will not pardon your transgressions: for my name is in him. But if thou shalt indeed obey his voice, and do all that I speak; then I will be an enemy unto thine enemies, and an adversary unto thine adversaries. For mine Angel shall go before thee, and bring thee in unto the Amorites, and the Hittites, and the Perizzites, and the Canaanites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites: and I will cut them off. Thou shalt not bow down to their gods, nor serve them, nor do after their works: but thou shalt utterly overthrow them, and quite break down their images.”
Exodus XXIII:32-33 “Thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor with their gods. They shall not dwell in thy land, lest they make thee sin against me: for if thou serve their gods, it will surely be a snare unto thee.”
So we mourn the Egyptians—even the soldiers who chased the fleeing slaves into the sea—but these people whose only crime was to occupy land the Israelites wanted are damned for it. It gets more explicit when the Israelites finally invade. The first conquest is of Jericho, and it’s amazingly awful:
Joshua VI:17-26 “And the city shall be accursed, even it, and all that are therein, to the LORD: only Rahab the harlot shall live, she and all that are with her in the house, because she hid the messengers that we sent. And ye, in any wise keep yourselves from the accursed thing, lest ye make yourselves accursed, when ye take of the accursed thing, and make the camp of Israel a curse, and trouble it. But all the silver, and gold, and vessels of brass and iron, are consecrated unto the LORD: they shall come into the treasury of the LORD. So the people shouted when the priests blew with the trumpets: and it came to pass, when the people heard the sound of the trumpet, and the people shouted with a great shout, that the wall fell down flat, so that the people went up into the city, every man straight before him, and they took the city. And they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword. But Joshua had said unto the two men that had spied out the country, Go into the harlot’s house, and bring out thence the woman, and all that she hath, as ye sware unto her. And the young men that were spies went in, and brought out Rahab, and her father, and her mother, and her brethren, and all that she had; and they brought out all her kindred, and left them without the camp of Israel. And they burnt the city with fire, and all that was therein: only the silver, and the gold, and the vessels of brass and of iron, they put into the treasury of the house of the LORD. And Joshua saved Rahab the harlot alive, and her father’s household, and all that she had; and she dwelleth in Israel even unto this day; because she hid the messengers, which Joshua sent to spy out Jericho. And Joshua adjured them at that time, saying, Cursed be the man before the LORD, that riseth up and buildeth this city Jericho: he shall lay the foundation thereof in his firstborn, and in his youngest son shall he set up the gates of it.”
No possible doubt that the city and people of Jericho are destroyed as completely as the invading army is able, and looted, and in this victors’ history it’s all retrospectively justified with a curse. Much of the rest of Joshua’s story is smiting and conquest and inheritances, with no hint of remorse that people are suffering. How can we justify this, when we mourn even the Egyptian soldiers?
I don’t claim to have an answer. I think this has a different sort of lesson: I don’t know what the Bible is trying to teach us here, but I see it as a warning about how untrustworthy victors’ history is. Acknowledging the original inhabitants of the Holy Land would have forced original Kings of Israel to make concessions to them, so the history they wrote studiously avoids doing so, just as the US government did to the Native Americans until relatively recently.
I don’t need to say much about the parallel with contemporary Israel. All I really can say on that subject is that just as this willful blindness is a stain on Biblical Judeah & Samaria, so plight of the Palestinians is to modern-day Israel. I hope that thousands of years from now, people will be telling that story with a happier ending.