Joel Cohen's Question:

As the Israelites traveled through the desert, they were instructed by G‑d to cross the Amon Brook, where G‑d would "deliver" Sihon King of Heshbon, the Amorite, and his land. They were told to possess the land and, unlike in dealing with the Moabites, they were told to actually "provoke" war with Sihon. Moses sent messengers to Sihon asking that he allow the Israelites safe passage through his land until they reached the Jordan, straying neither to the left or right—that they would simply purchase food and water that they would need along the journey. Sihon refused, for G‑d "had hardened his spirit and made his heart stubborn in order to give him into [the Israelites'] hand." Remember, though, G‑d first instructed that the Israelites "provoke" the war.

As expected, Sihon thereupon went to battle, but the Israelites prevailed—Sihon, his sons and his entire people were annihilated by the Israelites. All of Sihon's populated cities were occupied by the Israelites and all of their women and children were killed, leaving no survivor, as Moses proudly tells us.

Gentlemen, do I even need to articulate a question to address this troubling incident? And please don't tell me that Sihon was "asking for it." Lest we forget, G‑d told Moses to provoke the war in the first place. And even if Sihon was at fault, why the women and children?

Rabbi Adam Mintz Responds:

Joel, I believe that there are two questions that must addressed concerning the battle with Sihon:

  1. Why did G‑d harden their hearts? Wouldn't it have been more peaceful and ultimately easier to have Sihon let the Jews pass through their land?
  2. Why did the Jews kill all of the Amorites, even the women and children?

I believe that the answer to the first question takes us back to the first instance in the Torah in which G‑d hardens a heart—the heart of Pharaoh. G‑d hardened Pharaoh's heart because he wanted to teach the Egyptians and the Jews a lesson that would not have been learned had Pharaoh been compassionate to the Jewish people. The question of how G‑d can take away free choice is a good question but for another blog entry. The same thing is true in this case. The Torah tells us that G‑d wanted these nations destroyed to instill fear among all the nations as the Jews were entering the land, so that the process of conquering the land would be an easy one for the Jews. We have to remember that Moses is about to die and the miracles of the desert were not carried out in as magnificent a fashion once the Jews entered the land. The Jews would be forced to win the battles without the hands of Moses being raised to miraculously declare victory. The fear that was instilled in these nations was a step that Moses could take in his last days to help guarantee victory. If Moses couldn't be there, at least he could assist ahead of time in the battle.

The killing of the women and children, as ruthless as it seems, reminds us of the story of Pinchas that we read several weeks ago. The women and even the children had the power to seduce the people to sin. G‑d was very concerned that the Jews would regress in Israel to the ways of idolatry that they exhibited during the episode of the golden calf. He decided that in order to protect the Jews, everyone needed to be killed. In modern day Israel, there are many responsa written discussing the rules of law and of Jewish soldiers. All of these responsa agree that halachah must be interpreted in a different way when it comes to soldiers and war. The story of the war against Sihon is an early model of these "war-time responsa."

Rabbi Eli Popack Responds:

Instead of asking how the Israelites could provoke war and kill the women and children, ask how they could justify going to battle against a nation that never wronged them, solely with the intent of conquering their land! Obviously, you aren't assuming that in Biblical times they followed the Laws of War as outlined in the Hague and Geneva Conventions.

The land occupied by the Amorites was promised to Abraham's descendents (Genesis 15:21). Avoiding this land, therefore, instead of conquering it, such as they did with Moab and Amon, was not an option.

How can G‑d take away a nation's homeland just to give it to another that He's fallen in love with? He created that land, so I suppose He has the right to give and take as He pleases.

Also bear in mind that the Amorites still had the option of making a peace settlement, but they chose not to. Though G‑d "hardened Sihon's spirit," this still didn't preclude him from choosing to make peace. See Why Didn't Pharaoh Release the Israelites? for more on this topic.

The Israelites followed the Torah's rules of warfare. Though the Torah's standard rules mandate the sparing of women and children, the Seven Nations, of whom the Amorites were a member state, are an exception. The Israelites were instructed (Deuteronomy 20:10-18) not to leave any remnant of these nations, should they not agree to a peace settlement:

Of these peoples' cities, which the Lord, your G‑d, gives you as an inheritance, you shall not allow any soul to live. Rather, you shall utterly destroy them . . . so that they shall not teach you to act according to all their abominations that they have done for their gods...

In fact, as is recorded later in the books of Judges, Samuel and Kings, the Israelites did not comply with this instruction and left many of the people of these nations alive. These heathens influenced many Israelites to abandon the Torah, leading to dire consequences.

Furthermore, those children who would have been spared would have forever posed an existential threat to those who killed their fathers in order to take their land. When they would mature they would seek to avenge their fathers’ deaths and reclaim the land. If killing to conquer is justifiable, so is killing to avoid later casualties. You can question perhaps why G‑d decided that His nation should obtain their land through such a violent and unfair process—but that's for another discussion.

But I understand well that you can't expect someone in the 21st century to swallow this argument too easily. Which is why I'd suggest that you read the following article: Why Is There So Much War and Violence in Torah?