Foreign Entanglement: How Should Israel Relate to Canaanite Nations? | Aleph Beta

Foreign Entanglements

How Israel Is Meant To Relate To The Canaanite Nations

Daniel Loewenstein


Parshat Va'etchanan contains a law prohibiting making covenants with the idolatrous nations of the Land of Canaan. And it's a funny kind of law, if you think about it - what's so bad about making covenants?

But there’s something intriguing about this law. It's actually part of a group of laws that seem to be linked to an earlier story, way back in Genesis. Perhaps that story in Genesis holds the key to understanding just where this law is coming from, and what it's trying to teach us.

Learn all about it here.

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Hi! This is Daniel Loewenstein, and you’re watching Aleph Beta. Welcome to Parshat Va'etchanan.

Towards the end of this week’s parsha, the Children of Israel are reminded that they’ll soon be entering the Promised Land, and when they get there, they’ll have to drive out the seven Canaanite nations. And there’s more. 

The Relationship Between the Israelites and Canaanites

Beyond driving them out, Moshe details three additional prohibitions related to the Canaanite people:

לֹא־תִכְרֹת לָהֶם בְּרִית

Don’t make any covenants with them.

וְלֹא תְחָנֵּם

Don’t show them any special favor.

And finally, 

וְלֹא תִתְחַתֵּן בָּם

Don’t intermarry with them.

In other words, these laws are basically saying, “Hey Israelites: you need to keep your distance from these Canaanite nations. You’re a holy people, and we want to keep it that way.”

But then, Moshe follows these laws with a statement. A statement that seems like it comes completely out of nowhere! He says:

לֹא מֵרֻבְּכֶם מִכָּל־הָעַמִּים חָשַׁק יְהוָה בָּכֶם וַיִּבְחַר בָּכֶם

It’s not because of your vast numbers that God desired you and chose you,

כִּי־אַתֶּם הַמְעַט מִכָּל־הָעַמִּים

Because, you’re actually the smallest of all the nations.

כִּי מֵאַהֲבַת יְהוָה אֶתְכֶם

Rather, it’s because of His great love for you.

Now, is that the next thing you’d expect Moshe to say? Don’t make deals with the Canaanites, don’t show them favor, don’t intermarry with them, and, oh, yeah, you’re really small, but that’s okay – God doesn’t care about that. 

It’s totally out of left field. Everything here is about the Israelites keeping their distance from the nations of the land. What does the fact that the Israelites are small – and God loves them anyway – have to do with any of that?

Well, I actually think that being small does belong. It does have something to do with making deals with foreign nations, and showing them favor, and intermarrying — we just don’t see it yet. 

Foreign Relations Between the Israelites and Canaanites

We need to dig a little deeper. And here’s why I think that: there’s another place in the Torah, a story, where we also encounter this idea of the Israelites being small. And the crazy thing is, we also find all of these other elements in this story. It’s a story about making deals with Canaanite nations, about showing favor, and about intermarrying. So maybe, if we see how everything fits together in that story, we can understand what’s going on here.

It’s the story of Dinah. In Bereishit, chapter 34, we learn about the rape of Yaakov’s daughter, Dinah, at the hands of a Canaanite noble, Shechem. Shechem falls in love with Dinah and decides he wants to marry her, so his father, Chamor, approaches Yaakov to ask for her hand. And then he adds something:

וְהִתְחַתְּנוּ אֹתָנוּ

Let our families intermarry

בְּנֹתֵיכֶם, תִּתְּנוּ-לָנוּ, וְאֶת-בְּנֹתֵינוּ, תִּקְחוּ לָכֶם

You’ll give us your daughters, and you can take our daughters.

Did you hear that? Intermarriage. 

Intermarriage Connections in the Bible

There’s our first connection to Devarim: Chamor is proposing that his Canaanite tribe and the family of Yaakov intermarry. And the word the Torah uses is even the same: וְהִתְחַתְּנוּ and תִתְחַתֵּן – which, by the way, are the only two places this word is used in the Torah. And that line about exchanging daughters: בְּנֹתֵיכֶם, תִּתְּנוּ-לָנוּ, וְאֶת-בְּנֹתֵינוּ, תִּקְחוּ לָכֶם. Look at how intermarriage is explained in Devarim:

בִּתְּךָ לֹא־תִתֵּן לִבְנוֹ וּבִתּוֹ לֹא־תִקַּח לִבְנֶךָ

Don’t give your daughter to his son, and don’t take his daughter for your son

They’re practically carbon copies of each other. So there definitely seems to be some connection between the prohibition of intermarriage in Devarim and Chamor’s offer here. But what about all the other elements we saw in Devarim: the prohibitions against making deals and showing favor, and the idea of being a small nation? Are those here too? Let’s keep going and see.

Chamor makes his intermarriage pitch, and then he tries to sweeten the pot by offering even more. He says:

וְאִתָּנוּ, תֵּשֵׁבוּ; וְהָאָרֶץ, תִּהְיֶה לִפְנֵיכֶם

Dwell among us – the land will be open before you.

שְׁבוּ וּסְחָרוּהָ, וְהֵאָחֲזוּ בָּהּ

Settle it, trade, and acquire property.

And then Shechem pipes up, and offers even more. He says,

אֶמְצָא-חֵן בְּעֵינֵיכֶם וַאֲשֶׁר תֹּאמְרוּ אֵלַי אֶתֵּן

I want to find favor in your eyes. Whatever you ask of me, I will give it.

 הַרְבּוּ עָלַי מְאֹד, מֹהַר וּמַתָּן וְאֶתְּנָה, כַּאֲשֶׁר תֹּאמְרוּ אֵלָי

Ask for a huge dowry, pile it on, and I’ll give whatever you ask.

Did you notice what Shechem said he was trying to do? אֶמְצָא-חֵן בְּעֵינֵיכֶם – he was trying to find favor in the eyes of Jacob and his family. So there’s our second connection. Shechem is hoping to be shown favor, חן, and in Devarim, the Israelites are told לֹא תְחָנֵּם, don’t show favor to the Canaanites.

Intermarriage and Diplomacy Negotiations?

And if you take a step back, and think about what’s happening here, the whole conversation, the offer of intermarriage, of living together and trading with one another – isn’t that all a negotiation, an attempt to establish terms for an ongoing relationship? 

In other words, Shechem and Chamor are trying to arrange a deal, to make a covenant. Which gives us a third connection. Shechem and Chamor are trying to establish a covenant, and in Devarim, the Torah forbids us making covenants with the Canaanites. 

It’s wild. So far, everything we found in Devarim seems to be showing up here in this story about Yaakov’s family, all the way on the other side of the Torah!

And, by the way, we may not be the first ones to notice these connections. Because if you open up the Talmud, you’ll find that the Sages actually interpret לֹא תְחָנֵּם, that phrase from Devarim, in a really interesting way. 

They say that it means, “Don’t show favor,” חן, but that it also has two additional, more specific meanings: Don’t offer חניה, land to settle, and don’t offer מתנת חנם, gifts. And what were the two specific offers that Chamor and Shechem made to Jacob? אִתָּנוּ, תֵּשֵׁבוּ; וְהָאָרֶץ, תִּהְיֶה לִפְנֵיכֶם – dwell with us and settle the land. And, הַרְבּוּ עָלַי מְאֹד, מֹהַר וּמַתָּן – demand whatever bridal gifts you want. Land and gifts. The same things. It almost feels like the Sages were reading these two sections together, the same way we are.

But there’s one thing that’s still missing. We’ve seen how closely our laws in Devarim and this story in Bereishit are connected – but there’s one connection we haven’t seen yet. The one we came here to find. The idea of being small. Does the story of Dina and Shechem talk about how the Israelites are a small nation? 

Let’s go to the end of the story. Yaakov’s sons agree to the deal, on one condition: Chamor has to convince all the men of his city to become circumcised. Chamor agrees, and all the men get circumcisions – but soon after, while the men are recovering and vulnerable, two of Yaakov’s sons, Shimon and Levi, massacre them all, and rescue Dinah.

When Yaakov hears about this, he’s incensed. He can’t believe what they’ve done. He says to them, “Do you know what you’ve brought down upon us? Do you know the reputation you’ve given me? You’ve just made enemies of all the other nations in the land.” And listen to what he says next:

וַאֲנִי מְתֵי מִסְפָּר

I’m so few in number!

וְנֶאֶסְפוּ עָלַי וְהִכּוּנִי

They’ll all gather against me and smite me

וְנִשְׁמַדְתִּי אֲנִי וּבֵיתִי

And my household and I will be destroyed.

Did you catch it? וַאֲנִי מְתֵי מִסְפָּר, Yaakov says. “I’m so few in number” – he’s afraid for his survival because his family is so small. There’s our fourth element. God, in Devarim, calls the very same family, now the Children of Israel, the smallest of the nations. So it all lines up. This story in Bereishit shares all of the elements we saw in Devarim.

So, we have all these parallels. But we still haven’t answered our original question: What does being small have anything to do with all the prohibitions of getting close to the Canaanites? Is there something about the story of Dinah that can help us understand how they’re connected?

I think there is. And you can see it, if you just put yourself in Yaakov’s shoes. So let’s do that. Let’s imagine what this crisis with Dinah must have been like for him.

Considering an Offer of Intermarriage 

Here you are, living in the land of Israel, surrounded by foreign peoples: the Hivi, the Cena’ani, the Perizi. And your whole nation consists of you, your wives, and your 12 kids. You’re tiny – and that makes you vulnerable. Now, for a while, none of those foreign neighbors have made any trouble. They’ve left you alone. But then, the unthinkable happens. A powerful local noble rapes your daughter, and decides he wants her for himself.

And yet...he doesn’t whisk her away. He doesn’t demand her with a show of force. He doesn’t even make any veiled threats. Instead, he comes with an offer of peace, and gestures of goodwill. And all he wants is to marry your daughter. So, what do you say?

Well, if we think about Yaakov the way we’re used to, we’d all expect him to say no, without a second thought. After all, we know that his parents, Yitzchak and Rivka, and his grandfather, Avraham, placed a lot of importance on marrying within the family, on not marrying their children off to the Canaanites. And now, this foreign man, who forced himself on Dinah, wants to make a deal, where he’ll get to marry her, and Yaakov’s sons will marry his city’s Canaanite women? Agreeing would be like spitting in Dinah’s face, and in the face of family tradition. What’s to think about?

And yet, I don’t think it was that simple. Put yourself back in Yaakov’s shoes, and ask yourself: What will happen if you say “no”? What will happen if you spurn these people, if you provoke them? All you are is one small, little family. Maybe they’ll just take Dinah anyway. Maybe they’ll take all the women. Maybe they’ll go to war.

And this isn’t just speculation. We know that Yaakov felt physically vulnerable. Remember how he responded after Shimon and Levi commit their massacre? He says: 

וַאֲנִי מְתֵי מִסְפָּר

I’m so few in number!

וְנֶאֶסְפוּ עָלַי וְהִכּוּנִי

They’ll all gather against me and smite me

He’s afraid, because Shimon and Levi just provoked all the surrounding nations. He fears getting attacked; he fears retribution.


Yaakov knows how vulnerable he is. His small size must have been weighing on him. And that means that as much as he might have wanted to say no, it couldn’t have been an easy thing to do. And maybe that partly explains Yaakov’s behavior in this story. 

Because Yaakov never gives Shechem and Chamor an answer. His children jump in and respond, but he doesn’t say anything. The commentators all have different theories about what his silence means, but I wonder if part of it has to do with how conflicted he was over this dilemma?

And maybe that’s the way all our elements connect. 

The Temptation of Intermarriage and Foreign Engagement

When you’re small, when you’re vulnerable, then making alliances – currying favor, creating ties through intermarriage – can start to seem like the sensible thing to do. It can even become tempting. And if the opportunity to forge these ties comes along, how can you just pass that up?

And you know what? Yaakov wasn’t the only person in our history to struggle with this issue – to have fears about his people’s vulnerability, fears that could tempt him to get too close to his neighbors. It would also be an issue for the Israelites when they began their conquest of the Promised Land, and were again surrounded by nations who seemed more powerful than them. 

And so, generations later, God comes along and gives the Israelites a set of laws governing how they are supposed to relate to foreign nations: “Don’t make deals, don’t grant favor, and don’t intermarry.” And He reminds them: “It’s not because you are large in number that I chose you. That doesn’t matter.” 

The laws in Devarim are telling us that whenever we face this dilemma, there can be only one answer. Yes, there will be times when important concerns, like physical and political security, will make covenants and intermarriage seem like great ideas. But they’re not. The price is too high.

The Price of Intermarriage

Because you know what happens when we intermarry? The Torah tells us, and history bears it out:

וְלֹא תִתְחַתֵּן, בָּם: בִּתְּךָ לֹא-תִתֵּן לִבְנוֹ, וּבִתּוֹ לֹא-תִקַּח לִבְנֶךָ.

Don’t intermarry with the Canaanites. Don’t give your daughter to his son, and don’t take his daughter for your son.

כִּי־יָסִיר אֶת־בִּנְךָ מֵאַחֲרַי

Because if you do, your son will be led astray, away from God

Our physical limitations, our vulnerability? God can deal with that. He didn’t choose us because we’re big enough to defend ourselves. He chose us to be holy, and as long as we’re doing that, He can handle the protection. 

But when we bring corrupting influences into our lives – even for the best of reasons, even in the name of peace – when we let ourselves be led away from holiness... then we’re giving away too much. We’re jeopardizing our own souls.

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