On Devarim: From a Feminist Perspective Problematic, but not Irredeemable by Ivy Helman

This week’s Torah portion is Devarim (Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22).  In it, the Isrealites are preparing to enter the Promised Land, as the last of the sinful generation have died.  Most of the parshah consists of Moses recalling the divinely sanctioned wars they undertook and the mass murder they committed in order to possess the land.   

Needless to say, this emphasis on war is difficult from a feminist perspective. Starhawk argues, in “Why We Need Women’s Actions and Feminist Voices for Peace,” that, “Patriarchy finds its ultimate expression in war.” In other words, a parshah ripe with war is ripe with patriarchy.

Yet, it is more problematic than that. The deity is understood to be a warrior as are the Israelites. Verses 1:30 reads, “The L-rd, your G-d, Who goes before you… will fight for you, just as G-d did for you in Egypt before your very eyes.” In addition, this warrior mentality requires the Israelites to fight as well. G-d hardens the hearts of Sihon which requires the Israelites to fight (1:27). Thus, war and mass murder become divinely sanctioned methods which G-d and the Israelites use to further the sacred promise of the Land.

From a feminist perspective, this is not liberating. Rather, it reenforces patriarchy. As Starhawk explains in this same article, a warrior mindset is controlling, punishing, and exerting power-over others.  This is extremely detrimental to humans, animals, and the earth itself.  Accordingly, it seems to me that such an understanding of the divine and of us only furthers patriarchy and is not at all, in the ways explained above, redeeming.

Besides this specifically feminist lens, there is another way to grapple with this warrior god and his divinely sanctioned war and mass murder: contextualise it historically.  The Torah is not a history book and should not be read as such, as John J. Collins reminds the reader in An Introduction to the Hebrew Bible (184).  In fact, its emphasis on war may have another source in Jewish history: the Babylonian exile.  Collins takes the position that these war stories may have comforted those Israelites who found themselves in exile in Babylon (195); they fanticised that they were once a powerful nation.  At the same time, Collins suggests that the original Israelites may not have been conquerors at all but actually Canaanites themselves who sought to create a unique identity (194), especially now that they did not have a temple.  That unique identity came in part due to the writing of the Torah; this exiled people became the people of the book (172).  Thus the exile, where and when the Torah was complied, fundamentally transformed the Jewish people.  Collins writes, “the synagogue would gradually emerge as the place of worship, first for Jews outside the land of Israel, later even within Israel itself. These changes took place gradually, over centuries, but they had their origin in the Deuteronomic reform, which put a book at the center of religious observance for the first time,” (172).

A third way of grappling with this story comes from the text itself: the existence of giants.  The king Og, whom Moses is said to have killed in this parshah, is the last of these giants (3:10-11).  His crib measured 9×4 cubits and was made of iron. Yes, a race of giants exist in the Torah!  How different was their understanding of the world!  Thus, how different may have been the need for war.

Interestingly, Rashi also finds war problematic because it was not necessary. Rashi argues, in verse 1:8, that the Israelite wars of possession could have been avoided had the Israelites trusted G-d that the land was good and not sent in their own spies. Unfortunately, he does not question the characterisation of the deity as a warrior, not that I would expect that of him.

Having said all this, does the parshah offer any redeeming qualities from a feminist standpoint?   Yes.  First, there is the appointment of judges and the emphasis on justice (1:13-1:17).  These judges are to be fair in their rulings and brave in the face of conflict.  Here, we have a solution to conflict that is not war albeit intra-group and not, unfortunately, inter-group.  Yet, we know that the judges, including some powerful and wise women, governed Israel before a king was appointed.

In addition, we have throughout the parshah an emphasis on the faithfulness of the divine.  G-d fulfilled the divine promise to Abraham and made his descendants as numerous as the stars  (1:10).  The Israelites are not to fear as G-d as carried them in the desert as a father would his son (1:31), accompanied them as a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night (1:33), and provided for them (2:7).  These examples show a alternative, and more importantly, non-patriarchal model of the deity as caring, compassionate, and concerned for their welfare.   

Finally, there are the references to the natural world, which we would be amiss to ignore.  Towards the end of the parshah, the land is divided between some of the tribes by reference to seas, rivers, brooks, and waterfalls.  In a desert, this knowledge of the land is remarkable, as it sustains life.   This parshah also mentions the Sea of Salt, or Dead Sea.  This place has been, since ancient times, a place of healing as well as a source of salt and other minerals.    

On account of its warrior god and the proliferation of war and mass murder, Devarim is highly problematic from a feminist point of view.  Yet, during the Babylonian exile, a destroyed people found comfort in imagining they had once been powerful.  The inclusion of giants speaks to a wholly different worldview.  However, through it all, the parshah returns time and again to the faithfulness of the divine.  It offers an alternative way of conflict resolution.  Finally, Devarim illustrates the extensive awareness the Israelites had of the life-sustaining properties of the land.  Devarim is certainly problematic, but it is not, from a feminist perspective, irredeemable.

Ivy Helman, Ph.D.: A feminist scholar and faculty member at Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic where she teaches a variety of Jewish Studies, Feminist and Ecofeminist courses.  

Categories: General, God, Jewish Feminism, Judaism, Patriarchy, Textual Interpretation, Torah, War and Peace

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4 replies

  1. Very interesting. Your posts are helping me better understand events past and present in what some people call the Holy Land. Which isn’t at all holy except in the sense that any part of the body of our Blessed Mother Earth is holy. The people who have lived in that land have for centuries not been at all holy. They’ve been greedy warriors.

    Another book that says pretty much what you’ve said here is The Mythology of Eden by the Georges (husband and wife). It’s filled with facts and distinguishes between fact and myth.

    Thanks for your good work in interpreting your holy book. What you write about what the “destroyed people” may have thinking during the Babylonian Exile is good to know, I continue to respect the culture of the Jewish people, but I sure don’t like their god. Nevertheless, bright blessings to the people and to you and to your work.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. Ivy, thanks for researching and writing this. I too struggle when I read about war and the glorification of war in the Hebrew Bible, so this helps me put it in a different light. Many blessings, and I love the picture of you and your dog!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Starhawk: “Patriarchy finds its ultimate expression in war.” And oh boy, how patriarchy has been busy in these past millennia.

    I never thought of the Dead Sea – the Sea of Salt as a healing spot. How wonderful that is! Such a nice contrast to the warrior imagery and patriarchal symbols that are always hitting us in the face. Thanks for the teaching.


  4. Great post! Very well-expressed and well-written. Your take on Devarim struck a resonant chord.


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