Towards the end of this week’s Torah portion, G-d tells the Jewish people, “For My angel shall go before you and bring you to the Amorite, the Hittite, the Perizzite, the Canaanite, the Hivvite, and the Jebusite, and I will annihilate them” (Exodus 23:23).
It is interesting to note that the nations of Canaan – whose land was promised by G-d to Abraham’s descendants - are enumerated in Tanach (the Bible) twenty-three times, mostly in the Torah (the Five Books of Moses) and in the Book of Joshua. Only three of these lists actually include all seven nations – twice in Joshua (3:10 and 24:11) and only once in the Torah:
“When the L-rd, your G-d, will bring you to the Land to which you come to possess it, and many nations will be thrust away from before you - the Hittite, the Girgashite, the Amorite, the Canaanite, the Perizzite, the Hivvite, and the Jebusite - seven nations greater and mightier than you…” (Deuteronomy 7:1).
The question is what happened to the Girgashi nation? Why were they not included in the first verse quoted above and in most other lists of the nations of Canaan?
Rash”i, in his commentary to Exodus 33:2 and 34:11, explains that the list of Canaanite nations who occupied the Land of Israel before Joshua ben Nun came and conquered them, omits the Girgashi because most of them fled the country, so they did not have to be driven out.
However, Rash”i doesn’t tell us exactly when and why the Girgashi fled the Land of Israel.
The Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 17:6) explains that when Joshua was about to enter the Land of Israel, he gave the occupying nations three choices – either leave, make peace, or wage war. Of all the Canaanite nations only the Girgashi picked up and left, and were thus rewarded by G-d with the land of Afrike, “a land as beautiful as our own”.
The Talmud Yerushalmi in Sheviis 6:1 tells a similar story about the Girgashi:
Rabbi Samuel said, “Joshua sent three proclamations to [the Canaanites in] the land of Israel prior to the [Israelites’] entry into the land: ‘Whoever wishes to leave should leave; [whoever wishes] to make peace should make peace; [and whoever wishes] to wage war should do so.’ The Girgashites emigrated, for they believed the Holy One, Blessed Be He [i.e. that the Land of Israel rightfully belongs to the Jewish people], and they went to Afrike. [This is in line with II Kings 18:32:] ‘To a land like your own’ – this refers to Afrike. The Gibeonites made peace. [This is in line with Joshua 10:1:] ‘The people of Gibeon had come to terms with Israel.’ Thirty-one kings waged war and fell [in battle].”
[To learn more about the protocol that Joshua followed when conquering the nations of Canaan, see Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings and Wars, Chapter 6 at: http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/1188350/jewish/Melachim-uMilchamot-Chapter-6.htm ]
At the time, “Afrike” referred to what is known today as North Africa, in particular the Tunis region. Our Sages claimed that Afrike was a “land like our own”. To be sure, it does not possess the same spiritual character as our land, but perhaps the two lands share some physical characteristics, like climate, topography, and economic opportunities.
And indeed, as was taught by both the Midrash and the Talmud Yerushalmi, over the course of many generations, North Africa was home to nations of Canaanite origin (like the Girgashi). This can actually be verified by the words of the Byzantine historian Procopius (from the sixth century, about two hundred years after the text of the Talmud Yerushalmi was set): “In ancient times a single king ruled that entire land, which was occupied by large tribes, such as Girgashi and Yevus… They went to Libya and settled in many cities there… There are two marble pillars there, where the following appears, written in the Phoenician language: ‘We are the people who fled from the bandit Yehoshua Bin Nun…'”
So it turns out that only the Girgashi vacated the Land of Israel of their own volition, and were rewarded for doing so, while all the other nations of Canaan attempted to wage war with the Jews and were ultimately conquered.
In fact, the Mechilta in Parshas Beshalach tells us that the Canaanites, upon hearing that the Jews had left Egypt, destroyed all crops, cut down the trees, demolished the houses, and filled up the wells, in order that the Israelites should come into possession of a wasted country. But G-d promised the Children of Israel a rich and fertile land (see Deuteronomy 6:10-11). He therefore led the Jews for forty years in the wilderness; and the Canaanites, in the meantime, rebuilt what they had destroyed.
Apparently, even the Girgashi didn’t accept the Jewish people’s right to the Holy Land for all time.
The Talmud in Sanhedrin 91a relates that during the reign of Alexander the Great, the descendants of those Girgashites who had left the Land of Israel at the request of Joshua, and had settled in Africa, sought to regain the Promised Land. They claimed that the Land belonged to Canaan who was there first, and that they were descendants of Canaan. Geviha ben Pesisa, however, who appeared before the king in the interest of the Jews, showed that according to Scripture, by which the Africans traced their ancestry to Canaan, that ancestor had been declared the slave of Shem and Japheth. The Jews, therefore, not only had the right to hold the land of their slaves, but the Africans had to indemnify the Jews for the long time during which they had performed no service for them. In consternation, the Africans then fled to their homes.
It is funny how history seems to repeat itself, eh? Now we have so-called “moderate” Arab leaders who, like the ancient Girgashites before them, seem to agree that the Jewish people have a right to exist and to have our own land. But what they really truly think and even say to others at the U.N. and elsewhere – nobody knows …
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