In Tractate Sanhedrin (91a), we read about a most relevant story which took place in the days of Alexander of Macedonia, known as Alexander the Great (4th century before the common era.) Just after Moshe’ death, when Yehoshua entered the land of Israel together with his people, there were seven tribes, hostile to the Jews, occupying the land. Yehoshua offered them peace and security on condition that they would commit themselves to the seven commandments of Noach, the moral code for all humanity, Otherwise, he gave them the option to leave. He led his people into the land, and war broke out, since most tribes refused to opt for either suggestion. Only the Canaanites left earlier and seem to have settled in Africa. (Rambam, Melachim, 6.5) (1)
Hundreds of years later the Canaanites came to Alexander’s international court with a claim that the land of Israel should be returned to them. When the court inquired into their reasons, the Canaanites, also called the “B’ne Africa” (the inhabitants of Africa), said that they were forced out of the land by the Israelites in the days of Yehoshua and that this injustice should be rectified. When Alexander asked them for proof of their claim to the land, they responded that it was the Torah of the Jews which in fact supported it. Did it not say, “The land of Canaan with the coasts thereof”? (Bamidbar 34:2) And since Canaan was their forefather, they had a legitimate claim to return to the land and take possession of it.
Consequently, Alexander (who is known to have been somewhat sympathetic to the Jews) turned to the sages with a request to respond. One Jewish ignoramus by the name of Gebiha ben Pesisa, known for his great love for his fellow Jews, asked that he defend the Jewish claim to the land against the Canaanites. “Authorize me to go and plead against them before Alexander of Macedonia. Should they defeat me, then (you can) say: ‘You have defeated an ignoramus from among us,’ and if I defeat them, then say: ‘The Torah of Moshe has defeated them.’ After the sages decided to give him their approval, Gebiha ben Pesisa said to the Canaanites, “From where do you have your proof?” “From the Torah!” they responded. “I will also bring a proof from the Torah, for it says that at the time that Cham, one of Noach’s children, had uncovered his father’s nakedness, Noach said, “Cursed be Canaan, a servant of servants shall he be unto his brothers.” (Bereshith 9.25) (Canaan was another name for the children of Cham). Gebiha ben Pesisa continued, arguing that since the Canaanites, due to this curse, became slaves to the children of Shem (another son of Noach and the forefather of the Jews), the Jews would, in any case, be the owners of the land: “Whatever a slave acquirers belongs to the master,” since the slave is property of his master. “Moreover,” he said, “you have not served us for years!!”
“Then Alexander said to them (the Canaanites), “Answer him.” “Give us three days,” they responded; they looked but found no answer. And they left.
When carefully studying this incident, several matters are difficult to understand. First of all, it is rather obvious that the Canaanites were guilty of reading the Torah selectively. Would they have turned the page they would no doubt have found that the land was already promised to Avraham in earlier days and that the Torah keeps on making the point that God willed it to the Jews. Even more mysterious is the defense of Gebiha ben Pesisa. Why did he use an argument which was so roundabout? Why did he not use the most obvious argument i.e. that the Torah makes it abundantly clear that the land was given to the Jews? He could have quoted tens of verses to back up his claim!
Maharasha, in his commentary, argues that the motivation behind the Canaanites was much more sophisticated than one might imagine. The Canaanites had read the Torah most carefully and were well aware of the promise that God had made to the Israelites concerning the land. They reminded Alexander’s court that they, the Canaanites, had been forced out of the country because of their immoral behavior. The holy land had been no longer able to contain them and had consequently spit them out. But, continued the Canaanites, the Israelites had become just as evil as they had been!! They had also become disobedient and had violated the moral code. Even more so, had not the Torah made it abundantly clear that the Jews would only merit the land when they would be a holy nation as demanded by the Torah? In that case, the Jews no longer had a claim on the land and they, the Canaanites, having lived there prior to the Jews had full right to claim it back!
Even an ignoramus such as Gebiha ben Pesisa understood the Canaanites’ argument and had to admit that their point was somewhat valid. So there was no sense in quoting verses which stated that God had promised and given this land to the Israelites in much earlier days. The promise was no longer effective! The only way in which he was able to defend the Jewish claim was indeed a roundabout one, the one referring to Noach’s curse of Cham. However, it does not take much to realize that this claim is weak and not very impressive. It is, in fact, rather surprising that the Canaanites did not appeal to Alexander’s court and claim that Gebiha ben Pesisa’s argument would violate international law.
When asserting their claim to the land of Israel, Jews should be aware that the Canaanites’ claim still stands and that the above story is not a little telling.
To hold on to the land of Israel and remove it from all outside claims requires a different kind of argument which many Israeli leaders still have to recognize.