Moses did not want the Jewish people to get swelled heads when they conquered Canaan; he did not want them to think they deserved all the miracles God was about to perform for them in driving out the indigenous peoples. Standing on the threshold of the Holy Land, he warned them against smugness and complacency (9:4-5).
“Do not say in your heart when God dislodges [the nations] before you, saying, ‘By virtue of my righteousness did God bring me to take possession of this land,’ and because of the nations’ wickedness did God drive them away before you. It is neither your righteousness nor the uprightness of your heart that enables you to come and take possession of their land. Rather, by virtue of the wickedness of these nations, God drives them away before you, and in order to uphold the word God swore to your forefathers¾to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”
Moses begins by presenting a hypothetical error the Jewish people might make, an erroneous statement that he warns them “not to say in their hearts.” There are two parts to their hypothetical statement¾that their own righteousness entitles them to the land and that the wickedness of the nations causes them to be driven out. The verse suggests that both of these statements should not be “said in their hearts.” In other words, they are both wrong.
This is extremely puzzling, for in the very next verse Moses tells them that the wickedness of the nations will indeed cause them to be driven out. Apparently, there was only one error, the attribution of the conquest to their own righteousness rather than the righteousness of their forefathers. Why then does the Torah give the impression that the entire hypothetical statement is erroneous?
In actuality, there is an important difference between the hypothetical explanation for the fate of the nations and the correct view Moses presented. In the hypothetical statement, the Jews mention their own virtue first and only then the wickedness of the nations as the reason for their ejection. The impression is that the Jewish people gain the right to the land by virtue of their relatively superior righteousness.
The implication here is that the fate of the nations depends on the relative Jewish position. If God finds the Jews lacking in righteousness, the nations are to remain in place. But if God finds them more righteous, He will give them the land and drive out the nations.
Not so, declares Moses, and he reverses the order. First, he mentions the wickedness of the nations and only afterward does he mention the supposed righteousness of the Jews. The point is clear. The banishment of the nations from the land is entirely independent of the Jewish people’s relative righteousness and their ability to conquer the land. God consecrates the land with His presence and providence; in the land, His justice is manifest. The land is too holy to tolerate the indefinite presence of the corrupt Canaanite nations. Regardless of whether or not the Jews earn the right to enter, God will drive out the iniquitous nations. This was hypothetical error number one. Interestingly, before the large influx of Jews over the past century, the land of Israel had lain barren and denuded for two millennia, depopulated of iniquitous nations that could lay false claim to it.
Hypothetical error number two relates to the Jewish people’s right to the land. It is not by virtue of their own righteousness, Moses tells them, but in the merit of their forefathers to whom God had promised the land.