"And they decimated all that was in the city; men, women, young and old, ox, sheep and donkey."
The first step of the Yericho conquest was to destroy any trace of Canaan from within, leaving nothing alive behind. This harsh procedure followed the Torah's approach to Amalek's existence. Hashem commanded the Jewish people, "Eradicate the memory of Amalek from beneath the heavens" (Devorim 25:19). Rashi comments there on these strong words and explains that they refer to the complete annihilation of all men, women, children, oxen and sheep. According to Rashi we follow this strict policy, "so that Amalek's name should never be mentioned even over an animal to say that it had belonged to Amalek." Amalek's atrocities against the Jewish people reached such proportions that they demanded total retribution. In fact, no trace was to remain of Amalek not even a reminder of their previous existence. Our passage in Yehoshua teaches us that Canaan was to betreated in this same manner. Apparently, the pervasiveness of Canaan's immorality was so intense that Hashem could not permit any trace of it to remain. Even the recollection of an animal's previous Canaanite status could be a cause for Jewish corruption. Canaan's immoral practices extended beyond all bounds and were irresistibly enticing to the innocent, pure, sensitive Jewish nation.
This thought can be supported by the insight of our Sages regarding Yericho's prominent storekeeper, Rachav, who resided in the front entrance of the city. Her strategic location and profession gave her complete access to every dignitary in the land. Since she befriended so many people, her store was converted to an inn for all with whom she enjoyed a fond personal relationship. Our Sages say that her immoral identity was so intense that even the mention of her name by her friends brought them sinful thoughts and experiences (see Mesichta Megilla 15a). In this same vein, Yericho's general immorality was reflected on the faces of all of its living beings. Hashem therefore commanded that, without exception, no trace of Canaan's immoral identity remain in Yericho. Every living being must be destroyed so that no recollection would remain, not even that of an animal having once belonged to a Yericho inhabitant.
"And Yehoshua told the two spies, 'Come to the storekeeper's home and remove her and all who belong to her in accordance to your oath to her.'"
The words, "all who belong to her," refer to Rachav's immediate family that was privileged to be spared in Rachav's merit. Although no trace was to remain of Canaan, Rachav and her family were the exception. The spies were personally bound by an oath to preserve Rachav and all family members who took shelter in her home. In truth, one may raise serious doubt over the legal obligation of their oath. The Torah explicitly states regarding the Canaanite nations, "Do not preserve any soul" (Devorim 20:16). This being the case, how binding was their oath? We know from our Sages that one cannot effectuate an obligation to violate a principle of the Torah. It stands to reason then that an oath to preserve a Canaanite could not be binding. Since the Jewish people were commanded to destroy every Canaanite soul, any oath to the contrary would be invalid.
The answer to this may be found in Rashi's commentary to the above section. The Torah states the reason for destroying Canaan in the following words,"In order that the Canaanites shall not teach you their detestful practices" (Devorim 20:18). In explanation of these words, Rashi comments, "If the Canaanites repent and convert, you may spare them." We learn from here that permission is granted to spare a Canaanite after he forsakes his immoral pagan ways and converts to Judaism. Rachav's profound statement and display of faith revealed her sincerity in Judaism, thus permitting her preservation. However, her family never displayed any overt sincerity towards conversion leaving their status, at the very least, questionable.
From this we must conclude that Rachav pledged to the spies to convince her family of her newly gained truths and asked the spies for their trust (see Malbim's comment to 2:13). Based on Rachav's pledge it became permissible to preserve her Canaanite family. Accordingly, a vow for this preservation was permissible and binding in its fullest measure.
We now appreciate Yehoshua's precise words and direct course of action. He told the spies that it was their personal obligation to preserve Rachav and her family. In general one would not be permitted and certainly not be obligated to preserve people from Canaanite descent. However, the spies had personally obligated themselves to trust Rachav's commitment of conversion on behalf of her family. Therefore, an exception was made for the spies who were personally permitted to preserve her family. With this understanding the spies were permitted to take this vow and, having done so, were fully obligated to preserve Rachav and her entire family.
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