Terrible Things in Torah
From time to time I get asked about terrible things in Torah. Killing Canaanites. Being able to own foreign slaves. You know, things like that which are unpleasant, to say the least, if you really think about them.
Years ago, in Israel, I was given a gift by an antiquities dealer: a sheet of Torah from an ancient Sefer Torah (scroll of Genesis – Deuteronomy). My Hebrew was shaky at the time and I waited until I got home to find out what scripture portion was on it. Would it be something inspiring like, “You shall be holy as I am holy,” or “Justice, justice you shall pursue”?
No, it was Deuteronomy 21:10 and following. The passage about the war bride. The thing is, when Israel fought wars against enemies who were not Canaanites from the land, they were allowed to let the women and children live. And then there would be all these widows. So the men could take them as wives. The passage has a few rules about letting the woman have a mourning period first, requiring her to cut off her hair and pare her nails. But still, the upshot is, she has to become an Israelite’s wife if he desires it.
Will I be electrocuted by the next local storm for saying there are terrible things in Torah. Not at all. In fact, it is a mitzvah (good deed) to do so.
You see, the war bride passage is an example of a phenomenon in Torah I have written about before at length (see “How Torah Undermines the Very Slavery it Permits”). It is God giving an actual nation of people, living in an actual culture of violence and degradation, a real constitution for their time, which takes seriously the situation on the ground. People in the Iron Age fought wars of extermination. Yet the Torah, which contains such unjust practices as the taking of war brides also contradicts itself on such matters. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” says Torah (Lev 19:18). “You shall love him [the alien] as yourself,” it says (Lev 19:34). “Justice, justice you shall pursue” (Deut 16:20). “You shall not subvert the rights of the alien or the fatherless . . . remember that you were a slave in Egypt” (Deut 24:17-18).
Now some people will chalk up things like slaves and war brides to the idea, “The Law is bad, a burdensome system designed to cause Jews and the Gentiles who learned it to turn away from it to Jesus, who gives free salvation.” No, the Law is not bad. It is misunderstood. In Judaism it is well-recognized that some things permitted in Torah are no longer permitted; that these were accommodations to the evil culture of the time. And I’d remind any Christians with anti-Torah sentiment, that Paul has been criticized for telling slaves to be content and to obey their owners. The same Paul said of the Law, “It is spiritual and good” (Rom 7:14).
No, to understand Torah and also the terrible things in Torah, you have to study it and really use your mind and wisdom. You have to realize that Torah is not merely religious instruction. It is a covenant. It is not a universal book of morals, though it has moral truth in it. It is not an ideal system of living, though it points to that ideal. It is a real constitution for a real people with laws addressing the kinds of things that actually happened.
Now, I cannot justify the verses which say, “you shall devote them [Canaanites] to complete destruction” (Deut 20:17) If I meet an Amalekite, I do not plan to kill them, though I am commanded always to remember what they did to Israel in the desert and to blot them out from under heaven (Deut 25:19). I am willing to be a conscientious objector based on Leviticus 19:18. While I cannot feel good about God’s commands to exterminate the Canaanites, I can say that no command like that could be accepted today (see the final paragraph of this article which notes that Torah changes and ascends to perfect holiness). There are no more Amalekites, so I am safe.
And when it comes to other terrible things in Torah, I can say that the Torah’s laws concerning slavery undermine the institution of slavery and work toward eliminating it. And I can say that the war bride passage, while allowing the practice to continue, protects the women in ways unparalleled in the ancient world and takes away much of the common motive for men taking women forcibly in war.
God commanded Israel, when fighting a non-Canaanite city that refused to make peace, to kill all the men of fighting age and to let the children and women live. The war-bride situation is a natural outgrowth of that type of war. The Torah requires that the women be permitted time to grieve. The rabbis suggested that the cutting of hair and trimming nails was to make the war-bride unattractive and to reduce the impulses of lust as an incentive to make war and capture women. The common scenario, even in war today, of men raping the women, is not allowed and is a capital crime in fact. These bereaved women may be taken as wives and they have no say in the matter. Yet, they will be taken as wives, not concubines, and be provided for in the husband’s home. They can be divorced, but if so they become free women in the land and are not slaves.
Another terrible thing in the Torah reading this week is the law of stoning rebellious teens (Deut 21:18-21). Those who criticize this law overlook the fact that it was a reduction of fatherly power to kill his own family members. Tigay notes that in later Roman custom a father had the right to harm or even kill his own family (patria potestas). Genesis 38:24 implies that Judah had such a power over Tamar. The Torah legislates this power, requiring that the rebellious child be brought to the town elders and that the men of the town carry out the penalty (perhaps to avoid hasty and angry killings). The rabbis say this law was for illustration only (to put fear of parents into children) and not meant to be carried out. One would have to prove, they say, that the child was un-reformable.
Torah as law-code (covenant stipulations) for ancient Israel permitted slavery, war brides, and stoning rebellious teens. Torah as the timeless, evolving truth of God prohibits these very things and calls for a higher standard. Israel was to learn this over time by experiencing the ways of “the God who brought you out of the house of bondage.” Torah is not meant to remain the same. Torah is meant to change, to ascend, to gravitate toward the highest ideals in it. Torah has a trajectory within it of increasing holiness and those who obey, for example, Leviticus 19:2, will be required to always find the highest, not the lowest, ethic of Torah.