Shoftim: No Goddesses Allowed

August 24, 2017 at 7:06 pm | Posted in Shoftim | 1 Comment
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In beginning, elohim created the heavens and the earth. (Genesis/Bereishit 1:1)

elohim (אֱלֺהִים) = gods (plural); one of the names of the God of Israel. (Other common names include the tetragrammaton, El, El Elyon, and El Shaddai.)

How many gods does it take to create the universe? For most of ancient Canaan and Mesopotamia, in the beginning there were two: a father god and a mother goddess, who proceeded to beget additional gods. The universe was dualistic from the start.

But the book of Genesis clarifies that only one God created the universe, without any sexual partner.  God makes all the separations and distinctions, including gender, during the course of this creation. And unlike the gods of other peoples in the Ancient Near East, the God of the Torah demands exclusive loyalty. Anyone who worships God is forbidden to worship any additional gods or goddesses.

God first reveals this at Mount Sinai, with the commandment:

You shall not make for yourself an idol or any image of what is in the heavens above or what is in the earth below on what is in the water below the earth. You shall not bow down to them and you shall not serve them. Because I, God, your elohim, am a jealous eil. (Exodus/Shemot 20:4-5)

eil, El (אֵל) = a god; the father god of Canaanite religion; the God of Israel.

Matzeivah at Gezer

Worshiping an idol is equated in the Bible with worshiping the god that the idol represents. In this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim (“Judges”), Moses orders the Israelites:

You must not plant for yourself an asherah of any wood next to the altar of God, your elohim, that you shall make for yourself. And you must not erect for yourself a matzeivah which God, your elohim, hates. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 16:21-22)

asherah (אֲשֵׁרָה) = the mother goddess of Canaanite and Phoenician religions (called Ishtar in Akkadian and Inanna in Sumerian); a carved wooden post representing this goddess. (Plural: asherim, אֲשֵׁרִים.)

matzeivah (מַצֵבָה) = a standing stone used as a marker, or as an image representing a god. (Plural: matzeivot, מַצֵּבֺת.)

Clay figurines from Judah

Although very few wooden artifacts have survived the millennia in Israel, archaeologists have unearthed numerous small clay figurines in ancient Judah that may have been modeled after large wood asherim.1

All asherim are forbidden in the Bible, but not every matzeivah is. Standing stones that mark graves, boundaries, covenants, or great events are acceptable.2 So are the standing stones Jacob erects for God and anoints with oil.3 The matzeivot that God hates are the standing stones that people bowed to and anointed in order to worship a different god.

Asherim and matzeivot are mentioned together in eleven biblical passages.4 These wood and stone vertical idols were erected at the shrines of other gods—and even, at times, inside the temple of the God of Israel in Jerusalem.5 Thus when people came to a shrine or, during the reigns of more permissive kings, to a temple of God, they also acknowledged the divine power of the gods represented by the asherah and the matzeivah.

Who were the gods behind these two ubiquitous types of idols?

Asherah from Ugarit

The religion of Canaan (later known as Phoenicia) had a founding pair of gods who mated and produced 70 more gods. The father god was named El. In a long poem from Ugarit in northern Canaan6, El is associated with the bull, and holds court in a field at the source of two rivers. The mother goddess was named Asherah or Atirat, and was associated with the seashore, stars, fertility, and trees.

El and Asherah’s most important son was Baal, the weather god. In the Ugaritic poem, Baal asks Asherah to ask El for permission to build a palace on Mount Tzafon and hold court there. Both parents give permission, thus making Baal the ruler over all his sibling gods and goddesses. In other Canaanite stories, Asherah and her son Baal are a sexual pair.

Baal from Ugarit

An asherah represented the mother goddess Asherah. A matzeivah probably represented her son and lover Baal, since Canaanite rituals focused on the pairing of Asherah and Baal, not Asherah and El.7 Most biblical references to matzeivot do not specify the god; the only exceptions are Jacob’s matzeivot for God in the book of Genesis, and two matzeivot of Baal in the second book of Kings.8

The first time the Israelites are told to destroy asherim and matzeivot is in the book of Exodus:

For their altars you shall tear down and their matzeivot you shall shatter and their asherim you shall cut down (34:13); because you must not bow down to another eil, because God is jealous of “his” name; a jealous eil is “he”. (Exodus 34:14)

The Torah consistently uses masculine pronouns and conjugations to refer to its asexual God. Hebrew is a gendered language, in which even inanimate objects and abstract concepts are assigned genders, so the masculine gender is often arbitrary. But it may not be so arbitrary in the case of God.

In the Torah the head of a household is a man, who is entitled to complete obedience from his wife and adult children as well as his slaves. God is often described in the first five books of the Bible as a demanding father, and in the books of the Prophets as the husband of the Israelites, who collectively take the role of God’s unfaithful wife.

Canaanite and Mesopotamian religions had both priestesses and priests; the Israelites had only priests. In other Canaanite and Mesopotamian cultures, women could also own land, make contracts, and initiate divorce. The Israelites reserved these privileges for men.

Is the biblical condemnation of goddesses, including both Asherah and the later goddess Ashtoret, “Queen of the Heavens”9, a result of this discrimination against women?

Or is it merely part of the condemnation of all gods other than the one God, a condemnation that includes the worship of matzeivot as well as asherim?

Complete dedication to a single god does have an advantage. If you begin with two gods, male and female, you can certainly understand our universe of separations and distinctions. But it might be hard to grasp that everything is part of a whole.  Beginning with a single god who creates all the separations and distinctions makes it easier to transcend dualism and get an inkling of the underlying unity of everything.

For me, as for many human beings, it is hard to keep remembering that we are interconnected parts of the whole, and that the whole means more than the sum of its parts.  It is hard to keep returning to any sort of God-consciousness.

So I agree with the Torah portion Shoftim that we should not plant any goddess-posts or god-stones. What we need is a new pronoun and some new metaphors for God.

  1. See Aaron Greener’s essay What Are Clay Female Figurines Doing in Judah during the Biblical Period?, published on
  2. Jacob marks Rachel’s grave (Genesis 35:20) and his boundary pact with Lavan (Genesis 31:45-52) with matzeivot. Moses erects twelve matzeivot for the twelve tribes around an altar for a ceremonial covenant between the Israelites and God (Exodus 24:4). Joshua erects twelve standing stones in a circle at Gilgal to commemorate the crossing of the Jordan River (Joshua 4:1-9, 4:19-24).
  3. Genesis 8:18, 28:22, 31:13, and 35:14.
  4. Exodus 34:13; Deuteronomy 7:5, 12:13, and 16:21-22; 1 Kings 4:23; 2 Kings 17:10, 18:4, and 23:13-14; Micah 5:12; 2 Chronicles 14:2 and 31:1.
  5. King Hezekiah shatters matzeivot in the Jerusalem Temple in 2 Kings 18:4. King Menashe erects an asherah in the Temple in 2 Kings 21:7. King Josiah removes all the objects made for Asherah and Baal from the Temple and burns them in 2 Kings 23:4-6.
  6. Translated by H.L. Ginsberg in The Ancient Near East, Vol. 1, edited by James B. Pritchard, Princeton University Press, 1958.
  7. Similarly, in the annual fertility rituals of Mesopotamia to the east, a high priestess embodying Asherah (called Inana or Ishtar in that region) has sexual intercourse with the city’s king, who embodies Asherah’s son Baal (called Tammuz or Dumuzi there).
  8. 2 Kings 3:2 and 10:26-27.
  9. Ashtoret, originally one of the daughters of Asherah and El, replaced Asherah as the primary goddess in the region of Canaan during the 6th century B.C.E. The worship of Ashtoret is denounced in Judges 2:13 and 10:6, 1 Samuel 7:4 and 12:10, 1 Kings 11:5, and 2 Kings 23:13. Israelite women worship the “Queen of the Heavens”, one of the titles of Ashtoret, in Jeremiah 7:18 and 44:15-18.
  10. 1 Samuel 28:3-20.



Haftarat Shoftim—Isaiah: A New Name

September 6, 2016 at 9:21 pm | Posted in Isaiah 2, Shoftim | 2 Comments
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Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9) and the haftarah is Isaiah 51:12-52:12).
Isaiah, by Gustave Dore, 1866

Isaiah, by Gustave Dore, 1866

The second “book” of Isaiah (written in the sixth century B.C.E. around the end of the Babylonian exile, two centuries after the first half of Isaiah) opens:

            Nachamu, nachamu My people!” (Isaiah 40:1)

nachamu (נַחֲמוּ) = Comfort them! (From the same root as nicham (נִחָם) = having a change of heart; regretting, or being comforted.)

This week’s haftarah from second Isaiah begins:

             I, I am He who menacheim you. (Isaiah 51:12)

menacheim (מְנַחֵם) = is comforting.

At this point, many of the exiles in Babylon have given up on their old god and abandoned all hope of returning to Jerusalem. So second Isaiah repeatedly tries to reassure them and change their hearts; he or she uses a form of the root verb nicham eleven times.

In the Jewish calendar, this is the time of year when we, too, need comfort leading to a change of heart. So for the seven weeks between Tisha B’Av (the day of mourning for the fall of the temple in Jerusalem) and Rosh Hashanah (the celebration of the new year) we read seven haftarot of “consolation”, all from second Isaiah.

This year I notice that each of these seven haftarot not only urges the exiles to stick to their own religion and prepare to return to Jerusalem; it also coaxes them to consider different views of God.

The first week—

—in Haftarah for Ve-etchannan—Isaiah: Who Is Calling? we learned that once God desires to communicate comfort, the transmission of instructions to human prophets goes through divine “voices”, aspects of a God Who contains a variety ideas and purposes. When we feel persecuted, it may comfort us to remember that God is not single-mindedly out to get us, but is looking at a bigger picture.

The second week—

—in Haftarah for Eikev—Isaiah: Abandonment or Yearning? second Isaiah encourages the reluctant Jews in Babylon to think of Jerusalem as a mother missing her children, and of God as a rejected father. Instead of being told that God has compassion on us, we feel compassion for an anthropomorphic God. Feeling compassion for someone else can cause a change of heart in someone who is sunk in despair.

The third week—

—in Haftarah Re-eih—Isaiah: Song of the Abuser, we took a new look at what God would be like if God really were anthropomorphic. Like a slap in the face, this realization could radically change someone’s theological attitude.

The fourth week, this week—

—God not only declares Itself the one who comforts the exiled Israelites, but also announces a new divine name.

In Biblical Hebrew, as in English, “name” can also mean “reputation”. In this week’s haftarah, God mentions two earlier occasions when Israelites, the people God promised to protect, were nevertheless enslaved: when they were sojourning in Egypt, and when Assyria conquered the northern kingdom of Israel/Samaria. Both occasions gave God a bad reputation—a bad name. And the Torah portrays a God who is very concerned about “his” reputation. For example, when God threatens to kill all the Israelites for worshiping a golden calf, Moses talks God out of it by asking:

What would the Egyptians say? “He was bad; He brought them out to kill them in the mountains and to remove them from the face of the earth.” (Exodus/Shemot 32:12)

Now, God says, the Babylonians are the oppressors. They captured Jerusalem, razed God’s temple, deported all the leading families of Judah, and still refuse to let them leave Babylon.

            Their oppressors mock them—declares God—

            And constantly, all day, shemi is reviled. (Isaiah 52:5)

shemi (שְׁמִי) = my name.

The Babylonians are giving the God of Israel a bad name.

            Therefore My people shall know shemi,

            Therefore, on that day;

            Because I myself am the one, hamedabeir. Here I am! (Isaiah 52:5-6)

hamedabeir (הַמְדַבֵּר) = the one who is speaking, the one who speaks, the speaker. (From the root verb diber (דִּבֶּר) = speak)

Since God’s old name has been reviled, God promises that the Israelites will know God by a new name. Then God identifies Itself not merely as the speaker of this verse, but as “the one, The Speaker”, adding extra emphasis with “Here I am!”

The concept of God as Hamedabeir appears elsewhere in the Bible. In the first chapter of the book of Genesis/Bereishit (a chapter that modern scholars suspect was written during the Babylonian exile), God speaks the world into being. Whatever God says, happens.

Second Isaiah not only refers to God as the creator of everything, but emphasizes that what God speaks into being is permanent.

            Grass withers, flowers fall

            But the davar of our God stands forever! (Isaiah 40:8)

davar  (דָּבָר) = word, speech, thing, event. (Also from the root verb diber (דִּבֶּר) = speak.)

What is the davar of God regarding the exiles in Babylon? In this week’s haftarah second Isaiah says:

            Be untroubled! Sing out together

            Ruins of Jerusalem!

            For God nicham His people;

            He will redeem Jerusalem. (Isaiah 52:9)

nicham (ִנִחַם) = had a change of heart about; comforted.

God let the Babylonians punish the Israelites because they were unjust and because they worshiped other gods. But now God has had a change of heart and wants to end the punishment and rescue the Israelites from Babylon. Since God’s name was reviled, some of the exiles do not believe God has the power to carry out this desire. So God names Itself Hamedabeir and then declares:

            Thus it is: My davar that issues from My mouth

            Does not return to me empty-handed,

            But performs my pleasure

            And succeeds in what I send it to do.

            For in celebration you shall leave,

            And in security you shall be led. (Isaiah 55:11-12)

The speech of Hamedabeir achieves exactly what God wants it to. In this case, God wants the Israelites in Babylon to return joyfully and safely to Jerusalem. If the exiles believe this information, their hearts will change and they will be filled with new hope.


It is easy to give up on God when life looks bleak, and you blame an anthropomorphic god for making it that way. No wonder many Israelite exiles in the sixth century B.C.E. adopted the Babylonian religion. No wonder many people today adopt the religion of atheism.

But there is an alternative: redefine God. Discover a name for God that changes your view of reality, and therefore changes your heart.

Thinking of God as Hamedabeir, The Speaker, takes me in a different direction from second Isaiah. Not being a physicist, I take it on faith that one reality consists of the movement of sub-atomic particles. But another reality is the world we perceive directly with our senses, the world of the davar—the thing and the event. We human beings cannot help dividing our world into things and events. We are also designed to label everything we experience. What we cannot name does not clearly exist for us. In our own way, we too are speakers.

What if God is the ur-speech that creates things out of the dance of sub-atomic particles—for us and creatures like us?

What if God, The Speaker, is the source of meaning? Maybe God is what speaks to all human beings, a transcendent inner voice which we seldom hear. When we do hear The Speaker say something new, we often misinterpret it. Yet sometimes inspiration shines through.

I am comforted by the idea of a Speaker who makes meaning, even if I do not understand it.


Shoftim: Abominable

August 18, 2015 at 11:14 pm | Posted in Shoftim | 1 Comment
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by Melissa Carpenter, Maggidah

lamb 2You shall not slaughter for God, your god, an ox or a lamb or kid that has a defect in it, any bad thing, because it is toeivah to God, your god.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 17:1)

toeivah (תּוֹעֵבָה) = repugnant, causing visceral disgust; an “abomination”.

This is only the first of five times the word toeivah appears in this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim (“Judges”). This emotionally loaded noun or adjective appears 117 times in the Hebrew Bible, and its verb form (תעב) appears 23 times. The word has been used to manipulate reactions for millennia.

An object or action can be toeivah to a class of human beings, or to God. Sometimes the Torah simply states that something is toeivah without saying who finds it repugnant; the implication is that the reader or listener should be repelled.

The first three times the word toeivah appears in the Bible, it describes what disgusts Egyptians.  The book of Genesis/Bereishit says that Egyptians find eating at the same table with Hebrews toeivah (Genesis 43:32). We do not know whether Egyptians were disgusted by their manners or by their diet. Next Joseph tells his brothers that all shepherds of flocks are toeivah to Egyptians (Genesis 46:34).  In the book of Exodus/Shemot, Moses tells the Pharaoh that the Hebrews must travel some distance to make sacrifices to God because their animal offerings are toeivah to Egyptians (Exodus 8:22).

The first thing considered toeivah to God, rather than to a specific group of humans, is in the book of Leviticus: With a male you shall not lie down as one lies down with a woman; it is toeivah. (Leviticus/Vayikra 18:22)

This infamous line (misused by fundamentalists to claim that all homosexuality is an “abomination”) occurs in the middle of a list of sexual prohibitions God tells Moses to issue to the Israelites.  Since God is the speaker in this verse, the implication is that God finds that particular act (whatever it might actually be) toeivah.

disgust 1The first verse in this week’s Torah portion to mention toeivah specifies that an animal offering with a defect is toeivah to God, your god. It establishes that God Itself finds a defective offering repulsive, revolting, viscerally disgusting. I picture God as a human being making a face and swallowing hard because his or her gorge is rising.

The problem is that God, unlike Egyptians, has no viscera.  Attributing visceral disgust to God is an anthropomorphization.

Immediately after warning that God finds offerings with defects revolting, this week’s Torah portion says that if anyone worships other gods,

and it is told to you and you hear, and you inquire thoroughly, and hey!—it is true, well-founded, that the thing was done, this toeivah, in Israel—then you shall take out that man or that woman who did this evil thing within your gates, and you shall pelt the man or the woman with stones so that they die. (Deuteronomy 17:4-5)

Is worshiping other gods toeivah to God, or to the people of Israel? Other parts of Deuteronomy make it clear that any act worshiping other gods is disgusting to God.  For example:

Carved images of their gods you shall burn in the fire.  You must not covet the silver and gold upon them and take it for yourself, lest you be snared by it, for it is toeivah to God, your god. (Deuteronomy 7:25)

The toeivah things and practices in this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, include defective animal offerings, the worship of other gods, and the practice of magic.

When you come into the land that God, your god, is giving to you, you must not learn to do as the toavot of those nations. There must not be found among you one who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire, a caster of cast lots, a cloud-reader, or a snake-diviner, or a sorcerer, or one who casts spells with a familiar, or a woman who inquires of the dead, or a man who consults ghosts, or a medium for the dead.  Because everyone who does these things is toavot, and on account of these toeivot, God, your god, is dispossessing them [the Canaanite nations] before you.  (Deuteronomy 18:9-12)

toavot, toeivot  (תּוֹעֵבֹת, תּוֹעֲוֹת) = plural of toeivah.

Since God is dispossessing the Canaanites because of their magical practices, the Torah concludes that God finds the magic repugnant and disgusting. (See my blog post Shoftim: Taboo Magic.)

The word toeivah comes up one more time in this week’s Torah portion, when Moses tells the Israelites that when they conquer any town within the land designated for Israel, they must kill all the inhabitants, men, women, and children—

—so that they will not teach you to do like any of their toavot that they did for their gods, and you would do wrong for God, your god. (Deuteronomy 20:18)

I believe this is one of the places where the Bible advocates something unethical.  Should we commit genocide against a people because we find their superstitious or religious practices disgusting?  Of course not!  Should we kill them all because we are afraid they will convert us?  Of course not!

Genocide motivated by visceral disgust for a group still happens.  The Nazi round-up and slaughter of not only Jews, but also homosexual men, gypsies, and others the Nazis found disgusting, is the most famous example of modern genocide.  Unfortunately genocide still happens around the world.

The Distinguished Member of the Humane Society, by E.H. Landseer

The Distinguished Member of the Humane Society,
by E.H. Landseer

Nevetheless, some reactions of disgust have an ethical component.  I find okra disgusting because of its taste and texture, but I do not consider people who eat it immoral. The idea of cooking and eating a dog repels me in a different way, because I find it unethical.  Dogs have been my cross-species friends; they have enough in common with human beings so I believe it is wrong for humans to kill them for no better reason than to eat them.  (Twenty years ago I realized that this reasoning applies to all mammals, and I have avoided eating them ever since.)

Most Americans find the idea of eating a dog toeivah.  Many (though not all) Chinese still consider dog an acceptable meat.  Should we therefore kill the Chinese?  Of course not!

When we feel visceral repugnance, our impulse is to get rid of whatever is disgusting us.  But in order to be morally upright, we have to step back from our visceral reactions and determine what actions are ethically acceptable.  I can ethically work to pass laws against slaughtering dogs and other mammals for food.  I cannot ethically kill people who happen to be butchers.

Yet if I thought God found eating dogs toeivah, I could use that as a justification for killing dog butchers.  I could even cite an earlier verse in Deuteronomy:  You shall not eat any toeivah. (Deuteronomy 14:3), which is followed by a list of animals that are toeivah to eat, including any animal with paws instead of hooves.

Thus attributing human disgust to God opens the way to truly abominable deeds.

Shoftim: Saving Trees

August 24, 2014 at 8:31 pm | Posted in Shoftim | 1 Comment
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When you besiege a town for many days, to make war against it, to capture it, lo tashchit its trees by swinging an axe against them; for you will eat from them, so you shall not cut them down; for is a tree of the field ha-adam, to come in front of you in the siege? (Deuteronomy/Devarim 20:19)Peaches_clip_art_hight

lo tashchit (לֹא־תַשְׁחִית) =  you shall not destroy, ruin, corrupt.

ha-adam (הָאָדָם) = human (as an adjective); the human, humankind (as a noun).

The above verse from this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim (“judges”), assumes that it is acceptable to make war in order to capture a town belonging to a different tribe or nation. If humans from the town get in your way, you may kill them. Everyone does it.

However, the verse does challenge the idea that it is acceptable to cut down your enemy’s orchards and groves. This practice both allowed the besieging forces to vent their spleen, and ensured that even if the siege failed, the town would still suffer in the long term, deprived of both fruit and a means of livelihood. (For example, olive oil was a major export of the portion of Canaan the Israelites conquered.)

The Talmud generalizes the prohibition against cutting down fruit trees in a siege to cover any wasteful destruction, including tearing fabric when you are not in mourning (Kiddushin 32a), or scattering your money in anger (Shabbat 105b).

Rambam (the 12th-century commentator Moses Maimonides) wrote that the verse in this week’s Torah portion applies to any injury to a fruit tree. However, he said, the tree may be removed if it is damaging other trees, or even if its wood can be sold at a high price. The important thing is to avoid any needless destruction. He extended this idea to cover ruining edible food or demolishing a usable building.

The prohibition against waste and useless destruction came to be called bal tashchit. (Bal, like lo, means “not”.)

Many societies have rules against destroying a fellow citizen’s property. What stands out about the Jewish principle of bal taschchit is that it prohibits useless destruction of both enemy property, and your own personal property.

According to the 13th-century book Sefer Ha-Chinukh, the purpose of bal taschchit is to train us to avoid acting on evil impulses. Wicked people revel in destruction and corruption. By following the rule to eschew waste and preserve everything useful, we gradually reduce our impulses to destroy something, and develop a better attitude.

Imagine if everyone followed the rule of bal taschchit today!

Who knows, maybe the modern ethic of “reduce, re-use, recycle” is training us to disapprove of wasting the earth’s resources. Maybe the people of the world are almost ready to rally to a new call to save the world from the pollution that leads to “global climate change”—which really means ruin and hardship all over the world.

May it be so!


Shoftim: Justice for All?

August 6, 2013 at 2:01 am | Posted in Shoftim | 1 Comment

The most quoted sentence in this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim (“Judges”), is:

Tzedek, tzedek you shall pursue. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 16:20)

tzedek  = right behavior, justice

Moses is urging the Israelites to keep seeking better justice and higher levels of right behavior in their own society, in their own land. The passage also includes an injunction not to judge people differently according to their rank in society, but to apply the same standards to all Israelites.

Later generations expanded the ideal of pursuing equal justice among your own people to pursuing equal justice among all people, the whole world. Today, our actual practices fall far short of our ideal of universal justice and human rights, but at least most cultures accept that ideal, and people often feel obliged to explain why they are not meeting it.

In both ancient Israelite society and modern nations, warfare and citizenship are two of the areas where different standards of justice are applied to different categories of people.

When it comes to warfare, societies today resort to narrowly limited codes for ethical behavior. Killing an enemy combatant in war is considered acceptable, while killing a resident of your own country is considered murder—even though both are human beings. Nevertheless, governing bodies attempt to set the same standards for all wars.

The book of Deuteronomy, however, clearly distinguishes between the long war to conquer the “promised land” of Canaan, and wars involving other lands. The first war is considered mandatory, required by God; all other wars are considered optional. This week’s Torah portion gives one set of rules for besieging towns in optional wars, and a different set of rules for besieging towns in the “promised land”.

The rules in Shoftim for sieges in optional wars were relatively ethical for the 7th century B.C.E., when modern scholars believe the book of Deuteronomy was written down.

When you approach a town to do battle upon it, you must call out to it for shalom. It shall be that if it answers you with shalom and it opens to you, then all the people found inside it shall do forced labor for you, and they shall serve you. (Deuteronomy 20:10)

shalom = peace; wholeness, intactness, well-being

In this case, shalom means terms for surrender, presumably in order to preserve the physical well-being of the vanquished. The acceptable terms of surrender are that the Israelites will own the town, and its inhabitants will work for their new Israelite masters—but no one will get hurt. This is notably humane for that time and place.

But if it [the town] does not make shalom with you, but does battle with you, you shall tzar it. Then God, your god, will give it into your hand, and you shall strike down all its men by the edge of the sword. However, the women and the small children and the cattle and everything that is in the city, all its booty, you shall plunder for yourself, and you shall eat the booty of your enemies, which God, your god, has given to you. (Deuteronomy 20:12-14)

tzar, tzarar = wrap up, tie up; cramp, impede; besiege

This passage describes the standard procedure in that part of the world. An army that captured a town or city usually killed all the combatants (here assumed to be all the men) and took everything else for their own use, including the women and children, who became their slaves.

This is bad enough, but not as bad as what the Torah prescribes for the native residents of the “promised land”.

Thus you shall do to all the towns that are very distant from you, those which are not among the towns of the nations here. However, among the towns of these peoples, [the towns] which God, your god, is giving to you as a permanent possession, you must not let any living soul live. (Deuteronomy 20:15-16)

The Torah then lists six nations that the Israelites should completely wipe out, down to the smallest baby: the six that happen to be living inside the boundaries of the geographic area God promised to give to the Israelites. What is the reason for this order to commit genocide?

So that they will not teach you to do according to all their abominations that they did for their gods, and you would offend God, your god. (Deuteronomy 20:18)

What happened instead, according to the books of Joshua and Judges, was that the Israelites conquered the land of Canaan the usual way, killing men in battle and massacring the populations of a few towns, but never eliminating an entire ethnic group. The book of Judges states that the Israelites then settled down amid the remaining members of the same six peoples they are told to wipe out in this week’s Torah portion. The Israelites took their daughters for wives, and they gave their own daughters to their sons, and they served their gods. (Judges 3:6)

The children of Israel continued to serve various native gods. During the period chronicled in the two books of Kings, Israelite worship of other gods was so widespread that even the temple in Jerusalem was full of idols. In the second book of Kings, the high priest Chilkiyah discovered (or possibly wrote) a scroll that inspired King Josiah/Yoshiyahu to clear out all the idols from the temple, and carry out a nationwide campaign to eliminate other religions from his country.

According to modern scholars, this scroll was the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim, assembled and edited in the 7th century B.C.E. during Josiah’s reign.

I conclude that the command to commit genocide was written into this week’s Torah portion because the author wanted King Josiah to get the idols out of the temple and eliminate all the other religions competing for the hearts of the Israelites. If only the Israelites had wiped out every last native when they conquered the land in the first place, he must have thought, there would have been nobody left to entice the Israelites into adopting Canaanite gods!

Unfortunately, this grumpy fantasy is preserved in the Torah as if Moses had commanded genocide.

Yet earlier passages in Deuteronomy echo the sentiment in Exodus and Leviticus that resident aliens should be treated fairly and judged according to the same laws as the Israelite citizens.

… judge with tzedek between a man and his brother, and between [him] and the stranger. (Deuteronomy 1:16)

You must love the stranger, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 10:19)

These injunctions seem less discriminatory than modern laws that treat resident aliens differently from official citizens.

So how should we approach a Torah that contains both “you must love the stranger”, and also “among the towns of these peoples …you must not let any living soul live”?

I believe it is futile to attempt to reconcile contradictory passages such as these. We need to recognize that the Torah was written down by human beings who were often, but not always, divinely inspired.

This does not mean we should reject the Torah, or the Hebrew Bible. Instead, I think we should remember that as human beings, we have tasted fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad, and we can continue to refine our ability to discriminate between right and wrong, just and unjust.  As we read the Torah, we should recognize where some of its writers erred, but also dive into the passages written with deep insight and holy inspiration. And we should follow the good advice in this week’s Torah portion:

Tzedek, tzedek you shall pursue.

Keep seeking out what is just, what is right.

Shoftim: Taboo Magic

August 21, 2012 at 12:26 pm | Posted in Shoftim | 1 Comment

What is my lucky number to win the jackpot?

If I order my troops to advance today, will I win the battle?

Is it okay if I ignore that beggar?

Today and in biblical times, people want to know the answers to the first two types of questions so much that they sometimes resort to magic.  The third question, then as now, is the kind of question we never resort to magic to answer–but our  prophets and religious leaders give us an answer anyway.

The Torah points out the difference between magic (not magic tricks, but serious occult practices) and prophecy in this week’s portion, Shoftim (“Judges”).

When you come to the land that God, your god, is giving to you, you must not learn to act according to the to-avot of those nations. There shall not be found among you one who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire, a caster of cast lots, a cloud-reader, or a snake-diviner, or a sorcerer, or one who casts spells with a familiar, or a woman who inquires of the dead, or a man who consults ghosts, or a medium for the dead. Because anyone who does these things is to-avot; and on account of these to-avot, God, your god, is dispossessing them [the Canaanite nations] before you. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 18:9-12)

to-avot = plural of to-eivah = abomination, foreign perversion, custom of one culture that is taboo in another culture

The first four times the Torah uses the Hebrew word to-eivah, it refers to actions that are taboo to the Egyptians, but not to the children of Israel: eating, breeding, or sacrificing sheep. The next six times the word shows up, in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra, it is about sexual pairings presumably practiced by Canaanites, but forbidden to Israelites. Then the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim uses the word 17 times, for a variety of practices forbidden to the Israelites. Nine of these explicitly refer to worshiping Canaanite gods. Most of the other eight practices labeled to-eivah may refer indirectly to Canaanite religious customs.

In this week’s Torah portion, the word is used three times to emphasize that Israelites must shun the occult practices of Canaanites.

The Torah does not ban all occult practices. After all, the book of Numbers/Bemidbar says that when Joshua leads the Israelites to conquer Canaan, the high priest should consult the Urim and Tummim and tell Joshua when to go out to battle.  In the first book of Samuel, King Saul tries, and fails, to get an answer from these magic objects about his upcoming battle against the Philistines. This is perfectly acceptable; his unacceptable behavior is when he sneaks off to ask a woman who inquires of the dead to raise the ghost of Samuel.

Then the Urim and Tumim disappear from the Torah, except as objects that high priests used to wear. The Talmud claims that until the fall of the first temple, kings could ask the high priest a yes-or-no question, and the Urim and Tumim would sometimes provide an answer. Consulting the Urim and Tumim does sound like an oracular practice sanctioned by God for the Israelites. So how is it different from a Canaanite method of divination that is called to-eivah?

The chief difference, according to the Torah, is that when the Urim and Tummim give the high priest an answer, it is because God is communicating through them. When Canaanites do divination, they receive answers from the ghosts of dead human beings, or from omens sent by their own gods. Employing a Canaanite occult practice is tantamount to adopting a Canaanite religious practice.

The passage in this week’s Torah portion continues:

You must be tammim with God, your god. Because these nations that you are taking possession of, they listened to cloud-conjurers and  lot-casters; but God, your god, did not set this out for you. God, your god, will establish for you a prophet from your midst, from your brothers, like me. To him you shall listen! (Deuteronomy/Devarim 18:13-15)

tammim = simple, all-of-a-piece, unblemished, perfect (when referring to an animal or anything physical); complete (when referring to a course of action); wholehearted (when referring to the human mind)

A simple interpretation of “You must be tammim” is that the Israelites, and everyone who follows the god of Israel, must be dedicated exclusively to God. Treating anything else like a god is a serious flaw. We must not pray or make offerings to an idol, to the name of someone else’s god, or to the spirit of a person who has died. We also must not try to get foreknowledge, or influence our futures, through any substitute for God. We must leave our futures in God’s hands.

The Torah also supports a more subtle interpretation. A major 19th-century commentator, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, pointed out that those who are tammim, wholeheartedly dedicated to God, only think about what they should do for God right now; their minds are so fully occupied with this, they do not worry about their futures. Serving God, doing good, is everything.

Maybe that is why the prophets in the bible rarely answer questions, and are seldom consulted. They force people to listen to predictions that are really warnings, all on the same theme:  If you go on disobeying God, you will suffer for it!

And obeying God means more than exclusive worship. Again and again in the Torah, God orders us to provide for everyone who is disadvantaged, including the widow, the orphan, the resident alien, and the destitute beggar. God tells us to be honest and fair in all our judgments and our business dealings with other people. God asks us to respect our parents and elders, to love our neighbors, and to be kind to the strangers in our midst.

I believe that being wholehearted with God means being wholly dedicated to good behavior toward all human beings, and to the earth we live on.  If we use occult practices to second-guess the future and manipulate our own fortunes, we distract ourselves from what we should really be doing with our lives. We divide our own hearts when we spend energy on indirect means to selfish ends, because then we have less energy for the really good things in life: enjoying creation, and improving our world in small but significant ways.

Shoftim: A Good Life Without Horses

April 13, 2011 at 2:18 pm | Posted in Shoftim | Leave a comment

This week’s Torah portion, Shoftim (Judges), includes four limits on any future king of Israel, and four exemptions from military duty.  As soon as I noticed this, I had a feeling the two passages were related.

You shall set over yourself a king from among your brothers …  Only he shall not accumulate horses for himself, so he will not turn the people toward Egypt for the sake of accumulating horses, for God said to you: You shall not find an excuse to return by this path again.  And he shall not accumulate wives for himself, so that he will not turn away from his own levav.  And he shall not accumulate very much silver and gold for himself.  And as he takes his seat upon the throne of this kingdom, he will write for himself a copy of this teaching upon a scroll, in front of the priests of the Levites.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 17:15-18)

levav = heart (literally), mind (figuratively), inner nature, inner self, seat of emotions and thoughts, morale, character.

Horses in biblical times were used exclusively to pull war chariots, so a king who accumulated horses would be preparing for war.  A few chapters later, four peacetime activities are treated as more important than war.  Unlike some earlier parts of the Torah, Shoftim views war as undesirable—at least once the land of Israel has been conquered and settled.

Then the administrators will speak to the people, saying: Who is the man who has built a new house and not dedicated it?  He will go and return to his house, lest he die in the war and another man will dedicate it.  And who is the man who has planted a vineyard and not made his own use of it?  He will go and return to his house, lest he die in the war and another man will make his own use of it.  And who is the man who has become engaged to a woman and not taken her home?  He will go and return to his house, lest he die in the war and another man will take her home.  And the administrators will continue to speak to the people, and they will say: Who is the man who is fearful and sensitive of levav?  He will go and return to his house, and not melt the levav of a brother to be like his levav.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 20:5-8)

Both passages translated above mention the levav, which includes a person’s inner self or character.  Therefore they can also be read as warnings to develop our own individual lives, neither conquering others nor surrendering to them.

A king must not acquire war horses from Egypt; a man must dedicate his own house.  So we humans should neither interfere with the privacy and independence of others, nor give up our own privacy and independence; we should take good care of our own lives and homes.

A king must not accumulate too much silver and gold; a man must use the fruits of his own vineyard (after bringing the first fruits to the temple).  So we humans should neither accumulate high salaries and luxuries at the expense of others, nor fail to benefit from the fruits of our own labor; we should enjoy the works of our own hands.

A king must avoid marrying women who will tempt him to turn away from his own character, and must refrain from taking so many wives that he loses touch with his inner self; a man must take a woman to whom he has made a commitment into his home in full marriage.  So we humans should neither squander ourselves in a series of shallow relationships, nor hold back altogether from sharing our homes and souls; we should manage our love lives with care for the integrity of our selves and our partners.

Finally, a king must make his own copy of the Torah, the Teaching on how to live in harmony with God; and a man must work on the sensitive parts of his psychology at home, instead of upsetting others with his fears.  So we humans should not ignore either the moral rules of our society or our own intuitions of the divine; neither should we assume that we have no effect on others, nor that we cannot change.  We should examine our souls honestly and work on self-improvement.

If only we all take care of our own lives, enjoy the works of our own hands, treat everyone with respect, and improve our own inner natures , we will no longer need to conquer or compete with others.  There will no longer be a time for war.

(This blog was first posted on August 9, 2010.)

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