Compassion in Torah

It’s typical these days to caricature the Old Testament as brutal and intolerant. Of course there is some reason to take offence at its violence and the harshness of some laws, especially when passages are torn from their theological context.

"Thou shalt... what?... defend the right to bear arms? Sure, OK, you got it."

Yet, I suspect that such caricatures owe just as much to the general revulsion towards modern hyper-conservatives and fundamentalists of all sorts of religions, whose attitudes get super-imposed back onto Biblical text. I wonder if people don’t perhaps assume that the Torah must be like Zionists and Taliban clerics. After all, the Old Testament is old, and conservatives like the old ways. Most religious extremists have beards, and Charlton Heston wore a beard when he was in that Ten Commandments flick.

However we’ve come to the conclusion that the Torah is backward and brutal, looking at its details frequently throws up surprising challenges to that view. The following is one that I noticed recently.

In Deuteronomy 27, as Israel prepares to enter Canaan, Moses commands that representatives of each tribe should pronounce curses upon immoral behaviour, one curse for each tribe. The intention seems to be that breaking the law in heinous ways brings curse upon society as a whole. Each member of each tribe — as member of a theocracy — has a responsibility to choose blessing and the good, rather than evil and curse.

As you’d expect, the twelve evils that bring on curse include serious cases of lawbreaking, such as incest, bestiality, and stealing land from one’s neighbour.

What strikes me as entirely unexpected is that within the collection of the top twelve sins that bring on curse, Moses includes, ‘Cursed is the man who leads the blind astray on the road’ (27:18).

If we were to construct a list of things that are to be forever associated with curse, we would presumably make it a collection of the worst things that you can do, or relate it somehow to the the most important constitutional laws. It is strange then that this list includes something that is neither especially harmful or illegal. I’d be surprised if such behaviour made it into even the top 100 curse-worthy things we could think of; it’d be somewhere near ‘dawdling while in rush-hour traffic’, I’d suspect. Nevertheless, here it is in Moses’ list of twelve.

The reason for including it is not hard to see; it’s just not as crusty and Old-Testamenty as we may have expected. Enshrined in Israel’s foundational blessing-and-cursing material is the idea that there is something fundamentally abhorrent about exploiting the helpless, even just for fun. Taking even relatively harmless advantage of the weak, just because you can, invites the curse of God. Put positively, one of the major lessons that ancient Israel were meant to learn before they entered the Holy Land was that blessed, law-abiding people ought to be characterised by compassion and kindness, otherwise they had not understood what it means to be like their God.

It’s a shame that people are quick to single out God’s acts of judgement as evidence of vengefulness of character, when there is so much evidence to the contrary. The theme of kindness to the enemy runs throughout the Biblical material. There is a tension to be felt between God’s judgement and mercy to be sure, but that’s just it: to miss that tension (by discarding either side) is to miss the point.

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