The Irony of “The Law”

I have recently finished Dutch academic Benjamin Kaplan’s Divided by Faith: Religious Conflict and the Practice of Toleration in Early Modern Europe, and it gives me a way to introduce a subject I’ve wanted to write about since sometime in late March.


In describing how tolerance as an ideal evolved in Europe, Kaplan writes a length about how Christian Europeans, particularly in Germany (where the Reformation hit first, though not quite hardest), lived, both before and after the events of the first half of the 16th century. Something essential to Christian European life was the mixing of polity and confessional community:

The uses of church bells [to mark civic events] reveal something else of prime importance too, the lack of separation between the secular and sacred. In towns and villages across Europe, “the body social, the body politic, and the body of Christ were so closely intertwined as to be inseparable.” A heritage of the Middle Ages, the equation of civic and sacral community survived the Protestant and Catholic Reformations as an ideal, even where it was no longer a reality. (p. 50)

While the church and the state were, mostly, separate entities, the congregation and the polity were not. Church and civil community, even before the Protestant Reformation, were contiguous; membership in one assumed membership in another. This is important because as Christians struggled with what it meant to live godly lives, they expressed those lives not just individually, but communally as well.

For Europeans, every town and village had a spiritual dimension: more than a convenient, worldly arrangement for human cohabitation, it was a religious body—a “corpus Christianum.” Viewed through the prism of Christian piety, its unity was an expression of Christian love, its peace godly, and its provision of mutual aid an exercise in charity. The communal welfare it existed to promote was spiritual as well as material. Indeed, the word welfare and its cognates, like the Latin salus and German heil, meant both, for no one dreamed the spiritual and material could be kept separate. God rewarded those who deserved it, and the blessings he bestowed included peace and prosperity in life as well as salvation after death. The fate of entire communities, not just individuals, depend on divine favor. Gaining it was therefore a collective responsibility. Protestants and Catholics did not differ on this point, except where Protestants focused their prayers and hopes on the divine will, Catholics directed their supplication also to the Virgin and saints. (p. 60)

Sanctification, a word important to Calvinists, Lutherans and Catholics, became the aim of community life. With the Law of God, as given in the Torah and most manifest in the Ten Commandments, as the guide for sanctified behavior (both individually and communally), laws were written, imposed and enforced. Violence was done. To this day, many Christians (many American Christians) assume that these laws should be the laws of the community, and that the failure of the community to uphold these laws is the cause of misfortune (such as hurricanes and terror attacks).

But is that the way to read the law — the Torah תורה, literally “the teaching?” Because I don’t think so.

Let’s consider the marriage laws of Leviticus 18, which specify who may not marry whom, so that Israel “shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan to which I [the Lord] am taking you; nor shall you follow their laws.” (Lev. 18:3, JPS Tanakh) In verse 12, יהוה tell Moses the following:

Do not uncover the nakedness of your father’s sister; she is your father’s flesh.

עֶרְוַת אֲחֹות־אָבִיךָ לֹא תְגַלֵּה שְׁאֵר אָבִיךָ הִֽוא׃

Okay, so who’d want to marry their aunt anyway? Yet, in Exodus 6, as the genealogy of Moses is outlined, we read:

Amram [a grandson of Levi] took to wife his father’s sister Jochabed, and she bore him Aaron and Moses. (Ex. 6:20, JPS Tanakh)

Moses’ father married his aunt (who was probably younger than he was).

Getting back Leviticus, a few verses later, יהוה tells Moses:

Do not marry a woman as a rival to her sister and uncover her nakedness in the other’s lifetime.

וְאִשָּׁה אֶל־אֲחֹתָהּ לֹא תִקָּח לִצְרֹר לְגַלֹּות עֶרְוָתָהּ עָלֶיהָ בְּחַיֶּֽיהָ׃

To find an example of this, we need to go back to Genesis 29, where we find Jacob sojourning in “the land of the Easterners” (v. 1). He meets Rachel at the well, is clearly smitten with her (she is the daughter of his mother’s brother Laban), and agrees to work for Laban for seven years in order to marry Rachel. On the night the marriage is consummated, Laban gives Jacob the older sister Leah instead, claiming “[i]t is not the practice in our place to marry off the younger before the older. Wait until the bridal week of this one is over and we will give you that one too, provided you serve me another seven years” (v. 26-27). Eventually, Jacob gets both sisters as wives, and they become the mothers of the 12 sons who will give their names to the tribes of Israel.

Okay, a point can be made here — these relationships were made before יהוה gives the teaching to Israel in the wilderness, and thus they were not really against the law. I suppose that argument will work — I don’t buy it, and I will explain later why I don’t — but then consider David and Bathsheba.

The commandment has been given and written — twice, in Exodus and Deuteronomy — “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house: you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female slave, or his ox or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s” along with “you shall not commit adultery.” In 2 Samuel 16, we read the story of Kind David, spying a beautiful woman taking a bath. He “sent messengers to fetch her; she came to him and he lay with her,” (v. 4) which sounds like a rape to me. She becomes pregnant, and David then tries to trick her husband, the loyal soldier Uriah, into sleeping with her so that everyone would think the child is his. No dice, it doesn’t work. So David then orders to put Uriah in the front of the formation and during the battle to withdraw so that Uriah can get killed. This happens, and Bathsheba comes to live in the palace with David. Rumors must have flown, because Nathan the prophet condemns David for what he did:

David said to Nathan, “I stand guilty before the Lord!” And Nathan replied to David, “The Lord has remitted your sin; you shall not die. However, since you have spurned the enemies of the Lord by this deed, even the child about to be born shall die.” (v. 13-14)

A harsh consequence, the innocent paying the price. David later “consoled his wife Bathsheba; he went into her and lay with her. She bore a son and she named him Solomon.” (v. 24)

David should have known the law. And yet the eventual result of his coveting and adultery is Solomon, the greatest and wisest king Israel would know, the one who built the temple and extended its frontiers out as far as they would go.

Yes, a case can be made that the characters in the story, especially Jacob and Moses’ father, did not know the law, because it had not yet been revealed in the narrative, but the readers would know the law. Hearing that Jacob married sisters, that Moses and aaron were the fruits of a Levitically forbidden marriage, that David coveted and arranged to have killed and from that came Solomon, this says something about the relationship God’s people Israel have with God’s teaching. They would have been taught the law, reminded of who could not be married, but also reminded in the stories that the best of us violated that teaching. Or were the results of the violation. Without Jacob marrying Leah and Rachel, there would have been no tribes of Israel. Without Amram taking his aunt as wife, Moses and Aaron could not have responded to God’s call to lead Israel out of Egypt. Without David spying (and likely raping) Bathsheba, and getting her husband killed, there would have been no Solomon, and no temple in Jerusalem.

Israel owes its very existence, its covenant with God, to the violation of the teaching.

There are very few examples of human beings deliberately and purposefully punishing other human beings for violations of the teaching. In Exodus 32, after the episode with the golden calf, Moses commissions some Levites to take up their swords and “go back and forth from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay brother, neighbor, and kin.” (v. 27) In Numbers 25, God commands Moses to “publicly impale” (v. 4) Israelites cavorting with Moabite women (and worshiping their god). Phinehas the priest follows the command with vigor, stabbing an Israelite man and a Moabite woman in the belly after following them into their tent.

But the example that comes to mind is Numbers 15:32-36 (Numbers is something of a gruesome, no-holds barred book, almost as violent as Judges). Israelite come upon a man gathering wood in the wilderness on the sabbath.

Those who found him as he was gathering wood brought him before Moses, Aaron and the whole community. He was placed in custody, for it had not been specified what should be done with him. Then the Lord said to Moses, “The man shall be put to death: the whole community shall pelt him with stones outside the camp.” So the whole community took him outside the camp and stoned him to death–as the Lord had commanded Moses. (v. 33-36)

What strikes me about this passage, and the punishment it mandates for violating the sabbath, is that Jesus spends a lot of time deliberately breaking the sabbath. He violates the law, as it is understood, and tempts readers and listeners who might know that the punishment for sabbath breaking is death to appreciate the situation.

(Jesus doesn’t cavort with non-Israelite women, but he does encounter them, and he is present for them as he is for Israelites.)

This is why I find the law ironic. It is a guide to sanctified behavior, promising salvation if followed and exile, slavery and death if not. But God doesn’t abandon God’s people merely because they have abandoned God and God’s teaching (though God does come close in Judges 10). God continues to reach out, to forgive, to redeem, to make real God’s promises as God’s people struggle with the teaching we cannot follow and the law we cannot obey. It must be remembered that the history of God’s people is salvation in the midst of exile, slavery and death, God present with us in our suffering and amidst the consequences of our inability to follow God’s teaching. In the end, it isn’t the law that saves us, not our keeping ourselves sanctified as individuals or a community, but rather God’s unremitting faithfulness to us.

Israel and “Property Rights”

There meme current among many conservative (and probably some liberal) American Christians regarding Jews and the State of Israel is that God “gave” that land to the Jews, and thus the giving is effectively a deed — Jews have a “property right” to the “land of Israel,” an thus, an entitlement to possess it. Based on what I’ve read online, this also constitutes a majority opinion of conservative religious Jews as well.

So, I never tire of coming across scriptural citations that say otherwise. First, there is the entire history itself. If, as Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook wrote in mid-1967 (after the Six-Day War, when there much to NOT surrender), that scripture forbids God’s people Israel from giving up any of the “land of Israel,” then why does the Deuteronomic history (Deuteronomy through 2 Kings) end with the twin kingdoms of Israel and Judah conquered (by Assyria and Babylon respectively) and the last King of Judah, Jehoiachin, in comfortable exile in Babylon? Why does the other official history, Chronicles, end with Cyrus the King of Persia issuing a decree to rebuild the temple (allowing for restored temple worship) but NOT the restoration of Israel’s monarchy? The sovereignty Judah possesses at the end of Chronicles (and in Ezra and Nehemiah) is a very limited sovereignty, as part of the Persian Empire, not as an independent polity. The Tanakh, as well as the Protestant Bible, ends its canon of scripture with these books, and thus the influence of Hellenism (the conquest of Persia by Greece and the switch of tolerant Persian imperial rule for intolerant Greek rule) on the canon is sporadic (parts of Daniel and Zechariah come to mind) at best.

So, I was very pleasantly surprised when I came across this in Ezekiel 33 (vv 21-26, citation from the JPS Tanakh):

In the twelfth year of our exile, on the fifth day of the tenth month, a fugitive came to me from Jerusalem and reported, “the city has fallen.” Now the hand of the Lord had come upon me the evening before the fugitive arrived, and He opened my mouth before he came to me in the morning; thus my mouth was opened and I was no longer speechless.

The word of the Lord came to me: O mortal [son of Adam בֶן–אָדָם, rendered elsewhere as “Son of Man”], those who live in these ruins in the land of Israel argue, “Abraham was but one man, yet he was granted possession of the land. We are many; surely, the land has been given as a possession to us.” Therefore say to them: Thus said the Lord God: You eat with the blood, you raise your eyes to your fetishes, and you shed blood — yet you expect to possess the land! You have relied on your sword, you have committed abominations, you have defiled other men’s wives — yet you expect to possess the land!

Now, these words come after a lengthy warning from God to Ezekiel about the nature of God’s warnings and accountability for human sinfulness, about Ezekiel’s job as a warner to those living in exile in Babylon. And they are followed, in chapter 33 with a warning to those living in the midst of the rubble that they “shall fall by the sword” and be “food to the beasts.” (v.27) Indeed, God is then fairly emphatic that Ezekiel’s countrymen will not listen to him.

And the general narrative of Ezekiel continues with a condemnation of the “shepherds of Israel” and promise from God that Israel will be regathered and a new shepherd — “My servant David” (34:23) — appointed to tend and care for God’s people. This promise is generally used by the church (and by that, I mean the church “catholic and apostolic,” and not the non-denominational nincompoops that call themselves church but worship the United States and Israel) to refer to the regathering and restoring of God’s covenant with God’s people through Jesus Christ.

(There’s more to Ezekiel which I won’t deal with at this point.)

While these words of God in vv23-26 are given specifically to the Israelites who remain in land following the conquest, what’s interesting about what God says to Israel just as easily applies to what is said — “Abraham was but one man, but we are many. If the land was given to Abraham, surely it has been given to us.” What is condemned here is a sense of entitlement, that just because the land was given to one man — Abraham — then is most certainly have been given those who lay claim to it as their patrimony through and from Abraham. God’s condemnation of that sense of entitlement could easily apply to anyone who makes that claim, and not just the remnant of survivors in the ruins.

But there’s also the nature of that condemnation — eating with blood/defiling other men’s wives, raising eyes to fetishes/committing abominations, shedding blood/relying on “your sword.” God’s people have failed to keep their end of the covenant made at Sinai, they have not adhered to God’s teachings. They have also followed after other gods, sacrificed to them. The history and the other prophets are quite clear on both these matters, and God tells Israel in both Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28 that failing to keep the covenant will result in suffering, conquest and death. “The Lord will send you back to Egypt in galleys, by a route which I told you you would not see again. There you shall offer yourselves for sale to your enemies as male and female slaves, but none will buy” (Deut. 29:68)

The shedding of blood and reliance on “your” sword (Israel’s sword) is not as clear as the other two condemnations, but I’m fairly certain it means that part of Israel’s sin is its failure to rely on God for defense and protection, failure to trust in God and instead trust in itself, its own capabilities, to protect itself. Scripture isn’t so insistent on this matter, since the Hebrew Bible is full of war, but the main motif given to Israel by God from the miracle of the Exodus is that God is Israel’s defender, that God will act in history to defende God’s people. That God’s people must first and only look to their God to protect them, to fight and win their battles. Even in Ezekiel 38 and 39, when God gives the vision of war with Gog the prince of Magog, it is God who leads Gog to war, and it is God who defeats Gog and his armies. (Whether this is a “prophesy” of the fall of Babylon at the hands of Persia, or general prophetic metaphor that God will defeat Israel’s enemies and fight Israel’s battles from the time that Israel is regathered, the bones brought back to life, I do not know and won’t guess. I will firmly state this is very likely not a prophesy of a war yet to come.)

What is clear is thart grant of land is not a property right and the Bible is a not a metes-and-bounds title deed (or any other kind of deed), though there are claims made. Scripture does not speak the language of rights, that’s Enlightenment talk and it does not belong to antiquity. Israel’s possession of the land is entirely conditioned on Israel’s good behavior. This is made clear in scripture from the beginning. The prophets add component of (I hate the term) “social justice” to the matter, criticizing the unjust use of power and wealth among Israelites for division of the kingdom, civil war, conquest and exile. Much of scripture is an attempt to figure out what God’s promises to Abraham, and God’s deliverance of Israel at Sinai, with what followed.

Indeed, a case could be made that semi-exile — living in the moment between exile and God’s promise of reconciliation, deliverance and victory — is the condition of God’s people, Israel and the church, on earth right now.

Going Medieval

One of the things the the loudest and most obnoxious supporters of the never-ending “War on Terror” have consistently said since September 11, 2001, is that the United States and Israel (and sometimes Europe, depending on how charitable toward Europeans they feel that day) represent the best and most positive parts of “modern civilization,” a modernity in need of a vigorous and violent defense.

Because of that, the governments of the “West” have an obligation to use as much force as necessary to defeat, subdue and even annihilate the backwards and “medieval” forces of Islam, bent as they are on destroying individualism, freedom, capitalism, the nation state and technological civilization. Or Christianity and Judaism. Or secularism and civilization. Take your pick, the justifications differ. The murderous war and policing of the West, the suffering and deaths — oh, I’m sorry, the “liberation” — of non-Westerners is absolutely necessary to defend against the forces of unreason and barbarism. To remake the world, by force, in the image of the modern, individualized, civilized and reasoned West.

So, what do you suppose would happen if suddenly a core Western state began to use medieval reasoning itself to justify murderous violence? Because that is exactly what appears to have happened in Israel during that nation-state’s war on and in Gaza earlier this year.

According to a Reuters report published on 20 March:

Rabbis in the Israeli army told battlefield troops in January’s Gaza offensive they were fighting a “religious war” against gentiles, according to one army commander’s account published Friday.

“Their message was very clear: we are the Jewish people, we came to this land by a miracle, God brought us back to this land and now we need to fight to expel the gentiles who are interfering with our conquest of this holy land,” he said.

The New York Times took the story up the following day, quoting the same soldier (who spoke using a pseudonym):

Several of the testimonies, published by an institute that runs a premilitary course and is affiliated with the left-leaning secular kibbutz movement, showed a distinct impatience with religious soldiers, portraying them as self-appointed holy warriors.

A soldier, identified by the pseudonym Ram, is quoted as saying that in Gaza, “the rabbinate brought in a lot of booklets and articles and their message was very clear: We are the Jewish people, we came to this land by a miracle, God brought us back to this land and now we need to fight to expel the non-Jews who are interfering with our conquest of this holy land. This was the main message, and the whole sense many soldiers had in this operation was of a religious war.”

The New York Times continued:

Those who oppose the religious right have been especially concerned about the influence of the military’s chief rabbi, Brig. Gen. Avichai Rontzki, who is himself a West Bank settler and who was very active during the war, spending most of it in the company of the troops in the field.

He took a quotation from a classical Hebrew text and turned it into a slogan during the war: “He who is merciful to the cruel will end up being cruel to the merciful.”

A controversy then arose when a booklet handed out to soldiers was found to contain a rabbinical edict against showing the enemy mercy. The Defense Ministry reprimanded the rabbi.

Neither Reuters nor the New York Times state what that “classical Hebrew text” Rabbi General Rontzki was citing, nor did Ha’aretz when it reviewed literature distributed to Israeli soldiers before and during the Gaza War. Instead, it cited a number of pamphlets spouting religious, militarist and nationalistic ideas with only vague hints at any guiding scriptural or religious principle:

The IDF rabbinate, also quoting Rabbi Aviner, describes the appropriate code of conduct in the field: “When you show mercy to a cruel enemy, you are being cruel to pure and honest soldiers. This is terribly immoral. These are not games at the amusement park where sportsmanship teaches one to make concessions. This is a war on murderers. ‘A la guerre comme a la guerre.'”

This view is also echoed in publications signed by Rabbis Chen Halamish and Yuval Freund on Jewish consciousness. Freund argues that “our enemies took advantage of the broad and merciful Israeli heart” and warns that “we will show no mercy on the cruel.”

“A la guerre comme a la guerre.” I suppose that’s in the Torah somewhere, that little bit where God spoke in French to Israel in the wilderness, substituting baguettes for manna that day. Or maybe that’s in some midrash written by Charlemagne or Napoleon.

No, it took the Jerusalem Post to actually say what “classical Hebrew text” was in play, at least from one’s rabbi’s perspective, citing a letter from a former Sephardic army rabbi:

All civilians living in Gaza are collectively guilty for Kassam attacks on Sderot, former Sephardi chief rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu has written in a letter to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Eliyahu ruled that there was absolutely no moral prohibition against the indiscriminate killing of civilians during a potential massive military offensive on Gaza aimed at stopping the rocket launchings.

The letter, published in Olam Katan [Small World], a weekly pamphlet to be distributed in synagogues nationwide this Friday, cited the biblical story of the Shechem massacre (Genesis 34) and Maimonides’ commentary (Laws of Kings 9, 14) on the story as proof texts for his legal decision.

According to Jewish war ethics, wrote Eliyahu, an entire city holds collective responsibility for the immoral behavior of individuals. In Gaza, the entire populace is responsible because they do nothing to stop the firing of Kassam rockets.

Maimonides. Moses ben Maimon, a great Torah scholar (among other things), born in Muslim Spain in A.D. 1135 and died in Muslim Egypt in A.D. 1204. Definitely not a modern, and only tangentially a European by today’s definition.

The ruling in question derives from Maimonides’ understanding (writing in his Laws of Kings) of Genesis 34, the story of the rape of Dinah by Shechem and the revenge Jacob’s/Israel’s sons take on Shechem. The story goes like this: Shechem, a non-Israelite, is smitten with Dinah, rapes her, and then tries to convince her to marry him. He asks his father Hamor to speak to her father Jacob and make it happen. “Meanwhile, Jacob’s sons, having heard the news, came in from the field. The men were distressed and very angry, because he had committed an outrage in Israel by lying with Jacob’s daughter – a thing not to be done.” (Gen. 34:7, all biblical citations from the JPS Tanakh)

Jacob’s sons, speaking “with guile” (v.13), tell Hamor and Shechem that they cannot “give our sister to a man who is uncircumcised, for that is a disgrace among us. Only on this condition will we agree with you; that you become like us in that every male among you is circumcised. Then we will give our daughters to you and take your daughters to ourselves; and we will dwell among you and become as one kindred. But if you will not listen to us and become circumcised, we will take our daughter and go.” (Gen. 34:14-17)

All of the men of Shechem eagerly agree. Dinah must have been some catch given what the men of an entire tribe were willing to do so that one man among them could marry. Then, as they are recovering from their painful ordeal:

Simeon and Levi, two of Jacob’s sons, brothers of Dinah, took each his sword, came upon the city unmolested, and slew all the males. They put Hamor and his son Shechem to the sword, took Dinah out of Shechem’s house, and went away. The other sons of Jacob came upon the slain and plundered the town, because their sister had been defiled. They seized their flocks and herds and asses, all that was inside the town and outside; all their wealth, all their children, and their wives, all that was in the houses, they took as captives and booty. (Gen. 34:25-29)

In his treatise The Laws of Kings, which covers warfare and other matters of state, Maimonides wrote this (if this web site can be trusted) to describe why it was Shechem had been put to the sword – as descendants of Noah (Noahides), they were under the seven laws given to Noah, and had a responsibility to uphold them. Laws of of Kings 9, 14 explains what that means:

In what way must [Noahides] fulfill the commandment to establish courts of justice? They are obligated to set up judges and magistrates in every major city to judge according to the above six laws, to warn the nation [regarding their observance]; A noahide who breaks one of these seven laws – is executed by decapitation. [additional text: for example: an idolater, or blasphemer, or murderer, or someone who has had one of the six illicit relations according to [Noahide law], or robbed even the worth of a peruta, or consumed any amount of “torn limb” or “torn meat”, or witnessed someone breaking one of these laws, and did not judge and sentance him – all these people are executed by decapitation.] For this all the inhabitants of Shechem were liable for capital punishment. This was because Shechem kidnapped [someone] and they witnessed this and knew [what he had done], but did not judge him. A Noahide is [may be] executed [on the basis of the testimony of] one witness and [the verdict of] a single judge. No prior warning [is required]. Relatives may serve as witnesses. However, a woman may not serve as a witness or a judge [in Noahide law].

No prior warning needed! A woman may not service as a witness or a judge! How progressive and modern, this voice from the 12th century!

So, under this understanding, anyone who witnesses a crime, an outrage, an act of evil or violence, and does nothing about it, is as guilty as the actual perpetrator and is as liable to the same capital punishment God outlines to Noah in Genesis 9:6 — “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man his blood shall be shed; For in His image did God make man.” (Who among us is this innocent?) This is the medieval principle that some in Israel are demanding form the basis of nation-state military actions.

At least Hamas, Al Qaeda (and its affiliates and franchisees) and fine folks of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade grounded their killing of civilians at least in part upon modern political theory, as opposed to entirely in ancients texts, stating that all citizens of a democratic state are morally responsible for the actions taken by that state in their name, and thus there are no “innocents” in a democracy.

Now, far be it from to tell a group of sephardic rabbis (or anyone else, for that matter) how they ought to interpret scripture. They did it long before I came along it will be doing it long after I’m gone. But I have always had a problem with trying to distill law from scripture, to use it as the guide for human ethical action, because it isn’t really about us doing stuff, it’s about God doing stuff to and for us. We human beings are the object of the action, while God is the subject. Scripture is the very human musing on what it means to be acted upon by God – it is revelation of God, not revelation from God (though it contains some of that) – and what does it mean to be God’s people. There aren’t always answers, good bad or otherwise.

But as God’s people, we have experienced God acting (in scripture and our lives), time and again, to save us, to redeem us, to show us that they have not been abandoned to their own devices, left to wallow in our own sinfulness. This is the connection between the so-called “Old” and “New” testaments, it’s what links Israel and the Church (indeed, they are the same), and it’s what makes the two cannons one continuing story. Our story. Of what God has done for us.

So it helps to read and consider the whole story – in this case, all of Genesis 34. And Maimonides’ reading (as endorsed by Rabbi Eliyahu) of Genesis 34 completely ignores the final exchange between Jacob/Israel and his sons:

Jacob said to Simon and Levi, “You have brought trouble on me, making me odious among the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites and the Perizzites; my men are few in number, so that if they unite against me and attack me, I and my house will be destroyed.” But they answered, “should our sister be treated like a whore?” (Gen. 34:30-31)

It’s left completely up in the air as to whether or not the actions taken by Israel’s sons are proper. Jacob is concerned – now he and his sons are potentially vulnerable. They have shown themselves to be bad neighbors who are willing to misrepresent themselves – to pretend to invite a group of people into the covenant with God as defined by circumcision – in order to kill and plunder. The ruse is clever, and it works in this instance, but it’s also very risky. Who will trust them in the future? Jacob and his sons are strangers in this land, outnumbered and potentially very vulnerable.

And yet the sons are correct – family honor is at stake, and without doing something, it would be clear that the daughters of Israel could be had for nothing. Neither question is answered. So the tension of this very human situation remains morally unresolved. It is unclear what the right or proper course of action is, it is only clear what the story tells us was done.

It’s easy to take scripture and try to turn it into a dry legal code or a how-to-guide for life, a narrative without meaning. It’s also interesting how selective the use of Maimonides’ writings are. Granted, he speaks only of capital punishment, but the passage he cites as his justification speaks also of looting, pillaging and the taking of captives (women and children). Why aren’t the rabbis of the Israel Defense Forces telling the soldiers of Israel that, in addition to killing Palestinian men, it’s also perfectly compatible with the Torah to enslave children and women, to loot and steal? (Maybe they are, and I just haven’t been able to find it.) After all, looting and enslaving happens a great deal in scripture. Most of the time, it’s not punished or even condemned. It just happens.

Is it because killing Palestinians, showing them no mercy, serves the interests of the Israeli state, as seen by some (many, probably) while enslaving them does not? (It’s funny, now that I think about, but why is it perfectly okay for the state to kill people but not enslave them?) But what of Jacob’s question? Is it not still pertinent today, 3,000 years later? Is this not a question supporters of the state of Israel – especially those most intensely committed to existence, survival and even moral superiority – should consider? Jacob himself, the state’s namesake, asked it. Why can’t they?

In fact, isn’t this a question the supporters of every nation-state anywhere should be asking themselves?