Chapter Fourteen: Judaism
Judaism is based on the teachings of the Torah, an anthology of books written in the Near East over the course of a thousand years and their subsequent interpretations and traditions. Orthodox Jewish theology maintains that these books, alternately known as the Tanakh or the Hebrew Bible, were written under the direct revelation of God. (Back to the Sources, p. 33) The Torah describes these revelations to the prophets as sometimes coming in the form of dreams or omens. At other times God sent supernatural beings, called angels, to earth to act as messengers. And in some instances God is said to have appeared to the Hebrew prophets in a physical form or to directly speak to them in a supernatural voice. This transfer of revelation from God to the people of Israel forms the theological justification for Hebrews calling themselves God's Chosen people.
The founding prophets of Judaism taught that the God of Israel has many human-like traits. At times God is described as being loving, compassionate and capable of empathizing with the plight of humans. At other times this same God is described as being angry, vengeful and capable of mass killing. God is able to make contracts with people and with nations as a whole. He can be directly talked to by the great prophets, such as Moses, who had the ability to argue and sometimes apparently change what God was about to do.
The God of Israel is often described as supernaturally intervening in the lives of humans, especially the people of Israel. Miracles performed by God or by his angels or prophets includes the creation of food and water, causing fertility or infertility, controlling animals, moving bodies of water, summoning individuals to heaven, burning sacrifices, causing and curing many forms of sickness and predicting the future. Other miracles also include stopping the Sun and Moon in the sky, flooding the entire world, killing entire armies, killing the first born males of an enemy nation, destroying entire cities, turning people into salt, causing plagues, mind control and curses.
God's concern for humanity takes on many forms. At times the God of Israel is portrayed as being deeply concerned with the details of animal sacrifice and the strict obedience of dietary laws. Rituals such as circumcision were said to be a requirement by God for Divine acceptance. At times God intervenes to save Israel from destruction. At other times he is said to use rival nations to punish Israel for her sins. At times God is said to take a particular interest in the lives of certain people. At other times God seems to allow entire generations to suffer without relief.
The essence of this view of God is certainly the idea that God is a supernatural, intelligent and emotional person, usually but not always referred to with a male gender. He can see into the future, and seems to have predestined much of the world to exist in a specific form. God can take on a physical substance or image and directly interact with human beings. Perhaps the easiest way to understand this view of God is to describe it as an almost superhuman being. That is, God has many of the same characteristics that humans do, such as intelligence and emotions. But God has the greatest level of each trait imaginable. Humans and God both have intelligence, but God's intelligence is without limit. Humans and God both have emotions, but God's emotions are pure and perfect in every way imaginable. In a biological sense you might even call the Hebrew idea of God as being the ultimate Alpha male. He is the indisputable leader of the group and has the ultimate level of any positive trait we can conceive of a person having.
The substance of God is difficult to describe. Orthodox Jews believe that God does not contain a permanent physical substance of any kind. God cannot be said to live in any particular physical location. The substance of God is purely supernatural or spiritual, a type of greater existence of being beyond the physical world. But this being has the ability to create the physical world and interact with it in any way it wants.
According to the ancient Torah's worldview, God supernaturally created the world and human beings in six days for predestined and specific reasons. The earth was made for human beings to live in and rule. The stars in the sky were designed for a navigational backdrop to Israel's chosen place as the stage for a great struggle between good and evil. Some but not all Jews believe that all people will one day be judged by how well they lived their lives in accordance to God's wishes. Those who are judged as good will be rewarded in heaven. Those who are judged as evil will be punished in hell or perhaps in an unconscious existence. Since heaven and hell are described as lasting for an infinity of time, the outcome of this verdict is seen as much more important than anything else that a person can do during his or her lifetime. In a very real sense anything else in life is purely trivial and possible evil. The ultimate meaning of any person's life is therefore a value judgement based on their obedience to the commands of God. Since the Torah is said to contain these vital commands, it is obviously of tremendous importance to the Hebrew people.
According to the Torah, Judaism can trace its history back to the divine creation of Adam and Eve. This first couple is set apart from the rest of creation, specifically designed to be able to interact with their creator by being made "in God's image":
"And God said, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have domination over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth." So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him: male and female he created them." (Genesis 1,26-27)
So we can see from the very opening pages of the Torah that God was believed to have many of the same traits as human beings. The world was created for their benefit and their relationship to God clearly established. Living in a paradise in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve were able to have a close personal relationship with God in a very direct way. For example, they are able to recognize God by the presence of a physical form. "And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day. . ." (Genesis 3,8)
But humanity's brief flirtation with paradise and God's close presence soon ends when Adam and Eve disobey one of God's commands by eating fruit from a forbidden tree. Both are cast out into a much harsher life. Now they must struggle together to grow their food and make their shelters. Woman must endure the pains of pregnancy and both sexes must face their own eventually death. To prevent them from returning God places an angel with a flaming sword to guard the way back to the garden.
The descendants of this first couple populate the world, but they failed to live moral lives as God has instructed them to do. Disappointed with the violence and corruption of his creations, God drowns the entire world in a great flood. Saving only the family of Noah and a few animals of each species, God commands that the world again be repopulated. People build cities and empires but over time they become full of pride in their own abilities. An attempt by prideful humans to build a great tower to the heavens causes God to create different languages.
Eventually God chooses a man named Abraham to be a prophet of his Word and set the foundation for the nation of Israel."
"Now the Lord said to Abram, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing."" (Genesis 12,1-2)
It is here that we read the first promise by God to the Hebrew people to the land of Israel. "And he said to him, "I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess." (Genesis 15,7) "And I will give to you, and to your descendants after you, the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession and I will be their God." (Genesis 17,8)
But the Promised Land would not come without a price. God tests Abraham's obedience by asking him to kill his only child by his wife Sarah (he had a son by his mistress). "Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah and offer him there as a burnt offering upon one of the mountains of which I shall tell you." (Genesis 22,2) After cutting the wood and starting the fire young Isaac asks where the lamb for the sacrifice is. Abraham answered ominously, "God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son." (Genesis 22,8)
In a dramatic scene, Abraham ties his son to the altar and prepares to kill him with a knife. But at the last moment an angel of God intervenes. "Do not lay your hand on the lad or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me." (Genesis 22,12) The absolute obedience of Abraham is presented as a virtue, while at the same time establishing that God does not desire human sacrifice.
Despite it being known as the Promised Land, life for the descendants of Abraham was hard and their neighbors were hostile. To make matters worse, God decrees that there was to be seven years of harvest followed by seven years of drought. So devastating was the drought that many Hebrews were forced to immigrate to nearby Egypt to survive. Although some at first prospered under the rule of the Pharaohs, over time the Hebrews became the servants and slaves of the Egyptians.
Feeling that the time was right for the Hebrews to be returned to their lands before the great famine, God chooses a shepherd named Moses to be his next prophet. During a memorable encounter with a burning bush, Moses hears this command from God:
"Then the Lord said, "I have seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt, and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters; I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Per'izzites, the Hivites, and the Jeb'usites." (Exodus 37,88)
After inflicting massive destruction upon Egypt through God's supernatural powers, Moses is allowed to take his people to freedom. God supernaturally helps the often unthankful Hebrew people to cross the Red Sea, destroy a force sent by Pharaoh to attack them, and find food and water in the harsh desert. It is during forty years of wandering in this desert wilderness that Moses established the Covenant Laws for the Hebrew people. God himself is said to have carved the first ten laws onto stone and given them directly to Moses on Mount Sinai. Known as the Ten Commandments, these stone tablets would later be housed in the Ark of the Covenant, a powerful symbol of Israel's special place with their creator God. A review of these laws will give a good overview of how the Jewish people were expected to live in the Promised Land of Israel.
The first commandment reveals the polytheistic world that the Hebrews inhabited. "You shall have no other gods before me," (Exodus 20, 3). The idea of monotheism was rare in the Middle East, although the Egyptians had earlier flirted with worshipping only one God under the reign of Akhenaten. The early Hebrews and their neighbors seemed to have accepted that each land or tribe possessed it's own deity. We can see examples of this polytheistic assumption throughout the Torah. Take this example in a comment made to an Amorite King in the book of Judges. "Will you not possess what Chemosh your god gives you to possess? And all that the Lord our God has dispossessed before us, we will possess." (Judges 11,24) The book of Ruth also states in a matter of fact way this polytheistic view. "And she said, "See your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law." (Ruth 1, 15)
The Canaanite god Baal and Egyptian gods such as Ra were seen as dangerous rivals that threatened Israel. It was imperative to the early Jewish prophets, whose tradition was passed down through the Torah, that the Hebrew people should only worship Yahwey, the creator God of their ancestors. The idea that in fact all rival gods were nonexistent or only lessor demonic beings would only be clearly expressed later in Jewish theology.
The second commandment prohibited the Hebrew people from creating or worshiping idols. "You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth," (Exodus 20,4). While Baal was often portrayed in the image of a young bull and Ra as the sun disk, the ancient Hebrews were committed to the idea that no physical image should be used as a substitute for God himself. Moses seems to have perceived God as a transcendental being without a permanent physical form. The distinctly human need to feel God's presence in something physical seems to have been met by building temples and constructing the Ark of the Covenant to house the Ten Commandment tablets.
Complete reverence for the supernatural name of Yahweh is expressed in the third commandment. "You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain." (Exodus 20, 7) Many Jewish groups throughout history have refused to speak the name of God while reading from the Torah. They also refrain from using the name of God while swearing an oath or making a contract.
The fourth commandment affirms the Genesis creation story that the God of Israel created the world in six days. "Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy," (Exodus 20, 8). As God was said to have rested after six days of labor, so should the Hebrew people rest on the last day of each week. By observing the Sabbath believers were acknowledging their special place in creation, that they were the ancestors of Adam and Eve, the first divinely created people.
The next five commandments laid out the basic moral structure of Hebrew society. "Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land which the Lord your God gives you. You shall not kill. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against you neighbor." (Exodus 20, 12-16). These basic rules of justice and honesty were to be strictly enforced in the early Jewish theocracy, sometimes even with the death penalty.
The last commandment adds a psychological element to the actions of the preceding five. It was not enough to obey the rules of justice and honesty. Hebrews were forbidden to even contemplate doing wrong. "You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covert you neighbor's wife, or his manservant, or maidservant, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor's," (Exodus 20,17). The ancient Hebrews clearly believed that God was aware of each person's secret thoughts and desires.
Moses added many other rules and customs to these basic commandments that Jewish scholars have come to call the Covenant or Mosaic Laws. These laws give a revealing look at the ancient Hebrew conceptions of both God and their Canaanite neighbors. Central to these laws was the order to build the Ark of the Covenant, a temple that God could spiritually inhabit to confirm the importance of the Jewish people to him. Exodus 25, 31-32 is a typical example:
"And you shall make a lampstand of pure gold. The base and the shaft of the lampstand shall be made of hammered work; its cups, its capitals, and its flowers shall be of one piece with it; and there shall be six branches going out of its sides, three branches of lampstand out of one side of it and three branches of the lampsand out of the other side of it..."
This level of detail reveals the extent to which the Hebrew's believed God was directly involved in the construction of their temple. While animal sacrifice had played a role in earlier Hebrew stories involving Abraham and Noah, they became a central requirement of the Covenant Laws. Animals were divided into clean and unclean groups. Clean animals, such as sheep and cattle, could be eaten and used for sacrifice at the temple. Animals judged as unclean, such as pigs or lions, were forbidden from being eaten or sacrificed. It is hard not to be impressed at the specificity of the text being attributed to God:
"Now this is what you shall offer upon the altar; two lambs a year old day by day continually. One lamb you shall offer in the morning , and the other lamb you shall offer in the evening; and with the first lamb a tenth measure of fine flour mingled with a fourth of a hin of beaten oil, and a fourth of a hin of wine for a libation." (Exodus 20, 38-40)
Sacrifices were to be given on both a regular basis and on certain occasions where the individual had violated one of the Mosaic Laws:
"... if any one touches an unclean thing, whether the carcass of an unclean beast or a carcass of unclean cattle or a carcass of unclean swarming things, and it is hidden from him, and he has become unclean, he shall be guilty. . . Or if anyone utters with his lips a rash oath to do evil or to do good, any sort of rash oath that men swear, an it is hidden from him, when he comes to know it he shall in any of these by guilty. When a man is guilty in any of these, he shall confess the sin he has committed, and he shall bring his guilt offering to the Lord for the sin which he has committed, a female from the flock, a lamb or goat, for a sin offering; and the priest shall make atonement for him for his sin." (Leviticus 5,2-6)
The notion that God was minutely interested in such details of animal sacrifice and could be deeply offended if they were not made properly clearly establishes the Jewish idea that God was a person with some very human characteristics.
Moses laid out other rules to help distinguish the Jews from their neighbors that might cause some modern readers to do a bit of a double take. "You shall not permit a sorceress to live. Whoever lies with a beast shall be put to death. Whoever sacrifices to any god, save to the Lord only, shall be utterly destroyed." (Exodus, 22,18-20) These three rules become more understandable in the context of the ancient Hebrew beliefs in sorcery, witchcraft and the threatening power of belief in rival gods.
For example, Saul, the first king of Israel, is said to have used a spiritual Medium to raise the spirit of the wise man Samuel. At the time Jewish cosmology maintained that after death people went to a dreary place under the earth call Sheol. After the medium succeeded in summoning the ghost of Samuel from this other world, Saul explains why he violated the Mosaic Law against sorcery. "Then Samuel said to Saul, "Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?" Saul answered, "I am in great distress; for the Philistines are warring against me, and God has turned away from me and answers me no more, either by prophets or by dreams; therefore I have summoned you to tell me what I shall do."" (Samuel 28,15)
King Saul believed that if the God of Israel stopped talking to him he could still contact the supernatural world for advice. The rather odd need to specifically denounce bestiality is based in part on the ancient belief that the gods could assume a physical form and copulated with human beings. The Canaanite god Baal, for example, was believed to sometime assume the form of a bull and seek out fair maidens for his pleasure in a similar manner as the Greek God Zeus was believed to have done. Belief in Baal in particular continued to pose a threat to the Jewish religion throughout the early history of Israel. The early Hebrews clearly believed that these rival gods had real power, and the Covenant Laws were an attempt to forbid the worship of them or association with anyone who did. As Israel succeeded in conquering the neighboring tribes of Canaan, this intolerance toward the worshippers of other deities would take on a savage nature.
Perhaps the most politically important of all the claims attributed to Moses was the belief that God promised the tribes of Israel the land between Egypt and the Euphrates River:
"And I will send hornets before you, which shall drive out Hivite, Canaanite, and Hittite from before you. I will not drive them out from before you in one year, lest the land become desolate and the wild beats multiply against you. Little by little I will drive them out from before you, until you are increased and possess the land. And I will set your bounds from the Red Sea to the sea of the Philistines, and from the wilderness to the Euphrates; for I will deliver the inhabitants of the land into your hand, and you shall drive them out before you." (Exodus 23, 28-31)
Although Moses would never live to see his people reach the Promised Land, the God of Israel would continue to supernatural intervene throughout the Torah to assist his Chosen People in claiming this land as their own. For example, in Joshua's campaign against the Amorites, God is said to have stopped the movements of the sun and the moon so that the battle could be victoriously completed before nightfall. "Sun, stand thou still at Gideon, and though Moon in the valley of Ai'jalon. And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the nation took vengeance on their enemies." (Joshua 10,12).
But the God of Israel did not always choose to intervene in every battle on behalf of the Hebrews. "And the Lord was with Judah, and he took possession of the hill country, but he could not drive out the inhabitants of the plain because they had chariots of iron." (Judges 1,19) Over time the Hebrew people also came to believe that God would sometimes use enemy nations to punish Israel for her failure to obey all the Mosaic Laws. This would seem an almost mandatory belief given the fact that Israel was repeatedly conquered by her more powerful neighbors. But in the end it was believed that the God of Israel would bring all Jews back to the Promised Land and they would be reinstated as his Chosen People. "Behold, I will gather them from all the countries to which I drove them in my anger and my wrath and in great indignation; I will bring them back to this place, and I will make them dwell in safety. And they shall be my people, and I will be their God." (Jeremiah 32, 37-38).
The Hebrew tribes eventually did gain control of all of Canaan after a series of military campaigns under King David. But the new nation would soon divide itself between the northern tribes of Israel and the southern tribe of Judah. It is this extended separation of Israel that many biblical historians believe accounts for the different versions of the Creation Story, Noah's Ark and the life of Moses found in the Torah. In any case, the Northern Kingdom would eventually be destroyed by the Assyrian Empire by 722 BC. Judah herself later fell victim to the growing might of her Babylonian neighbor in 587 BC, resulting in the forced relocation of much of the Jewish leadership to Babylon.
Some major changes took place in Jewish theology following their leadership's forced exile in a foreign land. The idea that after death people went under the earth to Sheol was gradually replaced in many Jewish sects with the more Zoroastrian doctrine of heaven and hell. God was pictured as inhabiting a place in the sky. To look up in the sky was to look up to heaven and to God. The underground world of Sheol became Hell, an evil place under the control of a fallen angel called Satan.
The writings of the Torah continued in the works of the prophets. Isaiah informed the Jewish people that God had used the enemy nations of Assyria and Babylon to punish them for their worship of other gods, primarily of Baal. But now he would use the Persian Empire to conquer the Babylonians and secure the release of the exiled Jews. By order of King Cyrus the Hebrew elite were allowed to return to Israel in 538 BC and rebuild their temple. Isaiah encouraged the returning Jews with the promise of a future without warfare:The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
And the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
And the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
And a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall feed;
Their young shall lie down together;
And the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
(Isaiah 11, 6-7)
Isaiah was the first Hebrew to write a prophecy about the end of the world. It includes many of the basic elements of all subsequent predictions found in the Torah, Gospels and the Koran:Terror, and the pit, and the snare are upon you, O inhabitants of the earth!
He who flees at the sound of the terror shall fall into the pit;
And he who climbs out of the pit shall be caught in the snare.
For the windows of heaven are opened, and the foundations of the earth tremble.
The earth is utterly broken, the earth is rent asunder, the earth is violently shaken.
The earth staggers like a drunken man, it sways like a hut;
Its transgression lies heavy upon it, and it falls, and will not rise again.
On that day the Lord will punish the host of heaven, in heaven,
and the kings of the earth, on the earth.
They will be gathered together as prisoners in a pit;
They will be shut up in a prison, and after many days they will be punished.
Then the moon will be confounded, and the sun ashamed;
For the Lord of hosts will reign on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem
And before his elders he will manifest his glory.
(Isaiah 24, 17-23)
A continuous theme in the Torah is Israel's temptation to worship the gods of their neighbors. The Jewish prophet Elijah at one point challenges the prophets of the god Baal to a supernatural competition in an attempt to convince his people to be faithful to the God of Israel. "Let two bulls be given to us; and let them choose one bull for themselves, and cut it in pieces and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it; and I will prepare the other bull and lay it on the wood and put no fire to it. And you call on the name of your god and I will call on the name of the Lord; and the God who answers by fire, his is God." (1 Kings 18,13-24)
The prophets of Baal were unable to call down fire to consume their offering, but Elijah succeeds. ""Answer me, O Lord, answer me, that this people may know that thou, O Lord, art God, and that though hast turned their hearts back. Then the fire of the Lord fell, and consumed the burnt offering, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench. And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces; and they said, "The Lord, he is God; the Lord, he is God." (1 Kings 18,37-39)
But Elijah, true to the teachings of Moses, believed that it was not enough to justs worship the God of Israel; they must also destroy those who might tempt them to worship another. "And Elijah said to them, "Seize the prophets of Baal; let not one of them escape." And they seized them; and Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon, and killed them there." (1 Kings 18, 40)
Elijah's lifelong battle against the worship of Baal is eventually rewarded in a supernatural summons to heaven. "And as they still went on and talked, behold, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven." (2 Kings 2,11)
With the final destruction of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem by the Romans the strict practice of animal sacrifice were discontinued. Jewish interpretive writings such as the Talmud brought a reexamination of the Torah and a changing outlook. Take this example of two rabbis being asked if they could teach the meaning of the Torah in a short time:
"It happened that a certain heathen came before Shammi and said to him, "Convert me on condition that you teach me the entire Torah while I am standing on one foot." Shammi drove him away with the builder's measuring stick that was in his hand. He then came before Hillel who converted him. Hillel said to him, "That which is hateful to you, do not do your neighbor. This is the entire Torah; the rest is commentary -- go and learn it." (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a).
This more compassionate and practical answer is a major change of emphasis from the Torah's often harsh concern for justice and obedience, a change that would soon be greatly expanded upon by a Jew named Jesus.
Two major themes in the Jewish idea of God are that he is both a person and a being beyond our understanding. Consider this famous Psalm:O Lord, thou hast searched me and known me!
Though knowest when I sit down and when I rise up;
Though discernest my thoughts from afar.
Though searchest out my path and my lying down,
and art acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue, lo, O lord, though knowest it altogether.
Though dost beset me behind and before, and layest thy hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain it.
(Psalms 139, 1-6)
God is also seen as requiring good from his creations. But this obedience will be rewarded:Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
Nor stand in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
But his delight is in the law of the Lord,
And on his law he mediates day and night.
He is like a tree planted by streams of water, that yields it s fruit in its season,
And its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.
Jewish belief in life after death takes on different forms. Some Jews believe in a literal heaven and hell and some don't. The Jewish Bible itself is somewhat unspecific on the subject. Many passages, such as the following, seem to teach that a person losses all consciousness when they die even though they go to some place named Sheol, which does not appear to be heaven or hell:
"But he who is joined with all living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion. For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward; but the memory of them is lost. Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished, and they have no more for ever any share in all that is done under the sun." Ecclesiastes 9,4-6)
"For in death there is no remembrance of thee; in Sheol who can give thee praise?" (Psalms 6,5)
"But man dies, and is laid low; man breathes his last, and where is he? As waters fail from a lake, and a river wastes away and dries up, so man lies down and rises not again; till the heavens are no more he will not awake, or be roused out of his sleep. Oh that though wouldest hide me in Sheol, that thou wouldest conceal me until thy wrath be past, that thou wouldest appoint me a set time, and remember me!" (Job 14,10-13)
Israel as a nation was virtually destroyed by the Romans in violent reprisals to rebellions in 70 BC and 135 BC, but Judaism continued to thrive in settlements throughout the Middle East and in parts of Europe. Writings such as the Talmud, Midrash and Kabbala ensured a devout following of believers and an important place for Judaism in the development of both Christian and Muslim theology. In combination with the original books of the Torah, these texts provided a deep field of study for the faithful, one that was said to take an entire lifetime to even begin to understand.
Central to the daily beliefs of the Jewish people then and now was the relationship between the written word and the oral traditions that coexisted with them. This is highlighted in a parable in the Midrash about a king who gave two servants a quantity of wheat and flax. The wise servant invested the time and energy to grow the wheat, make flower and bake bread. He took the flax and spun cloth. But the foolish servant merely saved what he had been given, unused. "When the Holy One, blessed be He, gave the Torah to Israel, he gave it only in the form of wheat -- for us to make flour from it, and flax -- to make a garment from it." (Seder Eliyahu Zata, Chapter 2)(Back to the Sources, p. 28)
The greater meanings of the Torah were expanded upon in later generations. Questions of meaning were debated and settled by the rabbis of different communities, keeping the Word of God a living tradition capable of cooping and changing to meet new situations. Many customs observed by the Jewish people today owe much of their details to these later oral traditions put into daily activity. For example, the final destruction of the temple prevented the Hebrew people from making the ritualistic sacrifices so painstakingly laid out in the Mosaic Laws.
This change of fortune was interpreted by Jewish theologians to signify that animal sacrifices where no longer required by God. Since God would not remove their ability to please him, the solution was found by theological reasoning. "The Temple and its sacrifices do not alone expiate our sins, rather we have an equivalent way of making atonement and this is through deeds of human kindness." (Back to the Sources, p. 181) The theological need for animal sacrifice thus became replaced by the need for moral living. The importance of moral living thus became elevated over ritual.
The ancient Torah therefore was not seen to orthodox Jews to be a teaching somehow frozen in time. It was to be seen in association with the later works of Jewish authors. In fact it is believed that these later teachings of the rabbis were something much more than purely human opinions or creations devised to deal with new situations. It was believed that in fact God preordained that such teachings would one day come from the writings of the rabbis. "Midrash, in other words, was already in God's mind when the Torah was conceived." (Back to the Sources, p. 185) Later writings could therefore properly take on somewhat new meanings to deal with the changing times and the often precarious circumstances that the Jewish communities encountered.
It is important to point out that the relationship between God and the Jewish people is seen as something over and above any single individual's relationship. The Jewish community, the rabbis and the vast number of writings and their detailed interpretations combine to produce the true character of the Jewish religious life. God is not normally referred to in Jewish teachings are "my" God but as "our" God. Take this common blessing for example. "Praised are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who creates light." (Back to the Sources, p. 407) God is referred to specifically as "our" God to emphasize this point. "Almost all the texts of the Suddur are written in the first person plural; one is never allowed to forget that it is not a God of one's own imaginings to whom the worshiper prays, and that a person's prayer is efficacious only because of one's speaking from within one's membership in a community." (Back to the Sources, p. 417)
The rise and spread of Christianity and Islam presented the scattered Jewish communities with new challenges to face. Rather than being confronted with rival tribal gods, they now had to defend themselves against increasingly sophisticated theological assaults on their faith. Messiahs were prophesied in the Torah and were traditionally interpreted by the Hebrew people to be a king who would restore their nation to the status it enjoyed under the reigns of King David and King Solomon. Because Jesus Christ promised a spiritual kingdom instead of a political one, the vast majority of Jews remain faithful to the orthodox interpretations of the Torah and the oral traditions that supported them. The traditional Jewish understandings of the Torah were often altered by Christians to support their ideas that Jesus was specifically prophesied in what they renamed the Old Testament. These interpretations are of course rejected by Jews.
For example, according to the Gospel of Mathew the birth of Jesus was a fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah. "All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: "Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel (which mean, God with us)."" This quote is taken from the book of Isaiah. In Isaiah 7,14 we read: "Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanual."
Jewish theologians maintained then and now that the son in Isaiah's prophecy is in fact the son of King Ahaz, the man who Isaiah was actually prophesying to. In the next line we read: "He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted. The Lord will bring upon your people and upon your father's house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed form Judah-the king of Assyria." (Isaiah 7,15-17) The two kings who Ahaz was in dread of were the kings of Syria and Samaria. Assyria did in fact invade in conquer Syria and Samania in 732 and 722 BC. (Steve Allen on the Bible, Religion and Morality p 212)
One key method of maintaining the integrity of their unique relationship to God was to keep some distance from the Christian and Muslim people they lived with. It was intolerable, for example, to most Jewish parents that their children would even consider marrying outside the faith until relatively recent times. Distinct dress, dietary rules and the Hebrew language further helped to define the Jews as distinct from those around them.
Israel as a nation was restored following World War Two, once again occupying part of the land that was promised to them by the God of the Torah. Jewish communities throughout the world are today divided up into three basic form of Judaism. The Orthodox view holds to the traditions of the ancient beliefs adapted to fit into the modern era. Those in Israel for instance often adopt a stance of peaceful co-existence with Muslims and accept scientific evidence regarding the age of the earth. Reform Jews, more prominent in America than in Israel, tend to more strongly favor changing traditional customs such as the role of women in Jewish society. Ultra-orthodox take a more fundamentalist approach, preferring more strict adherence to the traditional customs of Judaism and placing a greater emphasis that Israel demand all the land that was promised to them in the Torah.
To sum up, Jewish cosmology maintained that God supernaturally created the world with Israel at its center. As his Chosen People the Jews were given center stage for a great struggle between good and evil. God was portrayed as a very personal, all-powerful being with distinctly human-like characteristics such as love and jealousy. He actively intervened in the lives of human beings, especially the Jewish people. He was often portrayed as a harsh God, deeply concerned with justice and the absolute obedience of his creations. At some unknown time in the future Jewish prophets predict that God will destroy the world and judge it's inhabitants by how well they had obeyed his moral laws. Many Jewish people believe that those who pass judgement will be rewarded by an eternal life in a supernaturally created New Jerusalem.
Problems with Jewish Inerrancy
While it seems impossible to prove or disprove if Judaism contains some insights about God, we can at least answer the question of whether the Torah is the inerrant Word of God. In other words, can Jewish fundamentalists legitimately claim that every doctrine in the Torah is absolutely true? Or is it at least reasonable to understand the Torah as a combination of some truth and purely human-created beliefs? When examined from the point of view that the Word of God must be true and must be good, it does not take a very detailed study to run into some major obstacles to the Jewish fundamentalist claim of inerrancy.
To begin with, the creation story described in Genesis 1,1-31 is not an accurate account of the creation of our Universe, the earth, species or human beings. Reasonable and convincing arguments can be made that this is a metaphoric story, designed to show God's special relationship with creation and humanity. I for one have no trouble accepting this interpretation. But since fundamentalists do not, we need to examine the story in detail to see if it does in fact support the fundamentalist position of inerrancy.
Let's examine the text section by section and see how it compares to the findings of modern science. The story begins with God creating the world by a supernatural act of will:
"In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters. And God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day." (Genesis 1,1-5)
A literal reading of this passage indicates that the heavens and earth were made in one day. Scientific evidence indicates that the physical makeup of our universe began expanding from a central location about fifteen billion years ago. The earth formed about four and a half billions years ago, over ten billion years after the initial expansion. While there is some disagreement within the scientific community in these measurements in terms of a few billion years, these numbers are obviously in no way reducible to a single day. Also, during the formation of our solar system the sun would have already existed and given off light prior to the earth having oceans of any kind.
"And God said, "Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters." And God made the firmament and separated the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament. And it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. And there was evening and there was morning, a second day." (Genesis 1,6-8)
Dry land, or at least melted rock, would have always been present on the surface of the earth during its formation. Therefore the idea that at one time the surface of the earth was covered by water, which then rose or possibly evaporated into the sky to reveal the continents, does not conform to our understanding of the development of the earth. The idea of a firmament in the sky is an ancient world explanation of where water comes from, and reveals a lack of understanding about the global evaporation and condensation cycle of water.
"And God said, "Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear." And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good. And God said, "Let the earth put forth vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind, upon the earth." And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation, plants, yielding seed according to their own kinds, and trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, a third day." (Genesis 1,9-13)
The earliest green algae that might be called a plant dates back to over two billion years in the fossil record. New species of plants have been evolving and going extinct ever since then. What we would identify as modern fruit trees evolved much later than these earliest plants, long after animal life had evolved.
"And God said, "Let there be lights in the firmament of the heavens to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, and let them be lights in the firmament of the heavens to give light upon the earth." And it was so. And God made the two great lights, the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night; he made the stars also. And God set them in the firmament of the heavens to give light upon the earth, to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light form the darkness. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, a fourth day." (Genesis 1,14-19)
Astronomers believe that many of the stars in the night sky developed long before our sun did. The sun and moon were also fully developed long before plants evolved on the earth. It would also have taken much longer for the stars, the sun and the moon to develop into their present forms than a single day.
"And God said, "Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the firmament of the heavens." So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarm, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. And God blessed them, saying, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth." And there was evening and there was morning, a fifth day." (Genesis 1,20-23)
The fossil record is very clear that land animals evolved long before flying animals. Again this formation process took much longer than a single day.
"And God said, "Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kinds: cattle and creeping things and beasts of the earth according to their kinds." And it was so. And God made the beasts of the earth according to their kinds and cattle according to their kinds, and everything that creeps upon the ground according to its kind. And God saw that it was good." (Genesis 1,24-25)
Wild animal species evolved long before domesticated cattle, which are a relatively recent development heavily influenced by human interaction. Land species of animals have been evolving and going extinct for hundreds of millions of years.
"And God said, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth." So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1,26-27) And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, a sixth day." (Genesis 1,31)
Human beings, depending on which species you choose to include, evolved over a period of millions of years, much longer than a single day.
Each section of this creation story is to some extent factually wrong for the simple reason that events that took million or billions of years to occur are recording as having only taken a single day. The order in which the stars, sun, earth, and moon are created is also wrong. A literal reading would have us believe that the light of morning and evening existed on the earth before the sun and stars were even created. The order of the creation of different types of animals is also wrong. It would appear that the author of this story simply made a list of the different objects in the world around him and tried to guess in what order they had been created.
But we must be cautious not to overstate what the failure of this creation story to match our modern understanding of these events actually means. It does not disprove that some form of divine inspiration was involved in the story's formation. It also does not somehow prove that God did not create the world. What it does prove is that this is not an inerrant story coming directly from God intending to dogmatically explain the literal origin of the world. In other words, a fundamentalist cannot reasonably demand belief that this story is the Word of God without human influence. Given the number of factual mistakes in the story, it would seem to have had quite a lot of human influence in its creation.
The next story in the Torah is a more detailed account in the creation of the first humans.
"In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and now herb of the field had yet sprung up-for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no man to till the ground; but a mist went up from the earth and watered the whole face of the ground-then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being. (Genesis 2,4-7) So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh; and the rib which the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man." (Genesis 2,21-22)
The oldest members of our species that we have a clear fossil record of, commonly known as archaic Homo sapiens, evolved from a species called Homo erectus several hundred thousand years ago. That species in turn evolved from another tool using hominid named Homo habilis. As the fossil record does not show every individual that ever lived, there may well be other transitions within these species. These evolutionary transitions obviously include both the male and females of each ancestor species. On this issue, it would seem, God did not give the prophets of Israel inside information about the immediate biological origin of our species.
An alternate interpretation of course can be made that this creation story is not a statement of physical facts, but rather a metaphoric declaration that God ultimately created the human race and has a special purpose for us. The point of the story would therefore be to establish humanity's relationship with God and the nature of the relationship between men and women. In any case, the story certainly can't be claimed as being the inerrant Word of God without some degree of human design.
Noah's Ark tells of another form of creation story that also fails the test of scientific scrutiny. The story begins with an ominous discovery by God.
"The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imaginations of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, "I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the ground, man and beast and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them." But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord." (Genesis 6,5-8)
God tells Noah and his family to construct a giant ship out of wood so that they can save themselves and at least two members of each animal species. After the flood is over the world is repopulated by this small surviving group. Is this a historically true story? Is this an internally consistent story? Is this a moral story? It is difficult to give any of these questions a resounding yes. First of all the story is not factually true. At no point in the geological strata of the world is their any evidence for a global flood. In fact, there has never been enough water on the planet for such a flood to occur. As archeologist Kenneth Feder points out, there is also no sudden break in the historic record of the ancient world that would be obvious if the global population was suddenly bottlenecked to eight people. [Frauds, Myths and Mysteries, Kenneth L. Feder, p. 217-218]
The exact dimensions given for the size of the Ark (Genesis 6, 15-16) would make it about 500 feet long and fifty feet tall. It defies common sense to believe that eight untrained people could have built such a ship in a reasonable amount of time. If we speculate that a work crew of angels assisted in the construction, the Ark would still have been much too small. Remember, it would have to carry representatives of about 10,500 reptiles and amphibians, 10,000 birds, 4,500 mammals, over a million insects and all their food for half a year. (National Geographic, February 1999, p.22) If you accept the creation story and the literal wording of "every living thing of flesh" it would also need to carry all currently extinct animals such as the dinosaurs. And for anyone who has had to clean out an animal's cage, the idea of that much waste removal being done by eight people is positively gruesome. The story exposes an obvious lack of knowledge regarding the enormous variety of animal life that existed outside of the writer's world.
Aside from the obvious physical impossibility of a global flood and the size of the ship there is the question of exactly how animals like penguins and koala bears got to the Middle East. Also difficult to explain is exactly what the predators ate while waiting for their prey species to regain their population levels. Many fish, invertebrates and plant species would have died in the diluted saltwater mix that would have resulted from such a flood. To believe in the Noah's Ark story as history given our modern knowledge requires that the reader speculate about miracle after miracle that the text doesn't mention and deny the existence of formidable evidence to the contrary.
If you read carefully you can clearly see that there are two different versions of the story woven together. Many biblical historians believe this was caused by the existence of different versions of the story in northern Israel and southern Judah. In any case the two versions are in partial contradiction to each other.
For example, the two versions give different details regarding how many of each species was to be taken. Fundamentalists who claim the Torah is without error might try to determine from these two passages how many of each species of bird were saved from the flood. The first version states that two of each animal was to be taken into the Ark. "And of every living thing of all flesh; you shall bring two of every sort into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female. Of birds according to their kinds, of every creeping thing according to their kinds, of every creeping thing of the ground according to its kind, two of every sort shall come in to you, to keep them alive." (Genesis 6:19-20)
The second version directly contradicts this be asserting that Noah was to bring aboard seven pairs of birds and seven pairs of animals that were considered clean. "Take with you seven pairs of all clean animals, the male and his mate; and a pair of the animals that are not clean, the male and his mate; and seven pairs of the birds of the air also, male and female, to keep their kind alive upon the face of all the earth." (Genesis 7:2-3)
A third argument against viewing the Noah's Ark story as entirely divine is its questionable morality. The very notion that God would create humanity knowing that it would in a short time degenerate to a point where "every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually" is difficult to take seriously. To believe that every man, woman and child would be ruthlessly drowned by their Creator, along with the world's animal population seems at odds with the idea of a just and loving God.
Another point to be made is that the story of Noah's Ark was written in the same mythological style as were other flood stories of people who lived along the floodplains of the Nile, Tigris and Euphrates rivers. It is particularly similar to a Babylonian story in which the watery chaos-monster Tiamat created a great flood that the good god Marduk had to end. (God, a Biography, Jack Miles, p45) The Hebrew version seems to combine the role of hero and villain into the same character. If we try to determine which story came first we should recall that the Hebrews were originally a nomadic people who didn't live in a great flood plain. Since there is no evidence that the story was written prior to their expose to these other regions, it seems at least plausible that the other mythological flood stories predate and influenced the author of Noah's Ark.
It is difficult to come to a reasonable metaphoric explanation of the Noah's Ark story because the subject matter is so exceedingly grim. Based on the criteria for the Word of God being factually true, the story fails to pass the test. In terms of the criteria that the Word of God must be morally true, the moral message of Noah's Ark is at best dubious.
A more recent historical claim from the Torah is the outcome of the siege of Jerusalem by the Assyrian army of King Sennacherib. According to the biblical account, the God of Israel decided to save the city by divine intervention. "And that night the angel of the Lord went forth, and slew a hundred and eighty-five thousand in the camp of the Assyrians; and when men arose early in the morning, behold, these were all dead bodies" (2 Kings 19,35). But archaeological finds from ancient Assyrian tablets called the Prism Inscription of Sennacherib contradict this claim.
Both records agree that Assyrian forces captured the fortified towns of the then divided nations of Israel and Judah and laid siege to Jerusalem. But the Assyrian account has no mention of this angelic slaughter, asserting instead that a heavy tribute was taken from the king of Jerusalem. The fact that the Babylonians, who were vassals of Assyria at the time, would a few generations later lay siege and capture the city without apparent fear of supernatural reprisal also severely undermines the story's claim. If something other than city walls or a paid tribute did in fact prevent the Assyrians from capturing Jerusalem, the outbreak of a disease seems much more reasonable and consistent with the rival Assyrian version than God killing 185,000 human beings in a single night of angelic mayhem. [Who Wrote the Bible? p.93-96]
On moral grounds the claim that everything in the Torah is the inerrant Word of God is difficult to fully accept. For all the moral brilliance found in Judaism, the Torah can be easily criticized for its acceptance of many horrendous practices that were typical of the ancient Middle East. For example, if we are to accept the Torah's version as the Word of God, the story of the founding of Israel is a story of military conquest and genocide against a people whose main crime was to not be Jewish. The idea that God would sanction a policy of genocide is doubtful (some might use a more pointed term). The idea that God would actively assist one tribe in committing genocide against another is even more doubtful.
But Moses asserted that his god would send a killer angel to help them in their military conquest of the nations already living between Egypt and the Euphrates. He does this in the context of God's concern that they might decide to worship other gods. "When my angel goes before you, and brings you in to the Amorites, and the Hittites, and the Per'issites, and the Canaanites, the Hivites, and the Jeb'usites, and I blot them out, you shall not bow down to their gods, nor serve them, nor do according to their work, but you shall utterly overthrow them and break their pillars in pieces." (Exodus 23,23).
It is clear from the text that Moses is attributing the need to commit genocide against nonbelievers to God himself:
"But in the cities of these people that the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall utterly destroy them, the Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, as the Lord your God has commanded; that they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices which they have done in the service of their gods, and so to sin against the Lord your God." (Deuteronomy 20,16-18)
This supposed fear of the God of Israel that his Chosen People might worship other gods continues throughout the Torah. The following passage is typical of the idea that the worshipers of rival gods should be exterminated. "Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.'" (1 Samuel 15,3). This is clearly a description of ethnic genocide, one that the descendents of Moses supposedly fulfilled. Can anyone today really believe that God once endorsed the killing of every "man, woman, infant and suckling" of an entire community because they had been raised to believe in a different theology?
The Torah does not endorse all military conquest. It is only Israel's conquest of other nations that is generally approved of. Even when the conquerors are said to be acting in God's divine plan, those who conquered the Hebrew people come under vicious assault in the Torah. What are we to make of this vengeful poem against the Babylonian conquers of Israel? "O daughter of Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall he be who requites you with what you have done to us! Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!" (Psalms 137, 8-9) To profess that God is truly the author of this brutal sentiment is difficult to defend. To me it reads more like the writings of a conquered people trying to express their understandably angry feelings against their enemies.
It should be noted here that genocide was unfortunately widespread in much of the ancient world and in no way distinguished the ancient Jews of that time from their neighbors. Given their tragic history during World War Two, the modern Jewish community are perhaps the most passionate in their belief that the evil tragedy of genocide must be vigorously opposed. But if we believe that statements that endorse genocide should be denounced it forces us to be critical of at least some parts of the Torah. If Moses actually said that God told him to kill all the inhabitants of Canaan and take over their land as the Torah describes, I for one would say that he was mistaken. I would not say that this disproves that Judaism has no insight into the concept of God, but it does suggest that the Torah is at best a combination of divine truth and the mistaken beliefs of fallible and sometimes immoral human beings.
If we are to believe the fundamentalist assertion that the Torah is the inerrant Word of God then we must also conclude that the God of Israel approved of slavery. Moses laid out specific regulations about keeping slaves for the new Israel, including a special provision if a slave was a Hebrew. "When you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, and in the seventh he shall go out free, for nothing. If he comes in single, he shall go out single; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him." (Exodus 21, 2-3). The notion that slavery was a lifetime sentence unless you belonged to one of the tribes of Israel seems incompatible with the notion of a just God.
Moses declared that divinely ordained rules exempted a slave owner from receiving the normal punished for adultery if he had sex with his female slaves. "If a man lies carnally with a woman who is a slave, betrothed to another man and not yet ransomed or given her freedom, an inquiry shall be held. They shall not be put to death, because she was not free; but he shall bring a guilt offering for himself to the Lord, to the door of the tent of meeting, a ram for a guilt offering." (Leviticus 19,20-21) Female slaves were also distinguished from male slaves in the laws. "When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do." (Exodus 21,7) Slaves in Israel could be acquired by purchase, birthright or military conquest. They could also be obtained by a declaration of acceptance from a seventh year Jewish slave:
"If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master's and he shall go out alone. But if the slave plainly says, 'I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free,' then his master shall bring him to God, and he shall bring him to the door or the doorpost; and his master shall bore his ear through with an awl; and he shall serve him for life." Exodus 21, 5-6).
The very idea that a slave who married and fathered children would have to choose between his freedom and his family is staggering to contemplate. But the belief that a person can own another human being as if they were cattle was simply a common view in the ancient world. Despite slavery's obvious contradictions to our modern understanding of human rights, we must remember that the world was very different when the Torah and other ancient scriptures were being written.
Slaves were given a status slightly above domesticated animals in the Mosaic laws. A slave owner could beat his slaves, but couldn't outright murder them. "When a man strikes a slave, male or female, with a rod and the slave dies under his hand, he shall be punished. But if the slave survives a day or two, he is not to be punished; for the slave is his money." (Exodus 21,20).
Exactly how much money a slave is worth is also laid out. If a man irresponsibly allowed one of his oxen to repeatedly gore and kill people passing by his house, the owner was to be either killed or forced to pay whatever compensation the survivor's family demanded. But the amount of compensation is limited and specifically given for the value of a killed slave. "If it gores a man's son or daughter, he shall be dealt with according to this same rule. If the ox gores a slave, male or female, the owner shall give to their master thirty shekels of silver, and the ox shall be stoned." (Exodus 21,31-32) In other words, according to the Torah a slave's life was worth thirty silver coins. I fail to see any possible metaphoric interpretation of this horrendous law that can conceal its acceptance of slavery.
During the height of ancient Israel's political power slavery became an important aspect of major construction projects. The most important of these, the building of the temple to house the Ark of the Covenant, was built by slave labor. King Solomon made it Israel's policy to only use non-Hebrew slaves in building the temple. "All the people who were left of the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, who were not of the people of Israel-their descendants who were left after them, in the land, whom the people of Israel were unable to destroy utterly-these. Solomon made a forced levy of slaves, and so they are to this day. But of the people of Israel Solomon made no slaves." (1 Kings 9, 20-21) Since God is said to have inhabited the temple, he obviously is believed to have accepted that it was built by slave labor. Solomon is also declared by the Torah to be the wisest man in the world. There is simply no doubt from the text that the ancient Hebrews believed that slavery was acceptable to their view of god.
The justification for Jews keeping Canaanite slaves seems to be based on the curse of Canaan. Shortly after the story of Noah's Ark we are told that Noah became drunk on wine. Ham, his son, saw him naked. Because of this apparent crime, Noah lays a curse on Ham's son Canaan:
"Cursed be Canaan; a slave of slaves shall he be to his brothers." He also said, "Blessed by the Lord my God be Shem; and let Canaan be his slave. God enlarge Japheth, and let him dwell in the tents of Shem; and let Canaan be his slave." (Genesis 9,25-27)
Canaan was said to be the father of the people of Canaan and Egypt and Shem the father of the people of Israel. Therefore, a literal reading of the Torah fully justifies Israel imposing slavery upon the conquered Canaanites because their ancestors were cursed by Noah. Since the character of Noah is at least in part a mythological creation, this is obviously a human contrivance to rationalize the immoral institution of slavery.
Another moral problem with the Torah's acceptance of slavery is its chilling affect on the story of Moses leading the Jews out of Egypt. The Pharaoh is portrayed as the great villain in the story because he was forcing the Hebrew people to work on large construction projects. Apparently unwilling to directly talk to Pharaoh as he had done to Moses, the God of Israel decides instead to inflict a series of great disasters on the Egyptian people. The last of these was said to be a mass killing of Egyptian children by God in an attempt to persuade the Pharaoh to change his mind. "At midnight the Lord smote all the first-born in the land of Egypt, from the first-born of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the first-born of the captives who was in the dungeon, and all the first-born of the cattle. And Pharaoh rose up in the night, he, and all his servants, and all the Egyptians, and there was a great cry in Egypt, for there was not a house where one was not dead." (Exodus 12,29-30)
Since there is no historical evidence from Egyptian records that such a dramatic event actually took place, we might be tempted to view this as a morality story. But this cannot reasonably be seen as a moral lesson about the evils of slavery. After roaming about the desert for a generation, these very same Hebrews and their descendants are recorded to have then invaded and committed genocide against the inhabitants of Canaan. The Canaanites that weren't killed were kept as slaves. The descendants of these slave laborers built the temple and many other forced construction projects under King Solomon. There is no indication in these stories that the God of Israel was perceived to have thought that slavery itself was an evil that should be prohibited. If anything, the God of Israel is portrayed as having accepted slavery as being a normal human institution, no different than other institutions such as marriage or the monarchy.
As anyone who has actually read the Torah knows, these are only a few of its many inhumane moral teachings. For example, just having a different religious opinion was worthy of a death sentence according to these ancient world authors. There is no context, no symbolism, no analogy or semantic sleight-of-hand that can escape the pure ignorant evil of declarations like this:
"If your brother, the son of your father or of your mother, or your son or daughter, or the spouse whom you embrace, or your most intimate friend, tries to secretly seduce you, saying, "Let us go and serve other gods," unknown to you or your ancestors before you, gods of the peoples surrounding you, whether near you or far away, anywhere throughout the world, you must not consent, you must not listen to him; you must show him no pity, you must not spare him or conceal his guilt. No, you must kill him, your hand must strike the first blow in putting him to death and the hands of the rest of the people following. You must stone him to death, since he has tried to divert you from Yahweh your God." (Deuteronomy 13:7-11)
One should not conclude from these passages that modern Jews endorse genocide, slavery and other immoral practices today. Nothing could be further from the truth. Later Jewish theological developments thankfully eradicated this biblical justification of murder and slavery. This was because the Hebrew people consider the Torah to be a living work, one who's meaning can encompass new thinking to adapt to changing times and sensibilities. But it should be remembered that the Torah is held up by some fundamentalists as the unassailable Word of God. The evidence would indicate that this is not entirely true. To take the more moderate approach that the Torah contains some insight into that eternal reality mixed with many mistaken views by its ancient world authors is at least consistent with what it actually contains. The Torah undeniably contains many moral truths and social wisdom, but it also professes historical mistakes and immoral customs that prevent it from being necessarily viewed as the inerrant Word of God.