01
Jun

On the Torah and the Word of G-d

The Torah — also known as the Old Testament, the Pentateuch, or the Five Books of Moses — is the foundation document of the Jewish religion (among others), and it's regarded by Orthodox Jews (among others) as the infallible Word of G-d. It's generally believed that the Torah in its entirety was conveyed orally to Moses on Mount Sinai, approximately 3,300 years ago; and that Moses transcribed the Torah exactly as it was revealed to him.

Most of the Torah is rock solid: sensible laws; moralistic stories; clear presentation of history; and other important information, such as geneaologies, rituals, and territorial boundaries. However, sometimes them five books throw some serious curve balls. I've selected here a few sections from the wonderful O.T, that in my opinion are so outrageously messed up, that they cannot possibly be the Divine Word. I believe in G-d, one hundred percent. But I see no reason to believe that these particular passages have a Divine source.

Ball-grabbing

Here's the situation. You're a married woman, and you and your husband are out with mates for the evening. Your husband gets into a heated debate with one of his male friends. The heated debate quickly escalates into a fistfight. You decide to resolve the conflict, quickly and simply. You grab your man by the nuts, and pull him away.

According to the torah, in this extremely specific situation, that's a crime that will cost you a hand (presumably, the hand responsible for said ball-grabbing). For, as it is written:

[11] When men strive together one with another, and the wife of the one draweth near to deliver her husband out of the hand of him that smiteth him, and putteth forth her hand, and taketh him by the secrets; [12] then thou shalt cut off her hand, thine eye shall have no pity.

Deuteronomy 25:11-12

As a man, I think this is a great rule. I am all for explicitly prohibiting my future wife from resorting to sack-wrenching, as a means of intervening in my secret mens' business.

However, as a rational human being, I am forced to conclude, beyond any doubt, that this verse of the Torah simply cannot be the Word of G-d. I'm sorry, but it makes no sense that G-d didn't have time to mention anything about chemical warfare, or about protection of the endangered Yellow-browed Toucanet in Peru; yet he found the time to jot down: "By the way, ladies, don't end a brawl by yanking your man's nads."

Our Sages™ explain to us that this verse shouldn't be taken literally, and that what it's actually referring to is a more general prohibition on causing public shame and humiliation to others. They argue that, thanks to this verse, the Torah is actually ahead of most modern legal systems, in that it explicitly enshrines dignity as a legal concept, and that it provides measures for the legal protection of one's dignity.

Sorry, dear Sages, but I don't buy that. You can generalise and not take literally all you want. But for me, there's no shying away from the fact that the Torah calls for cutting off a woman's hand if she goes in for the nut-grabber. That's an extreme punishment, and honestly, the whole verse is just plain silly. This was clearly written not by G-d, but by a middle-aged priest who'd been putting up with his wife's nad-yanking for 30-odd years, and who'd just decided that enough was enough.

Parental discipline

You're a 16-year-old male. You live in a well-to-do middle-class neighbourhood, your parents are doctor and lawyer (respectively), and you go to a respectable private school. So, naturally, you've been binge drinking since the age of 12, you sell ecstasy and cocaine at the bus stop, you run a successful pimping business in the school toilets, you're an anaemic quasi-albino goth, and you're pretty handy with a flick-knife at 2am at the local train station. Your parents can't remember the last time you said anything to them, other than: "I f$@%ing hate you."

Your parents have pretty well given up on you. Fortunately, the Torah provides one final remedy that they haven't yet tried. For, as it is written:

[18] If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, that will not hearken to the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother, and though they chasten him, will not hearken unto them; [19] then shall his father and his mother lay hold on him, and bring him out unto the elders of his city, and unto the gate of his place; [20] and they shall say unto the elders of his city: 'This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he doth not hearken to our voice; he is a glutton, and a drunkard.' [21] And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die; so shalt thou put away the evil from the midst of thee; and all Israel shall hear, and fear.

Deuteronomy 21:18-21

The Torah sanctions stoning to death as a form of parental discipline… w00t! Ummm… yeah, I'm sorry, guys; but once again, according to every fibre of my mind and soul, I conclude that this cannot be the Word of G-d. No G-d of mine would condone this crap.

Once again, at this point we should turn to Our Sages™, who explain that this law is designed purely to be a deterrent for rebellious children, and that the prescribed punishment could never actually be imposed. They note that this passage lists so many conditions, in order for a son to meet the definition of "rebellious", that it's virtually impossible for anyone to actually be eligible for this punishment. They conclude that the scenario described here is purely hypothetical, and that it's intended that no son ever actually be stoned to death per this law.

Again, dear Sages, I'm afraid that just doesn't cut it for me. First of all, the conditions laid out in this passage aren't impossible; in my opinion, it wouldn't be very hard at all for them to be met. And secondly, on account of its conditions being possible in a real situation, this passage constitutes an incredibly reckless and dangerous addition to the Torah. Never intended to be enforced? Bull $@%t. I'd bet my left testicle that this law — just like many other sanctioned-stoning-to-death laws, e.g. adultery, idolatry — was invoked and was enforced numerous times, back in the biblical era.

Stoning to death as a form of parental punishment. Not written by G-d. If you ask me, 'twas written by a priestly couple, back in the day, who were simply tearing their hair out trying to get their adolescent son to stop dealing frankincense and myhhr to Welsh tart junkies behind the juniper bush.

The anti-castrato anti-modern-family regime

The Torah generally follows the well-accepted universal rules of who you're allowed to discriminate against. Everyone knows that you're allowed to pick on women, slaves (i.e. black people), proselytes (biblical equivalent of illegal aliens, i.e. Mexicans), homosexuals, Amalek (biblical equivalent of rogue states, i.e. North Korea), and of course Jews (who, despite all that "chosen people" crap, did have a pretty rough time in the O.T — so if you're wondering who started that "pick on the Jews" trend, it was G-d).

But the Torah had to take it just one step further, and break the Golden Rule: don't pick on the handicapped! According to the Torah, those who are handicapped in the downstairs department (plus bastard children are thrown in for good measure), are to be rejected from all paintball games, Iron Maiden concerts, trips to Nimbin, and other cool events. For all eternity. For, as it is written:

[2] He that is crushed or maimed in his privy parts shall not enter into the assembly of the Lord. [3] A bastard shall not enter into the assembly of the Lord; even to the tenth generation shall none of his enter into the assembly of the Lord.

Deuteronomy 23:2-3

I guess the whole "even to the tenth generation" postscript was only added to the bastard law, and not to the crushed-nuts law, because adding it to the former would have been kinda superfluous. If you're chanting in the Pope's soprano choir, it's a pretty safe bet there won't be even one more generation in your grand lineage, let alone ten.

Turning once again to Our Sages™, it seems they don't see much problem with this law (a cause for concern in itself, if you ask me), because they don't particularly bother to justify it as a metaphor or a hypothetical. They merely clarify that this law applies to voluntary or accidental mutilation, and not to birth defects or diseases. Well, isn't that a relief! They also clarify that the punishment of not being able to "enter into the assembly of the Lord" refers to being prohibited from marrying a Jewish woman.

I'm sorry, but specific discrimination against victims of ball-crushing (possibly on account of women violating the ball-grabbing law, as discussed above) is, in my opinion, not the Word of G-d. This law was clearly an addition penned by a member of the Temple elite, who had already exhausted the approved list of groups suitable to pick on (see above), and who just couldn't resist breaking the universal rule and picking on the handicapped. The very same guy probably then interpreted his own law, to mean that he could park his donkey right outside the door of the blacksmith's, which was quite clearly marked as a disabled-only spot.

Slow poisoning of suspected adulteresses

Everyone knows that the Bible proscribes stoning to death for proven offenders of adultery. While we may not all agree with the severity of the punishment, I personally can sort-of accept it as the Word of G-d. However, the Torah also describes, in intricate detail, a bizarre and disturbing procedure for women who are suspected of being adulteresses, but against whom there is no damning evidence. For, as it is written:

[11] and the Lord spoke unto Moses, saying: [12] Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them: If any man's wife go aside, and act unfaithfully against him, [13] and a man lie with her carnally, and it be hid from the eyes of her husband, she being defiled secretly, and there be no witness against her, neither she be taken in the act; [14] and the spirit of jealousy come upon him, and he be jealous of his wife, and she be defiled; or if the spirit of jealousy come upon him, and he be jealous of his wife, and she be not defiled; [15] then shall the man bring his wife unto the priest, and shall bring her offering for her, the tenth part of an ephah of barley meal; he shall pour no oil upon it, nor put frankincense thereon; for it is a meal-offering of jealousy, a meal-offering of memorial, bringing iniquity to remembrance. [16] And the priest shall bring her near, and set her before the Lord. [17] And the priest shall take holy water in an earthen vessel; and of the dust that is on the floor of the tabernacle the priest shall take, and put it into the water. [18] And the priest shall set the woman before the Lord, and let the hair of the woman's head go loose, and put the meal-offering of memorial in her hands, which is the meal-offering of jealousy; and the priest shall have in his hand the water of bitterness that causeth the curse. [19] And the priest shall cause her to swear, and shall say unto the woman: 'If no man have lain with thee, and if thou hast not gone aside to uncleanness, being under thy husband, be thou free from this water of bitterness that causeth the curse; [20] but if thou hast gone aside, being under thy husband, and if thou be defiled, and some man have lain with thee besides thy husband-- [21] then the priest shall cause the woman to swear with the oath of cursing, and the priest shall say unto the woman--the Lord make thee a curse and an oath among thy people, when the Lord doth make thy thigh to fall away, and thy belly to swell; [22] and this water that causeth the curse shall go into thy bowels, and make thy belly to swell, and thy thigh to fall away'; and the woman shall say: 'Amen, Amen.' [23] And the priest shall write these curses in a scroll, and he shall blot them out into the water of bitterness. [24] And he shall make the woman drink the water of bitterness that causeth the curse; and the water that causeth the curse shall enter into her and become bitter. [25] And the priest shall take the meal-offering of jealousy out of the woman's hand, and shall wave the meal-offering before the Lord, and bring it unto the altar. [26] And the priest shall take a handful of the meal-offering, as the memorial-part thereof, and make it smoke upon the altar, and afterward shall make the woman drink the water. [27] And when he hath made her drink the water, then it shall come to pass, if she be defiled, and have acted unfaithfully against her husband, that the water that causeth the curse shall enter into her and become bitter, and her belly shall swell, and her thigh shall fall away; and the woman shall be a curse among her people. [28] And if the woman be not defiled, but be clean; then she shall be cleared, and shall conceive seed. [29] This is the law of jealousy, when a wife, being under her husband, goeth aside, and is defiled; [30] or when the spirit of jealousy cometh upon a man, and he be jealous over his wife; then shall he set the woman before the Lord, and the priest shall execute upon her all this law. [31] And the man shall be clear from iniquity, and that woman shall bear her iniquity.

Numbers 5:11-31

In case the language above eludes and confounds you, let me recap. You're a married woman. Your husband suspects you've been engaged in wild orgies with the gardeners, every time he goes to London on a business trip (of course, he never gets up to any mischief on his trips either); but as nobody else is ever home during these trips, he has no proof of his suspicion. In order to alleviate his suspicions, he brings you before a Temple Priest, who forces you to drink something called the "water of bitterness" (generally understood to be more-or-less poison).

Apparently, if you're innocent, then the water of bitterness will have no effect, and the final proof of your acquittal will be your ability to fall pregnant in a few months' time; or, if you're guilty, then the water of bitterness will cause you severe internal damage, and it will possibly kill you — in particular, it will definitely f$@% up your reproductive organs. Amen.

Woaaaahhhhh! I'm sorry. That is NOT the Word of G-d. That is F$@%ED UP.

I don't know about you, but this reminds me of the good old-fashioned, tried-and-tested method of determining if a woman is a witch: if she floats, she's a witch; if not, she's innocent (too bad about her drowning, eh?). This ceremony — called the sotah — is a sort of perverse backwards version of a witch-trial: if she's been playing around, the poison f$@%s her up; if not, she will (theoretically) be well and healthy.

And now, a word from Our Sages™. Once again (as with the parental discipline law, see above), the Learned Ones brush this one off as being purely a deterrent law, never meant to be actually enforced. Once again, I say: bull$@%t. If this truly was the intention of this law, it was pretty damn recklessly implemented.

At least the "rebellious son" law has a reasonable set of conditions to be met before the prescribed punishment can be effected; for this law, the only relevant condition is that "the spirit of jealousy cometh upon a man". Jeez, a jealous and suspicious partner — that hardly ever happens.

I really, truly, shudder to think how many times this ritual was carried out in the biblical era. If this were a real, secular law in any country today, I can guarantee there'd be a queue of seeming husbands five miles long, at the door of every local court in the land.

Final thoughts

I'm proudly Jewish, always have been, always will be. I also firmly believe in G-d's existence. But that doesn't mean I have to accept every word of my religion's holy book as infallible. Call me a heretic if you will. But G-d gave us intellect, critical judgement and, above all, common sense. Failing to exercise it, on everything including G-d's Holy Scriptures — now, that would be a gross sacrilege and an act of heresy (and one of which billions of blind followers throughout history are, in my opinion, guilty).

If a law's literal interpretation seems absurd, then there's a problem with the law. If a law has to be justified as a metaphor, as a hypothetical, or as an allegory before it seems rational, then there's a problem with the law. We would never accept laws in our modern legal systems, if they required a metaphysical interpretation before they seemed reasonable. Why then do we accept such laws in religious canon? Baffles me.

One of my aims in this article, was to present some of the most repulsive literally-read verses in the Torah, and to also present the explanations that scholars have provided, over the ages, to justify them. Commentary on the Bible is all well and good: but commentary should be a more detailed discussion of canon text that already has a solid foundation; it should not be a futile defence of canon text whose foundation is rotten. The literal meaning of the Bible is its foundation; and if the foundation is warped, so too is everything built upon it.

Additional references

* — references marked with an asterisk not actually used in this article, included in this list just for fun.

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