Haftarat Pinchas—1 Kings: Passing On the Mantle

After the miracle, depression.

After the most spectacular miracle in his career, the prophet Elijah asks God for death in this week’s haftarah reading (1 Kings 18:46-19:21, which accompanies the Torah reading Pinchas).

Jezebel by John Liston Byam Shaw, 19th c.

In the first book of Kings, Ahab (Achav, אַחְסָב) king of the northern Israelite kingdom of Samaria, marries a Phoenician princess named Jezebel (Izevel, אִיזֶבֶל). As soon as she moves in she tries to change the religion of her new country. She imports prophets serving Baal and Asheirah, and orders the murder of all the prophets of Y-H-V-H, the God of Israel. But 101 of God’s prophets escape: 100 acolytes who are hidden by one of King Ahab’s officials, and one elusive traveling prophet named Elijah (Eliyahu, אֵלִיָּהוּ).

Elijah prophesies that God will punish Samaria by withholding rain until he returns and gives the word. Then he leaves Ahab’s kingdom for three years of drought. When he returns, the prophet  orders the king to arrange a contest between Y-H-V-H and the foreign gods Baal and Asheirah.

And the winner is …

Elijah and Ahab at Mt. Carmel, Zurich Bible, 1531

The prophets of the goddess Asheirah are absent from the contest on Mount Karmel. The prophets of Baal spend all morning hopping around their sacrifice and calling on their god, but they fail to make anything happen. Elijah pours water over his sacrifice, and Y-H-V-H responds to his call by sending a roaring fire that devours the slaughtered bull, the wood, the dirt, and the water in the trench around the altar.1

The Israelites who are watching enthusiastically follow Elijah’s order to seize the 450 prophets of Baal and kill them all.2

Death wish

This week’s haftarah opens as it begins to rain. When Ahab gets home and tells his Phoenician wife what happened, she sends a death threat to Elijah.

And he was afraid, and he got up and went off to save his life. And he came to Beir-sheva, which is in Judah. And he left behind his servant there. Then he himself walked a day’s journey into the wilderness, and he came and sat down under a certain broom-tree. And he asked for death. He said: “Enough! Now, God, take my life, because I am no better than my forefathers.” (1 Kings 19:3-4)

Elijah travels to Judah, the southern Israelite kingdom, in order to save his life. He would be safe in Jerusalem, the God-fearing King Yehoshafat of Judah. But instead of going there, he heads for the Negev desert. He probably leaves his servant behind in Beir-sheva because he is planning to die of dehydration in the desert and he does not want his servant to die as well.

Why is Elijah suicidal right after arranging a divine miracle, getting the Israelites to slay the prophets of Baal, and making it safely across the border into Judah? Another man might be heady with success.

One possibility is that Elijah expected the kingdom of Israel to completely return to the exclusive worship of their own God, after three years of drought and a spectacular miracle. Instead, King Ahab’s wife Jezebel retains power, and the 400 prophets of her goddess Asherah are still alive. Elijah has not achieved his goal.

Two other prophets in the Hebrew Bible beg God for death when they despair of achieving their goals. Moses asks God to kill him when the Israelites complain yet again about the food on their journey through the wilderness.3 His mission is to lead the Israelites to the land of Canaan, but they keep rebelling and whining that they want to go back to Egypt.

Jonah Preaching in Nineveh, by Jakob Steinhardt, 1923

Jonah, who prophesied after Elijah, asks God to kill him when God decides not to punish the Assyrians of Nineveh, who are enemies of Israel.4 Jonah’s mission is to go to Nineveh and proclaim that the city will be overthrown, but when he finally does, the people of Nineveh take the prophecy seriously and repent. Jonah wanted them to die, not to repent and be spared.

Like Moses and Jonah, Elijah is fed up with the prophet business. Serving as God’s mouthpiece consumes all of a person’s life, but a human being lacks God’s long-term view. No wonder both Moses and Jonah try to get out of being chosen as prophets in the first place.5

Perhaps these are the men Elijah is referring to when he says he is “no better than his forefathers”.

Close encounter

In the desert an angel of God comes twice to Elijah and saves his life with cakes and jugs of water. The second time, the angel says:

“Get up, eat, or the journey will be too much for you!” (1 Kings 19:7)

Perhaps because of this hint, or perhaps because he realizes he needs a deeper consultation with God,6 the prophet gets up and walks all the way to Mount Horev (another name for Mount Sinai).

There he came into the cave, and there he spent the night. And hey! The word of God, his God! And it said to him: “What are you here for, Elijah?” And he said: “I was absolutely zealous for God, the God of Hosts, because the Israelites abandoned your covenant! Your altars they demolished, and your prophets they slayed by the sword! And I alone remain, and they seek to take my life.” (1 Kings 19:9-10)

Elijah the zealot cannot appreciate a partial victory. He cannot accept that his fellow Israelites cooperated with Queen Jezebel, demolished God’s altars, and executed some of God’s prophets. Elijah is so outraged he forgets about (or discounts) the 100 lesser prophets that King Ahab’s court official saved. And he discounts the progress he made with the contest on the Mount Karmel, even though it inspired his people to slay the 450 prophets of Baal.

And hey! God was passing by, and a big and mighty wind was tearing off mountains of rocks in front of God; but God was not in the wind. And after the wind, an earthquake; but God was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake, fire; but God was not in the fire. And after the fire, a faint sound of quietness. (I Kings 19:11-12)

The first three phenomena are similar to the dramatic divine manifestations at Mount Sinai in the book of Exodus.7 But this time God is not present in them. We can tell that Elijah recognizes God when he hears the faint, quiet sound (or still small voice), because he covers his face. He would know that when Moses stood on that same mountain, God said: “No man can see my face and live.”8

And when Elijah heard, he wrapped his face with his adaret, and he went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And hey!—a  voice [came] to him, and it said: “What are you here for, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19:11-13)

adaret (אַדֶרֶת) = cloak, mantle. (From the same root as eder, אֶדֶר = magnificence, splendor.)

When Gods asks the question a second time, Elijah gives the same reply, word for word. He does not pick up on God’s hint that his true service to the divine now lies in quietness. A calm spirit is not Elijah’s forte.

Tossing the mantle

So God arranges for Elijah to be replaced by a new prophet.

Then God said to him: “Go, return the way you came, [then go on] to the wilderness [near] Damascus. You must come and anoint Chazeil as king over Aram. And you must anoint Yeihu son of Nimshi as king over Israel. And you must anoint Elisha son of Shafat from Aveil Mecholah as a prophet instead of yourself.” (1 Kings 19:15-16)

Elijah is so eager to stop being a prophet that he skips anointing new kings of Aram and Israel, and goes straight to Aveil Mecholah in the Jordan valley.

Elijah and Elisha, by Abraham Bloemaert, 1565-1651

And he went from there, and he found Elisha son of Shafat, who was plowing with twelve yokes in front of him, and he was with the twelfth. And Elijah crossed over to him and he threw his adaret to him. He [Elisha] left his oxen and he ran after Elijah … (1 Kings 19:19-20)

This is the source of the English idiom “passing on the mantle”. The word adaret is used only once in the Hebrew Bible for the garment of a king.9 Otherwise it appears as either a prophet’s outer garment or a metaphor. In this week’s haftarah Elijah’s mantle is his protection as  prophet; he uses it to hide his face when God is too close even for him.

Elijah’s improvised substitute for anointment proves to be only the beginning of the transfer of his prophetic authority. Elisha becomes Elijah’s attendant or acolyte for several years, perhaps replacing the servant whom Elijah left in Beir-sheva.

After this week’s haftarah God orders Elijah to deliver two more prophesies. He obeys, adding his own elaborations as usual. First he predicts doom (involving blood-licking dogs) for Ahab and his Phoenician wife because Jezebel arranged the murder of Nabot, who refused to sell his vineyard to the king.10

Then, three years later, Elijah tells King Achazyah, Ahab’s son and heir, that he will die of his wounds from a fall out the window.11 In this story, Elijah is described as a very hairy man with a leather belt around his waist; no adaret is evident.

The adaret reappears in the second book of Kings on the day when God is finally ready to take Elijah’s life. Elijah rolls it up and uses it to slap the Jordan River, and the waters part so he and Elisha can cross on dry land. Then the adaret falls to the ground when Elijah ascends to heaven in a whirlwind, and Elisha picks it up—this time for good.12


When is it time to pass on the mantle of authority?

When you are fed up with one of your roles in life, it is fine to keep an eye out for your successor. But you may have to humble yourself and continue serving until you can step down without doing harm. Perhaps, like Elijah, you must serve as a model for your future replacement for a while. Or perhaps, like a parent with a difficult child, you must accept your responsibility graciously until you are no longer needed.

The prophet business is not the only hard duty a person might face.

  1. 1 Kings 18:17-38
  2. 1 Kings 18:39-40.
  3. Numbers 11:11-15.
  4. Jonah 4:1-3.
  5. Moses in Exodus 4:1-16 when he keeps trying to talk God out of it, and Jonah in Jonah 1:1-3 when he gets on a ship to Tarshish.
  6. Commentators who proposed that Elijah went to Mount Horev in order to commune with God and elevate his soul include the Malbim (19th-century rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Wisser) and Leo L. Honor, Book of Kings 1, The Jewish Commentary for Bible Readers, New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1955, p. 271.
  7. When God comes down on top of Mount Sinai in Exodus 19:16-20, the effects include an earthquake, the blare of a horn, thunder and lightning, and fire and smoke.
  8. Exodus 33:20.
  9. The king of Nineveh takes off his adaret and puts on sackcloth in Jonah 3:6.
  10. 1 Kings 21:1-24.
  11. 2 Kings 1:2-8.
  12. 2 Kings 2:8-14.

Balak & Micah: Divine Favor

How does a community know that God is on their side?

In the Hebrew Bible, God rewards people with food, fertility, long life, and success in war. God determines the winner of a battle. If an enemy attacks a group of Israelites and wins, God is punishing the Israelites. If the Israelites attack and win, God is giving them the victory because they have found favor in God’s eyes.

Lion attacking, Persepolis, circa 5th c. BCE

Both this week’s Torah portion, Balak, and the accompanying haftarah reading, Micah 5:6-6:8, predict that when the Israelites please God, they will conquer other countries like a lion devouring its prey.

What can people do to get God on their side?

In Balak, the blessings that the prophet Bilam pronounces for the Israelites include two hints about why God is on their side. But in the haftarah, the prophet Micah directly states what God wants.

A sign of divine favor

The Israelites traveling from the Reed Sea to Mount Sinai defeat an attack of Amalekite nomads in the desert, with God’s help.1 Their next military engagement is on the southern border of Canaan, where the Israelites alienate God and are condemned to forty years in the wilderness. They march north anyway, even though Moses warns them that God is no longer on their side, and this time the Amalekites defeat them.2

After that the Israelites avoid combat until their forty-year sentence is almost completed. Then, instead of approaching Canaan from the south, they circle east and north around the kingdoms of Edom and Moab.

When they finally head toward the Jordan River and Canaan (in last week’s Torah portion, Chukat) they ask the Amorite king Sichon for permission to pass through his territory. He attacks them instead. The Israelites win and conquer all of his land, from Arnon River to the Yabok River.3

… he was Sichon, king of the Amorites, and he had made war against the first king of Moab and taken all his land from his hand, as far as the Arnon. (Numbers/Bemidbar 21:26)

The next Torah portion, Balak, opens with the current king of Moab’s fear of the hordes of Israelite invaders camping across the Arnon in what used to be Moabite land. King Balak hires a Mesopotamian prophet to come and curse the Israelites, so he can defeat them. But each time the prophet Bilam prepares to do so, God makes him speak a blessing instead.4

Two of Bilam’s blessings compare the Israelites to lions. The lion was the top predator among non-human animals in the Ancient Near East, an apt metaphor for a human nation that is the top predator among the nations in the region—the nation that wins wars and cannot be conquered.

In the first of his two blessings mentioning lions, Bilam says:

Hey, a people like a lioness rises,

           And like the lion it rears up.

It does not lie down until it devours prey

            And drinks the blood of the slain. (Numbers 23:24)

Later in the portion Balak some Midianites living in Sichon’s former territory seduce many of the Israelite men into disobeying God and worshiping Baal Pe-or.5 After the apostasy has been squelched, God orders the Israelites to attack the Midianites.6 Like ravenous lions, the Israelite men kill every Midianite male and burn down all their villages.7

by Rembrandt van Rijn, 17th c.

Bilam refers to lions in another blessing when he says of the Israelite people:

It kneels, lies down like a lion

            And like a lioness, who [dares to] impose on it? (Numbers 24:9)

When the Israelites cross the Jordan River they have a reputation for conquering two Amorite kingdoms, both Sichon’s kingdom of Cheshbon and the Og’s kingdom of Bashan. In the book of Joshua, they conquer large parts of Canaan. Bilam’s blessing indicates that in the future (perhaps in the time of King Solomon) their new nation “relies on its reputation and does not fear attack even when lying down.”8

Micah makes a similar prediction in this week’s haftarah. The book of Micah begins with a denunciation of the northern Israelite kingdom, Samaria, which the Assyrian Empire had recently conquered. Micah’s prophecies for the southern kingdom of Judah alternate between catastrophe if the Judahites offend God and good fortune if they retain God’s favor. In the haftarah for Balak, Micah prophecies:

And the remainder of Jacob9 will be among the nations,

            In the midst of many peoples,

Like a lion among beasts of the forest,

            Like a young lion among flocks of sheep

That passes through and tramples

            And tears apart, and there is none to rescue them.

Your hand will be high over your adversary

            And all your enemies will be cut down. (Micah 5:7-8)        

How to earn divine favor

Bilam passes on God’s blessings for the people who already have favor in God’s eyes. In his very first blessing, he says:

Who has counted the dust of Jacob,

           Or numbered [even] a fourth of Israel?

May my soul die the death of the upright,

           And may my end be like theirs! (Numbers 23:10)

Here dust is a metaphor for fertility, as in Genesis when God promises to make Abraham’s descendants “like the dust of the earth, so that if a man is able to count the dust of the earth, he can also count your descendants”10.

This verse in Balak implies that the Israelites have been rewarded with fertility (another sign of divine favor) because they are upright. But we do not learn God thinks of them that way.

In his third blessing, Bilam says:

Mah tovu your tents, Jacob,

            And your dwellings, Israel! (Numbers 24:5)

mah tovu (נַה־טֺּווּ) = How good they are. (Mah = what, how + tovu = they are good, from the same root as tov, טוֹב = good: desirable, useful, beautiful, kind, or virtuous.)

Parshas Balak, The Jewish Voice

How are they good? All shelters are desirable and useful. Are the tents or future dwellings of the Israelites beautiful?  Probably not; the rest of the Torah waxes lyrical about nature and about the sanctuaries the Israelites build for God, but not about their personal habitations. So does Bilam mean that Israelite houses, i.e. families, are good in the ethical sense?

According to the Talmud, Bilam sees that the entrances of the tents are not aligned so that they face each other, thereby giving each family more privacy—and this makes them worthy of God’s presence.11 Subsequent commentators, including Rashi, interpreted this privacy as a form of sexual morality.

But the haftarah goes much farther than the Talmudic speculation that Bilam was referring to a narrow area of morality.

Micah, after comparing the Israelites to a lion, delivers a different prophecy in which God will destroy Judah, presumably through a foreign army, as a punishment for worshiping idols.

Then he quotes God as bringing as case against the Israelites for turning toward idols despite all the help God gave them in the past: bringing them up from Egypt; giving them Moses, Aaron, and Miriam as leaders; and making Bilam answer Balak with blessings.12

Next Micah imagines the Israelites asking what they can give God to get back into favor—thousands  of rams as burnt offerings? Streams of oil? Their own firstborn sons?13 He replies:

It was told to you, human, mah tov

            And what God is demanding from you:

Only to do justice

           And to love kindness

            And to live carefully, walking with your God. (Micah 6:8)

mah tov (מַה־טּוֹב) = what is good.

Here tov clearly means “good” in the ethical sense, and it is not limited to sexual morality. God wants us to treat other human beings with both justice and kindness. God also wants religious observance that is not ostentatious or immoral, like the sacrifices the Israelites suggest, but part of a careful, mindful life.


Even when we are not looking for divine favor to vanquish our enemies or give us happy lives, Micah’s statement of what God wants is a valuable guide to being morally upright. May we all learn to pay attention to where we walk, and correct our course as needed so that we treat our fellow humans with both justice and kindness.

  1. Exodus 17:8-13.
  2. Numbers 14:39-45.
  3. Numbers 21:21-25.
  4. Numbers 23:11-12, 23:25-26, 24:1, 24:10. In the Hebrew Bible a prophecy is usually a conditional prediction; it forecasts what will happen if a person or nation makes a certain choice. A blessing, such as Isaac’s blessings of his sons in Genesis 27, is an unconditional prediction.
  5. Numbers 25:1-9. See my post Balak: Being Open.
  6. Numbers 25:16-18, 31:2.
  7. Numbers 31:3-18.
  8. 18th-century Moroccan rabbi Chayim ben Mosheh ibn Attar, Or HaChayim, translated in sefaria.com.
  9. The “remainder of Jacob” probably refers to the kingdom of Judah, since the Assyrians had deported thousands of Israelites from the other Israelite kingdom, Samaria.
  10. Genesis 13:16.
  11. Talmud Bavli, Bava Batra.
  12. Micah 5:9-6:5.
  13. Micah 6:6-7.

Korach: Quelling Rebellion, Part 2

The essay below continues my examination of rebellions in last week’s portion, Korach. If you would like to read about one of the rebellions this week’s Torah portion, Chukat, you might enjoy my 2017 post: Chukat: The Price of Silence.


Painting by Jean Fouquet, 15th c. (Leaders swallowed below, Levites burned above)

Miraculous mass killings fail to stamp out the first two rebellions in the portion Korach (one by the Reubenites Datan and Aviram, and one led by the Levite Korach). The three ringleaders and their families die when God splits the earth and the ground swallows them. The 250 Levites who supported Korach’s demand for equal privileges with the priests die when God sends forth a fire that incinerates them. (See my post Korach: Quelling Rebellion, Part 1.)

Moses expects these divine demonstrations will prove to all the surviving Israelites that he and his brother Aaron did not seize power, but were only appointed by God. Yet the Israelites do not learn the intended lesson. It does not occur to them that if they do not rebel against God and God’s appointees, they will not be swallowed by an earthquake.1 And they blame Moses and Aaron, not God, for the death of the 250 Levites who supported Korach’s cause.

Vayilonu on the following day, all the community of the Israelites, against Moses and against Aaron, saying: “You had the people of God put to death!” (Numbers 17:6)

vayilonu (וַיִּלֺּנוּ) = and they muttered, and they grumbled. (A form of the verb lon, לוֹן = mutter, grumble, complain.)

Halting a plague

So the God-character reacts with a third deadly miracle, and starts a plague to wipe out everyone except Moses and Aaron.

I can hardly blame this anthropomorphic version of God for being fed up with the Israelites again. I get fed up myself when I try to work with people who refuse to accept reality, and  persist in doing things that only make the situation worse. Sometimes I throw up my hands and abandon the whole enterprise. In other words, I get these people out of my life by walking away from them.

But Moses and Aaron do not give up, walk away, and let God wipe out the Israelites.

And God spoke to Moses, saying: “Get up away from the midst of this community, and I will devour them in an instant !” But they [Moses and Aaron] fell on their faces. Then Moses said to Aaron: “Take the fire-pan and put fire from the altar on the incense, and go quickly into the community and make atonement over them! Because the rage has gone forth from God; the plague has begun!” (Numbers/Bemidbar 17:9-10)

Aaron Staying the Plague, by Isaac Taylor, Boydell’s Illustrations of Holy Writ, 1820

This is not an action that God authorized. But it is enough to make the God-character stop short.

He [Aaron] stood between the dead and the living, and the plague was brought to a standstill. (Numbers 17:13)

Perhaps when the Israelites who are sick, but not yet dead, see Aaron standing between the dead and the living with a pan of smoking incense, they realize that Moses and Aaron want them to live, and they drop their notion that these two leaders are the problem rather than the solution. Once they have this change of heart, God stops the plague, and the people stop their plague of false accusations.


As soon as Aaron returns to Moses at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, a calmer God-character tells Moses to take a staff from the chieftain of each tribe.

… twelve staffs. You will write each man’s name on his staff. And the name of Aaron you will write on the staff of Levi, because [there will be] one staff for the head of each of their ancestral houses. Then leave them in the Tent of Meeting, in front of the Reminder [the ark] where I meet with you. And it will happen: the man whom I choose, his staff will sprout. And [thus] I will damp down from opposing me the telunot of the Israelites who are malinim against you.” (Numbers 17:17-20)

telunot (תְּלֻנּוֹת) = complaining, grumblings. (Also from the root lon.)

malinim (מַלִּנִם) = muttering, grumbling. (Another form of the verb lon.)

The Blossoming of Aaron’s Rod, by Augustin Hirschvogel, ca. 1553

The next day, Moses brings all the staffs out of the sanctuary tent. Aaron’s staff has sprouted, flowered, and borne ripe almonds.

Nobody is killed or punished in this divine demonstration. But everyone sees that God has chosen the Levites to handle holy matters, and has chosen Aaron as the head of the Levites.

Then God said to Moses: “Put Aaron’s staff back in front of the Reminder, to be preserved as a sign for the obstinate, and it will end their telunot from opposing me, and they will not die.” (Numbers 17:25)

Does this benign approach to ending rebellion work?

Response to Despair

Then the Israelites spoke to Moses, saying: “Hey! We perish! We are lost, all of us are lost. Anyone who comes close to God’s sanctuary will die. Will we ever be done with perishing?” (17:27-28)

Perishing: The Plague of Florence in 1348 (detail), by Luigi Sabatelli, 19th c.

This time the Israelites begin with an statement of despair. This might be another complaint, or it might be merely an expression of their anxiety. Then they ask Moses a question. They are no longer rebelling against his leadership, but asking him, as their leader, for information.

If only the Torah had recorded Moses’s response! I can imagine him either reassuring his people or telling them what hard truths they must face—and perhaps even adding how he, Aaron, and/or God will help them. But instead, the Torah records what God says.

Then God said to Aaron: “You and your sons and your ancestral house along with you, you [all] shall bear [any] punishment for wrongdoing [regarding] the holy place, and you and your sons along with you shall bear [any] punishment for wrongdoing [regarding] your priesthood.” (Numbers 18:1)

Next God reaffirms the role of the rest of the tribe of Levi: they must assist the priests and do their duties regarding the Tent of Meeting, but they may not touch the altar or any of the holy items inside the sanctuary-tent.3

And an unauthorized person must not come near you as you observe your custody of the holy place and custody of the altar; then there will not be rage again against the Israelites. (18:5)

The information God gives to Aaron answers the Israelites’ question. The Levites are “done with perishing” as long as they do not dispute God’s appointment of Aaron and his descendants as priests, and the Levites as the priests’ assistants. The rest of the Israelites are “done with perishing” as long as they let God’s appointees do their jobs, and do not try to touch the altar or the tent-sanctuary.


The Levites do not rebel again. The rest of the Israelites respect God, Moses, Aaron, and the holy sanctuary for a while.

But after Miriam dies and they run out of water in this week’s portion, Chukat, they assemble against Moses and Aaron, and Moses loses his temper.4 Later in Chukat they speak against God and Moses because they are tired of eating manna, and the God-character starts killing people.5

It is human nature to resent and blame whoever is in charge—even when the leaders (or administrators or parents or heads of state) are reasonable, and even when the rules are benign and easy to follow, and even when the current misfortune is the fault of a previous administration.

May we be blessed with reasonable leaders. But may we also learn how to become reasonable followers.


My thanks to Lawrence Feinberg, who found many of the illustrations for these two posts on Korach.

  1. Numbers 16:34. See my post Korach: Quelling Rebellion, Part 1.
  2. Numbers 17:6. Also see my post Korach: Quelling Rebellion, Part 1.
  3. See my post Bemidbar & Naso: Dangerous Duty.
  4. Numbers 20:2-5.
  5. Numbers 21:4-6.

Korach: Quelling Rebellion, Part 1

And They Are Fierce, by Francisco de Goya, 1814 (women attacking soldiers in the 1808 Dos de Mayo uprising)

For thousands of years people have rebelled against their rulers and leaders. Some uprisings are justified, some are not.

For thousands of years rulers have used various strategies to suppress revolts. Several different strategies appear in this week’s portion, Korach.

In this post we will consider two heavy-handed responses to revolt. In Part 2 next week we will look at two benign responses by the “rulers” in Korach (Moses, Aaron, and God). Which strategies are the most effective at snuffing out rebellions?

Two rebellions

The first half of the portion Korach conflates the stories of two uprisings, one against Moses and one against Aaron.1 Both men are divinely appointed; in the book of Exodus, God recruits Moses to serve as the prophet and leader of the Israelites, and his brother Aaron to serve as the high priest of the new religion. In Korach, some of the Israelites object to the privileged status of the two brothers.

Datan and Aviram, chieftains in the tribe of Reuben, dispute Moses’ right to lead the Israelites through the wilderness.2 In the book of Genesis, Reuben was the firstborn son of Jacob, a.k.a. Israel. These Reubenites may think that since a firstborn son traditionally rules his clan, the tribe of Reuben should rule all the  Israelites.

Moses and Korah, 1466 manuscript, National Library of Poland

Korach, a leader in the tribe of Levi, disputes the right of his cousin3 Aaron and Aaron’s sons to serve as the people’s only priests. He thinks that the Levites should have equal status with Aaron and perform the same holy tasks.

All the Levites are ordained in the portion Naso to assist the priests and guard the sanctuary. The Levite clan of Kehat, to which Korach belongs, is also responsible for carrying the most holy items from the tent-sanctuary when the Israelites travel.4 But this is not enough for Korach. He probably wants to officiate at sacrifices, be allowed to enter the tent-sanctuary, and, perhaps, wear the same gorgeous vestments as the priests. (He is probably less interested in the priestly duty of diagnosing skin disease.)

The rebel leaders are backed by 250 men. Since this week’s Torah portion conflates two stories, the 250 men are tribal chieftains in the section about Datan and Aviram’s rebellion, but Levites in the sections about Korach’s rebellion.5

We do not know which rebels deliver the opening salvo, which accuses Moses and Aaron of seizing power and claims that all the Israelites are equally close to God.

And they assembled against Moses and against Aaron, and they said: “You have too much! For all the congregation, all of them, are holy, and God is in their midst. So then why do you raise yourselves up over the assembly of God?” (Numbers/Bemidbar 16:3)

Moses addresses Korach and the rebel Levites first, saying:

“In the morning God will make known who belongs to him and who is holy and who may approach him … Is it too little for you that the God of Israel has separated you from the congregation of Israel to bring you close to him? … you and all your congregation are [actually] congregated against God! Because what is Aaron, that talinu against him?” (Numbers 16:5, 16:9, 16:10-11)

talinu (תַלִּינוּ) = you mutter, you grumble. (In some manuscripts, talonu, תָּלּוֹנוּ. Both variants are second person plural forms of the verb lon, לון.)

Moses is reminding the Levites that God, not Aaron, is responsible for the organization chart. God appointed Aaron and his sons as the priests, and assigned the subsidiary jobs to the Levites. But this reminder leaves the rebel Levites unmoved.

Then Moses sent and summoned Datan and Aviram, sons of Elyav. But they said: “We will not come up! Is it too little that you brought us up from Egypt, [a land] flowing with milk and honey, to have us die in the wilderness? Because you [also] definitely lord it over us!” (Numbers 16:13)

Moses responds by asking God to ignore the grain-offering of the Reubenites, and adds indignantly that he never oppresses anyone:

“Not one donkey of theirs have I carried off, nor have I wronged [even] one of them!” (Numbers 16:15)

Moses is protesting that Datan and Aviram have no legitimate complaints against him. The Reubenites are really rebelling against God, who appointed Moses.

Then Moses refers both rebellions to God for judgment. First he tells Aaron, Korach, and the 250 Levites to bring fire pans with incense to the entrance of God’s Tent of Meeting, where they will learn who God chooses: Aaron, or the Levites. Next comes a short passage in which the two rebellion stories are patched together without distinguishing between the congregation of Levites and the congregation of Israelites.6 After that Moses tells the Israelites to stand back from the tents of Korach, Datan, and Aviram.

The first deadly miracle

Moses still believes that the rebellions will dissolve if everyone realizes that the real ruler is God, and he and Aaron are merely God’s delegates. He tells the Israelites:

from Bible de Saint Jean d’Acre, 13th cent.

“If these die like all humans die, and the destiny of all humans is destined for them, God did not send me.  But if God creates a [new] creation and opens up a mouth in the ground, and it swallows them and everything that belongs to them, and they go down alive into Sheol, then you will know that these men scorned God.” (Numbers 16:29-30)

And it happened as he finished all these words: the ground that was under them split, and the earth opened its mouth, and it swallowed them and their households, and all the humans who belonged to Korach, and all the property. (Numbers 16:31-32)

Even the innocent children in the three ringleaders’ families are swallowed alive.7 The Torah does not address this moral issue. Instead, the point of the story is that Korach, Datan, Aviram, and all their possessions (human or not) are killed through obvious divine intervention.

But the miracle does not have the desired effect. The people watching it are too terrified to understand what happened.

Then all the Israelites that were around them raised their voices [in panic], for they said: “What if [the ground] swallows us!” (Numbers 16:34)

After witnessing that horror, the Israelites are incapable of figuring out that as long as they do not rebel against God and God’s appointed representatives, they will not be swallowed.

The second deadly miracle

God burns the Levites, detail from painting by Jean Fouquet, 16th cent.

Next the Torah jumps back to the story about the Levite rebellion.

And a fire went forth from God and devoured the 250 men who were offering the incense. (Numbers 16:35)

The remaining Levites might learn from this that if you revolt against one of God’s appointees, the heavy hand of God will fall on you. So might the Israelites in other tribes. But they do not.

Vayilonu on the following day, all the congregation of the Israelites, against Moses and against Aaron, saying: “You had the people of God put to death!” (Numbers 17:6)

vayilonu (וַיִּלֺּנוּ) = and they muttered, and they grumbled. (Another form of the verb lon.)

All the Israelites blame Moses and Aaron for the death of the 250 Levites. They see the two brothers as their rulers, and believe that God does whatever Moses says. Thus neither of God’s dramatic killings quashes the spirit of rebellion in the portion Korach.

Nevertheless, the people’s resentment fades for a while instead of flaring into a full-fledged revolt, thanks to a more generous approach on the part of all three rulers—Moses, Aaron, and God. I will discuss this approach next week in my post Korach: Quelling Rebellion, Part 2.

When does a rebellion succeed? When is it justified?

When God is on the side of the human rulers, a rebellion will not succeed. Datan, Aviram, Korach, and the 250 Levites are easily killed by God’s heavy hand.

The Third of May, by Francisco de Goya, 1814 (on the 1808 Dos de Mayo uprising)

The same truth applies when people rebel against a human tyrant who controls an effective military force, and is not subject to interference from other nations. The best that rebels can hope for in this case is to shift public opinion so that someday, when the despot loses his grip or the military wavers, the masses can rise up together and change the government.

The anthropomorphic God-character depicted in the Torah occasionally seems like a human tyrant. But today we assume that God is neither despotic nor a supporter of despots.

The portion Korach, while depicting a heavy-handed God, supports the assumption that God is not on the side of tyrants. After all, God appointed Moses and Aaron. Far from being tyrants, these two leaders do not even lord it over anyone. They honestly do their best for the people, and even plead with God in order to prevent more deaths.8

Despite the egalitarian language of the rebels’ opening statement, the first two rebellions in Korach are not justified. Datan and Aviram want to take over as the leaders of the Israelites, but they have no particular agenda; they just want more status. Korach and his Levite supporters want to be priests, but only because of envy.

I pray for all tyrants to fall. But I also pray for all people to gain insight about what is worth fighting for, and who is the real enemy.

  1. According to the Documentary Hypothesis (that the text of the Torah was assembled from multiple sources), this inconsistency is due to bad editing.
  2. The portion Korach begins with a third rebel leader from the tribe of Reuben, On son of Pelet, but he never appears again in the story. (Numbers 16:1)
  3. Korach is introduced as “son of Yitzhar son of Kehat son of Levi” in Numbers 16:1. Moses and Aaron are sons of Amram son of Kehat son of Levi in Exodus 6:18-20. Korach is therefore closely related to them. He may or may not be their first cousin; the Hebrew word “son of” (ben, בֶּן) sometimes means a grandson or descendant—as in Numbers 16:1, when Datan, Aviram, and On are all called “sons of Reuben”.
  4. See my post Bemidbar & Naso: Dangerous Duty.
  5. The 250 men are chieftains supporting Datan and Aviram in Numbers 16:2-3. They are Levites supporting Korach in Numbers 16:6-11, 16:16-18, 16:35-17:5.
  6. Numbers 16:19-24.
  7. See Numbers 16:27.
  8. Numbers 16:20-26, 17:7-11, 21:7-9.


Shelach-Lekha: Deceptions and Sore Spots

How do you persuade someone to do what you want—even when you can’t make a reasonable case for it?

Two of the stories people tell in this week’s Torah portion, Shelach-Lekha, are implausible when you examine them. But nevertheless the speakers succeed in getting the reaction they desire.

1) Fabrication by the Ten Scouts

The Two Reports of the Spies, 1907 bible card by Providence Lithograph Co.

Moses sends twelve men north from the wilderness of Paran to scout out the land of Canaan—the land God has promised to give to the Israelites—and report back. He also tells them to bring back some fruit from the land. They return forty days later with pomegranates, figs, and a single cluster of grapes so heavy that two of them have to bear it on a carrying frame.

All twelve scouts agree that the land is fertile and good, and “flows with milk and honey”1. Ten of them, however, are alarmed by the “strong people” and “large fortified cities” they saw—phrases that make the assembled Israelites nervous.

Caleb, one of the other two scouts, urges:

“Let us definitely go up! And we will take possession of [the land], since yakhol nukhal it!” (Numbers 13:30)

yakhol (יָכוֹל) = being capable of, having power to. (Infinitive absolute form of yakhol, יָכֺל = was capable of, had power to; held onto, won.)

nukhal (נוּכַל) = we are capable of, we have the power to do. (Imperfect form of yakhol.)

yakhol nukhal (יָכוֹל נוּכַל) = Literally: being capable we are capable of. Idiomatically: we are certainly capable of. (In Biblical Hebrew, an infinitive absolute preceding another verb from the same root indicates emphasis, such as “certainly”, “definitely”, or in older English “surely”.)

The ten scouts who are afraid to march on Canaan do not want the Israelites to believe Caleb’s assurance. So they add some new details to their story.

But the men who had gone up with him said: “Lo nukhal to go up to the people, because they are stronger than we are!” And they put forth to the Israelites a slanderous report of the land that they had scouted, saying: “The land that we traversed to scout out is a land devouring its inhabitants! And all the people who we saw in it were people of [great] size. And there we saw the Nefilim2, Anakites from the Nefilim! And in our eyes we were like grasshoppers, and so we were in their eyes.”

Lo nukhal (לֺא נוּכַל) = we are not capable, we do not have the power. (Lo, לֺא ֹ= not.)

The ten scouts simply do not believe that their people could succeed in conquering the land, with or without God’s help. Since the presence of large fortified cities is not enough to persuade the Israelites to stay put in Paran, the ten scouts invent a “slanderous report” that is clearly false—if you examine it rationally.

How could a land that produces such abundant food be “devouring its inhabitants”? Could wild animals be killing off the people? No, the land is full of large cities, and these cities are still populated. We know this because in their first account, the scouts said that there were Anakites; Amalekites living in the Negev; Hittites, Jebusites, and Amorites living in the hill country; and Canaanites living along the seacoast to the west and the Jordan River to the east.3

Furthermore, in the first report Anakites were only one of the groups living in Canaan. In their new story, they ten scouts say that all the people are giants—giants so big that they felt like grasshoppers in comparison.

Despite the holes in their story, the ten scouts succeed in panicking the Israelites, who weep all night and tell each other: “Give us a leader and we will return to Egypt!” (Numbers 14:4)

In the morning the twelfth scout, Joshua, stands with Caleb and both men argue that the Israelites can conquer Canaan because God is with them. But their argument comes too late. The people have already been persuaded by the tale the other ten scouts fabricated.

The Israelites do not see through the deception because their habit, whenever they encounter a problem, is to doubt God and beg to go back to Egypt, where they were enslaved but (they now believe) safe.

In the book of Exodus the Israelite slaves believe Moses the first time he tells them that God will rescue them.4 Then Pharaoh doubles their labor, and when Moses tells them that God will not only free them, but also give them the land of Canaan, they do not listen.5 Five of the ten plagues affect the Israelites as much as the Egyptians, which is not a promising sign. After they march out of Egypt, Pharaoh pursues the Israelites with an army of charioteers, and they are so frightened they do not believe God will rescue them.6

Escape over the Red Sea, Golden Haggadah, c. 1320, Spain

Their faith in God returns after the Egyptian army drowns in the Reed Sea.7 But in the wilderness the Isaelites think they are going to die when they run out of food or water, and they long for Egypt instead of trusting God to provide for them.8

The majority of Israelites are easily deceived in this week’s Torah portion because the fabrication of the ten scouts triggers their ongoing anxiety about God.

2) Fabrication by Moses

In the morning the Israelites threaten to stone Caleb and Joshua for telling them what they do not want to hear. Then the glory of God (probably the divine cloud that has led them from Egypt to the southern edge of Canaan) appears on the Tent of Meeting.9 God threatens to disown the Israelites, kill them, and make a nation out of Moses instead.

Moses does not try to reason with God. Instead he reminds God that if God kills all the Israelites, the Egyptians will hear about it and spread the news. Since God chose the Israelites to rescue and accompany, Moses says,

“… then the nations that heard of your reputation would say: Except God was not yekholet to bring this people to the land that [God] promised them, so [God] slaughtered them in the wilderness!” (Numbers 14:15)

yekholet (יְכֺלֶת) = capable enough, powerful enough. (Also from the root verb yakhol.)

Moses then asks God to pardon the people instead. God grants a limited pardon, requiring the Israelites to stay in the wilderness for forty years before they get another chance to enter Canaan.

Would the natives of Egypt and other nations really conclude that God killed the Israelites because God was not powerful enough to give them the land?  In an actual war between the Israelites and the natives of Canaan, people might assume that the conqueror’s god was stronger. But would people think that the reason God killed the Israelites before they even entered Canaan would was because God was weak?

Throughout the Ancient Near East, gods were considered mercurial and easily angered. The gods in polytheistic religions quarreled with each other, with disastrous consequences to human beings. They also lashed out at humans if they felt they were insufficiently propitiated.

If news spread that the Israelites had all died at the border, the people of other nations probably would conclude that the God of Israel was responsible. But they would attribute God’s deed to annoyance, revenge, or a change of mind, not to a lack of power.

Apparently God does not think of this. After hearing Moses’ deceptive claim, God commutes the Israelites’ sentence. Why is the God-character in Shelach-Lekha so easily persuaded?

Israelites Leave Egypt, the Golden Haggadah

Four times in the book of Exodus God says that the purpose of creating ten plagues in a row (and hardening Pharaoh’s heart whenever it wavers) is so that all the Egyptians, as well as the Israelites, will realize how powerful God is.10 Finally God lets Pharaoh beg the Israelites to leave Egypt, and they march out into the wilderness. Then God tells Moses:

“And I will strengthen Pharaoh’s heart and he will chase after you. Then I will be honored through Pharaoh and through all his army, and Egypt will know that I am God.” (Exodus 14:4)

The honor11 that God has in mind is drowning the Egyptian army in the Reed Sea. For the God-character portrayed in Exodus and Numbers, it is not enough to be the most powerful god in the world.12 All human beings must know that the God of Israel is the most powerful god. The God-character in Exodus and Numbers frets over “his” reputation.

Moses is able to mislead this God-character because he knows what the deity is touchy about.


Few people today believe in an anthropomorphic God that is hypersensitive and does not see through human misdirection. But all of we humans can be tricked into knee-jerk reactions by those who know our weak spots.

In these times I am angry when immoral politicians use slogans that push people’s buttons and thereby get popular support for agendas that will result in the opposite of what their voter base really wants. I am also angry when activists whose agendas I favor unskillfully use slogans that set off negative knee-jerk reactions among people who would otherwise be able to listen to a reasonable argument.

Alas, the portion Sehlach-Lekha illustrates that when a speaker fabricates a story that triggers an ingrained fear or sore spot, the listeners are highly unlikely to stop and think.

May all human beings be blessed with longer fuses, and the strength to put our feelings on hold long enough to question what we read or hear.

  1. Numbers 13:27. See my post Ki Tavo: Milk and Honey.
  2. Nefilim (נְפִילִים) = a race of demi-gods and heroes before the Flood. (Genesis 6:4)
  3. Numbers 13:29.
  4. Exodus 4:30-31.
  5. Exodus 6:6-9.
  6. Exodus (Beshallach)14:10-12.
  7. Exodus (Beshallach) 14:31.
  8. Exodus (Beshallach) 16:2-3, 17:1-4.
  9. Numbers 14:10.
  10. Exodus 7:3-5, 9:15-16, 10:1-2, 11:9.
  11. Honor or importance. The Hebrew word in Exodus (Beshallach) 14:4 is ikavdah (אִכָּבְדָה) = I will be honored, I will show my glory, I will be respected, I will be recognized as important. God repeats this sentiment in Exodus 14:17 and 14:18.
  12. Monotheism appears in the Hebrew Bible only in the first chapter of Genesis and the books of Deuteronomy and Isaiah.


Beha-alotkha & Metzora: Fresh Start

A new station in life calls for a ceremony—a wedding, a commencement, an inauguration, an ordination. At Mount Sinai the Israelites receive a new formal religion, and consecrate two groups of men to administer it: priests (kohanim) and Levites (levi-im).

Altar and priest, Treasures of the Bible, Northrop, 1894

The first priests to serve at the new tent-sanctuary for God undergo an eight-day ordination in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra. Before then, any head of a household could build a stone altar and burn an animal offering for God. Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses all did it. But after Moses has ordained Aaron and his sons, only they can make the daily offerings at the altar, light the menorah, place bread and frankincense on the table, and burn incense on the incense altar.1

Aaron’s two older sons bring unauthorized incense into an unauthorized place on their first day of service, and God kills them.2 In the new religion, priesthood is a dangerous vocation. Aaron and his two younger sons are meticulous about following God’s rules.

The Levites replace the firstborn sons as acolytes when God reorganizes the religion at Mount Sinai. In this week’s Torah portion, Beha-alotkha, God reminds Moses:

“For every firstborn from the Israelites is mine, from human and from beast; on the day I struck down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, I consecrated them as mine. Now I take the Levites instead all the firstborn of the Israelites.” (Numbers 8:17-18)

Serving as a Levite could also be a hazardous job, as I wrote in last week’s post: Bemidbar & Naso: Dangerous Duty. Any close contact with the God of Israel carries grave risks.

The ordination of the Levites includes animal offerings similar to those in the ordination of the priests, but other elements of the ritual are dissimilar. One difference is that while priests are forbidden to shave any part of their bodies, the Levites must shave their entire bodies for their ordination.

“Take the Levites from among the Israelites and ritually purify them. And thus you shall do to them to make them ritually pure: sprinkle over them water of expiation3 and make a razor pass over all their flesh. And they shall clean their clothes, and they shall ritually purify themselves.”  (Numbers 8:6-7)

Shaving as disfigurement

Shaving is not an everyday activity in the Hebrew Bible. Shaving the scalp or beard is considered disfiguring, like gashing the skin; both are mourning practices indicating one’s abandonment to grief, along with tearing good clothing, wearing sackcloth, and throwing dust or ashes on one’s head.4

Priests and nazarites are expected to put their dedication to God first, so they are forbidden to engage in shaving or gashing when someone close to them dies.5 Male and female nazarites must not cut their hair at all during the term of their vow, but on the day their term ends, they shave their heads and burn their hair as an offering to God.6

Furthermore, the Torah forbids all Israelites to shave specific spots on their heads (possibly places that worshipers of other gods shaved).7

However, two groups of people must shave not just the whole head, but the whole body: those who have recovered from the skin disease tzara-at, and the Levites being ordained in this week’s Torah portion.

Shaving the metzora

A person who has tzara-at must live outside the camp, excluded from the community’s social and religious life. If the skin returns to normal, the person must undergo an elaborate ritual purification in order to return to society. The Torah portion Metzora in the book of Leviticus opens:

And God spoke to Moses, saying: “This will be the instruction for the metzora at the time of his ritual purification, when [the news] is brought to the priest.”

metzora (מְצֺרָה) = one afflicted with the skin disease tzara-at (צָרַעַת), characterized by one or more patches of scaly white skin that is depressed (tzirah, צִרְעָה) compared to the surrounding skin.

Metzora ritual, detail, by Simon Fokke, 18th cent.

If the priest pronounces the metzora healed from the disease, the ensuing ritual includes cleaning their clothes and shaving—elements that are also included in the consecration of the Levites.8

And it will be on the seventh day he shall shave all of his hair and his beard and his eyebrows; all his [body] hair he will shave. And he shall clean his clothes and wash his flesh in water, and he will be ritually pure. (Leviticus 14:9)

Only a healed metzora and the Levites inducted into sanctuary service are commanded to do full-body shaving.9 Does this imply a deeper similarity between them?

Shaving for separation

In the 20th century, Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut suggested that both kinds of people are separated from the rest of the community; the metzora is separated physically until the skin condition disappears, while the Levite is separated spiritually after consecration.10 After ordering the ordination ritual for the Levites, God adds:

“And you shall separate the Levites from among the Israelites, and the Levites will be mine.” (Numbers 8:14)

Shaving for abnegation

According to the Talmud, God afflicts individuals with tzara-at to punish malicious speech and arrogance.11 One example appears in the portion Beha-alotkha after Miriam criticizes her younger brother Moses’ marriage, and adds that God speaks not only through Moses, but through her and her older brother Aaron as well.

And God’s nose burned against them, and [God] left. And the [divine] cloud withdrew from over the Tent, and hey! Miriam was a metzora [with scales] like the snow!” (Numbers 12:9-10)

In the 19th century, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote that both the metzora and the Levites must renounce their selfish concerns: “This is true of the Levi’im: Until now, they led merely private lives, as was their right; but from now onward they must assume the service the community… And this is also true here of the metzora: Until now, he lived only for himself—selfishly and antagonistic toward society; and this was his main sin. From now onward he must undertake the self-sacrifice of his duties toward the community. In both cases … man must cease living only for himself. Hair is intended to protect the body … Stripping a body of all hair exposes it to the effects of the outside world.”12

Shaving for transition

In the 11th-century, Rashi summarized this argument by another French rabbi, Moshe ha-Darshan: The Levites were substitutes for the firstborn, the firstborn had worshiped the golden calf, and Psalm 106:28 calls idol-worship “offerings to the dead”. Therefore the Levites had to shave their bodies like a metzora, who is also called dead—when God afflicts Miriam with tzara-at in this week’s Torah portion.

And Aaron said to Moses: “Oh, my lord, please don’t put guilt on us for our foolishness that we were guilty of! Please don’t let her be like a corpse that emerges from the womb of its mother and half its flesh [looks] eaten away!” (Numbers 12:11-12)

It does not make sense to equate the appearance of Miriam’s skin disease with the offerings of the people the Levites are replacing. Yet death and rebirth are implicit in both ceremonial shavings.

If shaving one’s head is a mourning practice, then shaving one’s whole body might be a reminder of the death of one’s old identity.

I agree with Hirsch that both the Levites and a metzora are purified and sanctified in order to rise above their self-centered concerns and step into a new role in the community. The Levite must become a servant of God, the priests, and the new religion; the ex-metzora must become an ethical and thoughtful member of society.

Shaving the entire body makes someone even more hairless than a newborn infant. The Levite and the ex-metzora must abandon their previous adult identities along with their hair, and be born into their new lives.

  1. Leviticus 8:1-9:24.
  2. See my post Shemini: Fire Meets Fire.
  3. chata-at (חַטָּאת) = guilt, wrongdoing, ritual error; expiation of wrongdoing, ritual error, or ritual impurity. Anyone who has been in contact with a human corpse is impure until sprinkled with water of chata-at (Numbers 19:1-22).
  4. Jeremiah 41:5, Micah 1:16. These mourning practices were widespread in the Ancient Near East; cf. Deuteronomy 21:12, Isaiah 15:2, Jeremiah 48:37, Ezekiel 27:31.
  5. Leviticus 21:1-6, Ezekiel 44:20, Numbers 6:5.
  6. Numbers 6:5, 6:13-18. See my post Naso: Distanced by Hair.
  7. Leviticus 19:27 bans rounding off the hair at the temples, the sideburns, or the edges of the beard. Deuteronomy 14:1 bans shaving “between the eyes”. (See my post Re-eih: Eyebrows for the Dead.)
  8. See my post Metzora: Time to Learn, Part 2.
  9. The only other reference to full-body shaving in the Hebrew Bible is in Isaiah 7:20, part of a prophecy about a sign from God rather than a command for people to obey.
  10. Gunther Plaut suggests this answer in his commentary on Numbers 8:7 in The Torah: A Modern Commentary, ed. by Plaut, Union of American Hebrew Congregations, New York, 1981, p. 1075.
  11. Talmud Bavli, Arakhin 15b-16a. Several of the Talmudic rabbis cite Psalm 101:5 as their proof text.
  12. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Vayikra, Part 1, trans. by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Pub., Jerusalem, 2002, pp. 438-439.

Bemidbar & Naso: Dangerous Duty

Two dangers face the Israelites as they leave Mount Sinai in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar: the risk of attack by an enemy in the wilderness, and the risk of annihilation by God.

They have already experienced both dangers. On their way from Egypt to Sinai the Amalekites attacked them, and the Israelites beat them off with the help of God.1 When they stood at the foot of Mount Sinai to hear God speak, the earth quaked—and so did the Israelites.

Mount Vesuvius in Eruption, by Jacob More, 18th cent., detail

And all the people were seeing the thunder and the flashes and the sound of the ram’s horn, and the mountain was smoking; and the people saw and they quaked and drew back and stood at a distance. And they said to Moses: “You speak to us and we will listen; but don’t let God speak to us, or else we will die!” (Exodus 20:15-16)

The Jewish day of Shavuot commemorates the revelation at Sinai, when the Israelites were terrified and God uttered the “ten commandments”. This holiday always falls the same week as the Torah reading Bemidbar, the first portion in the book of Bemidbar.

This Torah portion begins with God telling Moses to take a census of the men in all the tribes except Levi.2 The purpose of this census is to learn how many troops can be mustered in the event of a battle after the Israelites leave Mount Sinai and resume their journey to Canaan.

Israelite service

Numbering of the Israelites, by Henri F.E. Philippoteaux, 19th cent.

And all the [male] Israelites were mustered from the houses of their forefathers, from the age of twenty years and up, all who were going out in the tzava in Israel. (Numbers 1:45)

tzava (צָבָא) = army, unit of warriors, army service.

The qualifying phrase “all who were going out in the tzava” implies that the census counted only men aged 20 and over who were able to march and wield weapons.

Then God spoke to Moses saying: “However, the tribe of Levi you shall not muster, and you must not make a head count of them among the Israelites.” (Numbers 1:48-49)

In the second Torah portion of Numbers, Naso, there is a census of the three Levite clans.

And Moses and Aaron and the chieftains of the community enrolled the sons of the Kehatites by their families and by the house of their father, from the age of thirty years and over, up to the age of fifty years, all who were entering the tzava for the service of the Tent of Meeting. (Numbers 4:34-35)

The censuses of the Geirshonite and Merarite clans also count men aged 30 to 50, and also add “all who were entering the tzava for the service of the Tent of Meeting”.3

Why does the Torah call the Levites an army?

Levite service

Before telling Moses to take a separate census for the tribe of Levi, God says:

“Assign the Levites over the Sanctuary of the Testimony and over all its equipment and over everything that belongs to it. They themselves shall carry the sanctuary and all its equipment, and they shall attend it, and they shall camp around the sanctuary. And when [it is time for] the sanctuary to pull out, the Levites shall take it down; and when [it is time for] the sanctuary to be pitched, the Levites shall erect it. And any unauthorized person who comes close must be put to death.” (Numbers 1:50-51)

Thus one of the duties of the Levites is to guard the tent-sanctuary and kill any unauthorized person who persists in coming too close to the tent, or even entering it.4 That is the military aspect of their service, but it is not the most dangerous.

“And the Israelites shall encamp, each man in his camp and each man at the banner for his troop. But the Levites shall encamp around the Sanctuary of the Testimony, and then there will be no fury against the community of Israelites; and the Levites shall guard the guardianship of the Sanctuary of the Testimony.” (Numbers 1:52-53)

Whose fury? When the Torah portions Bemidbar and Naso describe the duties of the Levites whenever the people break camp, it becomes clear that the fury would come from God.

First the priests (Aaron and his two surviving sons) must go inside the tent and wrap up the most holy items before anyone else can see them, and place them on carrying frames with poles. The holiest items are the ark, lampstand (menorah), the bread table, and the gold incense altar. The priests also wrap up the gold tools used for the rituals inside the tent.5

And Aaron and his sons shall finish covering the holy items and all the holy equipment when breaking camp, and after that the Kehatites shall come in to pick them up, so they do not touch the holy objects and die. These things in the Tent of Meeting are the burdens the Kehatites. (Numbers 4:15)

Each of the three clans in the tribe of Levi is responsible for carrying some part of the tent-sanctuary. The Kehatites must carry the most holy items, while the Geirshonites and Merarites carry the outside altar and the disassembled parts of the tent and the wall around it—cloth hangings, posts, planks, bars, pegs, sockets, and cords.

No touching

Certainly Betzaleil touched the holiest items when he hammered them out of gold in the book of Exodus.6 But later in the book of Numbers, God tells Aaron that the priests must not touch them, or they will be killed.7 Somehow the priests must light the menorah, lay bread on the table, and place coals and incense into the incense altar without touching their gold surfaces. And they must wrap these items in cloths without directly touching them.

Model of ark, Jerusalem

In the first book of Samuel the ark sits for twenty years in the house of Avinadav at Kiryat Ye-arim. His son Elazar is consecrated as an ad-hoc priest to look after it.8 Then King David decides to move it to his new capital in Jerusalem. The ark is lifted up onto a new cart, and two other sons of Avinadav, Uzah and Achyo (presumably younger replacements for Elazar) walk beside it. Partway to Jerusalem,  the oxen pulling cart stumble, and Uzah puts his hand on the ark to steady it.

And God’s anger flared up against Uzah, and God struck him down there … and he died there beside the ark of God. (2 Samuel 6:7)

Uzah’s impulse is good, but nevertheless a divine power zaps him the instant he touches the ark.

No looking

No one in the bible is harmed from carrying the ark by its two poles, but touching the ark itself is deadly. The ark takes a circuitous route to Kiryat Ye-arim in the first book of Samuel. After the Philistines capture the ark in battle they bring it to their town of Ashdod, but everyone there is stricken with a plague. They send it on to Gath, then to Ekron, each time with the same result. So they load the ark onto a cart pulled by two cows and send it back into Israelite territory. The cows stop in a field near the town of Beit Shemesh, where seventy curious Israelites look inside. God strikes down every one of them.9

Kehataties carrying ark on a bible card by Providence Lithograph Co., 1907

In the portion Bemidbar, the priests cover all the holiest items not only to prevent the Kehatites from touching them, but also to prevent these Levites from seeing them, even from the outside.

And God spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying: “Do not cause the staff of the families of the Kehatites to be cut down from among the Levites!  Do this for them, so they will live and not die: when they approach the Holy of Holies, Aaron and his sons shall come in and assign each individual man his service and his burden.  And they must not come inside [the tent] to look as the holy things are swallowed [by the wrappings], or they will die.”  (Numbers 4:17-20) 

In my post Bemidbar: Don’t Look I speculated that the Levites are not allowed a glimpse of the holiest items either because it might make them feel as powerful as the priests, or because it might make them treat the holy items (and therefore God) with insufficient reverence.

Transporting the wrapped-up holy things might be nerve-wracking for the Kehatites. They carry them by hand, not on carts. What if they stumble and drop something? What if one of the coverings slips off?

For the “armies” traveling north from Mount Sinai, guard duty is more dangerous than combat duty.

  1. Exodus 17:8-13.
  2. In the book of Genesis Jacob has twelve sons; Levi is his third son, and Joseph is his eleventh. In other books of the Torah eleven tribes are named after Jacob’s sons, but there is no tribe of Joseph; instead two tribes are named after Joseph’s two sons, Efrayim and Menashe. That makes thirteen tribes—but even in the Torah, the tradition is that there were twelve tribes of Israel. The solution in the first three portions of Numbers is that there are twelve tribes of Israel plus one tribe of Levi.
  3. Numbers 4:39, 4:43.
  4. See Numbers 25:6-8.
  5. Numbers 4:5-14. See my post Bemidbar: Covering the Sacred.
  6. Exodus 37:1-29.
  7. Numbers 18:3.
  8. 1 Samuel 6:21-7:2.
  9. 1 Samuel 6:10-20.


Psalm 73: When Good Things Happen

This week’s Torah portion is Bemidbar, the beginning of the book of Numbers/Bemidbar. But I am still pondering God’s promises of reward and punishment in the last portion in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra. This post will consider Psalm 73, a different take on divine recompense and retribution.

Next week I will write about the first two Torah portions in the book of Numbers, and catch up with the Jewish cycle of Torah readings!

Last week’s Torah portion, Bechukotai, quotes God as promising rewards to those who obey God’s rules and punishments to those who disobey them—with physical consequences here and now: food or starvation, health or sickness, peace or war, etc. (See my post Bechukotai & Jeremiah: Real Carrots and Sticks.) Yet often the good suffer and the wicked prosper, as Psalm 73 and the book of Job point out.

If God is omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, and just, then why do so many good things happen to bad people, and bad things happen to the good? Theologians have struggled with “the problem of evil” for millennia. Their solutions include:

  • Wilhelm Gottfried Leibniz, 18th-cent. author of Theodicy on the Goodness of God

    Best of All Possible Worlds and Free Will: This imperfect world that God created is the best of all possible worlds; God could not improve it in one way without making it worse in another way. Furthermore, the best possible world is one in which human beings freely choose what is good. God created a world containing evil as well as good so that humans could understand the difference, and choose to increase the goodness in the world.1

(This answer means that if God modified any natural disasters, there would be some unimaginable dire effect. So we should not blame God for all the natural disasters that happened before man-made global warming took effect.

(It also means that if God tweaked human psychology to make our thinking less short-sighted and compartmentalized, so we made fewer inadvertent poor moral decisions, it would turn us into monsters in some other way.

(And it means that if God eliminated sociopaths from our species it would create some disaster. All of this strains belief.)

  • The Reward Is in Heaven: God rewards every good person and punishes every bad person—not in this world, but in an afterlife.2

(This answer requires belief in one or two mysterious other worlds that “exist” outside space and time. It also requires belief in a soul that can magically retain the identity of an individual person after death without any physical correlates.)

  • The Long Run: God is unconcerned about individuals, but has a master plan in which all humans will be good and this earth will be a paradise—in the long, long run, after many millennia. Too bad so many good people have to suffer along the way.3

(This answer posits a God unlike the one in the bible, who shows personal concern for at least some individuals and groups, and commands human judges to be fair to individuals.)

  • “I do not understand wonders too difficult for me.” (Job 42:3): Humans are incapable of understanding divine justice, which is radically different from human justice.4

(This answer is self-defeating. If we are incapable of understanding what God considers “good”, God’s injunctions in the bible do not mean what we think they do. Then how can we judge what God wants in new situations? And should we do what we know is right, or what we are guessing God wants?)

Is the problem of evil insoluble, then? Or does God reward the good and punish the bad in some other way?

Psalm 73

Psalm 73 opens:

Surely God is good to Israel

            —to those who purify their hearts.5

As for me, my feet had almost turned aside;

            My steps had nearly slipped,

Because I envied the revelers;

            I saw the prosperity of the wicked. (Psalm 73:1-3)

The psalmist goes on to describe how fat and healthy the wicked are, despite the fact that they oppress people and speak with malice. They seem to be getting away with a selfish and cruel way of life.

They avoid the toil of other men,

            And lo yenuga-u with [the rest of] humankind. …

Hey! These are the wicked, yet they are always complacent.

            They pile up wealth.

Surely in vain have I kept my heart morally pure

            And washed my palms with innocence!

For I was nagua every day,

            And I was chastised every morning. (Psalm 73:5, 12-14)

lo yenuga-u (לֺא יְנֻגָּעוּ) = they are not afflicted, hurt. (lo = not + a form of the verb naga, נָגַע = touch, afflict, hurt, strike.)

nagua (נָגוּעַ) = touched, afflicted, hurt. (Another form of the verb naga.)

Job 1, by Ivan Mestrovic, 1943 (photo by M.C.)

We do not learn what the speaker’s affliction was, but elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible the “touch” of God often causes a disease or plague.6

While Job is sitting on the ash-heap scratching his putrid sores he says:

“Be kind! Be kind! You are my friends!

            For the hand of God nagah me.” (Job 19:21)

nagah (נָגְעָה) = touched, afflicted. (Another form of the verb naga.)

Like Job, the speaker in Psalm 73 is innocent of wrongdoing, but nevertheless afflicted. The speaker considers telling the world that the wicked are rewarded and the good are punished, but then realizes:

If I said: “I will recount [this] exactly”

            Hey, I would be backstabbing your children’s generation!

And when I evaluated and understood this,

            It was trouble in my sight.  (Psalm 73:15-16)

Unlike the wicked, the speaker cares about the welfare of the next generation, and feels responsible for promoting good behavior so that people will not harm each other.

The speaker’s second insight is that although the wicked think their path is smooth, it is actually slippery, and sooner or later they will fall.

Surely you set them [the wicked] on slippery footing,

            You cast them down into destruction.

How they become a horror in an instant!

            They reach the limit, they come to an end in terror.

Like awakening from a dream, my Lord,

            The city finds their shadow contemptible. (Psalm 73:18-20)

Suddenly their wickedness will be revealed to everyone, and people will turn against them. Then their complacency will change into terror.

The psalmist does not tell us the nature of their terror. Are the wicked afraid that now “the city” will be as cruel to them as they were to others? Or do they recognize their own guilt?

The third insight is that mental agitation and pangs of conscience come from God.

When my mind was agitated

            and my conscience was stabbed,

Then I was a dolt and I did not know;

            I was [like] the beasts with you.

Yet I was always with you;

            You held fast to my right hand. (Psalm 73:20-23)

Since God is always available, the wicked have to deliberately turn away from God and ignore their consciences in order to continue doing bad deeds. But the speaker did not pull away. The speaker’s affliction, as a “touch” from God, might even have led him or her to reflect deeply enough to feel the stab of conscience.

Through your counsel you guided me

            And in the end, you will take me in honor. (Psalm 73:24)

Martin Buber explained, “God counsels by making known that He is present”.7

Unlike the wicked, the psalmist says, someone who follows God’s counsel will be honored after death. But Psalm 73 focuses on life in this world. And in this world the wicked travel so far from God that eventually nobody listens to them anymore.

Because hey! Those far away from [God] go astray;

            Everyone who is unfaithful to [God] is silenced.

But as for me, the nearness of God is my good.

            I place my refuge in my lord God, and I recount all of your works. (Psalm 73:27-28)

Doing the right things leads to an inner satisfaction, the good experience of feeling the nearness of God. This inner reward is a refuge when outer circumstances are difficult.


The nearness of God is my good” is the best answer I know to the problem of evil. But it is incomplete. A thoughtful adult might well conclude that virtue is its own reward, and physical suffering is unimportant compared to the reward of a contented conscience. But what about the millions of innocent children who have suffered, physically and psychologically, and then died without growing up?

Must we believe that this is nevertheless the best of all possible worlds? Or that children who have been tortured will get a good “life” in a non-physical afterlife? Or that all the children destroyed by the Holocaust are unimportant compared to some ideal distant future? Or that a superior, divine point of view considers our outrage and empathy for these children foolish?

Even though doing the right thing is intrinsically rewarding, it is only a partial solution to the problem of evil in a world created by a God who is an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, and just judge.

We might ask whether this notion of God is a naïve concept.

  1.  Wilhelm Gottfried Leibniz presented this argument in Essays of Theodicy on the Goodness of God, the Freedom of Man and the Origin of Evil, 1710, and was satirized by Voltaire in Candide, 1759, in which Dr. Pangloss chirps that this is “the best of all possible worlds” at inopportune times.
  2. This is Rabbi Yitzchak Abravanel’s answer to the problem of evil in his 15th-century commentary on Leviticus, as well as a common answer in Christian and Muslim traditions.
  3. Cf. Isaiah 46:10-13; Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamozov.
  4. Cf. the book of Job.
  5. My translation is informed by 19th-century rabbi S.R. Hirsch on the psalm’s use of the word bar (ּבַּר) instead of tahor (טָהוֹר) for “pure”. “A man may be לב טהוֹר by nature and disposition. However, the designation לב בר can be applied only to him whose purity of mind is a result of his own efforts at self-improvement.” (Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Tehillim, translated by Gertrude Hirschler, Feldheim Publishers, Nanuet, NY, 2014, p. 597)
  6. Eg. Genesis 12:17, 2 Kings 15:5, Isaiah 53:4, Job 2:5, 2 Chronicles 26:20.
  7. Martin Buber, Good and Evil, translated by Ronald Gregor Smith, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1952, p. 43.


Bechukotai & Jeremiah: Carrots and Sticks

Oranges on a Branch, by Winslow Homer 19th cent.

If you follow my decrees and you observe my commands and do them, then I will give your rains in their season, and the land will give its produce, and the trees of the field will give their fruit.  (Leviticus 26:3-4)

So God’s list of rewards begins in the Torah portion Bechukotai, the last in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra, and continues with blessings of ample food, safety, victory in battle with foreigners, fertility, and so on. All of them are about material life in this world, except possibly for the last:

And I will set my mishkan among you, and my soul will not gag over you. And I will walk around among you, and I will be a god for you, and you will be my people. (Leviticus 26:11-12)

mishkan (מִשְׁכָּן) = dwelling-place; sanctuary built for God.

The word mishkan usually refers to a physical place of worship. But it could also refer to God dwelling in the hearts of the Israelites. Walking around and being a god could mean God’s appearances as a pillar of cloud and fire and God’s visible miracles on behalf of the Israelites. But it could also mean the presence of God that the Israelites feel in their hearts.

A list of punishments follows, beginning:

But if you reject my decrees, and if your soul gags over my laws, so that you do not do all my commands, violating my covenant, I for my part will do this to you: I will assign terror over you, the consumption and the fever … (Leviticus 26:15-16)

There are more curses than blessings, in an escalating series of material, physical disasters. Each round of curses is threatened if the people continue to disobey and reject God. The fifth and final round of curses begins with cannibalism due to starvation, and ends:

And you will perish among the nations, and the land of your enemies will consume you.  (Leviticus 26:38)

A similar list of carrots and sticks, blessings and curses, appears in Deuteronomy/Devarim 28:1-68, in the portion Ki Tavo. These all concern material life in this world.

I always read these lists grimly, since I know that life is more complicated than behaving well to get ice cream from Daddy—er, God. Bad things do happen to good people, even to obedient religious people, as the book of Job illustrates.

How can we reconcile the lists in Bechukotai with reality?

Collective instead of personal carrots

This week’s portion, Bechukotai, uses the second person plural, so one could argue that although individuals are not rewarded and punished as promised, the Israelite people as a whole are. (Judging by what happened over the centuries to the Israelites, and to the Jews after them, the people must have been extraordinarily dedicated to disobeying God.)

But this explanation falls apart in Ki Tavo, the similar portion in Deuteronomy, where the rewards and punishments are expressed in the second person singular, making them personal.

by Elisa Champin, 19th cent.

Carrots after death

Bechukotai and Ki Tavo frustrate commentators who believe that the real rewards and punishments come after death. 15th-century commentator Abravanel asked: “Why does the Torah confine its goals and rewards to material things, as mentioned in his comment, and omit spiritual perfection and the reward of the soul after death—the true and ultimate goal of man? Our enemies exploit this text and charge Israel with denying the principle of the soul’s judgement in the afterlife.”1

In fact, the idea that souls survive death did not appear in Jewish writings until the book of Daniel, written in the second century B.C.E., well after Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Before Daniel, the Hebrew Bible assumed that when the body died, the soul went to a shadowy, perhaps metaphorical, underground realm called Sheol where they were unconscious. No rewards or punishments were possible for souls after death.

Inner carrots

The two Torah portions also frustrate those who, like me, believe that doing the right thing leads to psychological rather than material rewards. Good people feel inner satisfaction; in biblical terminology, they walk with God. Bad people, on the other hand, are chronically dissatisfied.

The final blessing in Bechukotai, in which God says “I will walk around among you,” was some consolation to the 15th-century author of Akedat Yitzchak, who valued communion with God:

“Indeed, the spiritual bliss whose source is the Torah and the reward of the Divine commandments, are more than amply recorded in the frequent accounts throughout the Torah of the Shekhinah (Divine Presence) resting in our midst and in the ongoing communion with the Divine thus attained by us … How could the critics fail to perceive the intensity of the Divine communion and the spiritual wealth attained by members of our nation while still dwelling in this ephemeral world …”2

In Biblical Hebrew, as in English, the result of a course of action is sometimes called its “fruit”.3 So when I looked for metaphors among the carrots and sticks in Bechukotai, I noticed fruit trees. The first blessing with which God rewards the obedient in this week’s Torah portion includes: … the trees of the field will give their fruit. (Leviticus 26:4)

The second curse includes: … your power will be poured out in vain, and your land will not give its produce, and the trees of the land will not give their fruit. (Leviticus 26:19-20)

In Bechukotai the presence or absence of fruit seems literal.

Trees flourishing and barren also appear in the hafatarah reading from the book of Jeremiah that accompanies this Torah portion.

Cursed is the man who trusts in humankind

And makes flesh his strength;

He turns away his mind from God.

He is like a bare tree in the desert valley … (Jeremiah 17:5)

Blessed is the man who trusts in God …

He is like a tree planted by water …

In a year without rain lo yidag,

And it does not stop making fruit. (Jeremiah 17:7-8)

lo yidag (לֺא יִדְאָג) = it does not worry, it is not anxious, it does not feel dread. (Lo = not. Yidag is comes from the same root as dagah, דְּאָגָה = anxiety.)

Jeremiah takes a more sophisticated position, using fruit trees as metaphors for human beings and shifting the focus from obeying God to trusting God.4

Bechukotai’s promise that one reward for religious observance is that God will “walk around among you” may or may not mean that following God’s rules yields an inner reward. Jeremiah’s reframing, in which the reward for trusting God is a fruitful life without anxiety, comes closer to promising an inner reward. But is there a more definite biblical support for the idea that the reward for ethical behavior is inside us?

Next week I will look at the evidence in Psalm 73.

  1. 15th-century Rabbi Yitzchak Abravanel, translated by Rafael Fisch and Avner Tomaschoff, in Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Vaykra, The World Zionist Organization, Jerusalem, 1996, p. 572.
  2. 15th-century Rabbi Yitzchak Arama, Akedat Yitzchak, Sha’ar 70, translated by Rafael Fisch and Avner Tomaschoff, ibid., pp. 575-576.
  3. Especially in Psalms and Proverbs: Psalms 58:11, 92:13-14, 104:13; Proverbs 1:31, 8:18-20, 11:30, 12:14, 13:2, 18:20-21, 31:31.
  4. See my posts Haftarat Bechukotai—Jeremiah: Trust Me and Bechukotai & Jeremiah: The Inner Reward.


Behar: The Injustice of Wealth

The rich get richer, and in the process they make the poor get poorer—unless the law of the land intervenes. It was true in the Ancient Near East, and it is true throughout the world today.

The wealthy in the book of Genesis owned livestock and slaves, but by the 8th century B.C.E. wealth was measured by the ownership of farmland. Rich landowners accumulated more land by buying it when poor farm-owners fell into debt—perhaps because of a drought or another circumstance beyond their control. The first part of Isaiah, written in the 8th century B.C.E.,  addresses the greed for land:

Hoy!1 Adding house to house

            They attach field to field

Until there is no space left

            And you alone are owners in the midst of the land! (Isaiah 5:8)

According to the Torah the poor can sell their farms to pay off debt, but once all their land is gone they have to become hired workers, who earn less than farmers who have their own crops to sell. If they fall into debt again, they sell themselves as slaves. The poor also sell their children as slaves when they can no longer afford to feed them.

How could a former small landowner get a second chance? How could his son get even a first chance?

Code of Hammurabi carved on an 8th century BCE stele

Law codes elsewhere in the Ancient Near East, including the Code of Hammurabi2 , accepted that there were two permanent classes of people, superiors and inferiors, and established two different sets of rules for them. But although the Hebrew Bible recognizes hereditary kings and priests, all male Israelites are subject to the same rules. And the bible rails against rich Israelites who disobey God by cheating or mistreating the poor.

This week’s Torah portion, Behar, outlines three possible solutions to the problem of social injustice due to concentrated wealth.

Do not charge interest

You must not take interest or an increase [in the repayment] from him; you shall fear your God, and let your brother live along with you. (Leviticus 25:36)

Interest is also outlawed in Exodus and Deuteronomy.3 If a debtor did not need to pay interest, the debt would be somewhat easier to repay. But then what motivation would a selfish rich man have to make a loan in the first place? According to Isaiah, debtors were often unable to repay a loan in produce or silver, so they had to turn over some or all of their land. The rich got richer by accumulating farmland.

With less farmland of their own, the poor were more likely to need another loan the following year. Thus prohibiting creditors from charging interest was not enough to solve the problem of the rich taking advantage of the poor and further impoverishing them.

Refund the Sale

Unlike property sales today, the system in the Torah is more like a lease. The buyer pays for the full use of a parcel of land and the buildings on it—knowing that at any time the original owner, or a close relative of the original owner called his “redeemer”4 can buy back the property.

The Torah portion Behar reiterates the concept that a tract of land that has been sold can and should be redeemed by the seller’s nearest kinsman.5   The buyer must accept the redeemer’s payment, pro-rated to reflect the number of years of his possession, and return the land.

If your brother becomes impoverished, and he sells some of his property, then his closest redeemer shall come to [the buyer] and redeem what his brother sold. And if a man does not have a redeemer, but his [own] resources increase and he finds enough for his redemption, then he shall reckon the years since selling it and repay the remainder to the man to whom he sold it. Then he can return to his property. (Leviticus 25:25-27)

The Torah also requires the redemption of slaves whenever possible, by paying all or part of the sales price to the buyer.6

How do the buyer and the redeemer know how much silver must change hands? This week’s Torah portion explains that the land or the slave must not be sold not in perpetuity, but only for the number of years until the next yoveil year. Therefore the original purchase price can be pro-rated.

No sales are final

Shofar made from a ram’s horn

All slaves and all landed property must be released every fifty years, God commands in this week’s Torah portion. A ram’s horn is blown to announce the start of the year when farmlands revert to their original owners or their sons, and slaves are automatically emancipated.7

And you shall make the fiftieth year holy, and you shall proclaim emancipation in the land for all its inhabitants; a yoveil it shall be for you. And you shall return, each man, to his property, and you shall return, each man, to his mishpachah. (Leviticus/Vayikra 25:10)

yoveil (יוֹבֵל) = ram’s horn; year of release; “Jubilee” in old English translations.8

mishpachah (מִשְׁפָּחָה) = extended family, clan.

Since all land reverts to the original owner or his family, the price of land is set accordingly to the number of years left before the next yoveil; a buyer pays more for a field he can use for 40 years than for a field he can use for only 10 years. And if the former owner or his redeemer buys back the land before the yoveil, he subtracts the value of the years the buyer uses the land from the purchase price, and pays only for the number of years remaining until the yoveil.

If the land is redeemed by a kinsman, then the redeemer gets to use it until the yoveil returns it to the original owner.

This week’s Torah portion assumes that people sell their farmland only out of poverty. The system of temporary property sales puts a time limit on poverty. It also reminds the Israelites that their ownership is conditional anyway, since God rescued them from Egypt and arranged for them to conquer Canaan. God is the real owner of all the land.

And you must not sell the land as a permanent right, because the land is mine, and you are immigrants and resident aliens with me. (Leviticus 25:23)

The laws in the portion Behar about interest, redemption, and the yoveil year are remedies only for Israelite men who are impoverished by the rich in Israelite kingdoms. Women are not mentioned. And Israelite men can keep any land they acquire from foreigners (through purchase or war), as well as any foreign slaves, and pass down both categories of property to their heirs.

Nevertheless, the method this week’s portion outlines for correcting the concentration of wealth is a bold plan for redressing injustice. However, there is no evidence that the laws about the yoveil year were ever implemented; then, as now, wealth means power and the powerful protect their wealth.


The yoveil plan would be completely unworkable today. For the ancient Israelites, the well-being of an extended family or clan was paramount, so an act of social justice could wait for a generation or two. In modern western culture, individualism and nuclear families are more important, so opportunities and privileges need to be distributed fairly on a continuous basis.

For example, modern social justice calls for immediate financial relief for an individual who acquires a major debt because of a job loss or a health catastrophe. Modern ideals also call for equal opportunities for all children, regardless of the poverty of their parents. A public education system is one part of the solution, but children must complete their education before the age when they are expected to live independently.

Emergency relief and public education are necessary but not sufficient for social justice today. Wealth in a modern capitalist system, like wealth in the ancient Israelite kingdoms, becomes so concentrated that hard-working poor people no longer have a fair chance unless further measures are implemented.

Since a yoveil year would not work well in modern society, what other ways can we redistribute wealth while being fair to the rich as well as the poor?

A true graduated income tax is a giant step. It was actually implemented for a while in mid-twentieth century America, and is currently in force in many European countries. Government programs such as Social Security and Medicare still help to save retired Americans from poverty by letting them redeem their earlier taxed earnings. Laws providing universal access to such things as utilities, roads, medical care, and police protection also help.

But instituting or maintaining any of these programs requires an idealism that rises above the natural greed of the rich. Can our larger culture achieve this idealism once more, even in the troubled United States? Can we achieve more than the reformers in Leviticus, by making our ethical ideals for society the law of the land?

  1. The Biblical Hebrew interjection Hoy (הוֹי) usually means the same as the Yiddish Oy: “Alas!” or “Oh, no!”
  2. The eight-century B.C.E. law code of Babylonian King Hammurabi.
  3. Also in Exodus 22:24 and Deuteronomy 23:20.
  4. Go-eil (גֺּאֵל) = redeemer: the kinsman responsible either for buying back an enslaved man or his land, or for avenging his relative’s murder.
  5. Jeremiah 32:7-8; Ruth 3:9-13, 4:4-6.
  6. Leviticus 25:52-53.
  7. Exodus 21:1-11 and Deuteronomy 15:12 say that anyone who buys an Israelite slave must set him free in the seventh year. The book of Leviticus seems to be unaware of this tradition.
  8. Everett Fox translated yoveil as “Homebringing”, based on cognates in Akkadian and Ugaritic and the use of a ram’s horn to call a flock of sheep home. (Everett Fox. The Five Books of Moses, Schocken Books, New York, 1983, p. 628.)
  9. Leviticus 25:44-46.