Vayakheil+4: Not on Shabbat

“Hurry up and wait” describes a lot of life. Two weeks ago I was frantically getting ready to move my mother into assisted living. Now my effort to fulfill the Fifth Commandment and honor my mother is on hold until I get a moving date from the center—and wouldn’t you know it, she had another fall while she was alone in her house …

Talmud Readers, by Adolf Behrman, 1876-1943. What could be more absorbing?

I wish this period of waiting instead of doing labor were like the day of shabbat, the sabbath day of rest, but these days my soul is too heavy to rise to either refreshment or holiness. So this week I took my mind off my troubles by researching the commandment about shabbat. Here is a new post for this week’s Torah portion, Vayakheil—and four other portions in the book of Exodus, Beshallach, Yitro, Mishpatim, and Ki Tisa, that include variations on the command to desist from labor on the seventh day.


The first three of the Ten Commandments order us not to underestimate God.1 The last six are ethical precepts for human relations with other humans.2 In between, the fourth commandment combines holiness and ethics. It opens:

Remember the day of the shabbat, to treat it as holy. (Exodus 20:8) 3

shabbat (שַׁבַּת) = sabbath, day of rest. (From the same root as shavat, שָׁבַת = cease, stop, desist; stop working.)

This command is followed by explanatory notes in the Torah portion Yitro. More details are added every time the observance of shabbat is commanded in the book of Exodus—from the first time, in the portion Beshallach, when the Israelites are collecting manna, to the sixth time, in this week’s portion, Vayakheil, after God has given Moses a second set of tablets with the Ten Commandments carved in stone.

1) Don’t move

Manna Raining from Heaven, Maciejowski Bible, c. 1250 C.E.

Moses first mentions shabbat in the Torah portion Beshallach, when God provides manna for the hungry Israelites to gather up from the ground six, and only six, days a week. Moses says:

“See that God has given you the shabbat. Therefore on the sixth day [God] is giving you food for two days. Everyone in his place! No one go out from his spot on the seventh day!” (Exodus 16:29—Beshallach)

This introduces shabbat as a day of rest, at least in terms of going out and gathering food.

2) Holy break

The next order regarding shabbat is the one in the Ten Commandments in Yitro. The full fourth commandment states:

The Creation, by Lucas Cranach, 1534, Luther Bible

Remember the day of the shabbat, to treat it as holy. Six days you may work and you may do all your labor. But the seventh day is a shabbat for God, your God; you must not do any labor, you or your son or your daughter, your male slave or your female slave or your livestock or your immigrant within your gates. Because in six days God made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything that is in them, and [God] took a break on the seventh day. Therefore God blessed the day of the shabbat and made it holy. (Exodus 20:8-11)

The emphasis in this commandment is on the holiness of shabbat. Since the day itself is holy, it must be set aside from mundane labor by all humans and animals in an Israelite’s household, and even by God.

3) Ethical refreshment

The third injunction about shabbat is in the portion Mishpatim:

Six days you may do your doings, but on the seventh day tishbot so that your ox and your donkey can take a break, veyinafeish, your slave and the immigrant. (Exodus 23:12)

tishbot (תּשְׁבֺּת) = you must cease, stop, stop working. (A form of the verb shavat.)

veyinafeish (וְיִנָּפֵשׁ) = and he can refresh himself, reanimate himself, catch his breath. (From the same root as nefesh, נֶפֶשׁ = throat, breath, appetite, mood, animating soul.)

This time Moses, speaking for God, gives a reason why even slaves, immigrants, and beasts must be given a day off from work on shabbat: so that draft animals can rest their muscles, and human laborers can rest their souls, becoming refreshed and revitalized.

Providing a day of rest is an ethical mandate; the moral principle of kindness calls for helping others to have a better life, and the moral principle of fairness supports giving everyone a day off when the landowner has a day off. Shabbat is the opposite of Pharaoh’s unethical subjection of the Israelite slaves to unremitting labor.4

4) Be holy or die

The fourth command about shabbat appears in the Torah portion Ki Tisa, after God finishes telling Moses what the Israelites must make to set up the sanctuary and the priests of their new religion. God warns that all of this construction must pause on the day of shabbat.

Nevertheless, you must observe shabtotai, because it is a sign between me and you for your generations, for knowledge that I, God, have made you holy. And you must observe the shabbat because it is holy for you. Whoever profanes it must definitely be put to death, because whoever does labor on it, his life will be cut off from among his people. (Exodus 31:12-14)

shabtotai (שַׁבְּתֺתַי) = my shabbats.

This order not only reiterates that shabbat is holy, but adds that observing it is a reminder that the Israelite people themselves are holy, i.e. set aside for God.

In addition, profaning shabbat by doing labor on that day is such a serious transgression that God assigns it the death penalty.

This rule about observing shabbat is the source text for the Talmud’s list of 39 categories of labor forbidden on the seventh day. The rabbis assume that since God warns that the work of building the sanctuary and fabricating the priests’ clothing must cease on shabbat, the labors involved in doing those tasks are the labors forbidden on shabbat from then on.5

This injunction in Ki Tisa continues:

The Israelites must observe the shabbat, doing the shabbat throughout their generations as a covenant forever. Between me and the Israelites it will be a sign forever, because for six days God make the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day [God] shavat vayinafash. (Exodus 31:16-17)

vayinafash (וַיִּנָּפַשׁ) = and he refreshed himself, reanimated himself, caught his breath.   (A variant of veyinafeish.)

Since the divine life of the universe pauses every seven “days” for refreshment and redirection, so must our own souls. (See my earlier post,  Mishpatim, Ki Tisa, & 2 Samuel: Soul Recovery.)

5) No farming

Shabbat comes up again later in the portion Ki Tisa when God gives Moses additional instructions for the Israelites.

Six days you may work, but on the seventh day tishbot; at plowing and at grain-cutting tishbot. (Exodus 34:21)

The book of Exodus gives no reason why agricultural labor in particular is prohibited on shabbat. One possibility is that this sentence refers to the ethical law about shabbat in Mishpatim, since landowners used draft animals (oxen and donkeys) to plow, and teams of underlings including slaves and immigrants to scythe down ripe grain.

Sheaves of grain

On the other hand, the list in the Talmud of activities prohibited on shabbat includes farming chores that eventually lead to the bread that must be displayed on the gold-plated table in the sanctuary.6 The first eleven of the 39 prohibited labors in the Talmud are sowing grain, plowing, reaping, gathering sheaves, threshing, winnowing, selecting the edible kernels, grinding them into flour, sifting the flour, kneading dough, and baking bread. By this interpretation, the ban on plowing and reaping on shabbat is about the holiness of the day surpassing the holiness of the sanctuary.

6) Light no fires

The sixth and final shabbat instruction in the book of Exodus occurs in this week’s Torah portion, Vayakheil. Again the seventh day is called holy, and doing labor on that day is punishable by death.

Six days you may do labor, but the seventh day must be holy for you, a shabbat shabbaton for God. Anyone who does labor on it must be put to death. You must not kindle a fire in any of your settlements on the day of shabbat. (Exodus 35:2-3)

shabbaton (שַׁבָּתוֹן) = most solemn shabbat, feast day of shabbat, day of absolute stopping.

Here Moses repeats God’s commands that the day of shabbat must be treated as holy and that anyone who does not desist from labor on that day must be executed.

The new information in Vayakheil is that lighting a fire is prohibited on shabbat. Before this, the only specific examples of labor forbidden on shabbat are agricultural: gathering manna, using draft animals, sowing and reaping . Now, in Vayakheil, Moses gives another example of labor: lighting a fire.

The purpose of this prohibition cannot be ethical, since lighting a fire is not in itself a heavy labor, and it benefits other humans by giving them heat, light, and a way to cook food.

Since the previous verse reminds us that the seventh day must be holy, refraining from kindling a fire must be another religious rule associated with holiness.

Kindling a fire is number 37 in the Talmud’s list of 39 labors banned on shabbat, right after extinguishing a fire. It may allude to the fire on the altar. Although burnt offerings continue during shabbat according to the Torah, the fire is not rekindled. In fact, it must never go out.7 The altar fire is holy because it is dedicated to God, and because God kindled it.8


Thus the book of Exodus presents the law against working on shabbat as a religious rule (guarding what is holy) three to five times.9 It presents the law as an ethical rule (promoting kindness and fairness) only twice.10

Yet when we observe the day of shabbat we can remember that it is not solely a religious requirement reminding us of holiness. We will not be put to death for doing forbidden work on shabbat, since that part of the order in this week’s Torah portion is no longer followed. But when we try to set aside mundane concerns in order to elevate our souls on the seventh day, we can also remember the ethical values in the last six commandments, which address kindness, fairness, and respect for other human beings.

And I can pray that soon I will be able to obey the fifth commandment, and treat my mother with kindness and respect by moving her into a safe place.

  1. See my upcoming post, Pekudei, Yitro, & Ki Tisa: Not Like Other Gods.
  2. See my posts Yitro, Mishpatin, & Va-etchanan: Relative or Relevant? Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 on the last six commandments.
  3. This is the opening in Exodus. When Moses repeats the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy, the fourth commandment opens: Observe the day of the shabbat and treat it as holy. (Deuteronomy 5:12)
  4. Exodus 5:1-9, 6:9.
  5. Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 73a, Mishna.
  6. Exodus 25:23-30.
  7. Leviticus 6:5-6.
  8. Leviticus 9:24 for the portable sanctuary in the wilderness.
  9. Exodus 16:29, 20:8 and 11, 31:12-13 at a minimum. According to the Talmud Exodus 34:21 and 35:2-3 are also rules for religious purposes.
  10. Exodus 20:9-10, 23:12.

Ki Tisa: Golden Calf, Stone Commandments

Mount Sinai, by Elijah Walton, 19th century

The Torah gives the Ten Commandments1 top priority out of all the rules and orders God gives to the Israelites through Moses. God utters them in the Torah portion Yitro after manifesting in smoke, fire, and thunder, and Moses tells the people what God said.

At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa, God engraves the Ten Commandments in stone.

Then [God] gave to Moses, as [God] finished speaking with him on Mount Sinai, the two tablets of the Testimony, stone tablets engraved by the finger of God. (Exodus/Shemot 31:18)

After Moses sees the people celebrating the golden calf and shatters the tablets, God gives Moses another pair. What could be more important?

Aaron and the second commandment

While God is giving Moses the first pair of stone tablets, the Israelites at the foot of the mountain are losing hope that Moses will ever come back down. After they have waited for almost forty days, they tell Moses’ brother Aaron:

“Get up! Make us a god that will go before us! Because this Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has happened to him!” (Exodus 32:1)

The people desperately want an intermediary between themselves and the invisible, remote, and terrifying God that Moses says has adopted them. Moses was a visible human being, and he could tell them what God wanted, so he was a satisfactory intermediary—until   he vanished into the cloud on top of Mount Sinai.2

Now the people demand a new intermediary. They know the “god” they ask Aaron to make could not speak, like Moses, but at least it would be visible and familiar, like the idols in Egypt.

Aaron is not only Moses’ older brother, but his second-in-command. Yet God has not yet spoken directly to him, and does not do so until Leviticus 10:8-11. The Israelites turn to Aaron as their default leader, but do not expect him to replace Moses as God’s prophet.

Aaron could ask the people to wait another day for Moses to return before taking any rash action. He could remind them of God’s second commandment, which Moses told them during the revelation at Sinai:

You must not make for yourself a statue or any likeness of what is in the heavens above or what is on the earth below or what is in the waters below the earth. You must not bow down to them, and you must not serve them … (Exodus 20:4-5)

He could frighten the people by predicting that their God would surely smite them all if they violated this commandment. But he does not.

The Adoration of the Golden Calf, by Marc Chagall, 1966

Instead, Aaron asks the people to bring him their gold earrings, and casts the gold in the shape of a calf.

And they said: “This is your God, Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt!” And Aaron saw, and he built an altar in front of it. And Aaron made an announcement, and said: “Tomorrow is a festival for Y-H-V-H!” (Exodus 32:4-5)

Aaron uses the four-letter proper name of the God of Israel, so he is not violating the first commandment, “You must have no other gods before me.” But he is violating the second commandment, which prohibits making or worshiping an idol.

He has not had a chance to read the commandments on the stone tablets Moses is bringing down from Mount Sinai. But he has heard Moses declare them. He cannot claim ignorance as an excuse.

Moses and the sixth commandment

The next day the Israelites make burnt offerings in front of the golden calf. By the time Moses reached the bottom of Mount Sinai, they are eating, drinking, and enjoying themselves.

Moses Breaking the Tablets of the Law, by Gustave Dore, 19th cent.

Moses smashes God’s stone tablets.3 Then he melts down the calf, grinds the gold into powder, mixes it with water, and makes the Israelites drink it. He questions his brother Aaron, who gives a feeble excuse, and Moses lets it pass.

Then Moses saw that the people were parua, because Aaron peraoh for a non-entity … (Exodus 32:25)

parua (פָּרֻעַ) = wild, out of control.

peraoh (פְּרָעֺה) = he let [them] get out of control.

Apparently after they have watched Moses melt the calf and grind its gold into dust, some of the Israelites are wildly upset about losing their idol.

Then Moses stood in the gate of the camp and said: “Who is for Y-H-V-H? To me!” And all the Levite men gathered around him. And he said to them: “Thus says Y-H-V-H, the God of Israel: Every man, put his sword on his hip! Cross and return from gate to gate of the camp, and every man kill his brother and his fellow and his close relatives!” And the Levite men did as Moses spoke, and about 3,000 men of the people fell on that day. (Exodus 32:26-28)

Do the Levites violate the sixth commandment?

Lo tirtzach. (Exodus 20:13)

lo tirtzach (לֺא תִרְצָח) = you must not kill without a legal sanction. (From the verb ratzach, רָצַח.)

Other uses of the verb ratzach in the Torah indicate that this commandment only covers deliberate murder of a fellow Israelite. (See my post Yitro, Mishpatim, & Va-etchanan: Relative or Relevant? Part 1.) God does not prohibit causing accidental death, executing someone who was given the death penalty, or killing the enemy in war. But the Levites deliberately kill fellow Israelites who have not been tried in court with witnesses and sentenced to death.

If each Levite man were individually choosing a fellow Israelite to kill (presumably one who is still parua after the golden calf fiasco), then he would be violating the sixth commandment. But the Levites have to sweep through the camp and back with lightning speed before the other Israelites either escape or fight back. They do not have time to pause and identify who they are killing.

Individual Levite men make one conscious choice: Moses calls out “Who is for God? To me!” and they gather around him. After that they simply obey his orders in the name of God. If Moses had not announced that God wanted them to run through the camp killing people, the Levites would not have taken up their swords.

Bronze Age Short Sword

Moses bears the primary responsibility for the massacre. Does he merely pass on God’s orders word-for-word? Not according to Rashi,4 who wrote that Moses’ order to the Levites was based on an earlier order from God:

“Whoever offers a slaughter-sacrifice to any god except Y-H-V-H alone will be dedicated to destruction.” (Exodus 22:19).

This law in the Torah portion Mishpatim is an elaboration of the second commandment.

Moses might be applying God’s ruling in Mishpatim when he says God wants the Levite men to run through the camp killing people. Or he might be speaking impulsively in a potentially dangerous moment, based on God’s outrage over the golden calf worship, and perhaps a sense that God continues to feel outrage.

What he does not do is pronounce death penalties on about 3,000 men and ask the Levites to execute them. Moses is the chief judge for all the Israelites,5 so he certainly has the legal authority to pronounce death penalties. However, in the Torah a judge rules on individual cases, and only after hearing the testimony of witnesses concerning the accused. Moses asks only Aaron for information about his role in the golden calf fiasco. He calls no witnesses, and pronounces no individual sentences.

Moses violates the sixth commandment by ordering the men of his tribe, the Levites, to murder Israelites without the proper legal sanction. Does he at least achieve what God wants?

The primary effect of the Levites’ lightning-strike massacre would be shock and fear—which might be just what Moses intends. Fear may not be the best motivator for long-term obedience, but it does work in the short run, and Moses and God use it repeatedly in the Torah. The shattering of the stone tablets and the destruction and consumption of the golden calf are not enough to frighten all the Israelites into obedience, but the massacre by the Levites does the trick.

The next day, Moses asks God to forgive the Israelites for the sin of the golden calf. But apparently God is not fully satisfied with the results of the massacre.

And Y-H-V-H said to Moses: “Whoever has offended against me, I will wipe out from my record … and on the day of my accounting, I will bring them to account for their offenses.” And God struck a blow against the people over what they did with the calf that Aaron made. (Exodus 32:33-35)

Classic commentators6 interpreted God’s blow as a plague of disease that killed a particular group of golden calf worshippers who were still alive after the massacre by the Levites.


Neither Aaron nor Moses is punished for his violation of one of the Ten Commandments. Moses says in Deuteronomy 9:20 that he prayed for his brother Aaron, and God forgave him. Moses’ good relationship with God continues; in the remainder of the portion Ki Tisa, Moses asks God to resume leading the people in person (presumably as the pillar of cloud and fire) and God agrees. Then God tells Moses:

“Carve yourself two stone tablets like the first ones, and I will engrave upon the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you shattered.” (Exodus 34:1)

Moses climbs Mount Sinai again, carrying blank tablets, and God engraves them with the same ten commandments. Perhaps this shows that God both forgave Moses and reaffirmed that the Ten Commandments as fundamental precepts.

Or perhaps this shows that God plays favorites, approving of the death of thousands of Israelites because they worshiped an idol, but preserving the lives of his two darlings, Moses and Aaron.

  1. What we call “the Ten Commandments” in English are ten “statements” in the bible. Exodus introduces the ten with “And God spoke all these ” (Exodus 20:1) Devarim, דְּבָרִים = words, statements, things. Moses repeats them in Deuteronomy 5:6-18, then concludes: “These devarim God spoke to your whole congregation at the mountain, in a great voice from the midst of the fire and the cloud and the gloom, and … engraved them on two stone tablets.” (Deuteronomy 5:19)
  2. Exodus 24:15-18.
  3. Exodus 32:15-19.
  4. Rashi is the acronym of 11th-century Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki.
  5. Exodus 18:13-26.
  6. Including Rashi, Ibn Ezra (12th-century commentator Abraham ben Meir Ibn Ezra), and Ramban (13th-century Rabbi Moses ben Nachman).
  7. In Leviticus 10:1-3.

Taking the Fifth

Doing what I love includes writing about the Torah. Doing what I must includes honoring my mother (the fifth of the Ten Commandments) by moving her into assisted living so she can get the help she needs.

This heroic labor means that I will have little time for my blog over the next few weeks. I started working on a new essay for next week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa, and I hope I can squeeze in enough writing time to finish it soon. Meanwhile, I will send out links to earlier posts every week until my mother is safe and settled.

If you want to read one of my earlier posts about this week’s potion, Tetzaveh, you can click on this link: Tetzaveh & Psalms 141, 51, and 40: Smoke and Prayer.

Or go to “POSTS BY TORAH PORTION OR BOOK” in the sidebar on the right side of this page, click the down-arrow next to CATEGORIES, and navigate to any previous post you want to read … while I am being a mother to my mother.

Mother and Child, by Mary Cassat


Yitro, Mishpatim, and Va-etchanan: Relative or Relevant? Part 3

Ten Commandments by Jekuthiel Sofer, 1768

Universal ethical principles are relevant in all places and times. While the first four of the Ten Commandments1 are religious injunctions rather than universal ethical rules, the last six are sometimes considered universal.

In my last two blog posts I discussed commandments five through eight,2 and suggested that the following versions would be more comprehensively relevant:

  1. Parents must respect their children, and children must respect their parents. (To replace “Honor your father and your mother.”)
  2. You must not kill except to prevent someone from being killed. (To replace “You must not kill-without-a-legal-sanction.”)
  3. You must not break a vow to another person without formally dissolving it first. (To replace “You must not commit adultery-between-a-man-and a married-woman.”)
  4. You must not covertly take what rightfully belongs to another. (To replace “You must not steal.”)

What about commandments nine and ten, on false testimony and coveting? Are they morally relative, guides to good behavior only within Ancient Israelite culture? Are they moral absolutes? Or do they, too, need some revision to become universal ethical precepts?


The Ninth Commandment

Witness stand, by Ida Libby Dengrove

Lo ta-aneh against your fellow [as] a witness to a falsehood. (Exodus/Shemot 20:13)

lo ta-aneh (ֺלֺא תַעֲנֶה) = you must not answer, testify; stoop.

Like the previous four commandments, the ninth is followed by more specific statutes in Mishpatim, last week’s Torah portion.

You must not take up an empty rumor. You shall not put in your hand with the wicked to become a malicious witness. (Exodus 23:1)

In other words, ethical witnesses in a court of law must testify only to what they have perceived with their own senses, discounting anything they have heard that might be a rumor, and ignoring what other witnesses say. (In Torah law, a person cannot be convicted without the testimony of at least two witnesses.3)

You must not follow rabim for evil, and lo ta-aneh on a legal dispute to turn aside [and] follow the majority4 to mislead. (Exodus 23:2)

Using that definition, this law specifies that a witness must not support popular sentiment against the defendant by making misleading statements.

Ibn Ezra pointed out that even a large number of witnesses can be wrong: “Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil. If you see many people testifying concerning something that you know nothing of, do not say to yourself all of these people cannot be lying.”5

The book of Exodus continues by warning witnesses not to give misleading testimony in order to help out the poor.6

And you must not favor the powerless in his legal dispute. (Exodus 23:3)

Kindness to the poor is an important moral value in the Torah,7 but when someone is being tried for a crime, honesty is more important.

Is honesty always the best policy? Many cultures consider a “white lie” harmless and even ethical when it is used to avoid hurting someone’s feelings and has no negative consequences. A “white lie” might include rejecting an invitation by falsely saying you are busy that night, or complimenting someone on a new haircut that you actually think is ugly.

The ninth commandment only addresses giving honest testimony as a witness. But is honesty always the best, most ethical policy when you are testifying to legal authorities? What if you live in a society that punishes the crime of shoplifting with death or the loss of a hand, and you hold the conviction that this punishment is unethical? Should you tell a falsehood?

Your society would consider it ethical to report everything you saw the shoplifter do. But if your own belief is morally better, complete honesty as a witness cannot be a universal ethical precept.

However, the ninth commandment only says: You must not testify against your fellow as a witness to a falsehood. It does not require full disclosure in a morally difficult situation, but only prohibits lying when a falsehood could result in conviction and punishment of an innocent person.

This strict interpretation of the ninth commandment is relevant in all cultures. It could even be rephrased to cover situations outside of court, and remain a universal principle:

You must not speak falsehood in order to cause harm to another.

The Tenth Commandment

The other nine commandments all forbid or require certain actions. (Commandment five, “Honor your father and your mother”, requires certain actions rather than an internal feeling of honor or respect. See my post Yitro, Mishpatim, and Va-etchanan: Relative or Relevant? Part 1.) At first glance, the final commandment seems to be forbidding a feeling rather than an action.

Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor’s House, postcard by The Rose Co., 1908

Lo tachmod your fellow’s house; lo tachmod your fellow’s wife, or his male slave, or his female slave, or his bull, or his donkey, or anything that belongs to your fellow. (Exodus 20:14)

lo tachmod (לֺא תַחְמֺד) = you must not covet, crave, desire to possess. (From the root verb chamad, חָמַד = desired and tried to acquire, coveted, craved.)

Although many of the other commandments are elaborated by statutes given in the Torah portion Mishpatim, no laws in Mishpatim refer to coveting or craving.8

Another way to determine the meaning of the tenth commandment is to look at how the verb chamad is used elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible.9 In ten of the twenty occurrences of the verb chamad, it is connected with taking possession of the thing coveted. Therefore some commentary has interpreted the tenth commandment as prohibiting robbery, under the assumption that coveting inevitably leads to an attempt to steal by force.10

The repetition of the tenth commandment in the book of Deuteronomy is worded slightly differently, putting another man’s wife first, and using a synonym to prohibit an unhealthy desire for any other possessions:

And lo tachmod your fellow’s wife, and lo titaveh your fellow’s house, his field, or his male slave, or his female slave or his bull, or his donkey, or anything that belongs to your fellow. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 5:18)

lo titaveh (לֺא תִתְאַוֶּה) = you must not crave. (A form of the verb aveh, אוּה = craved, longed for.)

Why does Deuteronomy use the verb chamad only for coveting someone else’s wife, and the verb aveh for everything else? The Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael claims that craving leads to coveting, and coveting leads to robbing.11 Certainly the verb aveh indicates a visceral desire; out of the 27 times it appears in the Hebrew Bible, thirteen are about craving a particular food or drink.12

But why does the tenth commandment prohibit coveting rather than the action that follows it, the attempt to take by force? I suspect that the Torah is distinguishing between taking a fellow Israelite’s possessions when one is obsessed with desire, from taking foreigners’ possessions when one is authorized to do so in war. The Torah is full of commands to the Israelites to strip the Canaanites of all their possessions as they conquer the land. Other rules in the Torah discuss the correct ways of taking booty in battles with other countries. This is not the kind of robbing the Torah would include in the Ten Commandments.

Those who covet what belongs to others also harm themselves; envious obsession does not make for a happy life.  But is it possible to legislate feelings?

Yes, according to 11th-century commentator Abraham ben Meir Ibn Ezra. He wrote that just as a man does not desire to sleep with his mother, although she be beautiful, because he has been trained from his childhood to know that she is prohibited to him,” sensible people may notice that certain people or things owned by others are desirable, but they dismiss any covetous thoughts about possessions that are obviously off-limits.13

The remaining question is why the tenth commandment prohibits a feeling, when the other nine commandments prohibit or require an action.

While classic commentary claims that the tenth commandment really prohibits the act of robbery, I would argue that this final commandment caps the Decalogue by implying that obsessive thoughts about illegal deeds can lead to everything the Torah considers evil, from worshiping other gods (Commandment 1) to murder (6), adultery (7), and theft (8). Failing to honor one’s parents(5) could be the result of nursing resentment against them for their own bad deeds, and giving false testimony (9) could be the result of a consuming desire for popularity in the crowd that is accusing the defendant.

Therefore an appropriate update of the tenth commandment could be simply:

You must not covet anything that belongs to another person.

An alternative that encompasses a wider range of negative obsessions is:

You must not dwell on desires that would cause harm to others.

  1. The “Ten Commandments” is the popular English designation for the ten precepts God utters at Mount Sinai, listed in both Exodus 20:2-14 (in the Torah portion Yitro) and Deuteronomy 5:6-18 (in Va-etchanan).
  2. See Yitro, Mishpatim, and Va-etchanan: Relative or Relevant? Part 1 and Part 2.
  3. At least two witnesses are required for conviction in a legal case according to Deuteronomy 17:6, 19:15.
  4. Many English verstions of Exodus 23:2 including the standard JPS (Jewish Publication Society) translation, interpret the word rabim (רַבִּים) as the wealthy, even though its usual meaning is “the many”. But the Talmud, Rashi, and at least two careful modern translations interpret rabim as the many or the majority.4 Talmud Bavli, Bava Metzia 59b, Chullin 11a, Sanhedrin 2a. Rashi on 23:2. Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2004, p. 448. Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses, Schocken Books, New York, 1983, p. 383.
  5. 17th-century commentator Abraham ben Meir Ibn Ezra, translated in
  6. Exodus 23:6-8 instructs judges not to bend the truth to help or harm the poor, as well as to reject bribes—presumably from the wealthy. Also see Leviticus 19:15.
  7. g. Exodus 22:20-26 in the Torah portion Mishpatim, which also reiterates the commandment against favoring the poor in a legal case (Exodus 23:3).
  8. The laws in Mishpatim on theft (Exodus 21:37-22:3 and 22:6-8) are more closely related to the eighth commandment, “You must not steal”, and are covered in my post Yitro, Mishpatim, and Va-etchanan: Relative or Relevant? Part 2.
  9. See Leonard Greenspoon, “Do Not Covet: Is It a Feeling or an Action?”,
  10. The proof text given in Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael 20:14:1-3 (2nd-3rd century C.E.) and other early commentaries is Micah 2:1-2. This line of reasoning considers the eighth commandment, “You must not steal”, a prohibition against kidnapping a man who is not the property of anyone else. (E.g. Sanhedrin 86a).
  11. Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael 20:14:1-3, from
  12. Numbers 11:4, 11:34, and 34:10; Deuteronomy 12:20 and 14:26; 1 Samuel 2:16; 2 Samuel 23:15 and 1 Chronicles 11:17; Micah 7:1; Psalm 106:13-14; Proverbs 23:3 and 23:6.
  13. Translation of Ibn Ezra in

Yitro, Mishpatim, and Va-etchanan: Relative or Relevant? Part 2

Are the last six of the Ten Commandments universal ethical precepts, good for all places and times? Or are they morally relative, guides only to correct behavior within the ancient Israelite culture?

Last week’s post1 examined commandments five (honoring parents) and six (no killing). This week, Part 2 will assess commandments seven (no adultery) and eight (no stealing). Check in next week for the last two commandments, on false testimony and coveting.


The Seventh Commandment

Lo tinaf. (Exodus 20:13)

lo tinaf (לֺא תִנְאָף) = you must not commit adultery. (From the verb na-af, נַאַף = committed adultery between a man and a married or engaged woman.)

Bathsheba, by Jean-Leon Gerome, 1889. (King David, the peeping tom at the upper left, commits adultery with her.)

Adultery in the Hebrew bible is consensual sexual intercourse between a married or engaged woman and a man who is not her husband or fiancé. This type of liaison was such a serious transgression in Ancient Israel that the Torah prescribes the death penalty for both partners.

And a man who yinaf with a man’s wife, who yinaf with the wife of his fellow, he shall definitely be put to death, the no-eif and the no-afet. (Leviticus 20:10)

yinaf (יִנְאַף) = he commits adultery. (Another conjugation of the verb na-af.)

no-eif (נֺאֵף) = the male adulterer. (From the root verb na-af.)

no-afet (נֺאָפֶת) = the female adulterer. (From the root verb na-af.)

Yet it is not wrong in the Torah for a married man to have sex with a woman other than his wife, as long as she is single and not living with her father—i.e. if she is a prostitute, or perhaps an independent widow. It is also acceptable for a man to have a second wife, a concubine, or a female slave acquired for sexual purposes.

A woman, however, can belong to only one man.

Most women in the Torah who are not slaves are the property of their fathers or their husbands. Therefore when a man commits adultery he is, in effect, stealing another man’s property.

What if a man has sex with a virgin who still belongs to her father? The law for this specific case is given in this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim (“Laws”), and it applies whether the man is married or unmarried:

And if a man persuades a virgin who is not engaged, and lies down with her, he must give her a marriage contract to be his wife. [But] if her father definitely refuses to give her to him, he must weigh out the same amount of silver as in the marriage contract for virgins. (Exodus 22:15-16)

Either way, the seducer’s payment goes to the virgin’s father, since she is her father’s property.

When a society grants women equal rights and autonomy, so they are no longer property, the Hebrew Bible’s reason for condemning adultery vanishes. Does that mean it is not immoral in Western society today for a married person to have sex outside the marriage?

In that case, adultery is unethical for a different reason. When people of any gender commit themselves to fidelity in marriage, they make a vow in front of witnesses. This is a promise and a binding contract. It is unethical to violate the terms of a contract while it is still in force. Only after divorce proceedings have been filed to end that type of marriage can a person add a sexual partner without committing an immoral deed.

The seventh commandment would be universally relevant if it were phrased this way:

You must not break a vow to another person without formally dissolving it first.

This version would cover not only exclusive marriage vows but all formal vows, including employment agreements and other legal contracts. The Torah also considers vows sacred obligations whether they are made to God or to other humans.2

The Eighth Commandment

After the commandment prohibiting the theft of a man’s wife or fiancée comes a commandment prohibiting other kinds of theft.

Lo tignov. (Exodus 20:14)

lo tignov (לֺא תִגְנֺב) = you must not steal, you must not covertly take what rightfully belongs to another. (From the verb ganav, גָּנַב = stole.)

Pickpocket detail from The Fortune Teller, by Georges de La Tour, ca. 1630

The eighth commandment covers kidnapping a man or boy,3 as well as stealing livestock, silver, or other goods. This week’s portion, Mishpatim, gives the penalties for several kinds of stealing.

Vegoneiv a man and sells him, and [the man] is found in his possession, he shall definitely be put to death. If a man yignov a bull or a lamb and slaughters it or sells it, he must pay compensation with five cattle to replace the bull, or four sheep to replace the lamb. (Exodus 21:16-17)

vegoneiv (וְגֹנֵב) = and one who steals. (From the same root as ganav.)

yignov (יִגְנֺב) = he steals. (Another form of the verb ganav.)

A thief must also pay compensation for stealing an animal and keeping it:

If hagenavah is found alive in his possession, from a bull to a donkey to a lamb, he must pay compensation for double [the value]. (Exodus 22:3)

hagenavah (הַגְּנֵבָה) = the stolen item. (From the root verb ganav.)

In other words, someone who “steals” or kidnaps a male human being gets the death penalty;4 but someone who steals livestock (or an inanimate object) must pay the owner compensation worth significantly more than the stolen item.

Anyone but a sociopath would consider kidnapping a human worse than stealing an animal or object. And all human cultures consider it unethical to steal what really belongs to another. But cultures differ on what can be rightfully owned by an individual, and what is owned in common by the social group or the state.

When Pierre-Joseph Proudhon wrote “Property is theft!”,5 he expressed his opposition to private ownership of land. Karl Marx opposed the private ownership of both land and the means of production.6 Socialism approves of individual ownership of land and businesses up to a point, but reserves ownership of the largest and most indispensable industries and utilities for the state. Capitalism, which is becoming the dominant economic culture in the world, supports individual and corporate ownership of almost everything except human beings, accepting state ownership only in areas that serve the interests of corporations.

Theft certainly covers one individual stealing from another. But is it theft when a corporation or a government entity legally takes something from an individual? Who rightfully owns what?

Another issue is that stealing, goneiv (גֺּוֵב), implies taking what belongs to another by stealth, covertly. Appropriating something that belongs to another overtly, by force, is robbing, gozeil (גּוֹזֵל) in Biblical Hebrew.

I proposed rephrasing the eighth commandment slightly:

You must not covertly take what rightfully belongs to another.

We form our own opinions about what rightfully belongs to the state, to a corporation, or to an individual, and judge the morality of a particular covert appropriation of something accordingly. However, the legality of the particular appropriation is determined by the state.

  1. Yitro, Mishpatim, and Va-etchanan: Relative or Relevant? Part 1.
  2. g. Numbers 30:2-10.
  3. A woman “steals” (vatignov) an underage boy and hides him in 2 Kings 11:2.
  4. One girl is kidnapped in the Hebrew Bible in order to be seduced (Genesis 34:1-4). Women and girls are also seized as booty in war.
  5. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Qu’est-ce que la propriété? ou, Recherches sur le principe du droit et du gouvernement, Paris, 1840.
  6. Karl Marx, Das Kapital, Vol. III, Verlag von Otto Meisner, Publisher, 1867.


Yitro, Mishpatim, & Va-etchanan: Relative or Relevant? Part 1

Moses on south frieze of Supreme Court building, by Adolph Weinman

The “Ten Commandments”1 are fundamental precepts, good for all time, right? Well, maybe.

The first four of the ten commandments (which appear in this week’s Torah portion, Yitro, in the book of Exodus, and again in Va-etchanan in the book of Deuteronomy) are religious injunctions. They prohibit having other gods,2 making or worshiping idols, swearing falsely in the name of God,3 and working on the holy seventh day of the week, Shabbat. These four commandments are hardly universal precepts, since they do not apply to people with other religions (including atheism).

The next six commandments, however, are about ethics, i.e. the right way to treat other people:

  1. Honor your father and your mother …
  2. You must not kill.
  3. You must not commit adultery.
  4. You must not steal.
  5. You must not testify falsely.
  6. You must not covet …

Not all of these commandments are easy to interpret outside the context of the social customs of the Ancient Near East.  Does that mean they are morally relative, guides only to correct behavior within the ancient Israelite culture? Or are they nevertheless moral absolutes, still relevant today?

This week’s post examines commandments five and six. Next week, Part 2 will assess commandments seven and eight. The week after that, Part 3 will explore the last two commandments.


The Fifth Commandment

Kabeid your father and your mother, so that your days will be long on the earth that God, your God, is giving to you. (Exodus/Shemot 20:12)

kabeid (כַּבֵּד) = honor, treat as important. (From the same root as the adjective kabeid, כַּבֵּד = heavy, weighty, impressive, oppressive, dull, hard.)

According to traditional commentary, if you honor your parents, your children will honor you.4 That means your adult children will make sure you are well fed and housed when you can no longer manage on your own, and therefore you will indeed live longer. (No wonder having children is a top priority in the Torah!)5

Maimonides wrote that in addition to making sure our parents have food, clothing, and shelter, we must be indulgent with them if they have dementia. When adult children can no long bear the strain of tending such a parent, they may hire others to take care of them.6

Honoring one’s parents goes beyond providing for their physical needs in the Torah. Next week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, assigns the death penalty to the crime of hitting parents, or even speaking ill of them.

And one who strikes his father or his mother shall certainly be put to death. (Exodus 21:15)

And mekaleil his father or his mother shall certainly be put to death. (Exodus 21:17)

mekaleil (מְקַלֵּל) = one who belittles, one who curses.

There is no penalty in the Hebrew bible for a parent hitting or belittling a child. Hitting children in order to discipline them is considered a good deed in the book of Proverbs.7 Elsewhere parents are required to teach their children certain laws and traditions from the Torah,8 but the bible is silent about child abuse or neglect.9

This silence reflects the culture of the Ancient Near East, in which underage children were the property of their fathers and had no rights of their own. In other cultures, child abuse and neglect are considered criminal, and the ethical standard is for parents to treat their children with kindness and respect them as individuals, while still teaching them acceptable behavior in their society.

The fifth commandment implies that we should treat our parents with respect whether they deserve it or not.10 This may be a worthy aspiration, but when parents have seriously abused or neglected children while they were growing up, honoring and taking care of these bad parents could make the lives of their adult children unbearable.

I believe the fifth commandment should not be a universal ethical rule as it stands. I would amend it this way:

Parents must respect their children, and children must respect their parents.

The Sixth Commandment

The Servants of Absalom Killing Amnon, Heinrich Aldegrever, 1540

Lo tirtzach. (Exodus 20:13)

lo tirtzach (לֺא תִרְצָח) = you must not kill without a legal sanction. (From the verb ratzach, רָצַח.)

This commandment is sometimes translated into English as “You shall not kill” and sometimes as “You shall not murder”. Does the Torah distinguish between accidental manslaughter and deliberate murder?

The death penalty is prescribed only for pre-meditated murder in next week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim.

One who strikes down a man so that he dies, he [the one who struck] shall certainly be put to death. [However, if it was] one who did not stalk him, but God let [the one who died] fall by his hand, I will appoint a place for you where he can flee. But if someone plots against his fellow to kill him with cunning, from [even] my altar you shall take him to die. (Exodus 21:12-14)

More specifics are given in the Torah portion Masey in the book of Numbers, which also uses a form of the same verb as in the sixth commandment: ratzach.11 Here God orders the Israelites to set aside six cities of refuge once they have conquered Canaan.

… cities of refuge they shall be for you, and a rotzeiach who struck down a life inadvertently will flee there.” (Numbers 35:11)

rotzeiach (רֺצֵַח) = someone who commits either  premeditated murder or involuntary manslaughter. (The participle form of the verb ratzach).

Then God tells Moses:

But if one struck with an iron implement and [the victim] died, he is a rotzeiach and the rotzeiach must certainly be put to death. … Or [if] in enmity he struck him with his hand and [the victim] died, he shall certainly be put to death. (Numbers 35:16, 35:21)

Someone who kills accidentally can live in exile; someone who kills deliberately (either out of hatred or by using an implement well-known to cause death) gets the death penalty. The executioner, in that case, is the “redeemer of bloodshed”, a designated avenger from the family of the deceased victim. The commandment against killing does not apply to the avenger.

Nor does it apply to soldiers who kill enemies in battle. The Torah never criticizes the Israelites for starting a war, regardless of the reason. Moses only rules (in the Torah portion Shoftim in Deuteronomy) that when the Israelites attack a town outside Canaan merely in order to expand their territory or get some booty, they must first offer the option of “peaceful” surrender.

And if [the town] answers you with peace and opens itself to you, then all the people found inside it will be yours for forced labor, and they must serve you. But if it does not make peace with you, and does battle, and you besiege it, and God places it in your hand, then you shall put all its males to the edge of the sword. However, the women and the little ones and the livestock and everything that is in the town, all its plunder you shall plunder for yourself … However, in the towns of these peoples [Canaanites] which God, your God, is giving you as a hereditary possession, you shall not let a soul live. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 20:11-16)

These two approaches to conquest were considered ethical in the Ancient Near East. But today, an increasing number of people believe that even when a killing is legal, it may not be ethical.

Many people would agree with the commandment lo tirtzach, you must not kill without a legal sanction. But standards have changed for when it should be legal to kill someone. The death penalty is now banned in a majority of countries in the world, and is controversial in the United States.

War, on the other hand, is still an option for every nation. But some acts during war are now considered war crimes, and there is more interest in minimizing the deaths of non-combatants. Most people condone killing in self-defense, whether it is killing an individual who is about to kill you, or fighting a nation that has attacked yours. But is initiating a war justified if the purpose is to defend the citizens of an allied nation, or to defend a principle such as democracy?

A basic moral rule must be brief and express an ethical ideal, even if there are gray and cloudy areas in its application. The sixth commandment, which merely says “You must not ratzach” (You must not kill without a legal sanction) meets this requirement as it stands.

But I believe that too many types of killing have been legal, in both ancient Israelite and modern Western societies. An ethical ideal, in my opinion, would be more restricted. So I would like to propose this amended sixth commandment:

You must not kill except to prevent someone from being killed.


Next week I will address what the seventh and eighth commandments mean when they prohibit adultery and theft—then and now.

  1. Exodus 20:1 introduces what we call “the Ten Commandments” in English with “And God spoke all these devarim”. Devarim, דְּבָרִים = words, statements, things. In Deuteronomy, Moses calls the ten “commandments” the devar of God; devar is the singular of devarim.
  2. See my 2011 post Yitro: Not in My Face.
  3. See my 2014 post Yitro: The Power of the Name.
  4. E.g. the Book of Sirach, 3:1-16 (second century B.C.E.)
  5. In first-world countries today, the whole society pays various taxes to take care of its aged population through various taxes. Yet when old people can no longer manage certain tasks themselves, their adult children are still expected to meet some obligations.
  6. Maimonides (12th-century Moses ben Maimon or “Rambam”), Mishneh Torah, book 14, treatise 3, chapter 6:10, as quoted in Edward Hoffman, The Wisdom of Maimonides, Trumpeter, Boston, 2008, p. 114-115.
  7. Proverbs 13:24, 19:18, 22:15, 29:15.
  8. E.g. Exodus 13:8; Deuteronomy 6:6-7 and 11:19.
  9. One father, Jepthah/Yiptach, vows that if God gives him success in battle he will offer to God whatever comes out of his house first when he returns. He is dismayed when his daughter runs out to greet him. But this father is portrayed as foolish, not abusive. He immediately grants her request for a two-month postponement so she can “cry over her virginity”. The cautionary tale ends without clarifying whether Yiptach’s daughter was slaughtered at the altar or given to the local sanctuary. (Judges 11:30-35)
  10. See my 2015 post Yitro: The Heaviness of Honoring Parents. The Book of Sirach adds: Help your father in his old age, and do not grieve him as long as he lives; Even if he is lacking in understanding, show forbearance …”
  11. For more on the words ratzach and rotzeiach, see Marty Lockshin, “Does the Torah Differentiate between Murder and Killing?”,


Haftarat Beshallach—Judges: A Humble Commander

Red Sea in Golden Haggadah, c. 1320, Spain

Pharaoh lets the Israelites leave without conditions in last week’s Torah portion, Bo. But God hardens Pharaoh’s heart one last time in this week’s Torah portion, Beshallach, in order to have an excuse to create another miracle.1 When the Israelites are trapped between Pharaoh’s charioteers and the Reed Sea, they complain that Moses rescued them from servitude in Egypt only to so they would die in the wilderness.2 Moses raises his staff, God splits the Reed Sea, the Israelites cross over, and the water surges back and drowns the Egyptian army.

Moses, as usual, is the mediator between God and the Israelites. For the rest of his life he doggedly continues speaking to both sides and doing whatever it takes to keep the people moving toward Canaan.

He never wanted this role. Four times at the burning bush Moses tried to persuade God to send someone else.3 Finally God talked him into it—or perhaps the deciding factor was Moses’ compassion for the oppressed, which had already moved him to kill an Egyptian beating a Hebrew man, and defend seven shepherdesses from a gang of men who drove them away from a well.4

I admire Moses’ humility, as well as his courage and cleverness when he talks God out of killing all the Israelites after the golden calf fiasco.5 Most of all, I admire his unselfish dedication to others. He makes a few ethical mistakes, but overall he consistently labors for the welfare of the Israelites in his charge, ignoring his own interests.


This week’s haftarah reading from the book of Judges includes three admirable characters. Devorah and Ya-eil both act with courage and intelligence, like the women at the beginning of the book of Exodus: the two chief midwives, Shifrah and Puah,6 Moses’ mother, Yocheved,7 and Pharaoh’s daughter, who adopts the infant Moses and hires Yocheved to nurse him.8

But the character I admire most in this week’s haftarah is a man.

Just before the haftarah, the book of Judges says that the Israelites are once again oppressed, this time by a Canaanite king who has a large chariot regiment. God let it happen because the Israelites were straying after other gods again.

Assyrian war chariot

Then God handed them over into the power of Yavin, a king of Canaan who reigned in Chatzor. And the commander of his army was Sisera, who headquartered at Charoshet Hagoyim. And the Israelites cried out to God, because he had nine hundred iron chariots, and he had oppressed the Israelites violently for twenty years. (Judges/Shoftim 4:2-3)

The Israelite tribes have only foot soldiers, and no king to unite them. But they do have a prophetess named Devorah.

Devorah was a prophet-woman, wife of Lapidot. She was the judge of Israel at that time … and the Israelites went to her for legal decisions. (Judges 4:4-5)

This woman has the same role as Samuel in the first book of Samuel: she both interprets the word of God and makes rulings in disputes, including disputes between tribes. Devorah has the most authority among the Israelites, as Samuel did later, before the first Israelite king.

And she sent and summoned Barak, son of Avinoam, from Kedesh of Naftali, and she said to him: “Is it not [that] God, the God of Israel, commanded: Go umashakhta on Mount Tabor! And you shall take with you ten thousand men from Naftali and from Zevulun. Umashakhti toward you the stream of Kishon; Sisera, the commander of the army of Yavin; and his chariots and his force. And I will put them in your power.” (Judges 4:6-7)

umashakhta (וּמָשַׁכְתָּ) = and you shall pull together, draw to yourself, rally.

umashakhti (וּמָשַׁכְתִּי) = and I will pull, draw.

When Barak hears this command from God, he is hesitant. He does not doubt God’s power, but he doubts his own. Maybe he wonders if he could muster enough fighting men, or maybe he wonders if the men would obey his orders. He knows Devorah has the real authority.

And Barak said to her: “If you go with me then I will go, but if you do not go with me I will not go.” And she said: “I will certainly go with you. Only honor will not be yours on the road that you are following, because through the power of a woman God will hand over Sisera.” And Devorah got up and went with Barak to Kedesh. And Barak mustered Zevulun and Naftali at Kedesh, and ten thousand men went up on his heels, and Devorah went up with him. (Judges 4:8-10)

I admire Barak for his humility. He is more interested in freeing the Israelites from the oppressive rule of King Yavin than he is in his own honor. He accepts his loss of status if the men see him taking orders from a woman.

Barak and Devorah lead the Israelite troops to the top of Mount Tavor. Sisera orders all his chariots and troops to move to the almost dry Kishon River. Then Devorah tells Barak:

“Get up! Because this is the day when God will give Sisera into your power. Is it not God who goes before you?” (Judges 4:14)

Barak leads his foot soldiers in a charge down the slope of Mount Tavor.

And God threw into confusion Sisera and every chariot and every warrior [so they fell] to the edge of the sword before Barak. And Sisera descended from his chariot and fled on foot. And Barak pursued the chariots and the warriors as far as Charoshet Hagoyim, and every warrior of Sisera fell to the edge of the sword; not one remained. (Judges 4:15-16)

The poem following the narrative of Sisera’s defeat explains that God turns the Kishon into a raging torrent that sweeps away Sisera’s army9.

Barak rallies the troops, but in Devorah’s name. He leads the charge, but only when Devorah says it was time. Then God drowns Sisera’s army at the Kidron, just as God drowned Pharaoh’s army at the Reed Sea.10

Sisera, the commander of King Yavin’s army, flees on foot to the nearby campsite of Chever the Kenite. He assumes he can find shelter there, because that Chever’s family is one of King Yavin’s allies. Chever’s wife, Ya-eil (Jael), is alone inside her tent when Sisera arrives. Maybe Sisera chooses her tent because everyone else is gone, or maybe it is the first tent he reaches.

Study of Jael, by Carlo Maratta ca. 1700

When he asks Ya-eil for water she gives him milk. When he falls asleep she hammers a tent pin through his head.11

Ya-eil, like Devorah, is both courageous and clever. But is she ethical? The book of Judges does not say why Ya-eil kills Sisera. Does she empathize with the Israelite tribes? Is she feuding with her husband or her husband’s family, Sisera’s allies? Or does she have some private reason that did not make it into the book? Without knowing her motive for killing Sisera, we cannot judge Ya-eil’s moral character.

And hey! Barak was pursuing Sisera, and Ya-eil went out to greet him. And she said to him: “Come, and I will show you the man whom you are seeking.” (Judges 4:22)

Barak is prepared to kill Sisera, but he finds out that a woman beat him to it. Devorah’s prophecy that “through the power of a woman God will hand over Sisera” is fulfilled twice: Sisera’s army is defeated with the help of Devorah, and Sisera himself is killed by Ya-eil.


Yes, the two women are admirable for their courage, their quick thinking, and their refusal to play the role of submissive wife. But I think Barak is even more admirable. He does not lack courage; after all, he leads the charge down to the enemy forces with their dangerous iron chariots, and then he pursues Sisera single-handedly. But like Moses, Barak is also humble. Her publicly admits that Devorah, a woman, is more powerful and respected than he.

And Barak follows Devorah’s directions for an ethical reason: to rescue the Israelites from oppression.

  1. Exodus 14:4, 14:8-9.
  2. And they said to Moses: “Was it because there are no graves in Egypt that you took us out to die in the wilderness?” (Exodus 14:11)
  3. Exodus 3:10-12, 4:1, 4:10-13.
  4. Exodus 2:11-17.
  5. Exodus 32:7-14.
  6. Exodus 1:15-22. See my post Shemot: Disobedient Midwives.
  7. Exodus 2:1-4. See my post Shemot & Psalm 137: Cry Like a Baby.
  8. Exodus 2:5-10.
  9. Judges 5:20-21. The poem also adds troops from three other Israelite tribes (Efrayim, Benyamin, and Issachar) to Barak’s army. (Judges 5:14-15).
  10. Exodus 14:10-30.
  11. Judges 4:17-21.

Bo: Pride and Ethics

Haggadah by Judah Pinḥas, Germany, 1747

Pharaoh wants the Israelites to stay in Egypt and serve him as corvée laborers making bricks and building cities. God wants the Israelites to walk out of Egypt, take over Canaan, and serve “him”.  In an effort to terrorize Pharaoh into letting the Israelites go, God afflicts Egypt with ten “plagues” or miraculous disasters: blood, frogs, lice, mixed vermin, cattle pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, utter darkness, and death of the firtborn.

The God-character reveals another divine agenda in last week’s Torah portion, Va-eira, just before the plague of hail.

Shalach my people so they can serve me! Because this time I myself sholeiach all my scourges into your heart and against your courtiers and against your people, so that you will see that there is none like me on all the earth. Indeed, by now shalachti my hand and struck you and your people with the pestilence, and you would have been effaced from the earth. However, for the sake of this I have let you stand: so that I can show you my power and make my name known throughout the earth.” (Exodus 9:14-16)

shalach (שַׁלַּח) = Send! Send forth! Send out! Let go! Release!

sholeiach (שֺׁלֵחַ) = am sending, am sending forth, am sending out, am letting go, am releasing.

shalachti (שָׁלַחְתִּי) = I sent, I could have sent, I could have stretched out, I could have released.

(Throughout the story of the ten plagues, forms of the verb shalach are used both when God releases a plague, and when anyone talks about Pharaoh releasing the Israelites.)

Before sending the hail, the God-character reveals that “his” other goal is to prove to the whole world that “he” is the most powerful god. Being recognized as the most powerful seems more important to the God depicted in the book of Exodus than any moral considerations.1

The ethical problem with the God-character’s actions is that the plagues afflict not only Pharaoh, but also the native Egyptians. Why should ordinary Egyptians suffer? Pharaoh is the one who keeps refusing to let the Israelites go; his people have no say in the matter.

Some commentators have claimed that all the Egyptian people are on Pharaoh’s side, so they deserve to be punished. But there is nothing in the text of the Torah to indicate this. Pharaoh issues a general order for “all his people” to throw male Israelite infants into the Nile in last week’s Torah portion, Shemot.2 But the Torah never reports an Egyptian actually doing so. The only Egyptians who act against Israelites in the book of Exodus are:

  • Pharaoh, who issues commands calling for their oppression and death.
  • Egyptian taskmasters supervising the corvée labor, who oppress and beat the Israelites.3
  • Pharaoh’s armed regiment of charioteers, who pursue them after they leave Egypt.4

Yet the other native Egyptians also suffer from God’s ten plagues. Is their suffering unavoidable collateral damage in the war between Pharaoh and God? Or does God choose miracles that harm the most people on purpose, in order to make a more dramatic display of power?


Plague of the Firstborn, Spanish haggadah c. 1490

The tenth and final plague, described in this week’s Torah portion, Bo, is death of the firstborn.

And it was the middle of the night, and God struck down all the first-born in the land of Egypt, from the first-born of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the first-born of the captive who was in the dungeon, to all the first-born of the livestock. (Exodus 12:29)

Only the Israelites receive God’s instructions to paint blood on their door frames and stay inside overnight to avoid the death of any of their first-born.5

Is this extreme unethical measure necessary in order to make Pharaoh submit? Or does the God-character kill every first-born in every Egyptian family merely in order to make a more dramatic display of power?

A necessary evil

The mass murder does appear to achieve the liberation of hundreds of thousands of oppressed Israelites.

And Pharaoh got up in the night, he and all his courtiers and all the Egyptians. And there was a great wailing outcry in Egypt, because there was no house without someone dead. And he summoned Moses and Aaron in the night and he said: “Arise, go out from among my people, you and also the Israelites, and go serve God, as you spoke! Take even your flocks and your herds, as you spoke, and go! And may you also bless me.” (Exodus 12:30-32)

Only after the death of the first-born does Pharaoh capitulate and tell the Israelites to go with everything Moses asked for. He even lowers himself by asking for a blessing, acknowledging that he cannot prosper again without God’s help.

Pharaoh loses his own first-born son, a blow that would shatter the hardest heart. But the wailing all over his capital city would reinforce his new despair. He may suspect that if he does not let the Israelites go now, the Egyptian people will revolt against him. The authority conferred upon him by the gods of Egypt no longer holds when the God of Israel is obviously more powerful.

A dramatic display

On the other hand, after three of the plagues (boils, locusts, and darkness) the Torah says that God hardens Pharaoh’s heart.6 What does this mean?

Pharaoh hardens his own heart after the plague of frogs, and continues to harden it four more times.7 He is in the habit of hardening his heart, and once we get into a habit, it can seem as if an outside force makes us keep doing it again and again. But in the text of Exodus, there is an outside force, and it is God. Before the plagues begin, the God-character tells Moses:

“And I myself will harden the heart of Pharaoh, and I will multiply my signs and my omens in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 7:3)

The God-character follows up on this promise by deliberately hardening Pharaoh’s heart three times when Pharaoh is softening and might give in. The God-character does not want Pharaoh to let the Israelites go before “he” is ready. And the God-character is only ready after “he” has a chance to commit the tenth and most emotionally devastating plague: the death of the firstborn.

Apparently the God-character is so fixated on the goal of demonstrating power that the full ten-step dramatic display, from blood to death, is worth postponing the liberation of the Israelites. Demonstrating power is also far more important to this God-character than minimizing the suffering of innocent Egyptians.


Red Sea in Golden Haggadah, c. 1320, Spain

After the final plague, the Israelites march into the wilderness, but Pharaoh changes his mind about letting them go. The God-character hardens Pharaoh’s heart one last time in next week’s Torah portion, Beshallach, and Pharaoh commands his charioteers to pursue the Israelites. This gives the God-character a chance to create another memorable miracle: the splitting of the Reed Sea, and the return of the waters in time to drown the Egyptian chariot regiment.8

And Israel saw the great power that God wielded against Egypt, and the people were awed by God, and they had faith in God and in [God’s] servant Moses. (Exodus 14:31)

This miracle impresses both the Egyptians and the Israelites with God’s power. The fact that it also avoids killing any innocent bystanders is probably incidental in the book of Exodus.

Although Exodus is based on older oral traditions, modern scholars estimate that it was written down in the 6th and 5th centuries B.C.E. About a thousand years later, the rabbis of the Talmud imagined a different sort of God responding to the death of the Egyptian soldiers.

At that time the ministering angels wanted to recite a song before the Holy One, Blessed be He. The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to them: “My creatures are drowning in the sea, and you are reciting a song before me?” (Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 39b and Megillah 10b)

As the ethics of the Israelites advanced, so did the ethics of their God.

  1. See Jerome M. Segal’s treatment of this theme in his book Joseph’s Bones: Understanding the Struggle Between God and Mankind in the Bible, Riverhead Books, Penguin Group, New York, 2007.
  2. Exodus 1:22.
  3. Exodus 1:13-14 reports unspecified ruthless oppression by the taskmasters; Exodus 2:11 and 5:15-16 report beatings.
  4. Pharaoh and his charioteers pursue the Israelites after Pharaoh changes his mind about letting them go in Exodus 14:6-10. The disciplined Egyptian charioteers advance at the Reed Sea in order to kill some Israelites and capture the rest, but God intervenes with a miracle.
  5. Exodus 12:6-7, 12:21-23.
  6. Exodus 9:12, 10:20, 10:27.
  7. Exodus 8:11, 8:15, 8:28, 9:7, 9:34.
  8. Exodus 14:5-30.

Shemot: Disobedient Midwives

What if someone who should have moral authority orders you to do something immoral?

The Israelites have lived in Egypt for generations when the first Torah portion of Exodus, Shemot (“Names”) begins. But they are still not native Egyptians, and the new pharaoh thinks that in the event of a war, they might join the enemy. And there are too many of them!

Slaves making bricks, detail from tomb of Egyptian vizier Rekmire, c. 1450 C.E.

Pharaoh’s first attempt at population control is to conscript the Israelite men for corvée labor building cities. Assigning this hard labor to a large immigrant population may be popular among native Egyptians. But why does Pharaoh think it will reduce the Israelite population? Ibn Ezra suggested that they were driven ruthlessly so that the semen of the men would dry up. Chizkuni wrote that Pharaoh expected they would be too overworked to engage in marital intercourse.1

Yet the Israelite population keeps on increasing.2

Then the king of Egypt said to the midwives of the Ivriyot, of whom the first was named Shifrah and the second was named Puah—he said: “When you deliver [the children of] the Hebrew women, then you must look at the pair of stones. If it is a son, then you must kill him, but if it is a daughter, vachayah.” (Exodus/Shemot 1:15-16)

Ivriyot (עִבְרִיֺּת) = Hebrews. In Genesis through 2 Samuel, Egyptians and Philistines sometimes call an Israelite an Ivri as an ethnic slur implying the person is a foreigner with low social status.

vachayah (וָחָיָה) = and/then she shall live. (A form of the verb chayah, הָיָה = lived.)

Egyptian goddess Isis giving birth on two stones, attended by Hathor figures

Women giving birth in ancient Egypt squatted or kneeled on two parallel stones or bricks. A midwife knelt in front of the woman and caught the baby as it came out between the stones, while two women stationed on either side gave the laboring woman physical and emotional support.

Since only Shifrah and Puah are named in the passage above, some Jewish exegesis imagines only two midwives for hundreds of thousands of Israelite women.3 A more reasonable interpretation is that Shifrah is the foremost midwife, perhaps the head of her guild, and Puah is her second-in-command.

Although Shifrah and Puah are Semetic names,4 it is hard to believe that Pharaoh would give Israelite midwives instructions to kill every male newborn among their own people.5 Furthermore, Pharaoh would not want the Israaelites to know about his order; if they did, they would stop using Egyptian midwives.6 We must assume that midwifery was monopolized by native Egyptians, and Pharoah expects professional Egyptian midwives to obey the king and feel no concern over the deaths of immigrant children.7

But Pharaoh is wrong.

And the midwives feared the gods, and they did not do what the king of Egypt spoke to them. Vatechayeyna the boys. (Exodus 1:17)

vatechayeyna (וַתְּחַיֶּיןָ) = and they kept alive. (Another form of the verb chayah.)

What does it mean that the midwives fear the gods? One meaning of “fearing God” in the Torah is feeling awe and respect for God. The other meaning is being averse to doing an immoral deed.7 Torah assumes that a sincerely religious person is an ethical person. Here “fearing the gods” means that the midwives have strong moral intuitions.

But they also face a moral dilemma. For millennia cultures throughout the world assigned a high moral value to maintaining an orderly society by doing one’s duty, respecting each person’s station in life, and obeying legitimate authorities.8 (This moral value continues in traditional cultures today.) A king’s subjects have a duty to respect his authority and obey his orders. And who could be a more legitimate authority than the pharaoh, who is the sacred mediator between the people and the gods, maintaining the balance of the world?9

On the other hand, two universal moral intuitions are that it is wrong to harm another human being, and that it is wrong to abuse one’s power by oppressing others.10 Killing the baby boys is a case of harming humans without justice. (These infants are innocent, healthy, and wanted by their parents.) The fact that Pharaoh ordered the killings indicates that he is abusing his power and acting as an oppressor.

When people face circumstances in which two or more moral values conflict, we have to either choose the most important  value in that situation, or act for a non-ethical reason. If the midwives were to make a non-ethical choice, they would obey Pharaoh’s orders and avoid any trouble with the government.

Instead, they apparently decide that Pharaoh’s unreasonable order proves that despite his birth and position, he is no longer a legitimate authority. The moral thing to do is to save the lives of the infant boys and disobey the oppressor.

Shifrah and Puah are brave enough to do what they believe is right. Instead of submitting to Pharaoh’s authority, they “fear the gods”—and “the gods” are a higher authority.

Pharaoh and the Midwives, James Tissot, c. 1900

And the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them: “Why did you do this thing, vatechayeyna the boys?” And the midwives said to Pharaoh: “Because the Ivriyot are not like the Egyptian women, for they are chayot before the midwife comes to them, and they give birth.” (Exodus 1:18-19)

chayot (חָיוֹת) = wild animals. (Same spelling as the infinitive plural form of the verb chayah.)

Shifrah and Puah lie to Pharaoh. They invent a story that calls Israelite women Ivriyot who are wild animals in contrast to civilized Egyptian women. This lie appeals to the king’s anti-Semitic prejudice.  Now the midwives have added lying to disobedience, but both of these actions are in service to a higher morality—and saves their own lives, as well as those of the Israelite boys.

And God was good to the midwives. And the people increased and became very mighty. (Exodus 1:20)

Taking the moral high road is not only dangerous at times, but also confusing when the road forks. May we all become as virtuous as Shifrah and Puah, who confront an ethical contradiction, make an independent decision, and act courageously to do what our inner “gods” know is right.

  1. Commentary to Exodus 1:11 by 12th-century C.E. exegete Abraham ben Meir ibn Ezra; and 13th-century C.E. rabbi Hezekiah ben Manoach, author of Chizkuni.
  2. Traditional midrash on Exodus 1:12 imagines that the women went out to their husbands on their lunch breaks and seduced them with mirrors, bantering over who was more attractive. (This story appears in Midrash Tanchuma, circa 500-800 C.E.)
  3. Ibn Ezra pointed out that Shifrah and Puah can only be the supervisors of many other midwives.
  4. Shifrah is similar to the Hebrew shafrah (שָׁפְרָה) = was pleasing, polished. Puah is similar to a Canaanite name meaning “girl”; alternatively, it might be related to pa-ah (פָּעָה) = groaned (as in childbirth). The Talmud (Sotah 11b) fancifully identifies the two midwives as Yocheved (mother of Moses) and her daughter Miriam, who apparently are using pseudonyms. Although the Torah does include some Egyptian names spelled phonetically, it also sometimes translates foreign names. Examples of foreign names (or titles) translated into Hebrew are Malkitzedek (Genesis 14:18) and Avimelekh (Genesis 20:2).
  5. This point was made by 15th-century C.E. commentator Isaac ben Judah Abarbanel, and assumed by 1st-century C.E. historian Flavius Josephus (Joseph ben Matityahu) in his Antiquties For more detail on the ethnicity of the midwives, see Moshe Lavee and Shana Strauch-Schick,
  6. This point was made by 19th-century commentator Shmuel David Luzzatto.
  7. See Genesis 20:11, Jonah 1:12-16.
  8. Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, Random House, New York, 2012, p. 165-169.
  9. Shirly Ben-Dor Evian, “The Title ‘Pharaoh’”,
  10. Haidt, pp. 153-158, 197-205.

Vayechi: First Versus Favorite

Jacob on his Deathbed, 1539

Jacob dies at age 147 in Vayechi (“and he lived”), the final Torah portion in the book of Genesis. Next week Jews begin the book of Exodus in the annual cycle of Torah readings.

As for me, I am still working on my book about moral mistakes in Genesis. Recent research on moral psychology has made me eager to add new explanations for why many of the characters in Genesis keep acting shady.

Meanwhile, here is an essay from my first draft about how Jacob challenges the rules of his society regarding the firstborn son.

Primogeniture and Favoritism

            In ancient Mesopotamian towns including Mari, Nuzi, and Nippur,1 a man’s firstborn son was obligated to: “Carry on the father’s name (patronym); Manage the family estate;  Provide for minors in the family; Provide a dowry for unmarried sisters; Pay for his parents’ burial and mourning ceremonies and maintain their grave afterwards.”2

In return, the firstborn would receive a double portion of the father’s inheritance, while his brothers and half-brothers received a single portion each.

Jacob blesses Ephraim and Manasseh, by Owen Jones, 1865

The Torah indicates that the firstborn had similar duties and rights among the ancient Israelites. When Jacob adopts Joseph’s two sons in Vayechi, he entreats God:

“Bless the young men!

And may they be called by my name,

And the names of my fathers, Abraham and Isaac.” (Genesis 48:16)

In the Torah a son carries his father’s name when he is called “Isaac ben Abraham” or “Jacob ben Isaac”; ben means “son of”. Here, Jacob assumes the right to carry the name of his own father, Isaac. And he gives that right to the family of Joseph, his favorite son and the oldest son of his favorite wife, not to the family of Reuben, his actual firstborn son.

The firstborn son serves as the family’s priest in the Torah (until this duty is given to the Levites in Numbers 3:5-13). And as in Mesopotamia, a man’s estate was divided into shares equal to the number of his sons plus one, and his firstborn son inherited two shares.

A law in the book of Deuteronomy decrees that a man can assign the extra duties and extra inheritance only to his firstborn son, not to his favorite son.

If a man has two wives, the one loved and the other hated, and they have [both] borne him sons, the loved one and the hated one, and the [man’s] bekhor is the son of the hated one: on the day of bequeathing what he owns to his sons … he must recognize the bekhor, the son of the hated one, giving to him two shares out of all that is found to belong to him, because he [the man’s actual firstborn] is the first of his virility. The law of the bekhorah applies to him. (Deuteronomy 21:15-17)

bekhor (בְּכוֹר) = firstborn son.

bekhorah (בְּכֺרה) = rank and rights as firstborn. (From the same root as bekhor.)

This law is intended to protect the firstborn from losing his rights.


From birth to death, Jacob maneuvers to circumvent the rule of the bekhorah.

He and Esau are twins, but Esau is born first, while Jacob emerges holding onto his brother’s heel, as if he does not want to be left behind. Nevertheless, Esau ranks as firstborn.3 When the twins are young men, Jacob covets the role and rank of the firstborn. One day Esau comes home famished and asks Jacob for some of the stew he is cooking.

Esau Sells his Birthright, by Rembrandt

And Jacob said: “Sell today your bekhorah to me.” And Esau said: “Hey, I am going to die, so why this [bother about] my bekhorah?” And Jacob said: “Swear to me today.” And [Esau] swore to him and he sold his bekhorah to Jacob. Then Jacob give Esau bread and lentil stew … (Genesis 25:31-34)

Thus Jacob cheats his twin out of his rights. But by the time their father dies (at age 180), both brothers are already wealthy from their own efforts. Both Jacob and Esau bury Isaac.4 They have no sisters to marry off, and each brother takes care of his own children. The only firstborn right that Jacob inherits is God’s promise to give Canaan to his descendants. God made the same promise to Abraham, to his younger son Isaac, and finally to Isaac’s younger son Jacob.5


Despite his wealth and God’s promise, Jacob does not forget his resentment about the bekhorah. In fact, he challenges the rule during his two deathbed scenes in the portion Vayechi.

In the first deathbed scene, Jacob adopts Joseph’s two sons, Menasheh and Efrayim.

“And now, your two sons who were born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you in Egypt, they shall be mine; Efrayim and Menasheh shall be mine like Reuben and Simeon.” (Genesis 48:5)

In effect, the adoption gives Joseph the double inheritance of the firstborn.  Instead of getting one share, as Joseph, he will get two shares, in the name of his two sons.

Then Israel said to Joseph: “Hey, I am dying, but God will be with you [all] and return you to the land of your fathers. And I myself give to you one shekhem over your brothers, which I took from the hand of the Emorites with my sword and my bow.” (Genesis 48:21-22)

shekhem (שְׁכֶם) = shoulders; an Amorite town about 30 miles (50 km) north of Jerusalem, where Jacob bought a plot of land in Genesis 33:18-19.

The campsite that Jacob bought near the town of Shekhem could not be of any interest to Joseph, the viceroy of all Egypt. But the author of the story knew that by 900 B.C.E. the two kingdoms of Israel would consist of the territories of twelve tribes. Three tribes (Judah, Benjamin, and Simeon) would occupy the southern Kingdom of Judah, while nine tribes (Efrayim, Menasheh, Reuben, Gad, Dan, Issachar, Zebulun, Asher, and Naphtali) would own territories in the northern Kingdom of Israel.

So what Jacob is really bequeathing to Joseph is a future double portion of the lands of the Israelite tribes in Canaan, lands they do not even begin to conquer until the book of Joshua.  When Joseph is on his own deathbed at the end of the book of Genesis, he asks to be embalmed and buried in Canaan when the Israelites return there someday.6 Joshua buries Joseph at Shekhem.7 By 900 B.C.E., Shekhem is an important city-state in the territory of Efrayim.


Jacob Blesses his Twelve Sons, by Pieter Tanje, 1791

Jacob’s second deathbed scene consists of prophesies about his twelve sons and the tribes that will descend from them.  In his first prophesy he explicitly demotes his oldest son, Reuben.

“Reuben, you are my firstborn,

            My might and the first of my virility,

            Prevailing in rank

            And prevailing in strength.

Reckless like water, you will no longer prevail,

            Because you mounted your father’s couch.

            That was when you profaned my bed.

            He mounted it!”  (Genesis 49:3-4)

Here Jacob’s reason for stripping Reuben of his firstborn rights is Reuben’s incest with Bilhah, one of Jacob’s two concubines.8

The first book of Chronicles explains:

… Reuben, the firstborn of Israel—for he was the firstborn, but when he profaned his father’s couch, his firstborn-right was given to the sons of Joseph son of Israel, and he is not pedigreed as the firstborn, because Judah was more powerful as a leader than his brothers, and the firstborn-right [went] to Joseph— …  (1 Chronicles 5:1-3)

In other words, although Reuben was the first of Jacob’s sons to be born, he does not get either the duty to lead his brothers nor the right to inherit an extra share of their father’s property. Judah is the leader, and Joseph gets the double inheritance.

Sleeping with one’s father’s concubine amounted to a challenge to the father’s authority over the household.9 Yet for decades Jacob and Reuben behaved as if it had never happened. There is no indication in the Torah that Jacob ever punished Reuben or Bilhah, that Reuben ever apologized, or that Jacob ever forgave him.

For decades Reuben retains his position as the firstborn. Although his fractious brothers do not treat him as their leader, Reuben can still expect a larger inheritance when their father dies.

But at the end of Jacob’s life, all he wants is a pretext for  giving the firstborn’s extra inheritance to Joseph, his favorite son. He is not interested in either justice or mercy where Reuben is concerned.

Jacob could use Reuben’s long-ago attempt at usurpation through incest to disinherit his firstborn son altogether. But he does not.  He takes away Reuben’s birthright, but still leaves him one portion of the inheritance, like any of his other sons except Joseph.  In a way, this counts as unspoken and partial forgiveness.

Yet Jacob remains guilty of playing favorites, from the day he gives a fancy tunic only to Joseph, to the day he gives Joseph the double share. He also violates a social institution by depriving Reuben of the role and property he expected to inherit, leaving him in an embarrassing position.

On his deathbed, Jacob remains too self-absorbed to achieve a higher ethical resolution.

  1. The Mesopotamian towns of Mari, Nuzi, and Nippur were all extant during the Akkadian period, the 24th to 22nd centuries B.C.E., and continued as population centers in subsequent empires. Mari was a Semetic town later occupied by the Amorites, with whom the Israelites traded.
  2. Kristine Henrickson Garroway, “Does the Birthright Law Apply to Reuben? What about Ishmael?”,
  3. Genesis 25:24-26.
  4. Genesis 35:28-29.
  5. Genesis 35:12.
  6. Genesis 50:24-26.
  7. Joshua 24:32.
  8. Genesis 35:22.
  9. 2 Samuel 16:20-22.