There are NO “Difficult Passages” in the Torah

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At a certain moment in the book of Genesis, a powerful demon in a fit of pique destroys all of Creation, killing every man woman and child save for one family. No, wait. That’s God.

On his way to Egypt, Moses is pursued by a villain determined to kill him and is only saved by Zippora’s magical use of their sons’ foreskins. No, wait. That’s God again.

These are examples of what rabbis and teachers call “difficult” or “troublesome” passages in the Torah, and sometimes in other parts of the Hebrew Bible. These characterizations usually mean that some respected character in the Bible, or even God Himself, acts in ways that are illegal, immoral, brutal–generally unfit to serve as an ethical model. For example, Jacob swindles his older brother to get his birthright. David murders two men to acquire their wives (Bathsheba and Abigail).

Moreover, God asks Abraham to kill his son. And denies Moses entry into the promised land for an infraction so minor that even school children are indignant when they read it. The God of the Torah also is fairly accused of several instances of “disproportionate response” — killing every Egyptian first-born (including animals) to demonstrate His power, wiping out the entire families of people who rebel, and even visiting punishments on the remote descendants of offenders.

Not only is God excessive in his punishment, sometimes He seems unethical in his praise and approval, as well. Who can forget the image of Pinchas (Phineas), carrying the impaled bodies of an Israelite man and Moabite woman, murdered in flagrante, to the house of meeting? But, more important, who can forget that God rewards this grisly act with perpetual priesthood for Pinchas and his descendants?

Again, those who think that the Torah and Tanach should provide moral exemplars for Jews are troubled or disturbed by these (and dozens more) examples. In the intervening centuries since the Torah was compiled and edited, our sages and scholars have busied themselves trying to explain these problems away, adding context and extenuating circumstances, finding justifications and excuses, and generally acting as defense counsel for God and the patriarchs. Others dismiss the objections altogether, saying that these acts are part of a divine plan that our brains are too feeble to understand.

All this lawyering is great intellectual fun and has helped turned today’s Jews into a nation of attorneys (rather than priests). But I argue that there is no need for all this excuse-finding and justification. True, the God of the Torah is cruel, impulsive, murderous. But the God who appears in the Torah is NOT the God that Jews worship anyway!

The stories that comprise the Torah mainly emanate from the period of 1100 B.C.E. to 600 B.C.E. They include translations and reworkings of the stories from other cultures (creation narratives and great floods, for example), exaggerated miraculous accounts of natural events, along with tons of priestly and civil regulations. During the period in which these stories were told, then written, then merged, then redacted, then altered to fit the politics of those doing the redacting…in this period the world was full of gods, hundreds, perhaps thousands of them. Towns, families, small nations all had their own gods, sometimes many of them with special portfolios of responsibility. In the Torah, the God of Israel is just that: the tribal God of the Israelites. He never claims to be the only God. On the contrary, He enjoys outperforming the Egyptian gods and even takes great pains to specify that the Israelites not worship any other gods. He never claims to be the only real God.

From a certain perspective, the Exodus narrative is less the story of the emancipation of the Israelites than the biography of a God creating a nation of followers for Himself. And the process is straightforward and businesslike: God offers a beautiful and verdant homeland for the Israelites in exchange for absolute loyalty and obedience to Him, ALONE.

The God of the Torah is a literary character, a desert sheik with superpowers ruling over the Israelites with Taliban-like discipline, enforced by priests, with way too many capital crimes. He does not so much love Israel as He does need them to form his base of power and influence.

The reason that this God so approves of what Pinchas did is that the murdered couple consisted of an Israelite man with a gentile woman. Then (as now) the most dangerous threat to the loyalty of a young Israelite was the attractiveness of a person who worshipped the wrong god.

Conventional Jewish history asserts that the God of Israel did not become the abstract, imperceivable, omniscient, omnipotent, benevolent God for the entire world (the one that most Jews worship today) until the Babylonian Exile (586 B.C.E.) The Israelites, we are told, during this time, became Jews.

So, from this point of view, there are no disturbing passages in the Torah, just as there is almost no accurate history of the Jewish people. Just fragments of fictionalized memories of our endlessly fascinating ancestors and our voluble tribal God.

1 Comment

  1. Your engaging article ‘There are No Difficult Passages in the Torah’ may have flawed reasoning.

    Hashem had a prime motive for the creation of the universe and humankind. I believe the answer lies within the metaphor of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. The two were created and were given a utopian wonderland in which to exist, free will, and everything necessary for a perfect existence.

    G-d gave them one law they must obey: not to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, or they would die. The Creator tested their free will with temptation, and they succumbed to their desire. The test failed, and they died.

    Since that event, humanity has succumbed to a promise of a world of peace in a land of milk and honey but continues to believe in Him and the laws, commandments, and instructions in the written Torah.

    Deuteronomy 31: 15-18

    “יהוה appeared in the Tent, in a pillar of cloud, the pillar of cloud having come to rest at the entrance of the tent. יהוה said to Moses: You are soon to lie with your ancestors. This people will thereupon go astray after the alien gods in their midst, in the land that they are about to enter; they will forsake Me and break My covenant that I made with them.

    Then My anger will flare up against them, and I will abandon them and hide My countenance from them. They shall be ready prey, and many evils and troubles shall befall them. And they shall say on that day, “Surely it is because our God is not in our midst that these evils have befallen us.”

    Yet I will keep My countenance hidden on that day, because of all the evil they have done in turning to other gods.”

    The only reason the Jewish people exist today is His covenant to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that their seed will eventually become a great nation.

    Genesis 2:8-9

    “And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in ῾Eden; there He put the man whom He had formed.
    And out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life (TORAH) also in the midst of the garden,(EARTH) and the tree of the knowledge (COMMANDMENTS, LAWS, AND TEACHINGS) of good and evil.

    From this perspective, G-d’s Torah is neither evil nor cruel but understandable from His point of reference.

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