I’ve written in my musings before about the many examples of bad parenting by G"d that can be found in the Torah. (I also often speak of this with my religious school students.) There’s a great deal of it in the early parts of the Torah. Y’know. Things like "you can eat anything you want from this garden except from that tree…" and similar stuff.
G"d does seem to mature, at times, as the story progresses, but there are lapses all too frequently. We have this petulant deity, somewhat reminiscent of the "baby deity" from that old Star Trek "Squire of Gothos" episode. There are times I wish G"d’s parents would show up and pull the plug on G"d’s childish activities.
(Of course, it’s not only G"d’s actions that illustrate bad parenting. We have Avraham all too easily willing to sacrifice his son. We have Yitzkhak, fooled-or not, by his younger son, and Rivkah encouring her younger son to be duplicitous. Yaakov, favoring one son among twelve and offering this special coat. Yaakov, again, putting his own concerns over those of his poor, raped daughter. The list goes on.)
By the time we reach the end here of the book of Leviticus, I think G"d has made it all the way to the advanced class, Bad Parenting 301. In this case, it’s bad parenting of the Israelites.
Yes, there are some great ideas here. The concept of the sh’mitah (sabbatical) year and the yoval (Jubilee) are quite brilliant. The reminder that, ultimately, all land belongs to G"d is a potent formula for maintaining and ethical society. The return of land to original owners or their descendants every Jubilee year is, at least superficially, an idea that has merit and the appearance of justice and fairness. The ability of Israelites to redeem their land, and to redeem their own selves, when forced by circumstances to become beholden to another, is another powerful concept. The idea that such arrangements must be done using fair methods of financial exchange is an idea that still resonates today (and is, perhaps, an idea that is far too often overlooked in the way our markets are structured.)
Unfortunately, bad parenting rears its ugly head here. These brilliant concepts are rendered far less powerful when G"d limits them to the Israelites. Even a resident alien is subject to these rules, but only as they apply to Israelites. The Torah is far too clear on this:
Such male and female slaves as you may have-it is from the nations round about you that you may acquire male and female slaves. You may also buy them from among the children of aliens resident among you, or from their families that are among you, whom they begot in your land. These shall become your property; you may keep them as a possession for your children after you, for them to inherit as property for all time. Such, you may treat as slaves. But for your Israelite kinsmen, no one shall rule ruthlessly over the other. (Lev. 25: 44-46 JPS)
Wow, is that ever ugly. Here, slavery is forever enshrined as a right, at least for Israelites. In addition, the Israelites don’t have to treat their slaves as nicely as they do their kinsmen who are serving them in what can only be thought of as a form of indenture.
Yes, there are other places in Torah that seem to contradict these policies. Sort of. There are places that charge us to be fair to slaves and treat them well, to free them under certain circumstances. We are constantly reminded that we ourselves were slaves in Egypt, and that this should mitigate our treatment of slaves.
None of this seems sufficient to overcome the clear meaning of what is written here in the text. Israelites may enslave others. They may treat them more harshly than they would treat an indentured Israelites.
Telling us that we can enslave people from outside our tribe is bad parenting, and is probably responsible for millenia of Judeo-Christiam-Islamic attitudes to slavery, enslavement, and treatment of slaves not of your own. It devalues others at the price of pumping up the worth of a particular tribe or group. Ugly. Just ugly.
The bad parenting doesn’t stop there. Next, in Bekhukotai, we move on to the reward and punishment method of insuring ethical behavior. Follow G"d laws and prospser. Disobey, and suffer the consequences.
While I’ll admit this isn’t an entirely unrealistic approach, it’s based on a flawed implementation. Instead of the underlying idea being that actions have consequences, the concept here is obey G"d, for only G"d delivers reward and punishment. This sets up the flawed notion that if one does something wrong, and isn’t punished by G"d, than perhaps it wasn’t wrong (or G"d wanted you to get way with it) or…well, you get the drift. Similarly, it sets us up for disappointment, creating high expectations for strict obedience to G"d’s instructions.
The system is so flawed, that G"d seems compelled, as an afterthought, to say to the Israelites that they are surely gonna screw up badly, but, in the end, G"d’s covenant with them shall move G"d to be merciful, and never completely spurn or reject the Israelites. That, at least, sounds parental. Unconditional love. Nevertheless, it’s a pretty flawed implementation of the concept.
Finally, near the end of Bekhukotai, we encounter one really nasty bit of bad parenting:
But of all that anyone owns, be it man or beast or land of his holding, nothing that he has proscribed for the L"rd may be sold or redeemed; every proscribed thing is totally consecrated to the L"rd. No human being who has been proscribed can be ransomed: he shall be pout to death. (Lev. 27:28-29 JPS)
This is the ugliest of all. An Israelite can actually consecrate a (non-Israelite) slave, and proscribe him or her for G"d. In other words, human sacrifice.
Now, chapter 27 begins with the system for virtually pledging one’s life, consecrating it to G"d by paying an appropriate amount of silver. The basic idea here was less about the consecration of a thing (or a person) for what was really expected was the redemption from the consecration. That’s what brough the silver into the Temple coffers. While it’s a clever mechanism to insure funding of the religious system, it’s a little uncomfortable that one can actually put a value on a human life. That’s bad parenting.
Now, the voluntary consecrations are of a class that can be redeemed, and, after all, it is the redemption that is the ultimate goal. There is another class, kheirem, most often translated as proscribed. These are things consecrated to G"d because they are to be set apart, usually because there is some inherent wrongness involved. Things that are kheirem are meant to be destroyed, avoided, or hidden away. Because slaves are propety, because they are non-Israelite, and because they most likely worship other gods, they can be proscribed. And, as the text tells us here, they cannot be redeemed. Proscribed humans are put to death. This is troubling-especially so as in the previous verses we learn that even an impure animal can be ransomed!
Just more bad parenting. G"d has mastered the advanced class.
Tune in during the coming weeks to see if G"d decides to pursue a Masters and a Doctorate in bad parenting.
As for ourselves, I hope we can at least learn from G"d’s bad examples, and be better parents than G"d.
©2010 by Adrian A. Durlester