Archive | May, 2013

And the woman shall say, “Amen, amen!”

22 May

Naso: Numbers 4:21 – 8:1

For this week’s parshah, I want to focus on the theme of adultery, which is central to the section 5:11-31, the ordeal of the suspected adulteress.

Throughout the ANE (ancient near east), adultery (which means infidelity by a married woman) viewed as a crime against the gods as well as the husband., so it is a civil and a religious crime.

But there are differences between the rest of the ANE and Israel:

a)      rest of ANE: husband can mitigate/waive the death penalty; not so in Israel, where it’s not up to the husband to waive execution.

b)      because it’s included in the 10 Commandments, and thereby the Sinaitic covenant, God punishes the community if the death penalty is not imposed.  An act that transgressed that covenant endangered the whole community, notes the ABD, so the prosecution of adulterers morphed from a right that individuals may forgo to a duty falling on the entire community.  But some scholars think that in practice, it may have been true that the husband could accept compensation from the lover etc.

c)      some have sought to explain the paradox whereby the woman who takes the bitter waters is not subjected to the death penalty.  This is a case in which a woman has not been detected by human beings committing adultery, but she is suspected  of it by her husband.  Milgrom argued (e.g. his JPS commentary on Numbers) that therefore the punishment must be administered by God, that the matter lies beyond a human court, and therefore execution is not acceptable.  He also noted that the technical term for adultery, ‘na’af’ which is found in the Decalogue, Ex. 20:13…and  Lev. 20:10…reflects that jurisdiction lies outside the human court. G metes out a punishment that fits the crime, as elsewhere (Israel must wander forty yrs because of forty days spies spent gathering their data, Num. 14:33-4).  The text seems to mean, and has been read as meaning, that her genitals would be affected by the waters so she was unable to conceive.  So the woman who accepted forbidden seed is “doomed to sterility for the rest of her life” (Milgrom).  As for the ordeal itself, Babylonian law provided for an ordeal by water that involved being thrown in the river and drowning if guilty, so here there is what Milgrom describes as a modification of that law, prescribing a form of ordeal by water that cannot lead to drowning.

So there you have it.  Marital infidelity by a woman is a sin against God, and, if Milgrom is right, God will judge it directly, and via poetic justice, if humans don’t detect it.  I don’t really see why an adulteress who doesn’t get caught avoids the death penalty while one who is caught doesn’t…but there it is.  No firm answers anywhere in any case.

Something I’d like to think about further – if the Decalogue, a/c to biblical scholars (e.g. the Anchor Bible Dictionary 82a) only means infidelity by women, it hasn’t always been so understood…I recall that scene in The Crucible, which I read many, many years ago, in which the husband who had had that affair stumbles over reciting that commandment…because he was guilty of it himself… so the history of interpretation would be interesting.



17 May

I could comment on the unfortunate fact that it has been several months since my last posting…but I’ll just say that I really hope to make this a regular thing henceforth!

So – We enter the book of Numbers.  And we see that God has the following orders for Moses: ‘Take a census of the whole Israelite community…every male, head by head.’ The word that JPS translates ‘head’ BDB explains as ‘a skull, a head or a poll’…

Rashi: ‘head by head’ = ‘by means of [counting] shekels, a half-shekel per head’

Eh? Well…he gets this from Exodus 30: 12-16: ‘”When you take a census of the Israelite people …each shall pay the Lord a ransom for himself on being enrolled, that no plague may come upon them through their being enrolled..a half-shekel by the sanctuary an offering to the expiation for your persons’. On this same Exodus passage, he commented: ‘

It means ‘When you wish to take the total of their not count them by heads.  Rather, let each one give a half-shekel and you will count the shekalim, and you will know their number [from this].’

As for the mention of plague, Rashi says: ‘for the evil eye can affect that which has been counted, and pestilence can come upon them, as we have found in the days of David’.

This is a reference to the tale in II Sam. 24 and I Chron 21:1 [the latter has Satan prodding David to do this, rather than God] in which David gets into terrible trouble with God for counting the Israelites.

Clearly, the mention of plague in Ex. 30:12 does need explaining.  For Rashi, it’s the evil eye that explains it…because it can affect/rule the counted…but what does that mean?

Truth is that it is a big puzzle why census-taking is linked to averting a plague, and why in David’s case G is indeed angry about it, and v angry at that.  So Rashi wants to say in our Numbers passage, where (as in other census passages, e.g. I Sam. 11:8, 15:4) NO punishment results from census-taking, that the point is that it should be done in this indirect way, by means of the half-shekels, and that if done so, it’s all kosher – so that there is an actual method of counting that is stipulated in the Exodus ‘half-shekel’ passage, a method that avoids directly doing a head count.  And he clearly thinks that David/Joab erred in not making sure that this indirect method was used.

Nahmanides finds David’s vanity a likely reason for divine anger.  He thinks that the reason David got into hot water was vanity: what really nettled God was that David did the census not out of need – not because he needed an army, but because of vanity: to be able to say, ‘look how many people I rule!’

I am not clear at this point quite what Rashi means by suggesting that evil can get a grip through numbering…something to do with power…perhaps the root of the problem is that when you, as a king, number your subjects, you act as if you were in charge and not God.  Or a more superstitious thing like controlling someone by knowing their name.  But this doesn’t explain why Saul gets away with it.

Well, sorry this is so sketchy and preliminary, but anyway – that’s it for now..any thoughts much appreciated!