“HOW DO WE CONCEIVE THE DIVINE?”
By Dr. Marvin Sweeney, AJRCA Professor of Tanakh
Because I wrote on Parshat beHar last year, I will focus on Parshat beHukotai, Leviticus 26:3-27:34, this year when the two parashiyot are combined. Parshat beHukotai concludes the book of Leviticus with a section of so-called “blessings and curses”—or better, “rewards and punishments”—that attempt to motivate readers of the book to observe G-d’s statutes and commandments. The parashah also includes instructions concerning the payment of the Temple tax required of all Jews in antiquity to ensure adequate support for the Temple so that it might serve as the holy center of the nation.
Modern interpreters have long recognized that the rewards and punishments articulated in Leviticus 26:3-46 form the conclusion to the block of material in Leviticus 17-26 known as the Holiness Code. These chapters have a distinctive literary style and theological perspective that call upon the people of Israel to be holy, viz., “You shall be holy, for I, YHWH your G-d, am holy” (Lev 19:2). Topics addressed in the Holiness Code include the proper treatment of blood (Lev 17); incestuous relationships (Lev 18); individual conduct (Lev 19); proper sexual relationships (Lev 20); the holiness of the priesthood (Lev 21); the holiness of sacred offerings (Lev 22); the festival calendar (Lev 23); various instructions concerning oil, bread, and the sanctity of the divine name (Lev 24); Sabbatical and Jubilee years (Lev 25); and the concluding rewards and punishment depending upon the observance of the divine instructions (Lev 26).
But modern interpreters have also recognized that the “blessings and curses” or “rewards and punishments” of texts such as Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28-30 are modelled on ancient Mesopotamian suzerain-vassal treaties in the 9th-6th centuries B.C.E. Ancient Judah was a vassal, first to Assyria and later to Babylonia, in the late monarchic period. This meant that Judah was subject to suzerain-vassal treaties that provided details of the obligations of both parties to the treaty relationship. Generally, the suzerain or the more powerful partner to the relationship would provide “protection” to the vassal, i.e., the suzerain would guarantee the vassal’s security from threats posed by other enemies or even from the suzerain itself. In return, the vassal had a number of obligations to the suzerain to ensure its security, e.g., annual payment of tribute, provision of troops and supplies to the suzerain in time of war, arrest of fugitives from the suzerain, etc. If the vassal failed to meet these obligations, the treaty specified a number of curses, such as the withholding of rain by the gods and invasion of the vassal’s land by enemy troops.
Such parallels between the “rewards and punishments” of Mesopotamian treaties and Leviticus 26 suggest that the Torah portion conceives of G-d metaphorically as a suzerain monarch who imposes obligations upon the Judean vassal and threatens reprisals if Judah fails to fulfill those obligations. Indeed, the Temple tax obligations in Leviticus 27 follow along similar lines, viz., Judean individuals must pay a tax to the Temple, which in turn goes to pay Judah’s tribute to its suzerain overlord, YHWH.
Such a view raises two important questions for Judaism, both in the past and in the present. The first question is whether or not G-d should be conceived as a Mesopotamian king who imposes obligations and threatens retaliation in the case of non-compliance? The inappropriate character of the Mesopotamian metaphor should be self-evident, but the question of an omnipotent G-d is applicable for all times. Such a conceptualization points to limitations in our understanding of G-d, particularly in the aftermath of the Shoah when G-d was unable to protect the Jewish people from the realities of attempted genocide. Indeed, the question already appears in books like Job, which raises questions about divine righteousness in times of threat, and Esther, which raises questions of divine presence in the face of a potential genocide.
The second question pertains to our own responsibilities in defining our relationship to G-d. Jewish tradition expects that we human beings must act as partners with G-d to bring about the completion of creation. The Jewish belief in human free will requires such a role for us, i.e., we must exercise free will to choose the Yetzer Tov over the Yetzer Ra` and thereby help to ensure a better, more holy and more righteous world. Such an understanding points to the great power that we humans wield in relation to G-d. Indeed, Lurianic Kabbalah recognized this issue when it posited that G-d shattered at the moment of creation, sending sparks of the divine throughout the created universe that we human beings were responsible to collect and reassemble through our own holy and righteous actions as Jews to bring about Tikkun Olam, Repair of the World, or better, Reestablishment of the Divine Presence in Creation. Just as we are dependent upon G-d, so G-d is also dependent upon us.