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Marc Zvi Brettler





Comparing Curses



APA e-journal

Marc Zvi Brettler





Comparing Curses






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Comparing Curses

Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28 are often lumped together, as the two great curses, but their careful comparison reveals some fundamental and surprising differences.


Comparing Curses

Despair of the defenders of Jerusalem, illustration from the 1890 Holman Bible. Wikimedia

Opening Reflection

Hardly a day goes by when I do not consult Jacob Milgrom’s work—his commentary on Leviticus is truly magisterial. He introduced me to Priestly literature in a course on Numbers (במדבר) in 1978 at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.  As R. Yitz Greenberg did in his piece “Meeting the Challenge of Critical Scholarship with Leviticus,” I too would like to acknowledge his many contributions, and much of what I say below is based on his observations.[1] 

The Great Rebukes (תוכחות)

The Torah contains two long sets of curses: one at the end of Leviticus, in ch. 26,[2] the other at the end of Deuteronomy, in ch. 28.[3]  Both begin with short blessings, and are immediately followed by much longer curses.  These sections are traditionally called the תוכחות – the rebukes—a term rarely found in the Bible, and oddly never used in Lev 26 or Deut 28. These are customarily read quickly and quietly—a bar or bat mitzvah’s dream!  But in this quiet and haste, their structure and meaning are often lost.

The Utility of Comparison

Comparisons teach us a great deal—it is often difficult to understand something on its own terms, but once it is compared to something similar, either explicitly or implicitly, its meaning becomes clearer.  Comparing the two rebukes highlights deep differences between them, differences so great that they are unlikely to be from the same hand.  This comparison offers an important case example in the utility of seeing the Torah as a layered text, written over time by different people or groups, and brings into focus some of the significant differences between the two great ancient streams of tradition:  the Priestly school, represented here by Leviticus,[4] and the Deuteronomic school, represented by Deuteronomy.

“If You do Not Heed”: Leviticus vs. Deuteronomy 

The similar openings ואם לא תשמעו לי – “if you do not heed” and some common following terminology should not lull the reader into a false sense that the texts are similar. Deuteronomy insists that grievous covenant infractions will lead to the unleashing of “all these curses” (כָּל־הַקְּלָל֥וֹת הָאֵ֖לֶּה)at one time, whereas Leviticus is structured as a set of escalating curses. 

As Milgrom has noted, the Leviticus curses are gradated, and organized into five groups, with clear transitional statements in-between, and each set of punishments imagined to be worse than the previous set.[5] This structure of five sets of curses, corresponding to the five sets of blessings at the beginning of the beginning of the chapter, finds no parallel in Deuteronomy. The curses in Leviticus are also built around the number seven, which often implies completeness in the Bible.  Not only is this “seven” (שבע) emphasized through explicit repeated mentions (see vv. 18, 21, 24 and 28), but certain key words such as “to eat (אכל)” and “hostile[6](קרי)” are found seven times.  Deuteronomy has no equivalent structure. 

The Leviticus curses are also structured to suggest that God will act in a measure for measure factor against Israel.  This idea, expressed explicitly in Lev 26:16, אַף־אֲנִ֞י אֶֽעֱשֶׂה־זֹּ֣את לָכֶ֗ם, “I in turn will do this to you,” does not typify from Deuteronomy 28.[7]  Although measure for measure punishment (as it is called later:  מידה כנגד מידה—a post-biblical term) is found often in the Bible, it is especially common in the rebuke in Leviticus, and indeed typifies H.

The Anthropomorphic Depiction of God in P and H

The punishing God of Leviticus and Deuteronomy is also depicted differently.  Leviticus’s God is anthropomorphic, in contrast to Deuteronomy, which depicts a non-anthropomorphic deity bringing about Israel’s punishment.[8]  In Leviticus 26, for example, God sets his face against Israel, וְנָתַתִּ֤י פָנַי֙ בָּכֶ֔ם (v. 17), walks with them, וְהָלַכְתִּ֧י (v. 24), and ultimately decides not to smell their offerings, וְלֹ֣א אָרִ֔יחַ בְּרֵ֖יחַ נִיחֹֽחֲכֶֽם (v. 31).   This typifies P and H, but not D—beginning already in the Priestly Genesis 1:27, humanity is created in the divine image.

The Reason for Exile

While both Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28 offer exile as the climactic punishments, the reason the people are exiled differs sharply. In Deuteronomy, the exile is part of the general punishment for sins, while Leviticus, in part, explains the need for exile in these terms:

ויקרא כו:לד אָז֩ תִּרְצֶ֨ה הָאָ֜רֶץ אֶת שַׁבְּתֹתֶ֗יהָ כֹּ֚ל יְמֵ֣י הֳשַׁמָּ֔ה וְאַתֶּ֖ם בְּאֶ֣רֶץ אֹיְבֵיכֶ֑ם אָ֚ז תִּשְׁבַּ֣ת הָאָ֔רֶץ וְהִרְצָ֖ת אֶת שַׁבְּתֹתֶֽיהָ׃ כו:לה כָּל יְמֵ֥י הָשַּׁמָּ֖ה תִּשְׁבֹּ֑ת אֵ֣ת אֲשֶׁ֧ר לֹֽא שָׁבְתָ֛ה בְּשַׁבְּתֹתֵיכֶ֖ם בְּשִׁבְתְּכֶ֥ם עָלֶֽיהָ׃
Lev. 26:34   Then shall the land make up for its sabbath years throughout the time that it is desolate and you are in the land of your enemies; then shall the land rest and make up for its sabbath years. 26:35 Throughout the time that it is desolate, it shall observe the rest that it did not observe in your sabbath years while you were dwelling upon it. 

In other words, according to H, the land acts as a type of a sponge that absorbs the sin that is specific to the land—Israel’s lack of observance of the sabbatical year, called earlier in Lev 25.1-7, שַׁבַּ֤ת שַׁבָּתוֹן֙, “a Sabbath of complete rest.”[9]  Strikingly, this is not atoned for by repentance,[10] but by the land resting so that it can catch up on the sabbatical years during which it did not lie fallow (cf. 2 Chr 36:21). 

Deuteronomy, at the beginning of ch. 15, knows of the sabbatical year, but it calls it by a different name (שְׁמִטָּֽה), and only understands it in terms of debt-remission, but not land-fallowing.  Thus, the image of Lev 26.34-35 would have been totally alien to Deuteronomy, which in in contrast, offers a very different reason for the exile, having nothing to do with missed sabbatical years (Deut 28:45):

כִּי לֹ֣א שָׁמַ֗עְתָּ בְּקוֹל֙ יְ-הוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ לִשְׁמֹ֛ר מִצְוֹתָ֥יו וְחֻקֹּתָ֖יו אֲשֶׁ֥ר צִוָּֽךְ׃
Because you did not heed YHWH your God and keep the commandments and laws that He enjoined upon you.

Is the Covenant Permanent?

The idea of a covenant between Israel and its God is fundamental to both Deuteronomy and Leviticus,[11] and the blessings and curses in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28 are presented within each book as rewards or punishments from God for fulfilling or violating this covenant.  But just as the contents of these two covenants are not identical, and their structures differ, the final punishments for covenant violation contrast sharply. Deuteronomy ends very pessimistically:

דברים כח:סח וֶֽהֱשִֽׁיבְךָ֨ יְ-הוָ֥ה ׀ מִצְרַיִם֮ בָּאֳנִיּוֹת֒ בַּדֶּ֙רֶךְ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר אָמַ֣רְתִּֽי לְךָ֔ לֹא תֹסִ֥יף ע֖וֹד לִרְאֹתָ֑הּ וְהִתְמַכַּרְתֶּ֨ם שָׁ֧ם לְאֹיְבֶ֛יךָ לַעֲבָדִ֥ים וְלִשְׁפָח֖וֹת וְאֵ֥ין קֹנֶֽה׃ ס
Deut. 28:68 YHWH will send you back to Egypt in galleys, by a route which I told you you should not see again. There you shall offer yourselves for sale to your enemies as male and female slaves, but none will buy.

This fits the tone of ch. 28, which imagines not only the exile of Israel from its land, but its total destruction, with the key word, “wiped out (ש-מ-ד),” repeated surprisingly often, as if to emphasize that Israel really will be totally and completely annihilated:

דברים כח:כ יְשַׁלַּ֣ח יְ-הוָ֣ה ׀ בְּ֠ךָ אֶת הַמְּאֵרָ֤ה אֶת הַמְּהוּמָה֙ וְאֶת הַמִּגְעֶ֔רֶת בְּכָל מִשְׁלַ֥ח יָדְךָ֖ אֲשֶׁ֣ר תַּעֲשֶׂ֑ה עַ֣ד הִשָּֽׁמֶדְךָ֤ וְעַד אֲבָדְךָ֙ מַהֵ֔ר מִפְּנֵ֛י רֹ֥עַ מַֽעֲלָלֶ֖יךָ אֲשֶׁ֥ר עֲזַבְתָּֽנִי׃
Deut 28:20   YHWH will let loose against you calamity, panic, and frustration in all the enterprises you undertake, so that you shall soon be utterly wiped out because of your evildoing in forsaking Me.
דברים כח:כד  יִתֵּ֧ן יְ-הוָ֛ה אֶת מְטַ֥ר אַרְצְךָ֖ אָבָ֣ק וְעָפָ֑ר מִן הַשָּׁמַ֙יִם֙ יֵרֵ֣ד עָלֶ֔יךָ עַ֖ד הִשָּׁמְדָֽךְ׃
Deut 28:24 YHWH will make the rain of your land dust, and sand shall drop on you from the sky, until you arewiped out.
דברים כח:מה וּבָ֨אוּ עָלֶ֜יךָ כָּל הַקְּלָל֣וֹת הָאֵ֗לֶּה וּרְדָפ֙וּךָ֙ וְהִשִּׂיג֔וּךָ עַ֖ד הִשָּֽׁמְדָ֑ךְ כִּי לֹ֣א שָׁמַ֗עְתָּ בְּקוֹל֙ יְ-הוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ לִשְׁמֹ֛ר מִצְוֹתָ֥יו וְחֻקֹּתָ֖יו אֲשֶׁ֥ר צִוָּֽךְ׃
Deut 28:45 All these curses shall befall you; they shall pursue you and overtake you, until you are wiped out, because you did not heed YHWH your God and keep the commandments and laws that He enjoined upon you.
 דברים כח:מח וְעָבַדְתָּ֣ אֶת אֹיְבֶ֗יךָ אֲשֶׁ֨ר יְשַׁלְּחֶ֤נּוּ יְ-הוָה֙ בָּ֔ךְ בְּרָעָ֧ב וּבְצָמָ֛א וּבְעֵירֹ֖ם וּבְחֹ֣סֶר כֹּ֑ל וְנָתַ֞ן עֹ֤ל בַּרְזֶל֙ עַל צַוָּארֶ֔ךָ עַ֥ד הִשְׁמִיד֖וֹ אֹתָֽךְ׃
Deut. 28:48 you shall have to serve — in hunger and thirst, naked and lacking everything — the enemies whom YHWH will let loose against you. He will put an iron yoke upon your neck until He has wiped you out.
דברים כח:נא וְ֠אָכַל פְּרִ֨י בְהֶמְתְּךָ֥ וּפְרִֽי אַדְמָתְךָ֮ עַ֣ד הִשָּֽׁמְדָךְ֒ אֲשֶׁ֨ר לֹֽא יַשְׁאִ֜יר לְךָ֗ דָּגָן֙ תִּיר֣וֹשׁ וְיִצְהָ֔ר שְׁגַ֥ר אֲלָפֶ֖יךָ וְעַשְׁתְּרֹ֣ת צֹאנֶ֑ךָ עַ֥ד הַאֲבִיד֖וֹ אֹתָֽךְ׃
Deut. 28:51 It shall devour the offspring of your cattle and the produce of your soil, until you have been wiped out, leaving you nothing of new grain, wine, or oil, of the calving of your herds and the lambing of your flocks, until it has brought you to ruin.
דברים כח:סא גַּ֤ם כָּל חֳלִי֙ וְכָל מַכָּ֔ה אֲשֶׁר֙ לֹ֣א כָת֔וּב בְּסֵ֖פֶר הַתּוֹרָ֣ה הַזֹּ֑את יַעְלֵ֤ם יְהוָה֙ עָלֶ֔יךָ עַ֖דהִשָּׁמְדָֽךְ׃
Deut. 28:61 Moreover, YHWH will bring upon you all the other diseases and plagues that are not mentioned in this book of Teaching, until you are wiped out.
דברים כח:סג‏ וְ֠הָיָה כַּאֲשֶׁר שָׂ֨שׂ יְ-הוָ֜ה עֲלֵיכֶ֗ם לְהֵיטִ֣יב אֶתְכֶם֮ וּלְהַרְבּ֣וֹת אֶתְכֶם֒ כֵּ֣ן יָשִׂ֤ישׂ יְ-הוָה֙ עֲלֵיכֶ֔ם לְהַאֲבִ֥יד אֶתְכֶ֖ם וּלְהַשְׁמִ֣יד אֶתְכֶ֑ם וְנִסַּחְתֶּם֙ מֵעַ֣ל הָֽאֲדָמָ֔ה אֲשֶׁר אַתָּ֥ה בָא שָׁ֖מָּה לְרִשְׁתָּֽהּ׃
Deut. 28:63 And as YHWH once delighted in making you prosperous and many, so will YHWH now delight in causing you to perish and in wiping you out; you shall be torn from the land that you are about to enter and possess.

In contrast, the term “wiped out” is never used in reference to Israel in Lev 26. Thus, Deuteronomy and Leviticus reflect two fundamentally different notions about the covenantal relationship between God and Israel.[12]  Deut 28 can imagine the disappearance of Israel—or at the minimum, Israel removed from its land, scattered among the nations, and slowly fading to oblivion.[13] In contrast, the author of the great rebuke in Leviticus insists that God will remember the patriarchal promise, the empty land will cleanse itself from Israel’s lack of sabbatical observance, and even in exile God will remember Israel—he will not destroy them or abrogate his covenant with them.[14] 

This represents a huge difference in theological perspective: in Deut 28, Israel fades away—as a result of Israel breaking the covenant, God is released from any obligations toward Israel, and then are destroyed, while Lev 26 suggests that this is impossible, for the covenant always remains in force.  Thus, the final words of God’s speech in Lev 26 note that God will recall on Israel’s behalf the covenant with the ancestors whom he redeemed from Egypt:

ויקרא כו:מה ‏וְזָכַרְתִּ֥י לָהֶ֖ם בְּרִ֣ית רִאשֹׁנִ֑ים אֲשֶׁ֣ר הוֹצֵֽאתִי אֹתָם֩ מֵאֶ֨רֶץ מִצְרַ֜יִם לְעֵינֵ֣י הַגּוֹיִ֗ם לִהְיֹ֥ת לָהֶ֛ם לֵאלֹהִ֖ים אֲנִ֥י יְ-הוָֽה׃
Lev 26:45 I will remember in their favor the covenant with the ancients, whom I freed from the land of Egypt in the sight of the nations to be their God: I, YHWH. Conclusion

It is quite possible that H knew some form of D, and its more positive evaluation of Israel’s future reflects a reaction against D’s pessimism.[15] Or perhaps this section of Leviticus was written after the return from exile, and predicts, retrospectively, that even in exile God cannot forget his people Israel, leading to the remarkable idea that the covenant is permanent.  Fortunately for the survival of Judaism, the more optimistic perspective of the curses of Leviticus 26 “won” over the more pessimistic viewpoint of Deuteronomy 28, offering perpetual hope rather than the idea that Israel may be destroyed forever.


May 27, 2016


Last Updated

October 10, 2020


View Footnotes

Prof. Marc Zvi Brettler is Bernice & Morton Lerner Distinguished Professor of Judaic Studies at Duke University, and Dora Golding Professor of Biblical Studies (Emeritus) at Brandeis University. He is author, most recently, of How to Read the Jewish Bible (also published in Hebrew), co-editor of The Jewish Study Bible and The Jewish Annotated New Testament, and co-author of The Bible and the Believer. Brettler is cofounder of Project TABS (Torah and Biblical Scholarship) –