How Do We Conceive the Divine?
Parashat Bechukotai, Leviticus 26:3-27:34, concludes the book of Leviticus with a section of so-called “blessings and curses”—or better, “rewards and punishments”—that are designed to motivate the audience 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.
The Haftarah selection in Jeremiah 16:19-17:14 complements the Torah reading by emphasizing the need to rely exclusively on G-d as the true Master of the Universe and Source of Healing rather than upon idols representing false gods that are constructed by human beings.
The Holiness Code
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).
Many scholars believe that the Holiness Code must have been composed in the monarchic period at some time ranging from the reign of the Judean King Hezekiah during the late-eighth century through the reign of Josiah in the late-seventh century. The prophet and priest Ezekiel, who was born during the reign of Josiah and later exiled to Babylonia with King Jehoiachin in 597 B.C.E., likely knows material now found in the Holiness Code as part of his argument that individual generations are morally responsible for their own fate (Ezek 18).
G-d in the Image of an Assyrian Suzerain
The late monarchic dating for the Holiness Code has important implications for our understanding of the rewards and punishments in Lev 26:3-46 and also for the Tabernacle/Temple tax instructions in Lev 27:1-34, both in relation to our historical understanding of the texts and for our understanding of these texts as Jews.
The late monarchic period was the time when both Israel and Judah were invaded and subjugated by Mesopotamian empires. The northern kingdom of Israel was destroyed by Assyria in 722/1 B.C.E. Judah was devastated by the Assyrian invasion of 701 B.C.E. and continued to serve as a vassal of the Assyrian empire through the reign of King Josiah. Although Josiah attempted to free Judah of Assyria control and to restore Davidic rule over the former northern kingdom of Israel, he was killed in the late seventh century by the Egyptian Pharaoh, Necho II, when he attempted to stop the Egyptians from aiding Assyria in its last stand against Babylonia. When Babylonia defeated Assyria, Judah became a vassal of Babylon. Judah revolted in 597 B.C.E., and many Judeans were exiled to Babylon. After Judah attempted to revolt a second time in 588 B.C.E., Jerusalem was destroyed and more surviving Judeans were exiled to Babylonia.
Judah’s status as a vassal, first to Assyria and later to Babylonia, in the late monarchic period meant that it was subject to suzerain (overlord)-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 that would befall the vassal.
The Vassal Treaties of the Assyrian Monarch, Esarhaddon (681-669 B.C.E.), state the following curses should the vassal fail to meet its obligations:
May they (the gods of Assyria) make your ground hard like iron so that none of you may flourish. Just as rain does not fall from a brazen heaven, so may rain and dew not come upon your fields and your meadows; may it rain burning coals instead of dew upon your land.
When we compare the punishments named in Leviticus 26, we see that they are similar:
If you walk in my statutes and you observe and do my commandments, I will grant your rains in their season so that the land will provide produce and the tree of the field its fruit (Lev 26:3-4) …But if you do not listen to me and you do not do all these commandments, and if My statutes you reject and my laws you ignore so as not to do all my commandments and you break my covenant, then I will do this to you: I will visit upon you sickness, consumption and fever, which cause the eyes to fail and the languishing of life; and you will sow your seed for nothing, because your enemies will eat it. And I will set my face against you; you will be routed by your enemies, and those who hate you will dominate you, and you will flee even when no one pursues you (Lev 26:14-17).
Such parallels between the “rewards and punishments” of Leviticus 26 demonstrate that the writers of the Holiness Code conceive 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.
The word used several times in Lev 26, berit, translated there as “covenant” (see vv. 9, 15, 25, 42, 44, 45) is exactly the same word used for a treaty between a vassal and an overlord (see e.g. 1 Kings 15:19). Thus, the Temple tax obligations in Leviticus 27 follow naturally—they are what Judean individuals must pay to the Temple, which in turn goes to pay Judah’s tribute to its suzerain overlord, Yhwh; this parallels the tribute that a vassal pays his secular overlord.
The Suitability of the Suzerain Metaphor
Such a view raises two important questions for Judaism, both in the past and in the present. The first question is whether G-d should be conceived as a Mesopotamian suzerain emperor, 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 issue of G-d’s omnipotence is a persistent question. Envisioning G-d as omnipotent seems unsatisfactory, 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. Some manifestations of Jewish tradition expect 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 (good inclination) over the Yetzer Ra (bad inclination) 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.
For example, Lurianic Kabbalah recognized this issue when it posited that when G-d created the primordial light—a substance permeated by the divine essence—and shined this light upon ten vessels designed to hold it, seven of the vessels shattered. This shattering of the vessels (shevirat ha-keilim) at the moment of creation sent sparks of the divine throughout the created universe that we human beings are 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.
The Many Images of G-d
In the end, we must recognize that Parashat Bechukotai, like any other single biblical text, presents us with only one dimension of the understanding of the character of G-d. Other texts, such as the presentation of divine justice and mercy in Exodus 34; the portrayal of the silent voice of G-d in 1 Kings 19; or the nurturing presence of G-d in Hosea 11, provide us with other dimensions of the divine.
Although we learn individual dimensions of Torah by dividing our texts into sources or strata, it is only when we read these sources or strata in relation to each other that we begin to comprehend the diverse ways in which G-d is present in our world, and the range of appropriate reactions to that presence.
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May 12, 2014
January 14, 2020
Professor Marvin A. Sweeney is Professor of Hebrew Bible at the Claremont School of Theology and Professor of Tanak and Chair of the Faculty at the Academy for Jewish Religion California. His Ph.D. is from Claremont Graduate University. He is the author of thirteen volumes, including Reading Ezekiel: A Literary and Theological Commentary; Tanak: A Literary and Theological Introduction to the Jewish Bible; and Reading the Hebrew Bible after the Shoah: Engaging Holocaust Theology.
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