Va’etchanan (Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11) gives us pause for thought in its contradictions. First, the parshah (Torah portion) contains the aseret hadibrot (Ten Commandments), among which is: you shouldn’t murder (5:17). Then, pasukim (verses) 6:4-5 contain the shema (Hear O Israel! The L-rd is Our G-d. The L-rd is One!) followed by the admonishment to: “love the L-rd, your G-d, with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your might,” (Deut. 6:4-5). Finally, pasuk 7:2 instructs the Isrealites, upon entry into the Promised Land, to kill and “utterly destroy” the various groups of people living there.
In other words, one is supposed to not murder. One is reminded to love G-d. And, then, G-d commands the Israelites to commit mass murder. I can’t help but think about the mass murders in the United States.
It is quite clear in the Torah that the Israelites had no problem complying with these murderous rampages. In fact, the Tanakh contains many, many stories of murderous triumph over one’s enemies. However, archaeological evidence mostly disproves such events. In fact, most archaeologists are of the opinion that the first Israelites were actually Canaanites! In addition, Jericho already ceased to exist long before the Israelites were said to have conquered it, and the rule of Solomon may not have been as extensive as the Tanakh makes it out to be. For these reasons, the Tanakh should not be understood to be a historically accurate account of past events.
Certainly, the Tanakh doesn’t have to be historically accurate to teach important lessons. It is up to us to decide what those lessons are. Many of them are not straight forward. As we have already seen, there are many contradictions. Perhaps this is why Judaism often doesn’t take the scriptures literally, and why it has developed methods of interpretation, discussion, and even arguments around its holy writings. One is urged to question and wrestle with its meaning(s).
So, what about murder? What about the mass murders that seem to happen on a regular basis nowadays? This parshah is seemingly contradictory in its advice.
There is the commandment against murder, the deity’s murder of unfaithful Israelites, instructions for the Istraelites to commit mass murder, and the creation of the “cities of refuge” (4:41-42). The Torah says if you accidentally kill someone, you may run away and live your days in these “city of refuge.” However, if you kill someone purposely, then you too are to be killed. In fact, divinely-commanded, community-sponsored execution is a common form of punishment for various crimes, not just murder. Yet, the parshah also describes how life in the Promised Land will operate out of different principles. Observing the commandments in the land will show wisdom and discernment to other peoples (4:6), and there will be flourishing and long lives (5:29) as well as an increase in population in a fecund, abundant land (6:3), a good land (4:21-22, 6:18). However, soon there, too, the Isrealites will disobey the divine (4:25) and G-d’s wrath will be upon them.
This parshah’s descriptions of the deity are similarly contradictory. For example, G-d kills or threatens to kill the unfaithful (4:3, 6:15, 7:4), is angry with Moses (4:21), and is known for holding grudges (5:9). But at the same time, the deity is also described as compassionate and faithful (4:31), loving (4:37), kind (5:10) and faithful (7:9). Divine actions, such as the choosing of the Israelites (7:6-7), the giving of the Promised Land (4:38), and freeing the Isrealites from slavery (5:6, 6:12, 6:21), demonstrate these characteristics.
So, on the one hand there is good and, on the other, evil. These contrasts are found in both Isrealite and divine behavior as one can see murder and fecundity, anger and compassion, survival and destruction, bitter grudges and loving faithfulness. Pair this dualistic thinking with the violence and murder also found in this parshah, and it would be very easy to dismiss this all as patriarchal nonsense.
In many ways, we would be right to do so. The idea that evil and suffering occur because one has sinned and therefore deserves punishment has been shown time and again to be implausible. Suffering and evil are not divine punishments. Likewise, it is utterly absurd to think that the divine’s call for mass murder would somehow apply today or that mass murder is ever holy or in the service of the holy. We must strongly reject such notions!
Nonetheless, I’m of the opinion that our sacred texts often speak out against patriarchy however patriarchal they are. Va’etchanan declares murder is wrong even if murder is present. It implores the Israelites to love: ‘love G-d with all our heart, soul, and might.” The love of G-d is linked to the love of humanity by the commandments. Therefore, love is not murderous, vengeful, angry or jealous; love is holy. Love says be honest (don’t lie!), generous (don’t steal), respectful (don’t covet), compassionate (honour one’s parents), and faithful to G-d (don’t worship idols, honour Shabbat, etc.).
The irony is that the violent world of the parshah isn’t so foreign to us, and the contradictions of the text also mirror the contradictions in our lives. Patriarchy teaches us to fear and hate and preaches violence and control. Then it sets up its idealised form of masculinity to police such a system. When something doesn’t seem right, those men become violent in their efforts to control the situation. Yet, our society also contains movements, people and politicians that advocate compassion, honesty, respect, generosity and faithfulness not just toward humans but also animals and our earth. They strive to create a better world heeding the message of Va’etchanan: do not murder, rather love.
We need more love in this world.
Ivy Helman, Ph.D.: A feminist scholar and faculty member at Charles University and Anglo-American University in Prague, Czech Republic where she teaches a variety of Jewish Studies, Feminist and Ecofeminist courses.