One more

One more update from Joe:

By KAROUN DEMIRJIAN, Associated Press Writer Karoun Demirjian, Associated Press Writer Fri Feb 26, 8:23 am ET

JERUSALEM – Two parts of an ancient biblical manuscript separated across centuries and continents were reunited for the first time in a joint display Friday, thanks to an accidental discovery that is helping illuminate a dark period in the history of the Hebrew Bible.

The 1,300-year-old fragments, which are among only a handful of Hebrew biblical manuscripts known to have survived the era in which they were written, existed separately and with their relationship unknown, until a news photograph of one’s public unveiling in 2007 caught the attention of the scholars who would eventually link them.

Together, they make up the text of the Song of the Sea, sung by jubilant Israelites after fleeing slavery in Egypt and witnessing the destruction of the pharaoh’s armies in the Red Sea.

The Government Takeover of Capital Punishment

If we want to follow the biblical law for capital punishment of murderers, the execution must be carried out by the victim’s next of kin.

The murderer shall be put to death . . . The avenger of blood shall put the murderer to death; when he meets him, he shall put him to death (Numbers 35:16-19).

In the ancient world, to avenge a murdered relative was considered a sacred duty and honor.  In Rome, young Octavian had the obligation to avenge his uncle Caesar’s death–he was Caesaris ultor.  In Hebrew the word was goel.  The goel had other roles as well, but that of avenging murder was considered an essential service.

The laws in the Torah brought due process io an ancient social reality.  Previously the goel would take vengeance summarily; but the Mosaic regulations required a trial, and there could be no conviction without two or more witnesses.  Further, capital punishment could be avoided if there was not proof of premeditation.  But if premeditated murder was established, there was no substitute for execution at the hands of the goel.

The Torah provisions of due process stopped the cycle of bloody vengeance.  They were a great advance over the practices of the ancient world.  But I don’t think we want to copy the Torah provisions for capital punishment exactly in our world.  Those provisions were given to Israel as part of her civil law while living in the promised land.

The laws were based on important principles and the principles have value for us.  Life is sacred and there is no substitute for a human life except another life.  Vengeance is dangerous and the impulse to vengeance must be brought under control through a fair legal process.

I have no bleeding heart for murderers.  I pray for God’s grace, to help me resist my desire for vengeance, but compassion for vicious criminals does not come natural to me.  I understand the impulse toward vengeance.  But I cannot support capital punishment.

I wouldn’t really want to go back to the principle of direct vengeance by the next of kin.  But I also realize that state sponsored execution is a totally different thing.  Three simple reasons convince me to support life in prison without parole for murderers, rather than execution:

  1. Under the best of circumstances, our legal system makes mistakes.  Recently in Kansas a man was exonerated nearly thirty years after being convicted of rape.  He was awarded over 7 million dollars to compensate for the mistake.  The money might be some consolation for the lost years, and the state has given him back the rest of his life; but there is no giving back a life wrongly taken.
  2. Under normal circumstances, the government is run by politicians and the legal system is run by politicians.  Prosecuting attorneys are either elected or appointed by elected officials.  Attorneys play to win, and if that means suppressing evidence or coercing confessions, that sometimes happen.
  3. Under the worst circumstances, politicians use the power of death to silence their enemies.  I don’t know that it has ever happened here, but I know it is happening in Iran today.  Why would we want to be associated with governments like that?  Why would we want to give our government that kind of power?

Is Compromise Possible?


I am stuck between two generations. Many people of my father’s generation cannot comprehend why anyone would approve of homosexual relationships–and many of my kids’ generation cannot fathom why anyone could possible be opposed to two people loving each other just because they happen to be of the same sex.

The Film “Trembling Before G-D” is a documentary about orthodox Jewish rabbis caught in this same bind.  They are trying to remain faithful to their binding traditions and laws; and at the same time to give compassionate spiritual guidance to gay members of their congregations.

Their Holy Book–the book of Leviticus in particular, the central book of the Torah–is responsible for the prohibition against “a man lying with a man as with a woman.”  They can’t deny the teachings of the Torah without denying their faith; nor can they deny their responsibility to teach the Torah in a way that enhances life and affirms human dignity.

They various rabbis struggle with multiple possible answers, none entirely satisfactory.  Two of their answers in particular intrigue me.  One said to the man he was counseling,

Everything you do throughout the day for your partner, acts of kindness, taking care of him, being faithful–that’s all good, it’s mikvot.  It’s just  that one thing you do that’s forbidden–

The other rabbi said,

“A woman comes to me with a question about a chicken.  I first say to her, ‘Tell me about your family.'”

I assume the question is whether the chicken is kosher, whether she can serve it to her family.  Maybe it fell out of a grocery bag into the street or something.  But his questions about her family mean his answer must be tailored to her needs and circumstances.  If her family is wealthy enough to buy another chicken, maybe he will counsel her to give it to a gentile neighbor.  But if her family is poor and her children need the nourishment, he will find a way to make the chicken kosher.

[Disclaimer: I saw this film over a year ago; the quotes above are from memory, and may not be verbatim.  See it yourself and tell me how close I got!]



A friend who taught a survey course on the Bible at a community college mentioned that the students were surprised at “how bloody” the Old Testament is. In addition to Israel’s frequent wars, the death penalty was apparently required for several crimes. Hostile critics of faith see this as incredibly barbaric, while enthusiasts for capital punishment see it as a divine mandate. Both fail to read the Bible historically. A historical reading would reveal several facts:

1) Capital punishment was widespread in the ancient world for a variety of crimes including religious offenses and insults to kings and governments. It was a bloody, cruel world. When all the facts are considered, the laws in the Old Testament represent a great restraint on death and cruelty. Death, for example, is never the penalty for property crimes or insulting a king; as it was in other nations. Bodily mutilations are common penalties in the laws of Hammurabi but (with one rare exception) are not prescribed in the Torah.

2) The rhetoric of the Middle East is considerably more uninhibited than that used by English speaking politicians. For example, when David heard of a man who murdered his neighbor’s pet lamb, he cried out, “The man deserves to die!” Then he adds the strangely anticlimactic “moreover, he shall repay fourfold.” David could not literally execute the man; the law only provided for a monetary fine–but he could express his outrage in angry rhetoric. Our national leaders might express outrage at an NFL football player arranging dogfights, but they wouldn’t say, “he deserves to die.” That kind of language is reserved for talk radio.

3) In many of the passages that say someone guilty of a sin, such as blasphemy, “shall surely die,” God is the presumed enforcer of the law. In other words, the commandment is a warning, “God will get you.” If blasphemers do not in fact drop dead, it is to be taken as a sign of God’s mercy, not a call for human intervention. Joe Sprinkle has shown that such commandments are a vivid way of teaching morality, appropriate to the ancient culture of the Bible. (see here)

4) In other cases, such as negligent homicide, a ransom was allowed in lieu of death.

5) In ancient Israel, capital punishment for murder was administered by the next of kin of the victim. The case was tried before a court. If the accused was found guilty, he was turned over to the “avenger of blood,” i.e., the next of kin who had the social obligation to kill the murderer.

6) The testimony of two eyewitnesses was required before any capital sentence was given.

7) In historic Judaism, the courts were extremely reluctant to order execution. The Talmud declares a Sanhedrin that hands down a verdict of death once in seventy years is a bloody court.

If we understand capital punishment in the Torah historically, two conclusions become clear. First, from a redemptive movement perspective, there is clearly a move away from automatic instantaneous retaliatory violence. Compared to neighboring civilizations, the number of cases in which capital punishment was applied was clearly restricted. Further, precautions were taken to assure that the penalty was not applied to an innocent person.

The second conclusion that becomes clear is that the law of capital punishment places a high value on human life. Because a human life is valuable, because human beings are created in the image of God, nothing can substitute in value for a human life. As a moral principle, “a life for a life” is still valid.

In applying capital punishment today, we still need to be guided by two facts.

First, Christ taught us to seek reconciliation rather than vengeance. He himself paid the debt that murderers and all sinners owed. He offered his life in exchange for the guilt of the world. The early Christians in the first three centuries were opposed to capital punishment.

Second, we do need to remember practical factors. Our legal system is imperfect, and the state cannot give back a life wrongly taken. The fact that several death-row inmates have been exonerated by DNA evidence should be a sober reminder. The fact that capital punishments places us in league with “Axis of Evil” nations like North Korea and Iran, should also be a sober warning.

Giving the state the power of life and death is giving it too much power.

Opinion polls show that American citizens deeply distrust the officials they have elected. Why would we grant these same politicians the power to take life?


Slavery was never God’s will. God created humans, male and female, in his image and gave them authority and dignity to take care of the rest of God’s creation but not to rule over each other. When the descendants of Jacob became slaves in Egypt, God heard their cry and liberated them from slavery.

Yet the historical Torah has provisions concerning slavery.

William Webb in a article in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (48:2, 2005: 331-49) argued that we need to use a “Redemptive Movement Hermeneutic” to understand these texts. What this means is that we need to compare the laws in question to their historical context. When we do this, we will see that the laws are moving in the direction of improving the condition of slaves, moving toward the ultimate abolition of the institution.

The assumption behind this way of reading the Bible is that God met people where they were and moved them in the direction he wanted them to go. Here are some of the improvement in the treatment of slaves found when the Torah is compared to its background:

1) Protection against murder. Unfortunately the law in Exodus 21:20-21 is often mistranslated, giving the opposite impression. The word translated “punished” is from the Hebrew root N-Q-M, which refers to vengeance. The law treats the murder of a slave as any other murder, subject to vengeance. If a slave dies from negligent homicide, it is treated the same as if the slave were a free man. The owner must pay a fine or “ransom” for his own life. Negligent homicide is not a capital crime because there was no intent to commit murder.

2) Protection against beating. In a world where corporal punishment was ubiquitous, a slave who was abused resulting in the loss of a tooth was granted freedom (Exodus 21:26-27).

3) Refuge for runaway slaves (Deuteronomy 23:15).

4) Rest on the Sabbath (Exodus 23:12).

5) Freedom after six years (Exodus 21:2).

Why was slavery allowed at all? Probably because it was so deeply ingrained in the ancient society and economy that people could not even comprehend its abolition. Rather than give an unrealistic ideal, the Torah provides actual help for slaves, while waiting for the day when slavery and all forms of injustice would end.

The most common way one became a slave in ancient Israel was through debt. A slave in effect sold his labor for six years to cancel out debts; it was the ancient form of bankruptcy. People fell into debt for a variety of reasons, but one common reason was crime. For example, someone who stole his neighbors ox was required to pay a five-fold restitution. Debt slavery was a way of working off this fine.

It may seem harsh, but is our system any better? We also deprive thieves of their liberty. Is our system actually better than the ancient Israelite’s system.

See the “Resources” page for more information on ancient laws.


This will be the first of two or three posts on understanding the Bible historically.

Eternal Torah and Historical Torah

Christians inherited their first Bible from the Jews. In Judaism the Torah is the original and most authoritative part of the Bible. The Torah contains the 613 commandments (mitzvot) that every Jew must learn and observe upon coming of age and becoming a bar or bat mitzvah.

As an expression of God’s character and will, the Torah must be eternal. Some of the Rabbis even said God consulted the Torah when creating the universe. The eternal Torah is expressed in two forms: the written Torah and the oral Torah.

Because it expresses God’s will for humans, the Torah must be historical. The Torah is written in human language–but the word “language” is an abstraction. There is really no such thing as language in general; there are only the particular languages spoken by particular people at various times and places. Language is intimately tied to history and culture, to the understanding available at any point in history, to the natural and social realities of any point in history.

The rabbis recognized the historical nature of the Torah, and they recognized the difficulties of reconciling the historical with the eternal nature of God’s revelation. For example, as the expression of the eternal will of God, the Torah is universal; yet it was given to Israel, not to the Gentiles. Only Israel is required to observe all 613 commandments; the Master of the Universe will be pleased if the Gentiles keep about seven of them: the laws against murder, incest, adultery, and so forth.

The Torah contains God’s commandments, but as a book written at a point in history, it must have a human author. Since Moses is the intermediary through whom God gives the commandments, he is considered the author of the whole collection of five books, even though at the end of Deuteronomy there is a third-person account of the death of Moses. Some of the rabbis said that Moses wrote those words with tears in his eyes, following a vision God had given him. Others said it is better to be silent about the fact.

The oral Torah also is considered eternal. The oral Torah includes the interpretations of the laws as ultimately codified in the Talmud. Even though the Talmud reports the individual discussions and debates and names the rabbis who gave various rulings at particular points in history–these rulings are still considered part of the eternal Torah.

The rabbis recognized one other conflict between the eternal Torah and the historical Torah. Changing conditions call for flexibility in interpreting and applying the commandments. This is found even within the Torah. In Exodus Moses commands that a debt-slave must be released “freely, without any charge” at the end of six years. The similar law in Deuteronomy goes beyond this and commands the master to be generous and pay a newly-released slave for his services.

Since Moses taught that by keeping the commandments “you will live,” Judaism established the rule that commandments must be interpreted in a way that advances life, never in a way that threatens life.

The rabbis would not say that there are contradictions among the commandments; but they did recognize contradictions in life. Because the world is not right, the commandments must be interpreted in a way that repairs the world.