Project Genesis

Reading the Torah With Your Own Assumptions

Question:  The story of how Hagar was sent out is terrible. With only one thing of water, in the desert, with a child? If that happened today, it would be considered abusive, right? Also, the story of the sacrifice of Isaac. That would, today, have Abraham in jail for attempted murder. I do believe people wrote the bible in a way to justify whatever they did by saying “God told me to”. People still do that today and they end up in jail. [Note: This has been edited and other questions are referenced in the response]

Answer: All of these involve an assumption that I’m having a lot of trouble dealing with. Pardon me for saying so, but you seem to be reading a different book. In the Torah, and the Bible, G-d is absolutely the main character. (If there is a main supporting role, it is the nation of Israel.) The whole point of the entire Bible is the continual attempt by G-d to bring his nation close to him. And yet – you seem to be trying to understand the Bible without any G-d in it, skipping over the parts that mention him! Now, I can see how someone might want to do that, but I don’t expect you’re going to get much sense from it. Nor is it fair of you to ask me to try to help you read it that way.

Take the example of Hagar. Sent out into the desert, with only one thing of water… Let me put a person in place of G-d. “Abraham described his problem to his uncle Fred. Fred said, ‘I understand. Don’t worry. You take care of the rest of your family; I’ll take care of Hagar and her son. Send them to me; they’ll be fine.’ And so it was” (Genesis 21(12-21)). Doesn’t sound so bad. But really – how do you expect the story to make any sense if you take G-d out and replace him with nobody at all? The same with the other 2 questions. Of course someone today would go to jail for attempted murder. That’s because he would be attempting murder. Abraham, on the other hand, was attempting to do G-d’s command, impossible as he found it to justify.

I know that you’ll tell me that the crazy guy today would also say that G-d sent him. But that is what makes him crazy – G-d didn’t. If we want to be intellectually honest, we have to work with our story using its givens. The assumption made in the story is that Abraham was given a moral dilemma by G-d himself. Deny that assumption and there is surely no point to reading the story. Now, what should Abraham have done? “We are supposed to wrestle with God, right? Didn’t some guy in the bible wrestle with God and it was counted as righteous?” No, not really. You must be referring to the story of Jacob wrestling with the “man” (Genesis 32(25-31)). Our sages understand him to be an angel, the angel of Esau, the negative side of humanity’s nature. In any event, he is never thought of as G-d. G-d is not physical, he doesn’t wrestle. Jacob is called Israel as a result: The one who wrestles with the mighty. “El” in this context doesn’t mean G-d.

This last question also goes together with another one.
“The stories of how to go to war- to kill the men,women,children, babies…that’s insane.

We come back to our assumptions. I value human life very highly, infinitely highly. We are the most precious thing in this world. G-d values us infinitely too. But that doesn’t mean that our lives are the only thing that counts. If there’s any message to learn from the Bible, it is that we are not here just to run around and have a good time. We are here to form a relationship with G-d. He has created us for that reason. Our lives are in his hands. He creates us, and he takes our lives away when he is ready. Again, whether you believe this is your personal decision – but you cannot dispute that this is a central assumption of the Torah. I think that once again you are, in effect, trying to read the Bible without G-d in it. So you cannot be fair and compare the rules for people operating on their own, to people working under G-d’s direct instructions. If someone decides to kill his son, he is a murderer (even if he claims that G-d said to). If G-d actually commands him to do so, the person is no more than a messenger; G-d could use a virus or a train wreck just the same. His son’s life belongs to G-d, as does his own. If a nation decides to go to war and kill their neighbor, that might indeed be murder (even if they invoke G-d’s name over their actions). But if G-d actually decides that the destiny of that nation, and the ultimate destiny of the world, requires their neighbor’s removal, that is His right. He created them. And there is such a thing as reality and fiction.

Last little bit: “If you take the women you can sleep with them (although in 30 days you have to marry them).” Pardon, but I think this one is just a mistake. Take a look in Maimonides in his Mishneh Torah (M’lachim chapter 8). He understands the section as describing the laws of how a soldier can marry a non-Jewish wife, and how she must voluntarily choose to become Jewish for it to be allowed. Normally we don’t allow conversions in order to marry. Here is an exception.

All the Best,
Michoel Reach

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