Cruel and Unusual
The modern imagination feels at home with the moral question raised by the Job story: Why do bad things happen to good people? It is a question that does not arise in Deuteronomy, which foresees punishments of spectacular awfulness in retribution upon a nation disobedient to God’s law.
What type of disobedience will these calamities punish? The Ten Commandments have published the basic prohibitions. Torah has laid down the ritual do’s and don’ts, detailed the complexities of doing justice and commanded care for the disadvantaged — the unpropertied Levite, the orphan, the widow and the stranger among us. It has commanded right behavior between human and human. The recommendation that we not do unto others what we don’t want them to do to us obliges us to the fundamental act of the imagination: It does not come instinctively to us to remember that, like ourselves, other people bleed when pricked, laugh when tickled. My grandmother used to say, ‘If someone tells you they have a headache, believe them.”
On the whole, the biblical blessings and curses don’t reward or punish the individual, or the sin against a fellow individual. Jane Austen may add chapters deconstructing her characters’ bad behavior, but the biblical text has no comment when Sarah sends her servant, Hagar, and Hagar’s child into the desert, or when Jacob and his mother trick his father, Isaac, out of a blessing. Later commentators may write midrashim to explain things away, but the Bible leaves us to search the stories for a subsequent comeuppance. God’s recurring list of beautiful blessings and ferocious curses addresses the communal sin against Himself. The Children of Israel’s primal sin is their betrayal of their own, one true God by worshipping the false gods of their neighbors.
The moral world does love a good curse. Retribution, whether from man or God, is a turn-on. Dante’s Inferno rises to consummate flights of sadism in the invention of sufferings to fit a particular sin. Deuteronomy threatens the disobedient nation with calamities that sound most potent in the poetry of the King James Bible: Here are some quotes from Chapter 28: “Because of the wickedness of thy doings whereby thou hast forsaken me… the Lord shall make pestilence cleave unto thee… smite thee with a consumption, and with a fever and with an inflammation and with an extreme burning and with the sword and with blastings and with mildew… until thou perish…. The Lord will smite thee with the botch of Egypt and with the emerods, and with the scab and with the itch whereof thou canst not be healed… with madness, and blindness, and astonishment of the heart … and no man shall save thee…. Thy heaven over thee shall be brass and the earth that is under thee shall be iron… and the rain of thy land power and dust…. Thou shalt plant vineyards but shalt neither drink of the wine nor gather the grapes.” Who will be enjoying them? The worm, and the enemy (who is lying with your wife). “The stranger… shall pursue thee and overtake thee, till thou be destroyed…. Thy carcass shall be meat unto all fowls of the air.”
Some of the curses stand blessings on their head, but there are curses on the march toward ideas we are unwilling to imagine but that, by dint of repetition, have become familiar: A verse magnificent in its sarcastic malice forces us to picture a nation under siege to the enemy driven to cannibalize her family. “The tender and delicate woman among you which would not adventure to set the sole of her foot upon the ground for delicateness and tenderness… . Her eye shall be evil toward the husband and toward her young one that cometh from between her feet… for she shall eat them for want of all things, secretly….” (Deuteronomy 28:56)
Elsewhere the Bible teaches and commands a value that expresses the opposite instinct. It delimits punishment. For the loss of an eye, be satisfied with no more than an eye; for the loss of a tooth, take no more than a tooth. Thank God for the enlightened human justice that has created the concept of “cruel and unusual punishment” and has written the prohibition against it into our laws.
Lore Segal is a novelist, translator and essayist. Her latest children’s book is “More Mole Stories and Little Gopher, Too” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).