Skip To Content

What Our Fathers Got Away With

It’s one of the old, bottomless speculations: Would a humanity that had no God — if we can imagine humanity without the divine to believe, or alternatively disbelieve, in — have come up with a moral code? Without the idea of a heaven, would our human nature have issued itself a set of commandments to obey or, alternatively, disobey? Where would we have found the evidence that there is good behavior and that it is rewarded and there’s bad and bad things happen to the guilty?

Would we have invented the carrot and the stick, both of which are wielded in such magnificent prose by the God of Leviticus? We have heard it before and will hear it often — the elaboration of the benefits of righteousness contrasted with the list of the calamities visited upon us when we do evil in the sight of the Lord.

Heaven’s primary commandments concern Israel’s relations with its God. We are — to use W.H. Auden’s formulation — not only to be loved but to be loved alone — none of your comparative religion — to reverence His name, keep His Sabbath and honor our human parents, as we honor the divine parent. The rest of the big Ten nail our basic misbehaviors to our neighbor including envy, which is not a behavior so much as a thought or feeling.

There are the rules regarding civil law, ritual cleanliness, kashrut, celebrations of festivals and the minute instructions relating to the dressing of the altar and slaughtering of the sacrifice. And there are laws that speak to us bleeding-heart liberals, commanding a merciful justice to slaves, widows, orphans and the stranger in our land. It requires the good sort of imagination to tell lenders they are to return to the poor debtor the cloak they have taken from him for a pledge because at night he will need to use it for his blanket.

I had a creative writing student at Princeton who signed up with ROTC. He was working on an interesting story that alternated the rules from his military manual with their application in the field of action. He never finished the story for mid-term he had a nervous breakdown and left. It is interesting to check the biblical commandments against their application in the biblical narrative.

What kind of wickedness in the sight of the Lord is punished? Who gets away with what?

Because the imagination of our hearts is evil from our youth, the Lord drowns the lot of us, man and also beast from whose hand, as He told Noah, He would require the blood of life even as He required it at the hand of every man and every man’s brother. The fishes, one supposes, managed to swim out the flood, but the vegetables, capable of so little behavior whether for good or for evil, must have got washed clean away with the rest of us. At Sodom and Gomorrah man and beast were destroyed for inhospitality, violence and perversion. Is there a modern mind that isn’t puzzled when Lot gets away, literally away, with offering his virgin daughters to appease the murderous crowd outside of his house?

Our tribal fathers got away with a lot. Why isn’t Jacob reprimanded for taking advantage of a weaker brother and for cheating on his father? When Abraham sends his son Ishmael and the boy’s mother, Hagar, away into the desert, it is done with the Lord’s blessing. When he goes to sacrifice his son Isaac, it’s at the Lord’s bidding: We are forever puzzled that Father Abraham gets points for obedience that requires him to consider infanticide.

We may conclude that acts forbidden in the Lord’s manual are permitted in the Lord’s sacred business, and when they are committed to punish sins against the Lord’s Self. Moses was not punished for slaying the 3,000 Hebrews (Exodus 32:27-28) who were whoring after the idolatrous golden calf, nor for the death of the Egyptian slaver. His misbehavior appears to have occurred at Meribah. Was it for hitting that stone to make it give the people water when he had been told to talk to it?

Obedience, Samuel teaches Saul, is better than sacrifice. Saul loses the kingdom for not waiting an extra day for the prophet Samuel to arrive on the battlefield, as he had been told to do, and for not killing the Amalekite king and the Amalekite sheep in obedience to the Lord’s curse upon them for the dastardly ambush of the Israelite’s in their flight from Egypt by these Amalekites’ great- or is it their great-great-grandparents? The kingship is awarded to David, who is punished for adultery with the death of the resulting baby, but not for the sacking of the host cities of Ziklag, including cattle and every last baby at the breast to prevent them from bearing witness.

Israel is not forbidden; it is mandated to kill its enemies. If you don’t do what I tell you to do to them, the Lord says, I’ll do it to you.

There is a part of humanity that wants to rearrange the priorities and to make not taking the blood of other people’s lives the first commandment. We peaceniks can’t make our peace with war. True that we’ve not come up with any manual for the management of the men and the brothers of the men, the imagination of whose heart, God knows, is to take the blood of our lives.

Lore Segal is the author of “Other People’s Houses” and “Her First American,” among others, as well as of the biblical translations “The Book of Abraham to Moses” and “The Story of King Saul and King David.”

A message from our editor-in-chief Jodi Rudoren

We're building on 127 years of independent journalism to help you develop deeper connections to what it means to be Jewish today.

With so much at stake for the Jewish people right now — war, rising antisemitism, a high-stakes U.S. presidential election — American Jews depend on the Forward's perspective, integrity and courage.

—  Jodi Rudoren, Editor-in-Chief 

Join our mission to tell the Jewish story fully and fairly.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.