Judaism: Wisdom of the Old Testament Prophets

I continue to search for the good in religion. I often criticize  religion , but I acknowledge there is a lot of good stuff there too. In fact in all the religions I have looked at there is good.

People brought up in Christian homes tend to downplay the importance of the Old Testament, and with it Judaism. Christians often see themselves as superior to the Jews, just like they do to all other religions. But is this disparagement fair? I would suggest it is not.

For example, Christians often say that the Jews believed in an “eye for an eye” while they went beyond that to “turning the other cheek.”  There are some statements in the New Testament that support that assertion. Yet there is also the clear fact that in the New Testament a God is described who would place non-believers into eternal torment. That goes way beyond an eye for an eye, but in the wrong direction. That is not turning the other cheek, which we are told to do. That is revenge, an entirely ugly emotion, of the worst kind. In fact think about revenge that goes on forever!

It is rarely a wise approach to evaluate any religion by statements made by its competitors or critics. It is much wiser to look at the religion first hand or at least listen to what sympathizers say.

The Mosaic phrase “an eye for an eye” first appears in the Old Testament in Exodus 21 where it is promptly followed by the statement, “If he knocks out his servant’s or his maid’s tooth, he shall let him go free for the tooth’s sake.”  That is an odd statement, but at least it demonstrates that the Law of Moses never just applied the principle of an eye for an eye  mechanically. The emphasis is on the spirit of the provision, namely that the law does not respect persons. By that is meant that all are treated equally. An eye of one is worth the eye of another. No more no less. All people are equal before the law, kings and paupers. That is not a bad principle, and tempers the more harsh sounding an eye for an eye. Of course, in ancient times, limiting the avenger to an eye for an eye rather than a life for an eye was already a huge improvement over  common punishments.

I also really like the statement in Leviticus 24, “You shall have one law for the stranger and for the native, for I am the Lord your God.”  Equality again is the rule and it is a fundamentally important law right to this day, enshrined as it is in our Canadian constitution.

In practice of course, Christians have been no better than adherents to other religions in denouncing revenge and retaliation. Look at the tortures inflicted on heretics during the Inquisition for example. An eye for an eye would have been an enormous improvement.

Nietzsche, for example, who is often criticized by Christians, and others, had a much better approach. He said the noble person was the one who was freed from revenge. He had his Zarathustra say, “that man be delivered from revenge, that is for me the bridge to the highest hopes.”

In the Old Testament there is actually strong evidence of the importance of a keen social conscience. This sets apart the Old Testament from the sacred writings of many other religious texts. In fact the social conscience  is implicit from a belief in God according to the Old Testament.

In Leviticus it says, “You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason with your neighbour, lest you bear sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself.” That is pretty good moral advice. In fact, I would suggest as good as such advice ever gets. Of course all the Old Testament  requirements are not equally sound. That passage is immediately followed by one that you shall not let your cattle breed with another kind or sow your field with two different kinds of seeds. Why is that important? So admittedly, I pick and choose. I do that with all religions. It is my belief that we have to exercise our critical thinking.

But there are lots of good things too in the Old Testament. Leviticus 33 says, “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” Once again profound. this is just another version of the Golden Rule.  I think t shows how religion is what connects us to each other, not what divides us. If it divides us, it is not religion. That is my fundamental principle.

Elsewhere in the Old Testament the prophet Malachi asks a profound question: “Have we not all one father?  Has not one God created us?  Why then are we faithless to one another?” (2:10) Or consider Job who asks, “If I have rejected the right of my manservant or my maidservant, when they contended with me; what then shall I do when God rises up?  When he makes inquiry, what shall I answer him? Did not he who made me in the womb make make him? And did not one fashion us in the womb? (31:13-15) Once again the Old Testament prophets understood as their followers often did not, that we are all kin. We are all one. and we should treat each other accordingly.

The Old Testament prophets relentlessly stressed the importance of social justice. They were not concerned with rituals. Their criticism was fundamentally moral.

Those Old Testament prophets are not often give credit for their wisdom. I really like what Micah said, “He has told you, man, what is good and what the Lord requires of you: only to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” (6:8) I don’t know that morality ever gets more simple or more profound than this! Justice, mercy, and humility is what is demanded of us.

Isaiah another of those prophets also advocated for justice instead of ceremony said this:

“What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord.  I have had enough of burnt offerings…Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, abolish oppression, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”

That is what the God of Old Testament said when he said to his people, “You shall be holy.” (Leviticus 19:2.) Or when he said, “You shall be to me a kingdom of priests.” (Exodus 19:6)

There is a lot to be said for the Old Testament.


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