Deuteronomy 11:26 to 16:17
Moses presents a lengthy list of laws to the people. Many of the laws involved the death penalty for crimes where the sentence was rarely, if ever, carried out. Why weren’t these punishments given? Why are they even specified in Torah?
“See, this day I set before you blessing and curse: blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Eternal your God that I enjoin upon you this day; and curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Eternal you God, but turn away from the path that I enjoin upon you this day and follow other gods….” (Deuteronomy 11:26-28)
And, with these words, Moses begins his Third Discourse to the Israelites before they enter the Promised Land. This long speech will continue through the next two parshot and parts of a third. It reviews both the ritual and secular laws which will be in effect once they enter the new land.
In this week’s parsha we read the laws dealing with centralization of worship. Prior to about 1,000 BCE the people worshiped at many local centers. This centralization gave more power to the priests and helped create a single ritual and legal system. Other ritual laws presented include prohibition of idolatry… including the destruction of any communities that practice idolatry so that the people would not be tempted to follow their ways. Also covered are laws to protect the people from any false gods including false prophets and sorcerers.
This parsha also contains the dietary laws, tithing regulations, several economic laws including the Sabbatical year, laws involving dedication of the first born, and at the end of the parsha, laws relating to the festival holidays.
It’s a wide range of law covering many subjects that provide the people with a plan leading to the objectives stated in Torah … a holy people that can be a “light to the nations.”
However, I am disturbed by the number of times the death penalty is applied to the laws. We read that the people who occupy the land before the Israelites who practice idolatry should be killed and all the elements of their region destroyed. We are also told that the death penalty also applies to the false prophet and anyone who practices witchcraft or sorcery. Also, from past parshot, we have read that disrespectful children and those breaking the Sabbath should also be put to death.
A lot can be learned about the values of the community by looking at these offenses that warrant the death penalty. According to Wikepedia the offenses that receive in the Torah can be grouped into three main categories:
Religious practices warranting the death penalty:
- Sacrificing to gods other than the Eternal
- Child sacrifice
- Sorcery and false prophecy
Sexual Practices warranting the death penalty
- Rape or consensual sex involving a married or betrothed woman
- Other acts involving incest and other unnatural sexual practices
Other Practices warranting the death penalty
- Harming, cursing, or disobeying a parent
- Contempt of court
- False witness
From this list we see that in addition to murder and kidnapping – common causes of death in most civilized communities – offenses against God, disruption of the family order, and going against the established order are also capital crimes. … Both the family and the courts are responsible for teaching and upholding the laws, so that these institutions become the foundation for the establishment of the legal system … and as such, any action to break them are punishable to the maximum.
Looking back at the list of laws that merited the death penalty … Being part of a community in the Promised Land that didn’t worship the Eternal … Being a false prophet or sorcerer … Breaking the Shabbat … Blasphemy … Cursing or disobeying a parent…. Do they warrant the death penalty? Were they ever enforced? …. We know that the penalty for the breaking of laws involving the disrespect of a parent, blasphemy, and breaking of Shabbat were probably never enforced. In the Book of Joshua, we are told that several communities, which probably practiced idolatry, made peace pacts with the Israelites and were not punished…. So why have these laws, if they are rarely if ever enforced?
To answer, this writer takes a step beyond the actual words on the page and looks at what these violations have in common. They are direct attacks on God… They are attacks on the family structure (Before actual schools were common the task of education fell upon the parents. So respect for parents was essential for teaching of ritual and secular laws. Without this teaching, chaos would become a norm.) …. They are attacks on the community’s legal system. (Fear and respect of the law of the land is essential for a peaceful community.)
All of these laws (backed by the death penalty) reinforce the standards of the community.
…. But, some of them were probably never enforced. The actual punishment for the crime would have been unacceptable to the majority of the community… even though this same majority thought the concept behind the law important.
So, maybe, in some cases, the threat of death in Torah was – in fact – just a way of showing the stated laws were very important … important enough to warrant the death penalty. And, even though the rabbis and judges found loopholes and reasons not to apply the punishment, the fact that the death penalty was attached to these actions in Torah acted to show the importance of these laws. The threat of the death penalty becomes a sort of exclamation mark, or underscore, showing the importance of the principles that these laws represented.
So, when reading the passages in this week’s text that tell the Israelites to kill for many varied reasons, I don’t see a violent God looking to destroy. I see a text that is using the ultimate punishment to show the reader what is really important.