Why did G-d say this?
The better question is:
Why did people find it important to tell this story?
In most general terms, a “common” is any public resource that by law or practice may not be privately owned, or where the public retains rights even where privately owned. Some examples of commons are tidal waters and certain public grazing lands. But when I think of a “commons,” I think of a feature of many of the towns I’ve visited in New England, in the northeast United States. These towns are built around a “commons,” typically “an irregular grassy plot flanked by a tall, steepled church or two and an aging Victorian-style town hall.”
The origin of these New England commons is something of a mystery. They may have started out as common grazing lands, or they may have been organized for purposes of mutual defense. In some sense, these commons belonged to all. Residents of the town might cut down the commons’ trees for firewood, or remove its stones for building purposes. The commons contained the town’s meeting house, and church (or churches). The local militia might drill there, and store their armaments there. The town’s school might be built there. The town’s tavern might be built there. When court convened, it was probably at a building on the commons. Paths and cart tracks crossed the commons in every direction; merchants located their shops nearby. You might find the community bulletin board there, as well as the stocks or whipping post for the punishment of wrongdoers. History might even be made on the commons—the American Revolution began with a skirmish on the commons of Lexington, Massachusetts.
In my last post, I returned to one of my favorite recent topics: violence in the Bible. My focus there was on the Hebrew Bible books of Joshua and Judges. I concluded that post with the question: how do we come to grips with a G-d who insists that G-d’s people must engage in total war, and who leads G-d’s people onto the battleground, in many cases demanding the total destruction of the enemy?
Here’s a particularly chilling illustration of what I mean, taken from the book of 1 Samuel. G-d orders Saul, the newly appointed first King of the Israelites, to attack the Amalekites:
Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.
In case you haven’t noticed, so far this year I’ve been posting regularly to this blog—just about every Sunday or Monday, I’ve put up something new here. But lately, I’ve fallen off. I have a good excuse: I’ve enrolled in a program at the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership to obtain a Master of Arts degree in Jewish Studies. I am currently buried in a class on the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East, taught by Professor Leonard Greenspoon of Creighton. This is a serious class taught by one of the top people in this field, and it’s taking up a lot of my time. Something has to give, and lately, it’s been this blog.
With my focus on my Spertus study, it will be logical for me to post here from time to time about what I’m studying there. This means interrupting whatever series I might be working on at the time, whether it’s my unfinished series on posture in interfaith dialogue, or my unfinished series on Jesus’ arrest and trial, both of which series were themselves interruptions of something I’d started and didn’t finish. Ah well. It’s not like I’d be able to write the last word on any of these subjects. And it’s not like you haven’t seen my mind wander before.
In this piece, I want to return to one of my favorite topics: violence and nonviolence in the Bible. You might recall, a while back I had a blogger back-and-forth with friend of this site Anthony Le Donne about problem Bible texts. In our discussion, we hit on some doozies. There’s the war rule in Deuteronomy (21:10-14), where male soldiers are given permission to kidnap female captives and force them into marriage. We also discussed G-d’s command to the Israelites in Deuteronomy 20:16-17 to conquer certain cities in a way that does not “leave alive anything that breathes.” Somehow, these awful Bible passages become less awful when we isolate them. We can dismiss Deuteronomy 20, since it’s historically unlikely that the Israelites conducted a military campaign like that envisioned in the Torah’s war rules. We can try to live with Deuteronomy 21 by remembering that warfare in the ancient world was normally conducted outside of anything like a Geneva Convention, and that the treatment of women captives described in the Torah was probably an improvement over the prevailing norm.