March 28, 2007

Leviticus 24-25: Double standards

Today's reading is Leviticus 24-25 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers instructions for the oil and bread given to God; an account of the stoning of a blasphemer; and rules for sabbath years and jubilee years.

Those tight-fisted, usurious Jews! They'll lend you money and then expect a pound of flesh in return, just like Shakespeare's Shylock! Outrageous! Do they really think they're allowed to do that?

The short answer is, frankly, "yes, so long as the borrower isn't a Jew."

Lev. 25 introduces us to a double-standard that exists within the Bible, and one which might be worth considering for a few moments. The long answer to the question above is somewhat more complicated and deserves elaboration. Lev. 25:35-38 exhorts the Israelites to help their brother Israelites who have fallen on hard times, and commands them not to exact usury from them. Some would say this is a noble and fine sentiment, and I would be inclined to agree with them.

However, the corollary to this commandment is that there is no such commandment against non-Israelites. The text is at least tacitly allowing Israelites to exact usury from members of other nations.

I have mentioned in previous essays the Biblical exhortation to be kind to strangers living among the Israelites. Ex. 22:2, 23:9, and Lev. 19:33 command the Israelites not to vex or oppress strangers. Lev. 19:10 and 23:22 tell them to leave the gleanings of the vineyard and field for the poor and strangers. Finally, what seems to be unequivocal proof of this statement is in Lev. 19:34: "But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in Egypt: I am the LORD your God." (KJV)

Furthermore, there are many instances in the text where strangers and those who are native-born must submit to the same laws. Ex. 12:19 relates that the commandment not to eat leavened bread during the passover must be obeyed by both "stranger, or born in the land." Ex. 23:12 insists that everyone, even the stranger, must rest on the Sabbath. According to Lev. 16:29, both the strangers and "one of your own country" (KJV) must obey the Day of Atonement. Lev. 18:26, speaking about sexual crimes, also applies to both strangers and "your own nation" (KJV). There are other, similar examples throughout the text.

Yet Lev. 25 suddenly brings in a double-standard. Verses 35-38 imply that Israelites may exact usury from non-Israelites. Verses 44-46 insist that any slaves (NIV) or bondmen and bondmaids (KJV) must be from other nations, not Israelites. Israelite servants go free during the Jubilee year, every 50 years, even if they are sold to non-Israelites. (Lev. 25:39-43; 25:47-55) Non-Israelites, however, may be perpetual, inherited slaves. (Lev. 25:46)

How can we reconcile the difference between the command to treat strangers well and possibly even by the same laws as Israelites, but at the same time shows less respect for their property and even their lives? We have a few options:

First, we can assume that the strangers referred to throughout the text are, in fact, Israelite strangers. Certainly some Hebrews must have moved between cities or tribes, and thus would be considered a stranger in their new home, even though they were of the people. A stranger need not be a foreigner.

While this interpretation is compelling and solves many problems, there are a few hints within the text that it might not be true. Lev. 16:29, quoted above, contrasts strangers to those born "of your own country." It seems to me that "country" consists of all Israel, not just an individual tribe. If the laws for obeying the Day of Atonement include both Israelites and non-Israelites living within Israelite borders, then "strangers," used elsewhere, may also include these people.

Another way we can try to reconcile the two attitudes is to accept that non-Israelites living within Israelite lands may have been second-class citizens. The Hebrews were told not to oppress them too much, and these non-natives would be forced to observe certain laws of the land in which they lived. However, there is a long way in the ancient mind between oppression and usury, and even between oppression and slavery. In the ancient Mediterranean, slavery was common. The Hebrews may simply have concluded that if they must have slaves, at least they shouldn't be from their own people.

Approached this way, the situation may have been similar to Christians and Jews living under some Islamic nations in the Medieval and Renaissance periods. These were "people of the book" and therefore not forced to immediately convert. On the other hand, they lived under Muslim law and needed to pay special taxes to their Muslim leaders. The condition of non-Israelites living in Hebrew Canaan in Biblical times may have been similar.

What does this mean, in the end? Perhaps to the ancient Israelites, borrowing a phrase, "all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others." The strangers needed to follow their rules, and wouldn't be oppressed too much. But when push came to shove, the Israelites knew where to look to make a little extra money. This might be one reason Jews got such a bad reputation during the Middle Ages, when practically every job was prohibited to them except lending money. And, of course, this is why the Jews now control the world, as conspiracy theorists never cease to remind us.

[author's note: Please keep in mind that I am, in fact, Jewish. All jibes against modern Jews are meant to be purely tongue-in-cheek. Please don't hurt me.]

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