Yom Chamishi, 13 AdarI 5781
Ta anith Esther Thursday, 25 February 2021
Parashat B'chukkotai 2012

Parashat B'chukkotai: Rabbi Pete Tobias
14 May 2012

The section that begins the portion·’B’chukkotai (Leviticus 26:3ff) takes the form of a covenant or·brit. It was an agreement that was struck (literally ‘cut’, because it was engraved in stone) between a powerful empire and its vassals: small kingdoms, cities or other tribal groups.··It set out the demands made by the large empire for the smaller entity to supply crops, animals, servants and soldiers.··In exchange for these, the large empire would offer protection from attack by any other powers. The flipside of a covenant was what would happen to a small nation or kingdom should it fail to meet its obligations.··This was little more than an alarming list of catastrophes that would befall the defaulters as a consequence of their failure to meet their obligations.

The later authors of the Torah, the Deuteronomic and Priestly sources, saw this covenant as a useful way of defining the nature of the relationship between the people of Judah and their God.··Instead of demanding tributes in the form of property and possessions, God’s requirement was for the people to establish justice in their society. This was a useful model for a number of reasons.··It defined what the prophets and the priests regarded as the true nature of divine demands: the establishment of a just society. It also gave them an ingenious way of explaining the reasons for the political disaster that befell the kingdom of Israel when it was destroyed by Assyria in the year 722 BCE and prepared the people of Judah for a similar fate when the Babylonians did the same to Jerusalem a century and a half later.

After the Assyrian destruction, the ten tribes of Israel simply disappeared. This was the result of a well-established policy in the Ancient Near East that was operated by those large empires who established covenants with their smaller subjects.··If the obligations were not met, the city or other habitation of the group that had refused to meet its obligations would be destroyed, and the leaders of that group would be relocated several hundred miles from their erstwhile home. In this exile they would be told to forget their origins and become assimilated into the conquering nations, adopting its culture and its gods.··The purpose of a god in the Ancient Near East was to protect the people from enemy attack. If a nation was defeated, its god was not powerful enough to protect the people, and was therefore abandoned in favour of the gods of the triumphing nation.··This would explain the disappearance of the ten Israelite tribes, not to mention the numerous other tribal groups (Ammonites, Hittites, Jebusites etc) all of whom disappeared without trace during this periods of Assyrian and Babylonian conquest.

The same should have happened to the people of Judah.··Their rulers had also signed up to a covenant with Babylon; one which they had failed to honour. The future of Israel’s religion hung in the balance: if Judah’s leaders were taken into exile then they would abandon their heritage, like all those who had gone before them, believing that their God had failed them.

So the priests and the prophets redefined the nature of the relationship between God and the people.··Instead of expecting protection from the divine power and surrendering belief in that power once they were defeated, the people were told that God had expectations of them.··And just like any covenant of the time, if those expectations were not met, then defeat and catastrophe would be the result.

This relationship was set out in the book of Deuteronomy (particularly in chapter 28) and also in this week’s portion at the end of the book of Leviticus, in chapter 26. The people are told that they will enjoy many privileges if they adhere to God’s commandments. Then they are told what will happen if they fail to observe those commandments: a gruesome list of consequences.·A group of exiled Judahites in Babylon hearing these consequences would recognise that what was being described was the very situation they had experienced, and make clear to them that exile was a result of their failings, not a failing of their God.

In this way the people learned that exile was a form of punishment meted out by their God, rather than evidence of the superiority of another nation’s gods. From a twenty-first perspective we might wonder whether this is true, and have some serious questions to ask about the nature of the punishing, judgmental God it portrays.··But that is a different matter: a theological question that demands a Liberal Jewish response, which is now being addressed by the Rabbinic Conference and the Movement.··But in its biblical context, the reworking of the covenant to define the relationship between the people of Judah and their God is a truly remarkable theological shift that ensured the survival of Israel’s God in exile in Babylon and ensured that Judaism is still with us today.