יום ראשון, אוקטובר 29, 2006

 

The Noahide Laws on killing and retribution

During discussion time at the Torah service on 28 October, one congregant suggested that Genesis 9:5-6 was more consistent with a blanket "thou shall not kill" interpretation than with the more specific "thou shall not murder" in the Noahide laws. There was a lively discussion of the point, and several members noted some apparent contradictions within the weekly portion. The version of the Bible that we use at these discussions is the Modern Commentary of the Reform movement, or "Plaut I." I don't have immediate access to a copy of Plaut I, but I was struck by the difference in the translation of the same passage in Plaut II (the revised edition, published in 2005). I will compare it here with the other version I have at my fingertips, which is the Everett Fox translation. (From memory, the Plaut I is closer to Fox in the word choice, albeit not in the meter and structure, which is very distinctive in Fox--a topic for another day.)

First, Fox:
(5) However, too: for your blood, of your own lives, I will demand satisfaction--
from wild-animals I will demand it,
and from humankind, from every man regarding his brother,
demand-satisfaction for human life.
(6) Whoever now sheds human blood,
shall his blood be shed,
for in God's image he made mankind.


(Note: I am replicating the punctuation and hyphenation used by Fox, but the indentation is a bit different from how it appears in the source.)

Now that I have looked at this more closely, it seems pretty clear that it refers to killing being OK in retribution for another killing. However, some additions to the text in Plaut II seem to have been made to really drive this point home, as we'll see.

Plaut II:

(5) Moreover, for your own bloodguilt I will require your lives; I will require it by means of beasts or by means of human beings--by means of a fellow human being will I require a [guilty] person's life.
(6) The shedder of human blood, /that person's blood shall be shed by [another] human;/ for human beings were made in the image of God.


(Note that the bracketed text and the slashes are in the source that I am quoted; I am not sure what the slashes are supposed to convey.)

This translation, with the addition of the clarification regarding guilt, appears more consistent with an interpretation that any killing is to be sanctioned as retribution for guilt, but certainly not with an interpretation that killing, per se, is prohibited. A commentary in a footnote to this passage says that an important principle of the postdiluvian world is to establish "a legal framework for social compliance" as distinct from the previous era "that perished because of its violence and lawlessness."

Does this mean that killing is OK, but only within a legal framework, in which the one to be killed is guilty? If so, it supports capital punishment (as retribution for murder), but it does not ban killing, per se. Nonetheless, the Plaut II essay on this passage, at p. 75, continues to refer to one of the Noahide laws as "People... shall not kill."

A bit confusing, for sure. But I take away from this the notion that humans are required from this point of the flood onward to figure things out for themselves. That is, there will not be divine intervention every time there is rampant corruption and violence. Rather, we have to learn how to establish the rule of law. Maybe I am looking at this from too much of a political scientist's perspective, but that's clearly an occupational hazard. The idea is: Here are some general, transcendent laws (the Noahide Laws), now go and work it out.

It hardly bears noting that we are still working on it.

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