The Bible’s Secret
By Israel Drazin
The ancients knew that it is impossible to tell the truth to the general public. Most people lack the ability to understand because they are taught wrong ideas by teachers who were not taught the truth. This misinformation became the basis of everything they know. Telling them that what they understand is wrong would shatter their lives. Ibn Tufayl dramatizes these facts in his very important book Hayy ibn Yaqzan. The ancient and medieval thinkers, such as Plato and Maimonides, hid the real truths from the general public and taught them “essential truths,” “noble lies,” information and rules that would assure that they live a safe and good life. They said that they were doing so. Since this fact about human nature is true, it is obvious that the Bible couldn’t teach the real truth to its readers, many of its teachings had, because of human fallibility, to be “essential truths.”
This does not mean that every biblical statement is an essential truth. It means that many of its teachings are. Thus, “Do not kill,” while perhaps an overstatement, since self defense is allowable, is a real truth. So, too, is “Do not commit adultery” and “Do not steal.” But the Bible states in Exodus 13:17, “God led them (the Israelites who had just left Egypt) not by the way of the land of the Philistines (to Canaan), although it was near; for God said: ‘Lest peradventure the people relent when they see war, and return to Egypt.’ So God led the people about, by the way of the wilderness by the Red Sea.” Maimonides uses this as an example in his Guide of the Perplexed 3:32 to show that God had to deal with the inadequacies of people. It is the same with the Torah commands. The Bible had to recognize the condition, education, mindset, and experiences of the people it is addressing and speak to them at their level. The rabbis recognized this fact and changed many of the Torah laws to fit the situations of their times. This was the oral law, as explained by Binyamin Lau in The Sages.
The rabbis knew this. In Midrash Sifrei Devarim, Rabbi Nehorai says that having a monarchy is shameful for Israel despite it being allowed in Deuteronomy 17:14-15. He says that this less than ideal situation was necessary to avoid a worse one. Commenting on Deuteronomy, the Bible commentator Don Isaac Abarbanel refers to the Talmudic principle in Kiddushin 21b, “The Torah states this in consideration of the evil inclination,” meaning human nature.
Similarly, Deuteronomy 21:10-14 permits Israelite soldiers to take enemy females and have sex with them. Abarbanel comments that this is similar to the monarchy law; both allow what is wrong to avoid something that is worse. However, since the law allows an act that is far from ideal, the Torah added laws to moderate and limit the soldier’s behavior, such as not allowing him to have an immediate second sexual act.
This is why the Torah tolerated slavery in Exodus 21:1-11, but set rules to protect the slave by requiring the master to treat the slave kindly, and insisted, among other things, that the slave go free if the master even knocks out the slave’s tooth (21:26-27).
This is why the Bible consented to sacrifices, as Maimonides (1138-1204) explains in his Guide of the Perplexed 3:32 (in the easy to read M. Friedlander translation). “He did not command us to give up and to discontinue all these manners of service; for to obey such a commandment it would have been contrary to the nature of man, who generally cleaves to that to which he is used; it would in those days have made the same impression as a prophet would make at present if he called us to the service of God and told us in His name, that we should not pray to Him, not fast, not seek His help in time of trouble; that we should serve Him in thought, not by any action. For this reason God allowed these kinds of service to continue.” Thus although God had no need of a Temple, Maimonides writes, he allowed one, permitted sacrifices to be brought there, and established a priesthood. Maimonides continues by answering the question: “What prevented Him from making His primary object (the ideal behavior) a direct commandment to us, and to give us the capacity of obeying it?” He explains that God does not want to change human nature.
The Bible was composed during a period when people felt that justice requires an “eye for an eye” and a “tooth for a tooth” (Exodus 1:23-25). It seemed fair and just at the time that criminals should be punished in the same way they inflicted damages. The rabbis said that the Bible should be understood to mean “the monetary value of an eye for damage done to an eye.” The rabbinical view reflected the changed notion of justice. This idea of a monetary fine for injuries is not in the Bible. If the Bible meant that money should be paid, it would have said so, as it did for other instances where it mandates a money fine.
Examples of monetary compensation are the monies that rapists and seducers must pay fathers when they rape or seduce a man’s daughter (Deuteronomy 22:28-29 and Exodus 22:15-16). These laws too were fitting for the culture and education of the time, “essential truths,” but understood today to be improper. They are based on the notion that a daughter belongs to her father, just as his horse. These laws also require that rapists and seducers, as punishments, keep the women forever. This requirement reflected the thinking of the time that felt that women have no rights and men needn’t consider that women are punished by being shackled forever with the men who raped or seduced them.
This ancient attitude to women is the basis for the biblical law that marriages are made when a man “takes” (Deuteronomy 22:13 and 24:1) the woman and has sex with her. The rabbis later changed the rule and added that marriages can take place with a contract made by the man or by the man giving the woman something of value. However, the rabbis have still not altered the rule to allow women to effectuate marriages.
Similarly, the Torah states in Deuteronomy 24:1 that a divorce occurs when a man, not a wife, writes a bill of divorcement and gives it to her. This law has not been changed despite the current understanding that the sexes are equal. As a result, there are many deplorable situations where husbands and wives separate, get civil divorces, but husbands refuse to give their wives a Jewish divorce document, called a get in Hebrew, out of spite or because they insists that they first be paid exorbitant sums. This has left many women “chained” to their husbands forever. (The Hebrew word for the chained woman is agunah.)
These are a few of the many examples that could be cited to show that the Torah does not and could not teach the Israelites the ideal laws, the truths, but had to mandate “essential truths” that would control them and aid them. These laws helped many people realize that sacrifices are wrong, as is slavery, monarchy, forcing sex upon captured enemy females, disgorging an eye of an individual who ripped out the eye of another, and forcing raped and seduced girls to marry their rapists and seducers.