By Israel Drazin
While it seems that the Bible wanted to teach people the truth and proper behavior, it was impossible to move people to change quickly. If the Torah would have told ancient people that they must give up sacrifices for God clearly doesn’t need them and that they do not need a tabernacle or temple for worship, they would have rejected the Torah as being nonsense, obviously wrong. Only a few people realized that sacrifices and temples are unnecessary, such as the prophets and the Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides (1138-1204) who quotes them in his Guide of the Perplexed 3:24 and 41. Thus it is clear, as Maimonides wrote, that the Torah approach is to “allow” the ancient practices, but to restrict them in many ways so that ultimately the people will realize that the practices are wrong.
Thus, the Torah didn’t allow the Israelites to engage in the extravagant pagan sacrificial ceremonies and restricted the kind of animals that could be offered to only a few. The Torah also limited the occasions and times that Israelites could enter the houses of worship; for example, people who had seminal emissions or came into contact with a dead person could not enter until they went through a “purification process.” This process, Maimonides explains, was only designed to restrict entrance into the house of worship, because people could be cleansed in minutes by washing themselves in soap and water.
Just after the revelation of the Ten Commandments, the Torah mandates many “allow” commands in Exodus 21 and 22. Addressing the house of worship, for example, it does away with the ancient concept that temples create a sanctuary for murderers in 21:14. Similarly, the ancients were so enamored with worship that many sacrificed their first-born sons to their gods. The Torah shows its displeasure with human sacrifices in Genesis 22 and it changes the sacrificing of first-born sacrifice to dedicating these sons to God, apparently as a kind of priest (22:28-29 and 24:5). This was later changed when the Levites were selected for the tabernacle duties and first-borns were redeemed, that is released, from this duty by a gift of money.
Chapter 21 begins by allowing slavery, but restricting it by setting a time limit when male slaves goes free and it requires the master to release the slave’s wife when he is released. It allows a slave to decide to remain enslaved at the end of the mandated time period, but requires his master the bore his ear with an awl against the master’s door post so that every time the slave goes in and out of his master’s house, he will see the hole and be reminded that he made a stupid, even immoral decision (21:2-6).
These laws are followed by the case of a man selling his daughter as a slave, a brutal ancient practice showing, among other things, insensitivity to women. Recognizing that masters will generally insist on having sex with their female slaves, the Torah mitigates the degrading harsh treatment by insisting that the master install her as his concubine. If satiated and no longer wanting her, he may not sell or gift her to another person; he must free her. Furthermore, if after purchasing her, he gives her to his son, she may not be his concubine, but his wife in every sense (21:7-11).
The ancient allowed revenge killings, especially when a person killed a relative even in self defense. Unable to stop the retaliations at the time, the Torah established places where the killer could flee and be safe (21:22).
Some of the laws in the chapter are not mitigated in the Torah itself, but were changed by rabbis centuries later when Jews realized that while the laws were moderate in ancient times compared with most pagan practices, the punishments were too harsh. Among others are: death penalties for hitting (21:15) or cursing (21:17) parents were discontinued, an “eye for eye, tooth for tooth,” etc (21:26-27) was later understood to be money payments, also forcing a girl who was seduced to marry her seducer (22:15), and death penalties if a person’s ox killed a man or woman (21:29), for sorceresses (22:17), one who has sex with an animal (22:18), or who offers a sacrifice to an idol (22:19) were discontinued.