Thursday, January 27, 2011

Problems with Parshas Mishpatim

I dislike parshas Mishpatim. The legal discussions are at best mind numbingly boring, and the brief narrative at the end is confusing and theologically precarious. In fact, the parsha is impossible to study without encountering significant kfriah issues. A sampling after the jump:

:: As posted previously, much of Mishpatim is frighteningly similar to older ANE law codes, including, but not limited to, the Laws of Hammurabi. At the very least, this strongly suggests that Mishpatim did not develop absent outside influences. 

:: When a slave wishes to remain with his master after his term is up, the verses call for him to be taken to "the elohim. and make him approach the door or the doorpost..." Though the Rabbis read elohim as judges, the word most often means "gods"; indeed ANE scholars have discovered that it was once common for household idols to be kept at the doorpost; moreover, oaths or other declerations relating to the household would take place in front of them. [NOTE: There is a non-heretical solution to this problem that doesn't require stripping the word of its context; however, the simplest way to read the verse is as a reference to doorways gods. And unfortunately, even the non-heretical solution to this local problem raises other issues. See below.]

:: There are various instances of postdiction or, if you want to be pretentious, vaticinium ex eventu. Exodus 23:28 predicts (according to one reading) that Egypt will soften up the Canaanite kings, and the next verse promises the conquests will take some time "lest the land become desolate [of people] and the animals multiply against you, [so] slowly I will drive them out until you are fruitful." With all due respect to the Hebrew scripture this sounds like a justification for something that has already happened. The author of this particular sentence seems to know that the conquest took two centuries, and is trying to provide a reason for the delay in fulfilling the Divine Promise (in Judges three other reasons are given) and to be blunt this reason isn't very convincing: Are we to believe that an ancient Israelite nation of 3 million (enormous by ancient standards) would have difficulty subduing some wild animals, or that time was needed to become "fruitful?"

:: The narrative at the end is, as Rashi has already noted, out of place. It sounds like a description of the events that occurred before the Torah was given several chapters earlier.  Only, Ramban disagrees. So when did these things actually happen, and why isn't the chronology straightforward?

:: The parsha ends with a description of a feast enjoyed by the elders at Gods feet. Here's how the Torah tells it: "Anf [the elders] saw the God of Israel, and beneath his feet was [unclear] sapphire brick, like the heavens.... and they beheld God and ate and drank" If you doubt this statement is scandalous in the light of future Jewish theology, consider how Onkelos evasively rewrites it: "And they saw their sacrifices had been accepted as if they had been eaten and drunk."

As Robert Alter says, "Linguistic practice can often be more conservative then changing perceptions of reality" This is why we still speak of  "Thursday" though "Thor" is no longer worshiped. Possibly, the elohim were at some earlier point the doorway gods, but the idiom underwent a semantic shift and in time came to refer to the courts. This solves the local problem, but leaves us to consider that Biblical Hebrew developed contingently, and owes linguistic debts to earlier societies.

Search for more information about Mishpatim at

No comments: