As a member of the sometimes snobbish guild of professional biblical scholars, I am perturbed by the current trend which finds nearly everybody writing a book about the Bible. I grudgingly admit, however, that these “non-specialists” sometimes do excellent work.
Examples include journalist Jonathan Kirsch’s fascinating volume, The Harlot by the Side of the Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bible, and a provocative book called The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism, by Regina M. Schwartz, an English professor.
More recently, an Israeli lawyer named Daniel Friedmann has written a profound book called To Kill and Take Possession: Law Morality and Society in Biblical Stories. The Hebrew version was a bestseller in Israel.
Friedmann’s primary observation is that the stories in the Bible, even extending well into the monarchy, show little or no awareness of the complex system of laws presented in the Torah.
For example, how can the story of Ruth sit in a canon of scripture which specifically forbids marriage to Moabites in Deuteronomy 23:3? Or, why does Samuel object to the establishment of the monarchy in First Samuel 8 when the Torah provides specific instructions for installing a king in Deuteronomy 17:15?
Friedmann’s conclusion, stated near the beginning of the book, is that “between the exodus from Egypt and the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, the people of Israel lived by a system of law other than that reflected in the five books of the Torah.”
Friedmann then proceeds to read biblical stories, ask what sort of laws seem to be operating in them, and situate these laws within the context of the history of law.
To Kill and Take Possession contains a total of 22 essays examining various legal aspects of biblical stories. The book takes its title from the sixth essay, which analyzes two of the great stories of the Bible: The David/Bathsheba/Uriah story and the Ahab/Jezebal/Naboth story.
The former tale is perplexing in many ways. Friedmann’s central concern is how and why David is allowed to benefit so greatly from his acts of adultery, deception and murder. He gains a wife and an heir, and this heir becomes the next king. No mention is made of whether Bathsheba brings with her the property of her dead husband, but it would seem likely. Jewish law forbade a marriage resulting from adultery, however, so how should the aftermath of the affair be understood?
Within the Bible, Friedmann sees both pro-David and anti-David material and recognizes that these two points of view are woven together so that the former prevails.
Outside the Bible, interpretations develop to defend and justify David. Friedmann documents the development of a legend that every warrior in ancient Israel wrote a conditional, retroactive certificate of divorce before setting out for war. If killed in battle, the soldier would then have been officially divorced starting from the day he left home. Such a convoluted tradition can only be designed to arrange David’s innocence.
Problems abound in the larger David narrative. Why do others always suffer for David’s sins, while he emerges unscathed to be the great king in Israelite memory? Why does Nathan use the parable of the sheep in Second Samuel 12 to address David’s sins, even though the analogies between that story and what has happened in David’s life work so poorly?
Friedmann raises and examines these and many other issues, without forcing simplistic solutions to any of them.
To Kill and Take Possession reveals that law operates on multiple levels in the Bible. The great law codes of the Torah treat law as a theological concept. They form an explanation for why Israel’s story ended in exile. But such written codification of law reveals little about how law operates in daily life. Functional law must be negotiated in and through stories.
The canonical traditions that produced the Bible in its various forms seem acutely aware of the relationship between written law and lived reality. This same awareness is present in other great narrative traditions, from Greek and Roman mythology to Shakespeare, and Friedmann provides many examples of connections between these and the biblical traditions.
Friedmann demonstrates that, after centuries of concentration on the law codes of the Torah in the Mishnaic and Talmudic traditions, the rise of modern Israel as a political state has returned attention to biblical narrative as a way of understanding how law is negotiated.
This book ought to caution us against simplistic assumptions about the relationship between the making of laws and human behavior. The biblical stories are a powerful resource for understanding this relationship in its subtle complexities.
Mark McEntire is assistant professor of religion at Belmont University.
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