Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Numbers 15: Unforgivable Sins

Bible scholars--and especially those interested in the legal strictures of Torah--often make a distinction between apodictic and casuistic laws.

Briefly, apodictic laws are "thou shalt not" rules; their language does not allow for the possibility that they might be broken.  The most famous example of apodictic law is the ten commandments; for instance, Exodus 20:13 simply reads, "You shall not murder," and that's it.  There's no other alternative.  God has spoken, and the people will no longer kill one another.  The brief, assertive power of apodictic law cannot imagine a world in which God would speak his law and the people would not obey. 

Casuistic law, on the other hand, is more pragmatic.  Instead of "thou shalt not," casuistic law demurs, saying, "thou shalt not, but if thou shall, then ..."  Exodus 21:13 is one such regulation.  If a person kills, the text explains, "if it was not premeditated, but came out by an act of God, then I will appoint for you a place to which a killer may flee."  Casuistic law covers the world of gray areas, liminal zones where "always" and "surely" give way to "sometimes" and "perhaps."

The Torah's apodictic laws envision a perfect--and perfectible--world.  Casuistic laws acknowledge that we do not live there yet.

But Torah makes another legal distinction that's just as important; it also distinguishes between laws covering unintentional sin and intentional sin.

There are plenty of examples of the former.  Leviticus 4 and the chapters that follow it outline the sacrifices a priest may offer to atone for the mistakes the Israelites make without meaning to.  The chapter opens, "When anyone sins unintentionally in any of the Lord's commandments about things not to be done, and does any one of them ..." (4:2), and it continues by outlining rituals of atonement.

This word "unintentionally" sounds like a ringing bell throughout the rest of the chapter: "If the whole congregation of Israel errs unintentionally" (4:13), "When a ruler sins, doing unintentionally any one of the things that by commands of the Lord his God ought not to be done" (4:22), and "If anyone of the ordinary people among you sins unintentionally" (4:27).

This is hedging language that expects humans to try and fail.  It acknowledges the Israelites' good intentions and provides a mode of rectification for those whose intentions miss their mark.  Expiating for unintentional sin requires ritual sacrifice--a sin or guilt offering--but such expiation is possible.

In the Torah, however, it is much more difficult to get around intentional sins.  Indeed, it may be impossible.

Numbers 15 echoes the Levitical codes that cover unintentional sin.  The text reads, "An individual who sins unintentionally shall present a female goat a year old for a sin offering.  And the priest shall make atonement before the Lord for the one who commits an error, when it is unintentional, to make an atonement for the person, who then shall be forgiven" (15:27-28).  You might note, however, that the stray phrase in the second sentence--"when it is unintentional"--is manic.  And it sets up a crucial, even deadly distinction.

The author continues, "But whoever acts high-handedly, whether a native or an alien, affronts the Lord, and shall be cut off from among the people.  Because of having despised the word of the Lord and broken his commandment, such a person shall be utterly cut off and bear the guilt" (Numbers 15:30-31).  Scholars have long parsed that euphemistic adverb "high-handedly" as "intentionally," arguing that this passage from Numbers addresses those who sin brazenly and with full knowledge of their error.

A tallith.
For intentional sinners, no sacrifice will suffice to bring them back to God.  Expulsion from the divine community--a fate perhaps worse than death--is the only and irrevocable result.

For this reason, perhaps, the author concludes his chapter with a reminder, the description of a physical token that might help the Israelites recall both the gravity of divine law and the severe punishments that await those who mean to breach it: "The Lord said to Moses: Speak to the Israelites, and tell them to make fringes on the corners of their garments throughout their generations and to put a blue cord on the fringe at each corner.  You have the fringe so that, when you see it, you will remember all the commandments of the Lord and do them, and not follow the lust of your own heart and your own eyes" (Numbers 15:37-39). 

It is for this reason that many Jewish men and women still wear a fringed prayer shawl--or tallith--when they worship.  This garment helps them remember the commandments of the Lord, and the potentially high price of breaking them.

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