Last updated: 2021-08-19
Here I’ve compiled a list of common misconceptions about the Torah. The number comes first with the misconception in quotes and my response follows below. These are ordered in a way so the later responses are based on the previous but other than that the order is arbitrary.
1. Misconception: “The Torah endorses slavery.”
Calling servants in the Torah “slaves” in the modern sense is an anachronism. Servants are free to run away. (Deuteronomy 23:15-16) This today would be called “a job” but with a long contract. The servant was free to break that contract but would face consequences from not being trusted to keep contracts with other people or employers. Indeed owners of actual slaves sometimes prevented slaves from reading parts of the Bible that were against what they were doing:
2. Misconception: “You could force your daughter to marry someone.”
Although there are cases where women seem to be promised in a way that treats them like property, e.g. ‘Then Caleb said, “Whoever attacks Kiriath-sepher and takes it, I will give him my daughter Achsah as wife.”’ (Judges 1:12) this is not endorsed anywhere in the Torah. While women may have felt cultural pressure to comply with their father it follows from 1. that you couldn’t force someone to marry you or someone else because they could run away even if they were only a servant. How much more a daughter? In addition, you couldn’t capture someone in the first place and hence you couldn’t force anyone physically to do anything without a legal reason, see Exodus 21:16 and Deuteronomy 24:7. Later in Jewish law this principle still remains: there is no such thing as “jail” in Jewish law, only a temporary holding for judgment. This is incredibly libertarian for ancient law which was usually less individualist than today. I would argue that jail today is immoral according to the Torah, just give someone their punishment and let them go.
3. Misconception: “After a waiting period you could rape captives and force them to marry you.”
The passage in question follows:
10 When you go out to war against your enemies, and the Lord your God hands them over to you and you take them captive, 11 suppose you see among the captives a beautiful woman whom you desire and want to marry, 12 and so you bring her home to your house: she shall shave her head, pare her nails, 13 discard her captive’s garb, and shall remain in your house a full month, mourning for her father and mother; after that you may go in to her and be her husband, and she shall be your wife. 14 But if you are not satisfied with her, you shall let her go free and not sell her for money. You must not treat her as a slave, since you have dishonored her. (Deu 21:10-14)
It follows from the previous that Deuteronomy 21:11 does not mean you can force someone to marry you. Marriage was arranged with the father of the woman and this law states that you are still allowed to marry someone that has no father. The phrase in Deuteronomy 21:13 “go in to her” does not describe sexual relations as you might think from reading other parts of the Bible because the Hebrew words there are literally “go in” and “husband” and are not elsewhere used to imply sex. Therefore there is not even a possible implication that you can have sex with her simply because the time is over. The word translated “dishonor” is used in Deuteronomy 22:24 for consensual sex so there is no implication of rape.
4. Misconception: “Rape wasn’t taken very seriously in the society of the Bible.”
This idea is often used in order to make excuses for interpretations of the Bible that are rape-friendly but nothing could be further from reality. There’s no case in that Bible where rape was taken lightly. The rape of the concubine in Judges was avenged by a national civil war. (Judges 19-21) The rape of Tamar by Amnon was avenged by Amnon’s death and possibly was the cause of another national civil war because David didn’t punish Amnon. (2 Samuel 13) What’s commonly called the rape of Dinah in Gen 34:2 was avenged by genocide. (Gen 34:25-31) According to this article, it may have even been consensual, but the crime was just taking advantage of an inexperienced young woman: https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/dinah/ Do we even take rape that seriously today? I think not.
Women were protected from having their conjugal duty diminished “If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish the food, clothing, or marital rights of the first wife.” (Ex 21:10) and Rachel and Leah were able to trade a night with Jacob for mandrakes Gen 30:14-18. Also note that it’s the less attractive Leah that tells Jacob: “‘You must come in to me; for I have hired you with my son’s mandrakes.’ So he lay with her that night.” God killed Onan for not having sex in a way that would cause pregnancy when he was supposed to perform the duty of the Levarite in Genesis 38:8-10. Rather than sex being an obligation of women, it seems that it was an obligation of men especially for the purpose of giving women children. This probably breaks a lot of the preconceptions most people have about the Biblical culture.
5. Misconception: “A virgin was supposed to marry her rapist.”
Given that Israelite culture tended to avenge rape with genocide and civil war, slipping this idea into the law would be difficult. The passage in question follows:
28 “If a man finds a young woman who is a virgin, who is not betrothed, and he seizes her and lies with her, and they are found out, 29 then the man who lay with her shall give to the young woman’s father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife because he has humbled her; he shall not be permitted to divorce her all his days. 30 “A man shall not take his father’s wife, nor uncover his father’s bed. (Deuteronomy 22:28-30)
The word in Deuteronomy 22:28 (“taphas” Qal Perfect form in Hebrew) is never used for rape elsewhere and is totally different and unrelated to the word used in Deuteronomy 22:25 for rape “chazaq” which is also in the causative form the “hiphil.” If they wanted to say this was rape they could have easily used the same word with the same form again to describe it in the previous case. In verse 28 it says “and they are found out” implying both are responsible and consenting in contrast to the rape in Deuteronomy 22:25-27 which refers to the man and the woman separately. The location (town or city) is not specified, unlike the situations before making this a seemingly different situation than the rape that is described before. “Taphas” is used in the same form in Gen 4:21 for playing the lyre and pipe . . . Here “taphas” is translated “seize” but is used in the context of persuasion:
Someone will even seize a relative,
a member of the clan, saying,
“You have a cloak;
you shall be our leader,
and this heap of ruins
shall be under your rule.” (Isaiah 3:6)
He is holding onto him in order to persuade him. Any forcible seizure would be short-lived given the power of kings in that day and age. In addition, Num 5:13 uses the “niphal” stem (Aspect: Perfect) as a reflexive to mean a woman who “caught in the act” (NRSV) of adultery. In Deu 21:19 it is used in the Qal Perfect form to mean “take hold of him” to bring to the judges.
While “taphas” is used in contexts of war for the “capture” of people in battle or otherwise (hence probably why the NRSV above translates it as “seize”) it does not by itself imply force was used on those people (the threat of force is only implied by the situation). The question is: do we know how it is used in the context of a sexual encounter with a woman? No, it is only used in that context here in Deuteronomy 22:28. However, even if Taphas means “capture” or “non-consent” in this case there are other options besides interpreting it as rape which I will explain.
While Taphas is a different word than that used for rape immediately prior, it is also not used in Deuteronomy 22:22,23 to describe consensual sex. Instead of “hold” (taphas) H8610 and “lie with” (shachav) H7901 in Deuteronomy 22:28; the words used in verses 22 and 23 are “find” (matza) H4672 and “lie with” (shachav) H7901. So why the difference? If “taphas” implies a lack of consent or a “capture” then we may answer that both the father and the daughter had to consent to the marriage. The father’s authority can be established in many different places. The daughter’s authority to refuse can be established if you read the entirety of this blog post. If the father didn’t consent then that implies a “non-consent” or “capture” of the daughter which would fit with the word “taphas” being used to describe the non-consensual (but not necessarily violent) capture of people. In fact, the parallel of Deuteronomy 22:28 in Exodus 22:16 is in the context of damages to the household possessions via theft or negligence and Keil and Delitzsch say of Exodus 22:16:
The seduction of a girl, who belonged to her father as long as she was not betrothed (cf. Exodus 21:7), was also to be regarded as an attack upon the family possession. Whoever persuaded a girl to let him lie with her, was to obtain her for a wife by the payment of a dowry (מהר see Genesis 34:12); and if her father refused to give her to him, he was to weigh (pay) money equivalent to the dowry of maidens, i.e., to pay the father just as much for the disgrace brought upon him by the seduction of his daughter, as maidens would receive for a dowry upon their marriage. The seduction of a girl who was betrothed, was punished much more severely (see Deuteronomy 22:23-24).https://biblehub.com/commentaries/kad/exodus/22.htm
This is backed up by the following verse Exodus 22:17 “But if her father refuses to give her to him, he shall pay an amount equal to the bride-price for virgins.” Therefore, if “taphas” H8610 in Deuteronomy 22:28 is used at all to describe a “capture” or “non-consent” then verses 29-30 give the context of what the “capture” or “non-consent” was from:
29 the man who lay with her shall give fifty shekels of silver to the young woman’s father, and she shall become his wife. Because he violated her he shall not be permitted to divorce her as long as he lives. 30 A man shall not marry his father’s wife, thereby violating his father’s rights. (Deuteronomy 28:29-30)
If it is a “capture” it is a “capture” from the father’s authority not from the woman’s own will since both the father and the woman must be willing to accept the man. The rights of the father are not randomly started in verse 30 but are a continuation of the right of the father to not have his daughter taken away (“captured”) without his consent and his right to the bride-price. In addition, this law is merged with the law about seduction in Exodus 22:16-17 in Philo, Josephus, and the Dead Sea Scrolls (11Q Temple Scroll). This law is merely specifying the bride-price that was mentioned in Exodus and as a common-law addition, it is clarifying that you couldn’t use the loop-hole of divorce for the marriage commanded in Exodus.
All that being said there are plenty of examples where “taphas” is used to mean “wield” or “play” which seems like a much more likely association for a sexual encounter. I’m just giving an argument that even if you take it in the stronger ways it is used it doesn’t necessarily imply rape. This article has more details on the Hebrew in question: https://cbmw.org/2018/03/05/did-old-testament-law-force-a-woman-to-marry-her-rapist/
6. Misconception: “Masters could treat their slaves like animals and break up marriages once they got children.”
The verses in question:
1 These are the ordinances that you shall set before them: When you buy a male Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, but in the seventh he shall go out a free person, without debt. 3 If he comes in single, he shall go out single; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him. 4 If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master’s and he shall go out alone. 5 But if the slave declares, “I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out a free person,” 6 then his master shall bring him before God. He shall be brought to the door or the doorpost; and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall serve him for life. (Ex 21:1-6)
You also couldn’t break up a marriage even if you were the employer of a servant. The servant that is said to go out in Ex 21:4 is clearly just becoming an independent (non-servant) if you read the context. This says nothing about the status of his marriage. He would want to stay employed with you so he could see his wife and kids consistently. Also according to Jesus:
3 He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” 4 They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” 5 But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. 6 But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ 7 ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, 8 and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9 Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” (Mark 10:7-9 emphasis mine)
7. Misconception: “You could trick someone into being your servant forever by giving him a wife.”
You couldn’t trick someone into serving you forever by setting them up with a wife they wanted to be around consistently, see Exodus 21:1-6 and Deuteronomy 15:16-17.
then his master shall bring him before God. He shall be brought to the door or the doorpost; and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall serve him for life. (Ex 21:6)
Although it says “serve him for life” this doesn’t tell us exactly how their relationship changes. A son is also said to serve the father. Consider the following:
A. You are bringing him before God which suggests you are marking him for God’s service, not your own. Sometimes servants wore the mark of the God or employer they served, see Thayer’s: https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/Lexicon/Lexicon.cfm?strongs=G4742&t=KJV
B. You are taking him to the doorpost where the law of God was posted.
C. God gave the Israelites the right to stay on the land and own the houses and land they had. (Leviticus 25:22-34)
D. Sons are said to serve the father. The same word for servant is used in Malachi 3:17 and a son is not different than a servant until inheritance comes into play Galatians 4:1-3
E. Sons had to follow all the commands of the father and did not have their own source of income as implied by Luke 15:11-32.
F. A servant is said to become an heir if he is pampered in many translations of Proverbs 29:21, see ESV and YLT for examples. However, the Hebrew is uncertain and different translations render it differently.
G. The only other examples of blood being put on the earlobes in a ceremony is of a transfer from a lower status to a higher one: the cleansing of the leper and the consecration of the priests: Lev 14:1-4, Leviticus 8:1~
H. Karel van der Toorn is a secular theologian who has studied the Biblical ceremony of piercing the ear with an awl and has concluded that it is was an adoption ceremony. (see the book “God in Context”)
8. Misconception: “You could beat your servants for no reason and you weren’t punished unless they died within a day.”
The relevant verses follow:
20 When a slaveowner strikes a male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies immediately, the owner shall be punished. 21 But if the slave survives a day or two, there is no punishment; for the slave is the owner’s property. (Ex 21:20-21 NRSV)
Now it’s obvious you couldn’t beat someone to death as it says here where the same word is used for “strikes:” “Whoever strikes a person mortally shall be put to death.” (Exodus 21:12) Actually, if you did any significant (or maybe permanent) damage to your servant they would become an independent: Exodus 21:26-27 The reason you could punish servants (assuming you were the head of a household) is that you were part of the legal system. Just as today we might post the law of the land on the courthouse so in that time the laws of God were posted on the gates (where the elders sat) and on the doorposts of houses: Deuteronomy 6:9 and Deuteronomy 11:20. Regardless of whether you agree with the implications of where the law was posted, it is a fact that the legal system was much more distributed in the Torah than in most modern societies. Take for example the avenger of blood in Deuteronomy 19:11-12 which was just a person in the victim’s family.
The mention of the servant as “property” is literally “money” and there is a curious similarity to the previous verses which talk about compensating individuals for loss of work and cost of recovery in a fight:
18 When individuals quarrel and one strikes the other with a stone or fist so that the injured party, though not dead, is confined to bed, 19 but recovers and walks around outside with the help of a staff, then the assailant shall be free of liability, except to pay for the loss of time, and to arrange for full recovery. (Exodus 21:18-19)
The case in verse 21 for the servant living one or two days is not for when it looked like they had died of their injuries because beating someone near death would do significant (and by definition permanent) damage and hence make the servant an independent causing the death of the servant to be avenged as an independent person. (just for those who think Ex 21:12 didn’t apply with servants for some reason) Rather verse 21 is for a case where it is unknown what killed the servant.
However, is there a connection to the two independent men fighting and compensation? I think verse 21 simply specifies that since the servant was a source of income and value to the employer that any uncertainty in what caused the death should be decided in the employer’s favor since he is presumed to have suffered a loss from this. This seems to not be the case with independent men since nothing is said about whether the victim dies a day or two later.
Another view (that I’m not in favor of) is that the employer would not be liable for the loss of time of the servant unlike the two men fighting since the employer suffers a loss from having to support the servant while recovering. If this were the case it would suggest that the punishment for a servant could be rather harsh. I don’t agree with this for several reasons: 1. The passage does not specify what to do when the servant is confined to bed but recovers. It only specifies what to do if the servant is confined to bed and then dies. It would be nonsensical to assume anything about compensating the servant in a case where he dies. 2. The Bible also prevents harsh beatings even if they would only be “degrading:” “Forty lashes may be given but not more; if more lashes than these are given, your neighbor will be degraded in your sight.” (Deuteronomy 25:3 NRSV) Life-threatening beatings would seem to be excluded by preventing “degrading” beatings.
9. Misconception: “The Torah Condones Burning People Alive”
The relevant verses follow:
When the daughter of a priest profanes herself through prostitution, she profanes her father; she shall be burned to death. (Leviticus 21:9 NRSV)
This wasn’t actually “burned to death” but “burned after death.” Compare this more literal translation with the story of Achan in Joshua 7 where he is condemned to be burned with fire but is stoned then burned with fire:
`And a daughter of any priest when she polluteth herself by going a-whoring — her father she is polluting; with fire she is burnt. (Leviticus 21:9 YLT)
See the excerpt on Achan below:
15 And the one who is taken as having the devoted things shall be burned with fire, together with all that he has, for having transgressed the covenant of the Lord, and for having done an outrageous thing in Israel.’”
. . .
25 Joshua said, “Why did you bring trouble on us? The Lord is bringing trouble on you today.” And all Israel stoned him to death; they burned them with fire, cast stones on them, 26 and raised over him a great heap of stones that remains to this day. Then the Lord turned from his burning anger. Therefore that place to this day is called the Valley of Achor. (Leviticus 7:15-26 NRSV)
10. Misconception: “The punishments in the Torah are exact.”
The punishments in the Torah are actually maximum punishments. For instance, the punishment for adultery is said to be death (Leviticus 20:10) but Hosea was able to not punish his wife for adultery (possibly by just not reporting it–which is another thing the Torah did not mandate) and it also speaks of accepting compensation for adultery in Proverbs:
32 But he who commits adultery has no sense;
he who does it destroys himself.
33 Blows and disgrace are his lot,
and his shame will never be wiped away.
34 For jealousy arouses a husband’s fury,
and he will show no mercy when he takes revenge.
35 He will not accept any compensation;
he will refuse a bribe, however great it is. (Proverbs 6:32-35)
It also states that the owner of an ox that is accustomed to gore shall be put to death–but then states right after that payment can also be required of him:
28 When an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox shall be stoned, and its flesh shall not be eaten; but the owner of the ox shall not be liable. 29 If the ox has been accustomed to gore in the past, and its owner has been warned but has not restrained it, and it kills a man or a woman, the ox shall be stoned, and its owner also shall be put to death. 30 If a ransom is imposed on the owner, then the owner shall pay whatever is imposed for the redemption of the victim’s life. 31 If it gores a boy or a girl, the owner shall be dealt with according to this same rule. 32 If the ox gores a male or female slave, the owner shall pay to the slaveowner thirty shekels of silver, and the ox shall be stoned. (Exodus 21:28-32)
David also gives deviant judgements from the letter of the law based on circumstances:
4 When the woman of Tekoa came to the king, she fell on her face to the ground and did obeisance, and said, “Help, O king!” 5 The king asked her, “What is your trouble?” She answered, “Alas, I am a widow; my husband is dead. 6 Your servant had two sons, and they fought with one another in the field; there was no one to part them, and one struck the other and killed him. 7 Now the whole family has risen against your servant. They say, ‘Give up the man who struck his brother, so that we may kill him for the life of his brother whom he murdered, even if we destroy the heir as well.’ Thus they would quench my one remaining ember, and leave to my husband neither name nor remnant on the face of the earth.”
8 Then the king said to the woman, “Go to your house, and I will give orders concerning you.” 9 The woman of Tekoa said to the king, “On me be the guilt, my lord the king, and on my father’s house; let the king and his throne be guiltless.” 10 The king said, “If anyone says anything to you, bring him to me, and he shall never touch you again.” 11 Then she said, “Please, may the king keep the Lord your God in mind, so that the avenger of blood may kill no more, and my son not be destroyed.” He said, “As the Lord lives, not one hair of your son shall fall to the ground.” (2 Samuel 14:1-33)
The penalty in the above should have been death but David may have in mind principles of taking care of the widow and the orphan that are also in the law.
1 and the Lord sent Nathan to David. He came to him, and said to him, “There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. 2 The rich man had very many flocks and herds; 3 but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. He brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his meager fare, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him. 4 Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was loath to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb, and prepared that for the guest who had come to him.” 5 Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man. He said to Nathan, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; 6 he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.” (2 Samuel 12:1-5)
The following has a good explanation of the above:
Recall the parable of the poor man’s ewe in the book of Samuel.4 David has slept with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, one of his soldiers on the battlefront. The prophet Nathan wishes to compel the errant king into an awareness of his misdoing. He brings up a fictitious case in which a man blessed with large flocks steals and slaughters the ewe of his neighbor, a poor man who owned nothing but the ewe, which he loved very much.
The king does not realize that the parable is a metaphor of his own lust for women, of whom he has had many. Asked by Nathan to adjudicate this hypothetical case, he imposes a punishment on the thief. Now, if biblical law were statutory law, David would need only to consult Exodus 21:37: “If a man steals an ox or a sheep and slaughters it or sells it, he shall pay five oxen for the ox and four sheep for the sheep.” David, however, deviates from this ostensible statute. In addition to obligating the thief to four-fold restitution—as per Exodus—he also sentences him to death.https://mosaicmagazine.com/essay/uncategorized/2013/12/what-is-this-thing-called-law/
Also, the phrase “an eye for an eye” in the lex talionis passages could be literally translated as “an eye under an eye” and there is a different phrase used in Deuteronomy (where a false witness attempts to incriminate someone) to say that the same punishment should be implemented on that witness.
. . . שֶׁבֶר, תַּחַת שֶׁבֶר, עַיִן תַּחַת עַיִן . . . (Leviticus 24:20)
. . . עַיִן תַּחַת עַיִן, שֵׁן תַּחַת שֵׁן . . . (Exodus 21:24)
. . . עַיִן בְּעַיִן שֵׁן בְּשֵׁן, יָד בְּיָד, רֶגֶל בְּרָגֶל . . . (Deuteronomy 19:21)
Finally it is well understood that the lex talionis is not literal, see:
An Eye for an Eye: Proportionality as a Moral Principle of Punishment
Morris J. FishOxford Journal of Legal Studies Vol. 28, No. 1 (Spring, 2008), pp. 57-71 (15 pages)Published By: Oxford University Press
From a statutory perspective, David’s actions are out of line, a violation of the cardinal tenet of strict construction: interpreting the law as literally as possible. Seen as common law, however, the proposal in Exodus of four-fold restitution for a stolen and slaughtered sheep is not prescriptive but rather an example of justice in the given circumstances: presumably, a case of the thief’s need for food or cash. David, clearly aware of the Torah’s teaching, applies it to a case in which the thief’s actions are flagrant and contemptible in the extreme. The thief is not some poor person desperate to feed his family, while the victim is not only poor himself but has been brutally robbed of his only, beloved possession. Such avarice and callousness warrant the perpetrator’s death.https://mosaicmagazine.com/essay/uncategorized/2013/12/what-is-this-thing-called-law/