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B'Midbar/Numbers 35:33 ... for the blood, he will pollute the land. And there will not be be atonement for the land for the blood that is shed in her except by the blood of the one spilling it.
In the closing parasha of B'Midbar, while the people are encamped upon the plains of Moab, opposite Jericho,HaShem returns to the subject of the cities of refuge: three to the east of the Jordan in the Land proper and three to the west of the Jordan in the land allocated to the tribes of Reuven, Gad and Manasseh. Once the allocation of the cities has been described, HaShem moves to the question of manslaughter or murder - and how these are determined. While providing a refuge for those who have killed someone by accident, HaShem insists that those who have deliberately taken the life of another living person are murderers and must have their lives taken; refuge or ransom are both explicitly denied: blood has been spilled and the text explains why that is necessary. The Land is contaminated or polluted by illegally spilled blood. As Richard Elliott Friedman notes, "human violence and corruption have consequences not only for the immediate victims, and not even only for other humans, but for the condition of the earth and nature. Murder is not only a sin against the victim. It is a sin against the earth."
Many of the commentators remark on the use of the verb root , "to be or become profaned, polluted or defined" or, with a direct object as here, the land, "to profane or pollute" (Davidson). TheSeptuagint coins a special verb for its translation: , "to pollute with murder", not otherwise found in classical Greek, from the root , to murder. Targum Onkelos changes the Hebrew , 'he will pollute', to , 'making guilty' - the land becomes guilty because of murder. The same language is used in "And you defiled the land with your whoring and your debauchery" (Jeremiah 3:2, JPS) and "The earth was defiled under its inhabitants; because they transgressed teachings, violated laws, broke the ancient covenant" (Isaiah 24:5, JPS); the Land becomes guilty from the misdeeds of its inhabitants.
Drazin and Wagner point out that the cognate word for 'polluted' in Arabic is 'crooked', andNachmanides asserts that "blood 'warps' the land and perverts its purpose, so that it does the opposite of what it should" and quotes from the curses decreed by Moshe for Israel's disobedience: "Though you take much seed out to the field, you shall gather in little, for the locust shall consume it" (D'varim 28:38, JPS and following). Rabbi Hirsch takes as "to make a hypocrite" and argues that "blood makes the land a hypocrite by denying its basic function, namely giving a yield and being a blessing. The land refused to grant the inhabitants existence if the destruction of a man by a man leaves them indifferent." At this point, Nechama Leibowitz connects inhabitance with behaviour: "Just as the former inhabitants of the land had been expelled for their misdeeds so would 'G-d's own country' vomit out the Israelites, should they contaminate it with their practices. The Divine gift of the Land was not unconditional." This is a helpful reminder of the Torah: "So let not the land spew you out for defiling it, as it spewed out the nation that came before you" (Vayikra 18:28, JPS).
The ancient rabbis puzzled over how this pollution of the Land was to be overcome. TheBaal HaTurim reports that the word is used four times in the Tanakh: (i) here, (ii) "This iniquity shall never be forgiven you until you die" (Isaiah 22:14, JPS), (iii) "by this alone shall Ya'akov's sin be purged away" (Isaiah 27:9, JPS), and (iv) "Iniquity is expiated by loyalty and faithfulness" (Proverbs 16:6, JPS). On that basis, Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah reported Rabbi Ishmael as saying that "Teshuva and Yom Kippur hold in check, while death wipes away" (b. Yoma 86a). Nevertheless, the Sages maintained that kindness and truth (in rabbinic thought, deeds of kindness and torah study) would bring atonement: "Abaye said: With sacrifice and offering it cannot be expiated, but it can be expiated with Torah and charitable deeds" (b. Rosh HaShana 18a).
The idea that illicit bloodshed pollutes the land - so that it does not yield its fruit - is known from the earliest times. It forms part of the Cain and Abel narrative, "your brother's blood cries out to Me from the ground! ... If you till the soil, it shall no longer yield its strength to you" (B'resheet 4:10-12, JPS) and is explicitly illustrated in David's day: "There was a famine during the reign of David, year after year for three years. David inquired of the L-RD, and the L-RD replied, 'It is because of the bloodguilt of Saul and his house, for he put some Gibeonites to death'" (2 Samuel 21:1, JPS). The book of Jubilees confirms that "the earth is not able to be purified of human blood except by blood of one who shed it" (Jubilees 21:19). As theRashbam points out, "the last word in the text - - is a participle, referring to the person who shed the blood. It is not a general 'shedding of blood' which would allow atonement by sacrifice."
Where does that leave us today? Can we assume that the character of the Land of Israel - the Holy Land - applied to land in general around the world? Is the land where we live also subject to pollution because of intentionally spilled blood? Can that account for the malaise of society and civilisation around the world - that mankind does not regard life as holy?
Advances in medical science and technology have caused ethical confusion: "The realm of nature investigated by science and exploited by technology becomes the value-free domain of fact."1 Once value-free, ethical choices become a simple matter of resources and outcomes: the cost of preserving an individual can be balanced against the wider cost to society and the predicted outcome. A court can make a ruling not just over whether someone should continue to receive life-giving treatment, but whether they would be better off dead. Facts which are value-free allow the taking of decisions without ethical considerations; ethics do not enter into a rational choice between competing facts which can be proven to be either true or false. Logically, therefore, those who take such decisions and those who put into practice the results or consequences of those decisions cannot be held responsible for their actions - anyone else would have reached the same conclusions and taken the same actions.
In a world that now not only allows but in many countries compels life-taking choices, the explicit and intentional shedding of blood in ways that have historically been recognised as both illegal and immoral, but are now perversely redefined as moral, legal and even compassionate, what are we to think? Are the practitioners of these newly emancipated activities - such as abortion, euthanasia and assisted suicide - to be held guilt-free in the eyes of society? Are their actions really value-free - the natural outworkings of a simple clinical choice between two neutral alternatives - or will G-d still have the final say in the argument? As society declines, morality becomes relative and choice becomes a matter of what each individual wants provided that it does not cause harm to others - that too being a value-free fact decided from the viewpoint of the individual - blood is being spilled on the ground. The land, the world in which we live, is being polluted by that spilled blood. Increasingly, the land is rejecting its inhabitants - sometimes by geological phenomena, sometimes by agricultural misbehaviour, other time by sheer hostility - and the degree of "correction" required to extract a yield from the soil despite its lack of cooperation correspondingly grows.
As we wait for the return of Messiah and for all of creation to be restored, we cannot simply sit on our hands and close our eyes to what is going on in the world round us. Certain eschatalogical projections have led us to expect that the darkness will increase relentlessly until that time. According to that rubric, our role is simply to batten down the hatches, stay as safe as we can in our little enclaves and wait for the cavalry to come over the hill. In the meantime, we shout at passers-by inviting them to come and join us in our foxholes, without venturing out into the open or taking any real risks. The Bible itself paints a very different picture: both in story and in command the Scriptures teach that we are to engage fully with the culture in which we live and challenge it where it falls short of G-d's standards, calling it to account for its failures, while helping to pick up the pieces and comfort the wounded. This is Torah and deeds of kindness. Only that can offer atonement for the land as we share the hope of Messiah with a broken and hurting world.
1. - Frederick Lawrence, The Fragility of Consciousness: Faith, Reason and the Human Good, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2017)
Further Study: D'varim 30:19-20; Romans 8:22-25
Application: What can you do to counter the growing culture of death in our society? How can you engage with those making the rules and taking decisions about ethical practice to introduce the kingdom values of life in our world?
© Jonathan Allen, 2017
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