Atheists, Humanists, and even the occasional Christian read the Torah and asks whether a deity who destroys the world in a flood and incinerates Sodom and Gomorrah is a G-d who values life for its own sake? In other words: why should we serve or worship a deity who commits mass murder?
To answer them, I’d like to show how the Torah uses a single key word to explain G-d’s point of view. The way the word is used helps us understand both how the text explains mass killings and what G-d expects from every peoples on earth.
The word the Torah uses for mass murder is mashchiss [for clarity I will use this word as the common expression even when the text uses a different form of the same root word]. Mashchiss is used to describe killing off an entire people, generations of people, a form of genocide.
In the Torah the word mashchiss almost always a descriptor for a society; it is only used to describe one individual: Onan. (Gen. 38:9-10) Onan spilled his seed into the earth instead of into Tamar, and in so doing, he denied the world his own descendants, those of Tamar, and his deceased brother.
But Onan, knowing that the seed would not count as his, mashchiss the earth whenever he joined with his brother’s wife, so as not to provide offspring for his brother.
Indeed, if the earth is supposed to be elevated through the acts of mankind, Onan’s act denigrated not only himself and Tamar, but also the earth itself.
Onan’s example is straightforward. The crucial next step is to understand that the Torah’s use of language is itself a way to link stories together. In other words, when we consider the different places where the Torah uses the word mashchiss, we’ll have comparable examples to the sin of Onan.
When are those times? The first and most prominent is the flood itself, when G-d maschiss the world. But mashchiss did not originate with G-d. It was, instead, a human innovation! The flood, which is an act of mashchiss by G-d, was in reaction to mankind first doing the same thing to the earth and all living flesh. Gen 6:11:
The earth became mashchiss before G-d; the earth was filled with hamas. [This last word, hamas, means some kind of moral violence – Gen. 6:2, in the runup to the flood, the Torah tells us that men of renown took/raped the women they wanted. Also see Sarai using this word in Gen 16:5, describing the damage to herself from Abraham impregnating Hagar at her request. Other examples in the Torah include false witness (Ex. 23:1 and Deut. 19:16). It is the same word used in Arabic for the terror organization.]
Note the use not only of the word mashchiss but also of the word for “earth.” The Torah tells us that what mankind does affects the world around us – not just in an environmental way, but also in a moral or spiritual way (which is why the Torah later promises that if man behaves immorally, the land will spit us out.) This is very clear with the flood story: if mankind is corrupting the earth with our violence and selfishness, instead of elevating it through holiness, then we have forfeited our right to life. It happened to Onan, and it happened to the flood generation.
It also happens, in the Torah, to Sodom and Gomorah. Those cities were not merely populated with evil people; they had institutionalized the practice of evil. As we see by Sodom’s response to Lot having guests, it was illegal to host guests, to be kind to others. It also seems to have been a place without true private property, with no legal right to close your door and be left in peace by your neighbors. Then, too, we have a widespread understanding that Sodom practiced sodomy, which agrees with the common use of mashchiss for Onan, a man who wasted his seed.
Sodom could – and was – destroyed not just because it was evil, but because it made evil a requirement. The city made it legally impossible to be good. That made Sodom irredeemable in G-d’s eyes.
Which starts to make some sense. . To G-d, life does not have intrinsic value; it only has value if people use it for good. In the long run, all the living will be dead, sooner or later. What matters is what we do with the opportunities we have. But if we are going to prevent human progress and waste opportunity to improve as individuals and as collectives, then in G-d’s eyes (as described in the Torah) we have forfeited our right to live.
The raw moral lesson is hard to handle in today’s hedonistic environment where the common culture is fixated on sexual self-discovery and realization. As much as we want to think that we have totally free choice to waste ourselves and our lives on drugs or selfish relationships or wasted time, the Torah is telling us that G-d does not, to put it mildly, approve. There comes a reckoning at some point after we no longer try to grow ourselves and our societies.
Mashchiss is a tool in G-d’s hands, a reactive tool that can be deployed when mankind commits evil. Mankind and nature corrupt the earth, and G-d wipes the world out in a global rinse cycle, the Flood. Onan performs mashchiss and he forfeits his life for it. The Sodomites practice it as well, and receive the same consequence.
The next incidence of the word is found describing the runup to the Exodus from Egypt. The Egyptians had mandated drowning Jewish newborn babies. G-d’s response is to mashchiss the firstborn of the Egyptians. Measure for measure, like for like, G-d retaliates only in response to mankind’s evil choices.
How do we avoid mashchiss? It is not merely by not sinning; there are positive acts that spare us:
And the blood on the houses where you are staying shall be a sign for you: when I see the blood I will pass over you, so that no plague will mashchiss you when I strike the land of Egypt. (Ex. 12:13)
The word appears again in the same sequence!
For when the LORD goes through to smite the Egyptians, He will see the blood on the lintel and the two doorposts, and the LORD will pass over the door and not let the [mashchiss actor] enter and smite your home. (Translations suggest that this “mashchiss actor” is the Angel of Death, though if we see how the word is used earlier in the Torah, it is clear that while mashchiss is a destructive force, it is neither reserved for G-d, nor unique to this example.)
Got it. Blood on the doorpost. But exactly how does the blood protect us?
The answer is found by seeing that the marked doorposts represent the very opposite of mashchiss – if mankind’s mission is to elevate the earth (using grass for the vegetable kingdom dipped in the blood of the animal kingdom, and elevated upward to become part of the houses and homes that mankind has created), then it is symbolically contradistinct from the practices of the Egyptians. Mankind should choose to use our creative powers for good and not evil, for productive and constructive ends instead of wasted seed and rapacious violence. In other words, we counter mashchiss by engaging in precisely the opposite!
The Torah recognizes that every death affects potential future generations. Mashchiss is closely tied to procreative powers, from the implied sexual immorality of the flood generation and Sodom to the explicit sexual wrongdoing of Onan. Sexual creation is the single most potent biological power mankind has, and choosing to use it for evil denies that we have a productive purpose on this earth. Annihilating the future, as Onan did to his brother’s memory, and the Egyptians did to the Jewish people, means that we have made it impossible for society to improve.
The calling card for the Jewish people is to elevate the world and combine it with our own creative powers (the house and the family within its walls). Which beautifully connects to Onan (who had done the opposite by using biology to break a house), and also connects to the Sodomites who had acted in opposition to growing the world, who had sought to break down Lot’s door (Gen. 19:9). The door and the house are both symbols of building, and family and the modesty within a household. The symbolism of marking the door also counters the violence, rape, and the inability (or refusal!) to hear G-d’s voice characterized by the generation of the flood.
The Torah does not stop here! The central idea of mashchiss in Exodus is most commonly found connected to the golden calf, and the powerful animalistic and sexual symbolism of worshipping that idol:
The LORD spoke to Moses, “Hurry down, for your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, have acted [with mashchiss]. (Ex 32:7)
By worshipping the Golden Calf, we as a people started to regress, to lower ourselves to nature, rather than elevating it. The people had left the ultimate pagan society, Egypt, just a few weeks before. So choosing to worship the calf, and its natural sexual vitality, shows that the Jews had missed the central lesson of the Exodus and the revelation at Sinai.
As Moshe summarizes it later:
And the LORD said to me, ‘Hurry, go down from here at once, for the people whom you brought out of Egypt have acted [with mashchiss]; they have been quick to stray from the path that I enjoined upon them; they have made themselves a molten image.’ (Deut. 9:12)
To which Moshe replies, trying to break the proverbial cycle of violence (or mashchiss):
I prayed to the LORD and said, “O Lord God, do not mashchiss Your very own people, whom You redeemed in Your majesty and whom You freed from Egypt with a mighty hand. (Deut. 9:26)
I had stayed on the mountain, as I did the first time, forty days and forty nights; and the LORD heeded me once again: the LORD agreed not to mashchiss you. (Deut. 10:10)
For the LORD your God is a compassionate God: He will not fail you nor will He mashchiss you; He will not forget the covenant which He made on oath with your fathers. (Deut. 4:31)
The sexual connections for mashchiss are also found later in the Torah:
You shall not offer to the LORD anything [with its testes] bruised or crushed or torn or cut. You shall have no such practices in your own land, nor shall you accept such [animals] from a foreigner for offering as food for your God, for they are mashchiss, they have a defect; they shall not be accepted in your favor. (Lev. 22:24-25)
Once again, the Torah makes the connection between mere destruction and the potential for intergenerational loss – the testes of the animal.
The last references in the Torah to this word deal with another way of worshipping nature – creating an idol. The Torah tells us not to make an idol (as we had with the Golden Calf):
For your own sake, therefore, be most careful—since you saw no shape when the LORD your God spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire — not to act mashchiss and make for yourselves a sculptured image in any likeness whatever. (Deut. 4:15-16)
When you have begotten children and children’s children and are long established in the land, should you act [with mashchiss] and make for yourselves a sculptured image in any likeness, doing evil in the eyes of the Lord your G-d and arousing Him to anger. (Deut. 4:25)
It is an echo of the golden calf as well as the flood generation, and the quid pro quo nature of the commandments remains. Destruction comes to us when and if we make destructive choices, especially choices connected with intergenerational repercussions and corruption of the land.
Ultimately, the use of the word maschiss throughout the Torah is a constant reminder to us that G-d calls us to elevate ourselves and everything around us. When we do not live our lives in this way, there are serious consequences from G-d.
Notes: Other Incidences of mashchiss with explanation:
When a man strikes the eye of his slave, male or female, and mashchiss it, he shall let him go free on account of his eye. (Ex. 21:26)
The act makes it impossible to heal, to recreate. It has to be an enduring wound.
When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not mashchiss its trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city? (Deut. 20:19)
There is an environmental component to this destruction, but also a generational one. The commandment is not about grass, but about trees: it is the things that take time to grow and nurture that matter, that should not be carelessly destroyed. Mashchiss is about attacking intergenerational growth of all kinds. The Torah wants us to recognize the intrinsic value of the things that take time to build.
Only trees that you know do not yield food may be mashchiss; you may cut them down for constructing siegeworks against the city that is waging war on you, until it has been reduced. (Deut. 20:20)
In this example, mashchiss is not absolutely, categorically forbidden. When it serves a positive purpose (such as winning a war), we can do it. Just as G-d used it as a tool to destroy His enemies among mankind. Indeed, the specific example is interesting: we can mashchiss a tree when we use the wood to build something.
Near the end of Moshe’s life, the word comes up again, echoing the story of the flood and the golden calf:
For I know that, when I am dead, you will mashchiss and turn away from the path that I enjoined upon you, and that in time to come misfortune will befall you for having done evil in the sight of the LORD and vexed Him by your deeds. (Deut. 31:29)
And the very last use in the Torah of the word, Deut. 32:5, tells us what happens ultimately when we practice mashchiss.
They mashchiss Him and are not His children: blemished, they are a warped and crooked generation.
This is the most radical of all: the text seems to telling us that our mashchiss, which initially (before the flood) filled the earth and all living flesh, can in extremis, even damage G-d Himself!
This is the power that G-d has bestowed upon mankind. We can elevate ourselves, the earth, each other, and even G-d. Or we can do precisely the opposite. This is our choice and our responsibility.
Of course, choices have consequences.
[another @iwe and @susanquinn production]
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