Pity for the Enemy

12 03 2011

In Matthew 5:43-44, Jesus is quoted as having made a rather brazen statement. “You have heard,” he says, “that you should love your neighbour and hate your enemy. Well I say that you should love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you.” In Berakhot 10a, Rabbi Meir is talked by his sensible wife into praying for the repentance of “bandits” (countryfolk, to be linguistically precise), but to suggest that somebody should go so far as to actually love the ones who threaten them might be a bit much. In fact, show me somebody who genuinely has compassion for those who endanger the lives of his children, and I’ll show you somebody who shouldn’t have any. But that’s only one of two reasons as to why this statement is a brazen one. The other, less obvious, reason is that nowhere is it said that you should hate them in the first place.

In fact, Jesus’ assertion (if we might take at face value that it was his) is renowned for going so much further than the statement attributed to Hillel before him: that which is harmful to you, do not do to another; that is the whole of Torah (Shabbat 31a). Like Rabbi Akiva, who in later years was to suggest that “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Lev 19:18) was the most important mitzvah (cf: Sifra 19:45), Jesus seems to be drawing on this principle in citing his modified ruling. Yet where does the Torah ever stress the corollary, that one should hate his enemies? Nowhere does the verb √שנא (nor the nouns שנאה or אימה), appear within the context of an imperative, commanding us to hate anybody or anything. There are ample passages that testify to an enmity for certain nations, people, animals, objects and practises, but nothing that says that you must actually despise those things. At least, not in the way that Jesus appears to be suggesting.

It strikes me that Jesus is employing a rather exclusionary interpretation of the word רעך, which I have above translated as “your neighbour”, but which more properly means “your friend”. I do not suppose that anybody (leastways, nobody who pretends to live in accordance with this principle) would suggest that it is referring to anything so exclusive as the individual who you would consider your actual companion, but it is through intimating that it is only those people whom one is required to love that Jesus derives the implicit corollary: those who are not your friends, you are required to actually hate. That is going a bit far for my liking, but then it is Matthew 5 that we are talking about.

Be that as it may, I was teaching my weekly Shabbat morning class on Isaiah this morning, and we were reading chapters 15 and 16. This lengthy oracle against Moab provided me with a wonderful opportunity to present also the Moabite Stone, and compare it (on a surface level) to the war between Moab and Israel, Judah and Edom in 2 Kings 3. Considering the generally polemical nature of all texts that concern Moab (and it is the exceptional character of Ruth that proves the rule), it is no surprise that Isaiah’s oracle (not unlike all of Isaiah’s oracles in this section) should be so gratuitously violent. Indeed, I even suggested that those sections in which he expresses sincere grief for the misfortune of the Moabites were anything but that, and that the Israelite poet who composed this particular oracle wanted nothing more than to crow bombastically over the annihilation of his foes. And yet… there is something strange about 16:3-4.

Having immediately followed on from the threat of destruction, levelled against even those few who escape God’s immediate wrath (15:9), the prophet now admonishes us to show mercy to their refugees, to hide their escapees, and to be a general refuge for them. That the editors of the NRSV noted the incongruence of this passage might be demonstrated in the fact that they enclosed it in quotation marks. Somebody is saying this, but it is evidently neither the prophet himself nor God. In a footnote to the New Jerusalem Bible, the assertion is made that this is the Moabites who are speaking. That might make sense, and may be what the NRSV is meaning to suggest. But is that what the Hebrew actually says?

יגורו בך נדחי מואב הוי סתר למו מפני שודד

I would translate this as “Let the Moabite refugees dwell among you; be a hiding place for them from the despoiler”. If I were to vocalise it, in other words, I would render it as yaguru vakh nidchei mo’av hevei seter lamo mifnei shoded. Yet I was most intrigued to discover that this is not how it is actually vocalised in the MT. On the contrary, there it is vocalised as yaguru vakh niddachai mo’av hevei seter lamo mifnei shoded. In other words, “Let my refugees live among you, O Moab; be a hiding place for them from the despoiler”.

I think that it is safe to say that this reading makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. Instead, I would suggest that it is a symptom of exegetical discomfort over the possibility that Isaiah is here exhorting the Israelites to have compassion for their foes. While I can understand the Masoretes having had a problem with this possibility, I find it difficult to understand why certain Christian translations would find it problematic, especially when it occurs in what is widely referred to as the fourth gospel.

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