Neviim Tovim/TheHaftarah Circle Gillian Gould Lazarus

Stoning with stones: Leviticus 24

Posted on: April 26, 2015

Leviticus 24 begins with God’s words to Moses concerning the ner tamid – the eternal flame – and the show bread. It was the duty of Aaron and the priests to keep the lamp burning perpetually. The bread was laid out as a symbolic offering while the priests burned frankincense, and they would eat the bread before the new batch of loaves replaced them on the following Shabbat. These are called everlasting statutes, חקת עלם, an expression not used for every commandment in the Torah. It is said particularly of commandments associated with the priestly offices in the Sanctuary or with the observance of the festivals.

We adhere to them to this day: here is our ner tamid above the aron hakodesh, and, in the Kiddush Hall, the equivalent of the show bread, our challah is waiting for us.

Reading on, we come to the difficult narrative about the son of Shelomith, which involves blasphemy and a stoning.

All I said to my wife was, ‘That piece of halibut was good enough for Jehovah.’

This quotation is from the Life of Brian, the stoning scene, which may owe something to our Torah reading where a certain man gets stoned to death.

In The Life of Brian, the stoning scene was a widely recognized biblical reference, although not everyone will have connected it with the precise verse from Leviticus, in the sidra, Emor:

Whoever blasphemes the name of the LORD shall surely be put to death. All the congregation shall stone him.

The story is this: an Israelite woman called Shelomith had a grown-up son, fathered by an Egyptian. He fought with an Israelite man and, during the fracas, blasphemed, cursing God’s name. No halibut was involved. Moses ruled that the whole community should stone the man to death.

We don’t know the man’s name or exactly what he said; neither do we know the name of his Egyptian father. We do however know that his mother was Shelomith and his Israelite grandfather was Dibri of the tribe of Dan, so it is worth having a closer look at these names. The anthropologist Mary Douglas noticed that Shelomith is connected with the word for retribution, Dibri with law-suits and Dan with judgment. This interpretation treats the story as an allegory, conveying the lesson that there is punishment for cursing God.

Mary Douglas’s interpretation makes good sense when we read the continuation of God’s words to Moses, and see that there are judicial penalties for murder, damage to persons, property and animals, the punishments being of varying severity, depending on the offence; an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.

Midrash offered interesting interpretations of the Shelomith narrative. It was suggested that the Egyptian father was the same Egyptian taskmaster killed by Moses. Shelomith was so called because she was excessively free and easy with passing men, always addressing them with the words ‘Peace to you’ which is a play on the name Shelomith, connected with shalom. Likewise, the meaning of Dibri is associated with speech, and Midrash says that Shelomith was too talkative.

One midrash interprets the fight as being between the son of the Egyptian and members of the tribe of Dan. He wanted to pitch his tent among them, on the grounds that his mother was of the tribe of Dan, but they excluded him. They told him: ‘Scripture says: ‘The Israelites shall camp each with his standard, under the banners of his father’s house’ This puts forward a very negative view of the Danites, isolating the protagonist and driving him to despair. Moses also is depicted in the midrash as siding with the Danites, because the man was considered a mamzer, ie born of an adulterous union.

As it happens, the verb ‘to stone’, רגם, and, in other instances סקל, is not the same as the word for a stone in an non-verbal context, which is אבן. The meaning of the biblical verb to stone is connected with pelting or hurling.

Moreover, there are several different Hebrew words which are translated as blaspheme in English language bibles; they are all connected with cursing, in the transitive sense, where someone or something is being cursed.

In this country, the UK, the offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel were abolished as late as 2008. You may remember Mary Whitehouse bringing a successful private prosecution against Gay News in 1976. Prosecutions for blasphemy tended to target freedom of expression in controversial literature or plays. Blasphemy as a crime was about words rather than deeds.

In our own time, talk of blasphemy or of stoning is associated with extreme, intolerant and violent penal systems, yet here is an account of it, in our own scripture. What can we do with it? Or what can we take from it? Perhaps just this: that speech is an act which generates consequences, and contemptuous speech, directed against people or against God, can be a potent weapon, causing injury or desecration. This is why we have laws against libel, slander and incitement to violence or hatred.

It goes without saying that the only place for stoning with stones is on the set of The Life of Brian.

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