Children of the Lord
“You are children of the Lord your God,” it says in this week’s Torah reading (Deut 14:1). But what could this possibly mean? In what sense can God be said to have children of any sort, and if this expression is intended metaphorically, what exactly is it referring to?
A similar problem was posed, perhaps even more sharply, by an earlier verse. In Exodus 4:22, God instructs Moses to go to Pharaoh and say, “Thus says the Lord: ‘Israel is my firstborn son.’” Again, what could this mean? Even if it is not taken as a statement of the people’s actual, biological descendance, how can Israel in any sense be conceived of as a firstborn? After all, we are said to be the descendants of Jacob, who was the son of Isaac, who was the son of Abraham—and before Abraham came fully twenty generations of human beings. In what sense, metaphorical or otherwise, could Israel be called a firstborn? It was just a little twig on the great tree of humanity.
Ancient interpreters came up with a good answer. Israel was not created as God’s “firstborn.” Rather, this term was used specifically with regard to what distinguished Israel from all other peoples, its having accepted the Torah. Like a father, God at Mount Sinai had communicated a list of do’s and don’ts to his “children,” the people of Israel; once they had accepted these rules, the Israelites were (to quote such diverse sources as Ben Sira, 4Q369 Prayer of Enosh, the apocryphal Psalms of Solomon, and numerous rabbinic texts) promoted to the rank of firstborn.
What did these interpreters mean by this? Just as, in the ancient world, the firstborn was ipso facto the first child in the family to receive the parents’ rules and thereafter enjoyed a higher status in the family, sometimes as a kind of second-in-command, so Israel, by dint of its having been the first to accept God’s laws, likewise attained a higher status. It was promoted the being God’s firstborn.
But this explanation doesn’t really fit with the assertion in this week’s reading that the people of Israel are “children of the Lord.” Instead, our Rabbis connected this assertion with what immediately follows it, “You shall not gash yourselves or shave the front of your heads because of the dead.” Scholars explain that gashing the arms with knives or shaving off the hair at the front of the forehead were signs of mourning used by Israel’s neighbors; presumably, they were intended as a way of attracting God’s attention, just as the self-gashing prophets of Baal sought to do in 1 Kings 18:28. But Israel needs no such extreme acts of self-mortification, because “You are children of the Lord your God,” as close to God as children are to their father.
Interestingly enough, the Rabbis offered a second interpretation of this law. The words “You shall not gash yourselves” (lo titgoddedu) sounded a bit like the Hebrew word for “groups” (agudot). They therefore said on the basis of this verse, “Don’t form yourselves into different groups” (see b. Yebamot, 14a). This explanation actually works quite well with the injunction immediately preceding it. Since “You are all children of the Lord your God,” there is no basis for creating different groups among yourselves, each of them claiming its own, separate religious authority and often—as history has amply illustrated—looking down on other Jews either as hopelessly benighted or as wild-eyed, heretical innovators. The people of Israel were given one Torah along with its authoritative interpretations, and these have been passed on and elaborated from generation to generation. The Mishnah and Talmud, the medieval codes leading up to the Shulhan Arukh and modern times—these are the common inheritance of all Jewish communities. If so, “Don’t form yourselves into different groups,” since you are all “children of the Lord your God.”