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Hope and Curses

The curses listed at the end of the Book of Leviticus are less a warning than an empowering message that the past need not be repeated.

The penultimate chapter in the book of Leviticus is a collection of blessings and curses that function as a capstone for the laws known as the Holiness Collection, which lay out how the Israelites should conduct themselves in order to maintain their holiness according to divine standards. The blessings contain things like rain, peace and agricultural fertility, while the curses describe things like illness, slaughter and starvation. Which ones the people get are contingent on whether or not they adhere to God’s commandments.

Notably, the curses are much longer than the blessings. And the descriptive nature of the curses is brutal in a way that is incommensurate with the light nature of the blessings. For instance, the blessing of peace and safety reads: “I will grant peace in the land, and you shall lie down untroubled by anyone; I will give the land respite from vicious beasts, and no sword shall cross your land.” (Leviticus 26:6) This does indeed sound like a sweet future, but compare it to the depiction of danger: “And if you remain hostile toward Me and refuse to obey Me, I will go on smiting you sevenfold for your sins. I will loose wild beasts against you, and they shall bereave you of your children and wipe out your cattle. They shall decimate you, and your roads shall be deserted.” (Leviticus 26:21) The rhetorical violence and anger of the curse section is over the top, with references to starving parents eating their children and the land being left entirely desolate. 

What is the purpose of these depictions? Much depends on the historical context of the chapter’s composition. There are three ways to think of this: 

Warning: The Torah presents these blessings and curses as warnings, received by Moses at Sinai and communicated to the people of Israel. Understood this way, the chapter underlines the importance of these laws for maintaining the people’s holiness, with God saying that violating these laws will come with severe, unlivable consequences. The Israelites better make sure to keep them.

Explanation: A second way of explicating the chapter is against the backdrop of the Babylonian conquest of 586 BCE, which ended with Jerusalem destroyed and much of the population exiled to Babylonia. Understood this way, the vivid depiction of the curses is meant to explain to readers why these terrible things happened to them. Against this backdrop, the curses are less threat and more catharsis, offering some way to make sense of the recent horror. 

Hope: A third way of reading this passage is to see it as a product of the post-exilic period, in which Judeans were returning from Babylonia to live in the land again. This way of explicating the passage has elements of the previous two. On one hand, the curses are meant to explain what the Judeans suffered in the not-so-distant past. On the other, they warn the people not to repeat their sins and risk the same thing happening again. 

Evidence for this third reading comes from the final section of the chapter. After describing how the land will be emptied of inhabitants and lie fallow without the sinful population sullying its grounds, the text shifts to express cautious optimism for what will come next: “Yet, even then, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them or spurn them so as to destroy them, annulling My covenant with them: for I, Adonai, am their God. I will remember in their favor the covenant with the ancients, whom I freed from the land of Egypt in the sight of the nations to be their God: I, Adonai.” 

What the author is saying is: Don’t give up. What happened in the past is something to learn from. The curses are not meant to express the vicious anger of a spurned deity, nor are they a simple statement that the author knows what his people went through. Rather, the curses communicate to readers that while the past was terribly frightening and traumatic, and could even repeat itself, despair is not the right response. Instead, the people who are now resettling the land after a century of exile need to think about the mistakes of their past and how not to repeat them. 

This message is actually empowering. It’s effectively saying: We Judeans survived a horror, but miraculously enough we are now getting another chance. If we fail again, the horror will return. But if we take our responsibilities seriously, a life of blessing is just around the corner. It’s up to us to choose which path to take. 

This article initially appeared in My Jewish Learning’s Shabbat newsletter Recharge on June 1, 2024. To sign up to receive Recharge each week in your inbox, click here. 

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