I can’t take credit for it. A friend of mine introduced me to, and is fond of using the words “smitey G”d.” G”d, as portrayed in Torah and Nakh is indeed a “smitey G”d.” In our parasha, it’s a self-description in a way. We are told what good will happen if we follow G”d’s ways. However, a great deal more attention is giving to the “smitey stuff” that will happen if we don’t.
The Hebrew root most often translated as smiting is נכה. According to various biblical study resources, smiting is not a single thing, but a range of actions. Smiting can be mere striking, hitting, injuring,piercing, thrusting, beating, routing, tossing, to strike dead. One can be smitten with any number of things, in any number of ways. G”d certainly smote a whole lot of people, in a whole lot of ways.
Smiting is generally icky and bad. Though it doesn’t always involve death, it always involves unpleasantness. Smiting is never fun for the smitee. (The question to be asked is whether or not the smiter is enjoying it. Having just seen Lawrence of Arabia again recently, I am reminded of the scene of his reporting to General Allenby on his successful campaign to take Aqaba, and telling him that he had to execute a man in the process. There’s the moment when the camera pans in close to Peter O’Toole’s face as he has Lawrence say “I enjoyed it.” Only one of many examples of people succumbing to blood lust. Is G”d subject to the same phenomenon?)
As I have written before, the potential smiting described in B’khukotai is over the top. There are six (or five, depending on your reading and interpretation) iterations of “if you don’t obey me” and “if you still don’t obey me…” (Doesn’t quite square with the “unto the seventh generation” stuff, but I can choose to overlook this inconsistency,or consider that each of the mentioned iterations might have involved multiple generations in and of themselves.) Did we really need to get to the level of eating our own children? (I’ve rationalized this a bit in some musings as a kind of “bottoming out” in the 12-step sense.)
While the text continues to say “if” you still disobey for each iteration, there is an implication here that we will continue to disobey, and are likely to reach that lowest level. In fact, the text doesn’t say, in each iteration, that if we correct our ways things will be restored to normal. While we might take this as a given, its not being clearly restated gives me pause. It’s a very pessimistic bit of text.
Don’t give up hope, however. Smite isn’t all bad. Consider how we describe people as being “smitten” with someone or by someone’s beauty. Is that stereotype of the caveman smiting a women he likes on the head and dragging her off to be his wife/companion a possible source for this idea? He is smitten with her (looks? charm? sexual appeal?) and thus he physically smites her.
So why is it that this more positive understanding of smite doesn’t appear in our sacred texts? Catching more flies with honey does not appear to be a biblical concept (until Paul came along and invented Christianity.) However, it seems perfectly reasonable to speak of being smitten with G”d. Is this not another side of the awe/fear coin? I would much rather be smitten with G”d than to be smitten by G”d.
Therein lies the rub. Perhaps the solution. We have this very smitey G”d described in sacred texts. Yet, despite my constant encounters with all the smiting, I still have this desire to be smitten with G”d. Why do I, why do we, persist in this desire to find a way to love G”d, to be smitten with G”d, when so much of what we know of G”d is this vengeful, smiting Deity?
Now, truth be told, G”d says we won’t be completely wiped out, smitten into non-existence as it were. At some point we hit bottom (and yes, these parashiyot and others can be richly mined for Twelve-step concepts, which I have done many times over the years of writing these musings – for example, Behar-Bekhukotai 5762 - Tough Love and
Behar-Bekhukotai 5761-The Big Book (Bottoming Out G”d's Way) ) and admit that our own failing to do as G”d asked us to do is why we have been so badly pummeled. At that point, G”d says, we will confess our sins, and G”d will in turn remember the covenant with our ancestors and restore us. Tough love, indeed.
So we are given light at the end of the tunnel. We are reminded that, while G”d might smite the hell out of us, in the end we’ll recognize our sins, repent them, and G”d will make things right again. Makes me want to say “thanks, but no thanks.” It’s no wonder we make it so hard to become a convert to Judaism. How can we welcome people into our fold knowing that smiting has been and is likely going to be part of it?
Now, we are not beholden to our ancestor’s understanding of G”d. Our understanding has evolved and changed. (The question remains, is G”d evolving, or just our understanding of G”d? Just as scientific discovery opens and broadens our minds, are our spiritual and theological explorations having the same effect upon us? Does G”d evolve with us, or is G”d ever and unchanging, and, just as with the universe, we keep getting to know and understand it better as time passes? My head is exploding.)
Writing this musing had brought a prayer to my lips.
I pray first, G”d, that You can find the way to get beyond the need to be “smitey.”
Then I pray for the courage to stand up and say “smite me, G”d.” I pray that You smite me with Your holiness, Your compassion, Your mercy, Your lovingkindness, Your love. Help me, help all of us, to find the way to become smitten with You.
©2013 by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musing on this parasha:
B'har-B'kukotai 5772 - Scared of Leaves (Redux & Revised 5769)
B'har-B'khukotai 5770 - Bad Parenting 301
Behar-Bekhukotai 5769- Scared of Leaves?
Behar-Bekhukotai 5767-A Partridge in a Tree of Life
Behar-Bekhukotai 5766-Only An Instant
Behar-Bekhukotai 5764 - The Price of Walls
Behar-Bekhukotai 5762 - Tough Love
Behar-Bekhukotai 5761-The Big Book (Bottoming Out G”d's Way)