The first five books of the Bible are sometimes called the Pentateuch. Jews call them the Torah, which means “teaching” or “instruction.” The Torah is by far the most important of Jewish scriptures. The Jewish Bible contains the same books as what Christians call the “Old Testament.” Accordingly, the Torah is the foundation of Christian scriptures.
This article surveys the Torah’s teachings on the right and the duty to defend oneself and others. Part II examines the Book of Genesis, in particular, the “Jewish natural law” which was given to Noah, and the story of Abraham, the patriarch of the Jewish people. Part III studies Moses and the Exodus of the Hebrew people from Egypt. Part IV looks at Torah laws regarding home defense against burglars, and the duty of bystanders to rescue third parties who are being attacked by a “pursuer.” The examination of the Torah laws includes analysis of the extensive Jewish scholarly commentary on the Torah. Part V turns to the Sixth Commandment, whose language “Thou shalt not kill,” has been frequently, but implausibly, misconstrued as a prohibition on self-defense. The article concludes that the Torah clearly creates a right and a duty to defend oneself and others.
A. In the Image of God
The first legal code in the Bible was given to Noah and his family after the Great Flood wiped out the entire human race, except for the people on Noah’s Ark. The laws are sometimes called “the Noahide commandments,” “Jewish natural law” or the “Rainbow Commandments.” Unlike laws which are given later in the Torah, the Rainbow Commandments are considered applicable to God’s relationship with all of humanity, not just with the Hebrews.
God forbade murder, and required the death penalty in cases of murder: “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man.” The rule helps explain why human life is sacred: because man is made in God’s image.The concept of imago Dei would become a foundation for the development of human rights. Made in God’s image, all humans necessarily have an inherent dignity.
According to Genesis, the inherent dignity of man is the reason why murder is forbidden, and why the death penalty is required in the case of murder. Animals are not made in God’s image, and there is no penalty for killing them.Humans are made in God’s image, and the murder of a human therefore requires the supreme penalty.
Many more generations passed, the tower of Babel rose and fell, and then God spoke to a man named Abram, told him that God would bless him, and ordered him to leave his home and go to the land of Canaan. Abram did so, and moved to Canaan (modern Israel) with his wife Sarai and his nephew Lot.
Lot settled in the town of Sodom.The kingdoms of Sodom and Gomorrah were overrun by invaders from Mesopotamia. Lot, along with other townspeople, was carried away as a captive.
One captive escaped, “and told Abram the Hebrew” what had happened. Although Lot had previously taken the best available land and left Abram to fend for himself, Abram immediately began a rescue mission. He “armed his trained servants,” all 318 of them. He procured allies from three tiny kingdoms by the Dead Sea, where Abram and Lot had been living. Abram then led the combined forces in pursuit of Lot, and caught up with the captors near the town of Dan, which is near Mount Hermon, in the Golan Heights.
Abram divided his forces into groups, launched a night attack, “and smote them.” The defeated captors attempted to flee with their booty and prisoners, but Abram pursued them “unto Hobah,” near Damascus, and liberated all the captives and the stolen treasure.
The nearby kings went out to meet Abram after his great victory. Among these kings was “Melchizedek, king of Salem,” who also “was the priest of the most high God.” Melchizedek’s name means “king of righteousness” and the name of his kingdom of “Salem” derives from the same root as the Hebrew word “shalom.”
Many biblical interpreters have called Melchizedek an antetype of Jesus. An antetype is a prior person or event who shares important characteristics with the main person or event. For example, some Christians see Moses’ sister, Miriam, as an antetype of the Virgin Mary, or Noah’s Ark as an antetype of baptism. Many commentators have studied the prophet Jeremiah as an antetype of Jesus, and the Jewish liberation at Exodus as an antetype of the liberation of all humanity in the Resurrection.
Melchizedek blessed Abram, and also said “blessed be the most high God which hath delivered thine enemies into thy hand.” Abram gave a tithe (one-tenth) of his property to Melchizedek the priest.
When the other kings tried to bargain with Abram for the spoils of victory, Abram asked only that his allied kingdoms receive their fair share. For himself and his household and fighters, he asked only for what they had eaten.
In every respect, Abram was the model of the ideal Jewish fighter: he fought to save the innocent, not for material gain. He was a bold and successful commander, who caught and destroyed enemies. He was a good diplomat who built an alliance with other victims of the aggressors. A great priest blessed him for his good works of using violence to rescue innocents.
Thousands of years later, after the New England settlers had won King Philip’s War in 1675-76, minister Samuel Nowell preached a sermon on Artillery Day, the day that new officers of the militia artillery were elected. His sermon set forth the main lines of New England militia preaching that would be followed into the American Revolution. Basing the sermon on the text “he armed his trained servants,” Nowell (and countless other New England preachers) explained that God required people to defend themselves when unjustly attacked, that defensive training was a sacred obligation, and that God was a “Man of War” who would always lead them to victory if they fulfilled their duty to fight courageously.
In the violent rescue story of chapter 14 of Genesis, the word “Hebrew” is used for the first time; perhaps the introduction of the word shows how Abram was becoming the father of a nation. After receiving Melchizedek’s blessing in chapter 14, Abram then received God’s blessing in the next chapter. The chapter begins: “After these things the word of the Lord came unto Abram in a vision, saying, ‘Fear not, Abram: I am thy shield and thy exceeding great reward.’” God made a covenant with Abram and changed his name to “Abraham.” God promised that Abraham’s descendants would be as numberless as the stars in the sky, gave the land of Canaan to Abraham and his descendants, and gave Abraham the great treasure for which Abraham had yearned—a son named Isaac, born to Abraham’s aged and barren wife Sarai (who was renamed Sarah). A few generations after Abraham, his descendants settled in Egypt, where they were welcomed.
All three of the major monotheistic religions claim descent from Abraham, either spiritually or by blood. Collectively, Jews, Christians, and Muslims are sometimes called “the children of Abraham.”
by David B. Kopel