Second Temple Period Rationales for the Torah’s Commandments: Josephus

JosephusThe Jewish historian Josephus presents a summary of the Torah’s legislation in Antiquities 4.196-302. In this section, he surveys in a reorganized fashion what he regards as the constitution of the Jewish people, namely the laws of the Torah. In this context, he presents numerous reasons for commandments. We will be able to talk about only a small number of these. We should note at the outset that these reasons for the commandments may be distinguished easily from the rest of the material, that constitutes either a simple rewriting of the biblical requirements or the presentation of legal interpretations of them.

In 201, Josephus explains why there can only be one altar and temple, namely “for God is one and the stock of the Hebrews one.” Clearly, the intention here is to say that the unity of the people and its God is symbolized by having only one, central temple, that we know to be located in Jerusalem. In 203, we learn the reason for the thrice yearly pilgrimage festivals that the Torah requires:

… In order that they may give thanks to God for the benefits that they have received and that they may appeal for benefits for the future; and coming together and taking a common meal, may they be dear to each other.

This passage, reflecting classical Jewish belief, understands the observance of festival rituals to be oriented both to the past, in terms of gratitude, and to the future, in terms of prayer. In addition, he sees the purpose of these gatherings as to create a kind of social unity among the Jewish people, itself strengthened by joining together in the eating of festival sacrifices. Essentially, Josephus here recognizes the fact that Jewish ritual is aimed both at the relationship of each individual with God as well as with the inculcation and strengthening of relationships within families and the larger Jewish people.

Josephus states this beautifully in section 204:

For it is well that they not be ignorant of one another, being compatriots and sharing in the same practices…. For if they remain unmixed with one another they will be brought completely [to be] strangers to each other.

In 208 Josephus discusses the prohibition of garments woven of wool and linen (Lev. 19:19, Deut. 22:11). He gives the reason for this commandment as the fact that such garments are part of the priestly vestments. This fact is also noted by the rabbis, however, they do not see this as the reason for the prohibition, only noting that it is set aside for priestly vestments. For Josephus, at least in this passage, the prohibition is based on the assumption that only priests wore such a combination of materials. However, below, in 228-229, he takes up the similar laws pertaining to mixing of species in agriculture and draft animals. Regarding the mixing of seeds, he explains that “nature does not rejoice in association of  dissimilar things.” He then refers to the issue of animals yoked together and expands on this:

For from this there is fear that the dishonor of that which is of the same kind may pass over even to human practices, having taken its beginning from the previous treatment of small and trivial things.

It is best to understand this difficult passage in light of what follows (230), where that which may appear to be a violation of the law is forbidden, as well as undertaking actions that may by chance lead to violations of law. Accordingly, we see the paragraph that we have just quoted (229) as indicating that if one is willing to mix the various kinds of agricultural or animal species, it may lead to violation of various laws, especially those regarding prohibited sexual relations. Indeed, two passages from the Dead Sea Scrolls make the very same parallel between the mixing species (kil’ayim) and forbidden sexual relations.

In section 213, Josephus provides a reason for the requirement of wearing phylacteries:

… And as many things as we are able to show forth the power of God and His goodwill toward them let them display on the head and the arm, so that the favor of God with regard to them may be readily visible from all sides.

This interpretation assumes that the purpose of the phylacteries is to display the benefit of God’s blessings so that all can see. While rabbinic interpretation did discuss the notion of the visibility of the head tefillin, it understood it as a means of inspiring fear among the nations. Here, however both head and arm tefillin are assumed to be a sign of God’s blessing to Israel. One wonders if this approach does not fit into Josephus’s attempt to demonstrate to the nations the special status of the Jewish people, itself based on God’s blessing of them, even in the face of the defeat they suffered in the Great Revolt of 66-73 CE, including the destruction of the Temple in 70.

An example of a simple, almost obvious interpretation of a commandment is his remarks in section 233 regarding muzzling the mouth of animals at the threshing floor (Deut. 25:4). Here he remarks:

… For it is not right to bar from the fruit those who joined in the work and who have exerted themselves with regard to its production.

We assume that reasons such as this simply indicate the common Jewish interpretation of such commandments, in no way reflecting the creativity of Josephus.

Regarding the commandment of Levirate marriage, taken up by Josephus in section 254, after paraphrasing Deut. 25:5-6, Josephus adds:

This will be of advantage to the community if houses do not disappear and the possessions remain with the kinsmen; and it will bring to the women, as they live with those nearest to their former husbands, an alleviation of their suffering.

The Bible only speaks of the need to perpetuate the name of the dead first husband. On the other hand, it seems apparent from the Bible that, as held by the rabbis, the property of the dead husband devolves to the brother who performs Levirate marriage and then to the children born of the Levirate marriage. Josephus here introduces two other rationales for this commandment. First, it provides for orderly transmission of property and maintenance of “houses” that is, in biblical times, clans within the tribe. Second, it provides succor to the unfortunate widow who is provided both with material support and with a husband who would many ways resemble her first husband. We should note here that Philo does not mention Levirate marriage at all, and that the rabbis were indeed concerned with the welfare of the widow in legislating the specific applications of these laws.

The fact that this brief survey comes only from the beginning of Josephus’s review of the laws of the Torah should indicate how extensive his discussion of the rationales for commandments was, as such explanations punctuate his survey over and over. While some of the rationales do indeed fit with the polemical purposes of Josephus, it appears that others are simply drawn from the common Judaism of the time or represent rationales fitting with Josephus’s notion of Moses as a kind of philosopher king whose legislation was totally wise and just. One thing is certain: the sustained discussion of ta`amei ha-mitzvot as a rational enterprise, in the works of Philo and Josephus, contrasts greatly with the etiological approach for the most part taken by the book of Jubilees. Clearly, it is the Hellenistic environment that called upon Jews to make logical, rational, philosophical arguments for commandments often held up to ridicule in the Greco-Roman world. Further, we should not underestimate the need for Jews themselves to explain internally the significance of the commandments in an environment in which Jews constituted a minority in the wider oekumene.

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