Sunday Thoughts: The Torah Case for Reparations

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the torah case for reparations

A Chicago Black Lives Matter organizer defended the widespread weekend looting in the heart of the Windy City as “reparation.”

“I don’t care if somebody decides to loot a Gucci’s or a Macy’s or a Nike because that makes sure that that person eats. That makes sure that that person has clothes,” Ariel Atkins said at a rally outside the South Loop police station, local outlets reported.

“That’s a reparation,” Atkins said. “Anything they want to take, take it because these businesses have insurance.” She also criticized the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who took to Twitter earlier Monday to denounce the “pillaging, robbing and looting” as “humiliating, embarrassing, and morally wrong.”

Aside from the notion that a person needs a Gucci bag to eat, Black Lives Matter seems to be invoking morality into the equation for their case for reparations. Morality is often invoked to justify what one does. But where does one obtain moral authority beyond one’s self to make such an assertion? Here is where religion can be a useful tool. Even if one does not believe in God, people quickly turn to the Bible as such authority. God said so, so my political belief is justified. It makes a great political narrative if it helps one’s cause. However, sometimes one must twist meanings to shoehorn in their political narrative.

The example of Israel pillaging the Egyptians as they made their way out of slavery in the great Exodus is one such story. The idea here is that if Israel got reparations for their 430 years of slavery, why not African Americans too? The underlying inference is that if you are a religious person, you must support the notion of reparations. Who knew that the movie, “The Ten Commandments” in a 1956 American epic religious drama film produced, directed, and narrated by Cecil B. DeMille could still be relevant today. It was a great movie with Charleston Heston then and still enjoyed today.

There have been many folks that have made a case for reparations. Ta-Nehisi Coates published “The Case for Reparations,” in his Polk Award-winning piece, in The Atlantic as one that has recently gained notoriety. The arguments made in this piece are mostly political. But in this “Sunday Thought,” we wanted to focus on the specific Biblical case made by Aryeh Bernstein in a piece he wrote for IBW21 (The Institute of the Black World 21st Century) entitled: The Torah Case for Reparations. Both of these articles are worth a read to obtain background information.

In the way of review of the Exodus story as part of the Torah, one needs to note that the events of the Exodus were well prophesied in advance:

Gen 15:13-14: And He said unto Abram, “Know of a surety that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years. And also that nation whom they shall serve will I judge, and afterward, shall they come out with great substance.”

Ex 3:19-22: “And I am sure that the king of Egypt will not let you go, no, not by a mighty hand. And I will stretch out My hand and smite Egypt with all My wonders which I will do in the midst thereof, and after that, he will let you go. And I will give this people favor in the sight of the Egyptians. And it shall come to pass that, when ye go, ye shall not go empty, but every woman shall borrow of her neighbor and of her that sojourneth in her house jewels of silver and jewels of gold and raiment; and ye shall put them upon your sons and upon your daughters, and ye shall despoil the Egyptians.”

After the various demands of Israel and the plagues in Egypt, we pick up the pertinent part of the story, referring to the postulated reparation given to Israel by Egpyt. In Ex 12 is the actual story: 

29 And it came to pass, that at midnight the Lord smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne, unto the firstborn of the captive who was in the dungeon, and all the firstborn of cattle.

30 And Pharaoh rose up in the night, he and all his servants and all the Egyptians; and there was a great cry in Egypt, for there was not a house where there was not one dead.

31 And he called for Moses and Aaron by night and said, “Rise up, and get you forth from among my people, both ye and the children of Israel! And go, serve the Lord, as ye have said.

32 Also, take your flocks and your herds, as ye have said; and be gone, and bless me also.”

33 And the Egyptians were urgent upon the people, that they might send them out of the land in haste; for they said, “We are all dead men.”

34 And the people took their dough before it was leavened, their kneading troughs being bound up in their clothes upon their shoulders.

35 And the children of Israel did according to the word of Moses, and they borrowed from the Egyptians jewels of silver and jewels of gold and raiment.

36 And the Lord gave the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians so that they lent unto them such things as they required. And they despoiled the Egyptians.

Does this story suggest reparations is the way God operates? First, it is interesting to note what is said and not said in this story. The words “borrowed, lent, and things as they required” were used. The Israelites, after all, we’re going on a long voyage and would need resources for the trip. They took what was required to start their new nation, after which God would work with them in a new land. There is no discussion about back wages due to their enslavement. Neither was there any discussion to stay in Egypt to obtain social justice.

Israel was instructed to leave Egypt and everything it stood for. Much of the resources taken from Egypt were worked off even before Israel entered their promised land. This was due to the incident of the Golden Calf at Mt. Sinai, where some of the people went back into the idolatry of Egypt. It took nearly 40 years of wandering in the desert to remove those elements in their society before they could embark to the promised land. This reminds me of a previous point of obtaining the quick wealth of reparations – $14 Trillion in Slavery Reparations – What Would the Future Look Like?

In the Aryeh Bernstein piece, cited before, the author takes considerable time trying to link the liberation of Israel and the spoils of Egypt. Aryeh Bernstein states, “We have seen that the Torah centered the taking of spoils as core to the experience of liberation and that the Rabbinic tradition understood these spoils to be reparations.” The spoiling of Egypt was tangential and tactical to the story at best.

Did God want to punish Egypt? Punishment implies you are trying to use a stick approach to change behaviors. What behavior was God looking for from the Egyptians? Was God merely wanting Egypt to let the Israelites go, in order for God to begin to work with Israel as a nation? God was not working with the Egyptians to remake their nation at that time. Most likely, God wanted to ensure a clean break from the Egyptians by destroying their wealth and military power so they could not purse Israel – and they did try. See where God eventually did destroy their military power at the bottom of the Red Sea. After these events, God had no interest in Egypt at that time. 

But, God ultimately will bring back the Egyptians into focus in the future – just not at the time of the Exodus. Read a further prophecy in Isaiah 19:17, many centuries later, “A time is coming when the people of Egypt will be as timid as women. They will tremble in terror when they see that the Lord Almighty has stretched out his hand to punish them. The people of Egypt will be terrified of Judah every time they are reminded of the fate that the Lord Almighty has prepared for them.” But this is not a story about just Egyptians; there are special messages for other nations as well in the book of Isaiah.

Reading further in Isaiah 24, “The Lord is going to devastate the earth and leave it desolate. He will twist the earth’s surface and scatter its people. Everyone will meet the same fate—the priests and the people, slaves and masters, buyers and sellers, lenders and borrowers, rich and poor. The earth will lie shattered and ruined. The Lord has spoken, and it will be done.” Many believe that the book of Isaiah is a parallel prophecy about the end of the age of man, spoken of in Revelations.

Does God need money, or reparations, for his people? Gal 4:1-7, “Therefore you are no longer a slave (bond-servant), but a son; and if a son, then also an heir through [the gracious act of] God [through Christ].” There is no discussion of the spoils of the perpetrator of slavery. In the end, God destroys everything, to rebuild a new. There is nothing worth saving in humankind thinking, and no God doesn’t need the money of anyone – though perhaps used as a tool to see what humans will do with wealth and the establishment of their own individual character.

Aryeh Bernstein, in his piece, is trapped in the Torah and has not been able to expand beyond this understanding. In the Old Testament, God was primarily working with the then physical nation of Israel, where Jews were only one tribe of Israel. No identity has ownership of understanding the story of the Exodus. Then there is the concept held by many, that the New Testament extends Israel to a Spiritual Israel. This notion says that anyone that has a belief in God is now part of the nation of Israel. All are brothers in God.

It is interesting to note that the IBW21 of which Aryeh Bernstein wrote for, has a dubious basis for making any moral assertions. In their mission statement, they state:

“Our stated Mission is as follows: The Institute of the Black World 21st Century is committed to enhancing the capacity of Black communities in the U.S. and globally to achieve cultural, social, economic and political equality and an enhanced quality of life for all marginalized people.”

This is a very narrow view of the world, separating people by race and class. And dare say, it strikes of bigotry. We repeat Isaiah 24, “Everyone will meet the same fate—the priests and the people, slaves and masters, buyers and sellers, lenders and borrowers, rich and poor.” There is no delineation, as IBW21 asserts.

For those that do not believe in the Bible, this is all Biblical gobbledegook. For those that do, there is no evidence that justifies an enslaved group a people in the Bible to receive vengeful reparations. Either way, we can stop these Biblically-based reparation arguments to invoke some religious morality into today’s politics. But this is just one person’s view, what is yours? Please make your comments below.

image RWR original article syndication source.