Sevenfold Punishment

Sevenfold Punishment

Vayikra 26

Interactive Learning Module

Despair of the Defenders of Jerusalem / 1890 Holman Bible

1. Introduction

  • לגרסה בעברית של יחידת לימוד זו, לחצו כאן.‏
  • Justice would seem to dictate that people should never get a greater punishment than they deserve. As such, verses which appear to imply that the nation, at times, might actually get more than its fair share of retribution pose a theological challenge.
  • This module will explore one such case, Hashem's repeated threat in Parashat Bechukotai that, if the nation continues to sin, Hashem will punish them sevenfold for their crimes: "וְיָסַפְתִּי לְיַסְּרָה אֶתְכֶם שֶׁבַע עַל חַטֹּאתֵיכֶם". How does this manifest Divine justice?
  • An in depth analysis of the issue can be found at Manifold Punishment. As you use this module, you are invited to compare your own analysis with the analysis found there.

2. Keyword: "קרי"

  • Frequently, the main message or theme of a unit is highlighted through repetition of certain keywords or phrases. What are the refrains in the unit of curses in Vayikra 26 and what might they teach about Hashem's system of retribution?
  • Press here to access the Tanakh Lab, where we will more easily be able to find and highlight these keywords.
  • Look at the table of computer generated keywords on the left side of the screen and click on the "דירוג" column which will order keywords taking into account both the number of appearances of the entry in the unit and their relative frequency in Tanakh as a whole.
  • Which word tops the list? How many times does it appear here? How many times does it appear elsewhere in Tanakh?
  • Click on the word "קְרִי" in the table so that all its appearances in the unit will be highlighted. What is the context of each?

3. Key Phrase: "הלך עם קרי"

  • The word "קֶרִי" is one of the most significant keywords in our unit, appearing seven times here and nowhere else in Tanakh.
  • Note that the word usually appears as part of a phrase, being accompanied by variations of the words "הלך עמי".
  • Highlight the phrase "תֵּלְכוּ עִמִּי" in verse 21 and from the drop-down menu, choose "highlight instances" so that all will be colored.
  • Scan the phrases. How do they support the notion that Hashem punishes "measure for measure"?
  • What, though, does it mean for either man or God to act with the other "בְּקֶרִי"?

4. Key Phrase: "שבע על חטאה"

  • There is one other phrase that repeats throughout our unit.
  • On the top of the table of computer generated finds, click on the button "triplets" to display key phrases of up to three consecutive words.
  • Note that the triplet that we just saw, "הלך עִם קְרִי", tops the list.
  • Click also on the third phrase listed, "שֶׁבַע עַל חַטָּאָה", so that all appearances of this phrase, too, will be highlighted.

5. "שבע על חטאה"

  • The phrase "שֶׁבַע עַל חַטָּאָה" appears in verses 18, 24, and 28. What variation of the phrase appears in verse 21 as well? Is this unique formulation synonymous with the others or does it mean something else?
  • What do these refrains teach about Hashem's mode of punishment? Does He punish in accord with one's deeds or more severely?
  • Finally, note the distribution of our two key phrases, "הלך עִם קְרִי" and "שֶׁבַע עַל חַטָּאָה". How often do they appear together? What does the juxtaposition imply?

6. A Theological Question

  • Our verses imply that there is a cause and effect relationship between "walking בקרי" and being punished sevenfold.
  • What, though, does the word "קֶרִי" mean and how does this justify why the nation is being punished seven times more than their crimes deserve? How is such disproportionate punishment to be understood?
  • The question is one that has bothered many. Let's return to the Mikraot Gedolot on Vayikra 26:18 to see how our commentators have dealt with the issue.

7. Removal of Divine Providence

  • Let's begin with Keli Yekar on Vayikra 26:18. To access his comments, click on the "Show Additional Commentaries" button at the bottom of the verse. We can begin a few lines into the commentary, from the words, "אמנם אחר כך אמר".
  • How does Keli Yekar understand the phrase "אִם תֵּלְכוּ עִמִּי קֶרִי"? When Hashem says "וְהָלַכְתִּי אַף אֲנִי עִמָּכֶם בְּקֶרִי", what does He mean? What punishment is He inflicting? Why?
  • How does the removal of Divine providence result in sevenfold punishment?
  • According to Keli Yekar, despite the disproportionate severity of the punishment, how might it nonetheless be viewed as "measure for measure" retribution?

8. Natural Order is the Norm

  • According to Keli Yekar, at times Hashem might indeed punish people more severely than their sins call for.
  • If the nation does not recognize Divine providence, He removes that providence, leaving the people to chance which does not discriminate and has no mercy, easily leading to disproportionate punishment.
  • One, though, might go further and suggest that our case is not exceptional, and that Hashem rarely intervenes to disrupt the natural order, setting it (and not active Divine providence) as the norm.

9. Natural Order

  • If natural order is the norm rather than the exception, it might often be possible to suffer from the vicissitudes of chance. Once Hashem unleashes His messengers to destroy, they might act on their own, resulting in unwarranted punishment.
  • How might Zekharyah 1:15 or Yeshayahu 10:5-7 support this possibility? [See also Rashi on Shemot 12:22 regarding Hashem's command to the nation not to leave their homes during the plague of Firstborns.]
  • If one takes this approach, when, if ever, do people receive their just deserts? What does R. Nissim Gerondi (Ran) suggest? Press here to access his Derashot from the library. [We'll begin towards the end of the derashah, looking at the paragraph beginning, "ועל זה הדרך לא ישאר ספק מתמיה בענין צדיק ורע לו".]

10. Seven Sins

  • Not all are comfortable with the notion that Hashem might ever punish more than deserved, and some maintain that, contrary to first impressions, the verses are not implying this at all.
  • Press here to return to the Mikraot Gedolot.
  • Let's look at the Sifra on verse 18. [As above, click on the "Show Additional Commentaries" button so that the Midrash Halakhah will appear.]
  • How does the Sifra understand our verse?

11. Seven Sins Continued

  • According to the Sifra, how is a sevenfold punishment "measure for measure" retribution?
  • How might the unique variation of our refrain in verse 21, "וְיָסַפְתִּי עֲלֵיכֶם מַכָּה שֶׁבַע כְּחַטֹּאתֵיכֶם", support this position?
  • Can you find seven sins in the previous verses?
  • See R"Y Bekhor Shor on verse 18 who enumerates the sins to which the Sifra is referring.
  • How might this position understand the word "קֶרִי"? What does Rashi on verse 21 suggest?

12. Punishment Less Harsh

  • Let's now turn to a third approach to our question which also agrees that Hashem's punishments are never disproportionate and that our initial reading of the verse was mistaken.
  • However, instead of suggesting, like the Sifra, that the nation must have sinned more than an initial reading would imply, this position suggests that the punishment is less severe than it first appears.
  • Scroll up to Rashbam on verse 18. How does he understand the word "שבע"? What prooftexts does he bring to support his reading?
  • How can this solve our theological difficulty?

13. Round Numbers

  • Rashbam suggests that the number seven is simply a round number, used to connote a large quantity.
  • Our verse is not saying that the nation will get seven times more than they deserve, but simply that they will be punished severely (according to the magnitude of their sins).
  • A quick concordance search reveals several more examples where numbers such as seven or ten are used figuratively to refer to "many".
  • Click on the word "שֶׁבַע" in our verse to access the One-Click Concordance. In which verses might the number seven connote abundance?

14. Seven and Ten

  • Many of the verses in which the word "שֶׁבַע" appears employ the number seven literally, but scroll down in the concordance list to Shemuel I 2:5 (#214), Yeshayahu 4:1 (#266), Yirmeyahu 15:9 (#269) and Tehillim 119:164 (#302) where it is used metaphorically.
  • Now, type: עשר in the input box, choosing the noun form from the drop-down menu. [Make sure "עֶשֶׂר" appears and not "עָשׂר".]
  • In how many verses is the number used figuratively to connote abundance? See, for example, Bemidbar 14:22 (#46), Shemuel I 1:8 (#69), Amos 6:9 (#140), and Iyyov 19:3 (#144).

15. Application to Other Cases

  • Our verses are not the only ones which imply that Hashem might punish the nation more than they deserve. See Yeshayahu 40:2 (press here). What words in this verse are similarly troubling?
  • Which of the approaches discussed above might be applied to this verse as well?
  • Scan Radak on this verse. With which of the above approaches does he identify?
  • Compare Shadal's understanding of the verse. How might his first suggestion here be applied to the verses in Vayikra?.
  • Finally, how does the case of disproportionate punishment relate to the well-known problem of "צדיק ורע לו"? How might the various approaches to our issue be applied to the more general question of why bad things happen to good people? For a full discussion of the problem, see: Theodicy – צדיק ורע לו.

16. Summary

  • In summary, we have seen that commentators disagree regarding whether Hashem ever punishes the nation more than it deserves.
  • According to Keli Yekar, at times Hashem indeed does so. When the nation rejects Divine providence, Hashem removes that providence, leaving them to the whims of nature and the potential for unwarranted suffering.
  • Others claim that the verses only make it seem that Hashem is excessive in His punishment. In reality, though, the people have either sinned more or are punished less severely than implied by the verses.
  • Thus, the Sifra multiplies the nation's crimes, suggesting that the sevenfold punishment is actually "measure for measure" retribution for seven distinct sins.
  • Rashbam, in contrast, reduces the extent of the punishment, suggesting that " וְיִסַּרְתִּי אֶתְכֶם... שֶׁבַע עַל חַטֹּאתֵיכֶם " simply means that Hashem will punish the nation severely, but not out of proportion to its transgressions.
  • May we all merit to follow in Hashem's ways so as to be granted the blessings of the Parashah and not its curses.

17. Additional Reading