Leviticus, the third book of the Torah, ends with Parashah Bechukotai (follow my Laws), a long and detailed listing of divine rewards and punishments. The people of Israel are warned in advance that while prosperity and blessing will result if they are loyal to the covenant with God, misfortune and disaster will follow if they are not.
At first glimpse, this seems easy to swallow. If “measure for measure” is an accepted and regulating principle in life, why not believe in divine retribution?
The biblical doctrine of reward and punishment, however, goes beyond a mathematical formula of cause and effect. It forms part of a complex network of ideas linking human understanding of God with concepts such as good and evil.
The Levitical understanding of justice, reward, and punishment, however, does not hold in face of experience. Prophets such as Jeremiah and Ezekiel, for instance, early argued against the doctrine of collective responsibility set forth by the priests of Leviticus, a doctrine that included punishment of children for the sins of the fathers.
Rabbi Eugene Borowitz, one of the leading Jewish theologians and philosophers of this generation, has convincingly argued that with God’s justice premised on human freedom, a world in which every good act would be rewarded and every evil act punished, freedom would quickly give way to conditioning.
“That would produce the behavior God seeks,” Rabbi Borowitz said, “but only at the price of dissolving the free exercise of the will into behavioristic automatism. If God wishes people to be meaningfully free and achieve righteousness by the proper use of their unique freedom, God’s reward and punishment cannot be mechanical.”
Frederick S. Plotkin, the late director of the Humanities Division at Yeshiva University, states this same idea from a different perspective. Human beings cannot control God by being good. He says, “God is not required to come at the snap of the good man’s moral fingers.”
If 21st-century humanity cannot take literally some of the biblical doctrines of reward and punishment, such as the one exposed in Chapter 26 of the Book of Leviticus, it doesn’t mean that this is a false and useless principle.
All in all the TaNaKh aims at conveying the message that human actions have their repercussions for the agent built into them. In the words of Bible scholar Klaus Koch, emeritus professor at the University of Hamburg, Germany:
There is no gap between act and consequence into which a wedge of divine retribution can be inserted. God’s role is simply to oil the works and check the switches; he never needs to interfere to keep the machine going, and he would never dream of throwing a spanner in the works.
The concept of reward and punishment means that in the long run, good deeds produce good results, and evil deeds lead to a world of evil.