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  • Writer's pictureEve Was Right

37. Which Came First: Religion or Oppression?

Parshah Shelach

TL;DR of the Text

Major Themes

  • Dissent as part of a healthy society

  • Which came first: religion or oppressive societies?

*Important attribution note: All quotes listed in this article are credited to the Artscroll Stone Edition Chumash. Here is an Extremely Clear Citation so I don’t get in trouble: Nosson Scherman, Hersh Goldwurm, Avie Gold, & Meir Zlotowitz. (2015). The Chumash: the Torah, Haftaros and Five Megillos. Mesorah Publications, Ltd.

Numbers 13:28-29*

“The people that dwells in the Land is powerful, the cities are fortified and very great, and we also saw there the offspring of the giant. Amalek dwells in the area of the south; the Hittite, the Jebusite, and the Amorite dwell on the mountain; and the Canaanite dwells by the Sea and on the bank of the Jordan.”

All this to say, the Land was not just inhabited, it was packed full of people. 

Numbers 14:1-4, 20-24*

“The entire assembly raised up and issued its voice; the people wept that night… ‘Why is Hashem bringing us to this Land to die by the sword?’... So they said to one another, ‘Let us appoint a leader and let us return to Egypt!’...

And Hashem said, ‘I have forgiven because of your word. But as I live - and the glory of Hashem shall fill the entire world - that all the men who have seen My glory and My signs that I performed in Egypt and in the Wilderness, and have tested Me these ten times and have not heeded My voice, if they will see the Land that I have sworn to give their forefathers! - and all who anger Me shall not see it. 

But My servant Caleb, because a different spirit was with Him and he followed Me wholeheartedly, I shall bring him to the Land to which he came, and his offspring shall possess it.’” 

Moses condemned the whole assembly to a slow-motion death because of their understandable reaction to the truth about the Land and its occupants. 

Basically, Moses appointed a handful of people as his military advisers, but when they told him something he didn’t want to hear, he condemned them and their families to death, except for the two loyalists who were ready to slaughter the Land’s inhabitants. 

Numbers 14:36-37*

“But as for the men whom Moses sent to spy out the Land, and who returned and provoked the entire assembly against him by spreading a report against the Land - the people who spread the evil report about the Land died in a plague before Hashem.” 

Of course Moses killed them. Or maybe his lackeys Joshua and Caleb did. Either way, he got rid of every possible threat to his rule. 

One way to see the amount of oppression in a system is to measure how much people try to dissent. For example, the American protest movement has collapsed because Americans know it’s futile. Protest is dissent at a national level, but the same measurement applies in workplaces, families, relationships, and any other interpersonal dynamic. 

The concept of a “united front” is bullshit - people should see their bosses disagree, kids should be able to voice objections to their parents, and kids should witness conflict resolution from their parents. 

Most importantly, people should witness their leaders admitting when they’re wrong or unsure. The idea that we can’t handle it and need our leaders to present a constant, unshakable confidence is infantilizing claptrap, especially because we usually understand an action’s risks and uncertainties. 

Stop treating us like children! While we’re at it, we should probably stop infantilizing children, too. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about the chicken and the egg question when it comes to religion and oppression. A lot of people say, “Organized religion is the cause of most of the world’s problems.” Still, when I go through the Torah, it actually seems like organized religion was crafted as a tool of oppression for an already oppressive society. 

Remember, Joseph was the one who created the conditions for the Israelites to be driven into slavery because he took advantage of the Egyptian famine, confiscated every piece of land and livestock, and turned everyone into serfs! 

Joseph offers a perfect example because the motivation behind his behavior was ultimately capitalist in nature. He used the Egyptian famine as a pretext to steal the belongings of the entire Egyptian population. Similarly, the Israelite priests had a fundamentally capitalist motivation: the more sins the people committed, the more guilt offerings they received.

The examples could go on and on. Ultimately, capitalism is the root, not religion itself. Ancient Judaism was simply another tool used to help proto-capitalists in their quest for acquisition by oppression. 

I’m not saying this to let religion off the hook, but we’ll never find the right solution until we identify the root cause.

Judaism is an example of an almost industrial kind of religious oppression - it pervades every facet of life. The Hindu caste system seems similar and was also developed as a tool to justify societal oppression. 

The Mesoamerican and Greek/Roman/Celtic religions offer a different perspective. Those religions were violent in that they practiced human sacrifice, but they did it to appease their gods in an effort to decrease the cumulative violence. If their societies weren’t violent, they wouldn’t feel the need to ask for appeasement. 

Overall, I think society’s oppression came first, and religion ended up being a very useful tool in their toolkit.

Seeing religion from this lens also helps answer the question of why enslaved people adopted the religion of their oppressors. Religion is not only a tool of oppression in the hands of religious leaders; for believers, it can also offer an escape from the oppression of capitalist society. It’s a coping mechanism, just like any other. Maybe people adopted the religions of their oppressors as a last-ditch attempt to dampen some of the oppressor’s power, and to take it for their own.

*Again with the Extremely Clear Citation so I don’t get in trouble: Nosson Scherman, Hersh Goldwurm, Avie Gold, & Meir Zlotowitz. (2015). The Chumash : the Torah, Haftaros and Five Megillos. Mesorah Publications, Ltd.



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