How the Biblical Conception of Repentance Revolutionized Ethics

July 31, 2020 | Jeremiah Unterman
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Even in our secular age, the Hebrew Bible’s ideas are so deeply rooted in the minds of both Jews and Gentiles that it is hard to see what a stark departure they were from pagan thinking. Jeremiah Unterman shows this to be the case with regard to the Torah’s teachings about penance and forgiveness:

According to the Torah, no remorse or confession is acceptable once a perpetrator has already been apprehended—for the Bible’s innate and wise psychological assumption is that such an expression of regret would be insincere and simply a ruse in order to get a reduced punishment. (Why such expressions are not forbidden in modern criminal trials at the sentencing phase is incomprehensible).

Examining in detail the laws of property theft found in Leviticus, Unterman notes a stepwise restitution process with profound moral meaning:

True repentance requires that the wrongdoer not only confess his or her crime but must make restitution to the victim; repentance mitigates the penalty payable to the victim—from the value of the stolen object plus a 100-percent fine to the value of the stolen object plus a 20-percent fine; . . . a reparation offering is made by the perpetrator at the sanctuary. . . . The reparation offering was an ethical obligation, because in the Torah a crime against a human is a crime against God.

The restitution to the victim precedes the reparation offering at the sanctuary—therefore, compensation to the victim takes precedence over reparation to God! This . . . innovation reverses the sacrificial norm in the ancient world—that offerings to the deity take priority over the needs of humans. Only in the case of repentance in the Torah’s laws do obligations to humans—in the form of restitution to victims—delay the duty to God. For the first time in the ancient world, repentance as an act of social justice is perceived as required by God and sacrifice placed in a secondary position—even though that sacrifice is necessary. . . .

To put it differently, in the case of restitution as part of repentance, one’s ethical responsibility to one’s fellow human takes priority over one’s ethical responsibility to God.

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