Category Archives: Judaism


Letter to the President and Prime Minister of the Republic of Poland


Szmul Zygielbojm was born in a village in what is now Poland, then part of the Russian empire. At the age of 10, he left school and began working in a factory. As a young man, he became involved in the Jewish labor movement, and in 1924 he was elected to the Central Committee of the Bund in 1924. When Nazi Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Zygielbojm went to Warsaw to participate in the defense of the city. He volunteered to replace a woman who was also active in the labor movement as one of the 12 hostages the Nazi occupation demanded; the Nazis then made him a member of the Jewish Council, the Judenrat, which they had established in order to create the ghetto in Warsaw, a move that Zygielbojm opposed. Zygielbojm escaped from the country, and during the years 1940–1943, he traveled, trying to persuade the Allies of the Nazi threat to Polish Jews. Representatives of the English and American governments met in Bermuda on April 19, 1943, to discuss the situation of the Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe, but did nothing. At the same time, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising broke out and was definitively suppressed by the Nazis; Ziegelbojm’s wife and son were among the hundreds of thousands killed. Zygielbojm killed himself weeks later, on May 12, 1943, in protest against the Allied indifference to the evolving Holocaust.

Ziegelbojm’s suicide note, dated the day before his death, takes the form of a letter to the Polish president Wladyslaw Raczkiewicz and the Polish prime minister Wladyslaw Sikorski. Ziegelbojm explains the reason for his action; it is a brief but poignant and powerful account of suicide as protest.

Szmul Zygielbojm, “The Last Letter from Szmul Zygielbojm, The Bund Representative With the Polish National Council in Exile,” Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority. Available online from Yad Vashem.



May 11, 1943

To His Excellency
The President of the Republic of Poland
Wladyslaw Raczkiewicz
Prime Minister 
General Wladyslaw Sikorski

Mr. President,
Mr. Prime Minister,

I am taking the liberty of addressing to you, Sirs, these my last words, and through you to the Polish Government and the people of Poland, and to the governments and people of the Allies, and to the conscience of the whole world:

The latest news that has reached us from Poland makes it clear beyond any doubt that the Germans are now murdering the last remnants of the Jews in Poland with unbridled cruelty. Behind the walls of the ghetto the last act of this tragedy is now being played out.

The responsibility for the crime of the murder of the whole Jewish nationality in Poland rests first of all on those who are carrying it out, but indirectly it falls also upon the whole of humanity, on the peoples of the Allied nations and on their governments, who up to this day have not taken any real steps to halt this crime. by looking on passively upon this murder of defenseless millions — tortured children, women and men — they have become partners to the responsibility.

I am obliged to state that although the Polish Government contributed largely to the arousing of public opinion in the world, it still did not do enough. It did not do anything that was not routine, that might have been appropriate to the dimensions of the tragedy taking place in Poland.

Of close to 3.5 million Polish Jews and about 700,000 Jews who have been deported to Poland from other countries, there were, according to the official figures of the Bund transmitted by the Representative of the Government, only 300,000 still alive in April of this year. And the murder continues without end.

I cannot continue to live and to be silent while the remnants of Polish Jewry, whose representative I am, are being murdered. My comrades in the Warsaw ghetto fell with arms in their hands in the last heroic battle. I was not permitted to fall like them, together with them, but I belong with them, to their mass grave.

By my death, I wish to give expression to my most profound protest against the inaction in which the world watches and permits the destruction of the Jewish people.

I know that there is no great value to the life of a man, especially today. But since I did not succeed in achieving it in my lifetime, perhaps I shall be able by my death to contribute to the arousing from lethargy of those who could and must act in order that even now, perhaps at the last moment, the handful of Polish Jews who are still alive can be saved from certain destruction.

My life belongs to the Jewish people of Poland, and therefore I hand it over to them now. I yearn that the remnant that has remained of the millions of Polish Jews may live to see liberation together with the Polish masses, and that it shall be permitted to breathe freely in Poland and in a world of freedom and socialistic justice, in compensation for the inhuman suffering and torture inflicted on them. And I believe that such a Poland will arise and such a world will come about. I am certain that the President and the Prime Minister will send out these words of mine to all those to whom they are addressed, and that the Polish Government will embark immediately on diplomatic action and explanation of the situation, in order to save the living remnant of the Polish Jews from destruction.

I take leave of you with greetings, from everybody, and from everything that was dear to me and that I loved.

S. Zygielbojm

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from Bet Efrayim


Ephraim Zalman Margolioth, a Galician rabbi, was the author of many commentaries esteemed as authoritative within the Jewish tradition. He was born in Brody, Poland, Dec. 19, 1762, and began to distinguish himself as a Talmudic scholar at a young age. Before the age of 20, Margolioth was corresponding with the foremost scholars of Talmudic thought; in 1785, he was a appointed a rabbi of Brody. He eventually became head of his own yeshivah, or Talmudic academy, and mentored many pupils to their appointment as rabbis.

Among Margolioth’s many works is his collected responsa, Bet Efrayim (2 vols., 1809–10), including a commentary on the Yoreh De’ah. In its short passage concerning suicide, Margolioth makes several important points. First, in a discussion of the rites associated with suicides, he maintains that self-killing may constitute an act of repentance, in which case suicide is permitted. Second, he argues that Saul’s suicide [q.v., under Hebrew Bible] was licit because Saul, by killing himself, avoided a mocking death by torture at the hands of the Philistines and because it was prophesied that Saul would soon die. Margolioth also cites other sources that excuse suicides which result from indigence or grief and do not subject them to the law of suicides described in the Talmud [q.v. under Babylonian Talmud]. He appears to second the view that he cites from the Besamim Rosh that a “suicide is [only] someone who despises God’s good like the philosophers” and not someone with a good reason to despair.

Ephraim Zalman Margolioth, Bet Efrayim YD, 76, tr. Baruch Brody.


Since he did not say first, how do we know that he did it from spite. Perhaps he did it as an act of repentance, and all who commit suicide as an act of repentance have done a permissible act… We also find in Besamim Rosh, that was recently printed, that a suicide is someone who despises God’s good like the philosophers, but someone who says that my life is a burden on me because of my poverty is not a suicide. It is true that his proof from Saul is no proof, as Nachmanides and the other commentators explain. Saul knew that he was going to die because of the prophecy of Samuel, who told him that he and his sons would die. For a short period of time alone, it [killing oneself] is permitted, so that he would not be mocked. Nevertheless, he may be right… We certainly find in the Talmud many who committed suicide out of anguish. As in the case of the woman with her seven sons… It is implausible to say about her that she was afraid that she would be forced to sin, as Tosafot says about the children who jumped into the sea.

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from Ethics


Baruch Spinoza was a Dutch philosopher of Portuguese-Jewish descent, from a family that settled in Amsterdam to avoid religious persecution in Portugal. When Spinoza was six, his mother died; by the time he was in his early 20s, a sister and his father had also died. In his education, Spinoza studied Biblical and Talmudic texts and eventually mastered Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Hebrew, Latin, Greek, and German. Because of his questioning of traditional Jewish beliefs, in 1656, he was charged with atheism and was ostracized from his congregation, upon which he Christianized his name to Benedict. Four years later, Spinoza began work on the first book of his masterpiece, the Ethics, which was completed in 1675. During this time, Spinoza supported himself as a lens grinder, and it was glass dust, along with consumption, that killed him in 1677.

Along with Descartes and Leibniz, Spinoza was one of the most influential rationalists of the 17th century. In Ethics, he used a deductive method, much like Euclid’s, which inferred subsequent propositions from what he thought was a self-evident foundation of knowledge. The notations Definition, Demonstration, Scholia, Proposition, Corollary, and Q.E.D. (quod erat demonstrandum, or “that which was to be shown”) in the selection printed here are references to elements of this deductive system; the internal references in the text are to other sections of the work. Spinoza’s system begins with God as the foundation of all reality and develops into a monist metaphysics in which God, substance, and nature are all interchangeable entities. To understand the nature of reality, man must go beyond sensual and scientific knowledge to an intuition of reality. Spinoza’s moral philosophy stressed that by coming to have true knowledge and love of God, man could know and experience freedom from the constraints of his own passions.

Spinoza believed that death was a severance of body and mind that does not necessarily involve physical death. Because his criteria of personal identity include memory, amnesia may count as death as much as becoming a corpse. For Spinoza, immortality is impersonal and the cause of death is external; therefore, suicide is an illogical act. Reason demands that every person should love himself, should desire what leads him to greater perfection, and should endeavor to preserve his own life; this seeking after self-preservation is the principal basis of virtue. As Spinoza says in his famous dictum, “A free man thinks of nothing less than death, and his wisdom is not a meditation upon death but upon life.”


Benedict de Spinoza, Ethics, Part IV: Of Human Bondage, or the Strength of the Emotions, Prop. XVIII-XXII. Trans. R. H. M. Elwes, 1883.  Available online from Project Gutenberg, text release #3800.



PROP. XVIII.  Desire arising from pleasure is, other conditions being equal, stronger than desire arising from pain.

Proof.  Desire is the essence of a man (Def. of the Emotions, i.), that is, the endeavour whereby a man endeavours to persist in his own being.  Wherefore desire arising from pleasure is, by the fact of pleasure being felt, increased or helped; on the contrary, desire arising from pain is, by the fact of pain being felt, diminished or hindered; hence the force of desire arising from pleasure must be defined by human power together with the power of an external cause, whereas desire arising from pain must be defined by human power only.  Thus the former is the stronger of the two.  Q.E.D.

Note.  In these few remarks I have explained the causes of human infirmity and inconstancy, and shown why men do not abide by the precepts of reason.  It now remains for me to show what course is marked out for us by reason, which of the emotions are in harmony with the rules of human reason, and which of them are contrary thereto.  But, before I begin to prove my Propositions in detailed geometrical fashion, it is advisable to sketch them briefly in advance, so that everyone may more readily grasp my meaning.

As reason makes no demands contrary to nature, it demands, that every man should love himself, should seek that which is useful to him–I mean, that which is really useful to him, should desire everything which really brings man to greater perfection, and should, each for himself, endeavour as far as he can to preserve his own being.  This is as necessarily true, as that a whole is greater than its part.  (Cf. III. iv.)

Again, as virtue is nothing else but action in accordance with the laws of one’s own nature (IV. Def. viii.), and as no one endeavours to preserve his own being, except in accordance with the laws of his own nature, it follows, first, that the foundation of virtue is the endeavour to preserve one’s own being, and that happiness consists in man’s power of preserving his own being; secondly, that virtue is to be desired for its own sake, and that there is nothing more excellent or more useful to us, for the sake of which we should desire it; thirdly and lastly, that suicides are weak-minded, and are overcome by external causes repugnant to their nature.  Further, it follows from Postulate iv., Part II., that we can never arrive at doing without all external things for the preservation of our being or living, so as to have no relations with things which are outside ourselves.  Again, if we consider our mind, we see that our intellect would be more imperfect, if mind were alone, and could understand nothing besides itself.  There are, then, many things outside ourselves, which are useful to us, and are, therefore, to be desired.  Of such none can be discerned more excellent, than those which are in entire agreement with our nature.  For if, for example, two individuals of entirely the same nature are united, they form a combination twice as powerful as either of them singly.

Therefore, to man there is nothing more useful than man–nothing, I repeat, more excellent for preserving their being can be wished for by men, than that all should so in all points agree, that the minds and bodies of all should form, as it were, one single mind and one single body, and that all should, with one consent, as far as they are able, endeavour to preserve their being, and all with one consent seek what is useful to them all. Hence, men who are governed by reason–that is, who seek what is useful to them in accordance with reason, desire for themselves nothing, which they do not also desire for the rest of mankind, and, consequently, are just, faithful, and honourable in their conduct.

Such are the dictates of reason, which I purposed thus briefly to indicate, before beginning to prove them in greater detail.  I have taken this course, in order, if possible, to gain the attention of those who believe, that the principle that every man is bound to seek what is useful for himself is the foundation of impiety, rather than of piety and virtue.

Therefore, after briefly showing that the contrary is the case, I go on to prove it by the same method, as that whereby I have hitherto proceeded.

PROP. XIX.  Every man, by the laws of his nature, necessarily desires or shrinks from that which he deems to be good or bad.

Proof.  The knowledge of good and evil is (IV. viii.) the emotion of pleasure or pain, in so far as we are conscious thereof; therefore, every man necessarily desires what he thinks good, and shrinks from what he thinks bad.  Now this appetite is nothing else but man’s nature or essence (Cf. the Definition of Appetite, III. ix. note, and Def. of the Emotions, i.). Therefore, every man, solely by the laws of his nature, desires the one, and shrinks from the other, &c.  Q.E.D.

PROP. XX.  The more every man endeavours, and is able to seek what is useful to him–in other words, to preserve his own being–the more is he endowed with virtue; on the contrary, in proportion as a man neglects to seek what is useful to him, that is, to preserve his own being, he is wanting in power.

Proof.  Virtue is human power, which is defined solely by man’s essence (IV. Def. viii.), that is, which is defined solely by the endeavour made by man to persist in his own being. Wherefore, the more a man endeavours, and is able to preserve his own being, the more is he endowed with virtue, and, consequently (III. iv. and vi.), in so far as a man neglects to preserve his own being, he is wanting in power.  Q.E.D.

Note.  No one, therefore, neglects seeking his own good, or preserving his own being, unless he be overcome by causes external and foreign to his nature.  No one, I say, from the necessity of his own nature, or otherwise than under compulsion from external causes, shrinks from food, or kills himself: which latter may be done in a variety of ways.  A man, for instance, kills himself under the compulsion of another man, who twists round his right hand, wherewith he happened to have taken up a sword, and forces him to turn the blade against his own heart; or, again, he may be compelled, like Seneca, by a tyrant’s command, to open his own veins–that is, to escape a greater evil by incurring, a lesser; or, lastly, latent external causes may so disorder his imagination, and so affect his body, that it may assume a nature contrary to its former one, and whereof the idea cannot exist in the mind (III. x.). But that a man, from the necessity of his own nature, should endeavour to become non-existent, is as impossible as that something should be made out of nothing, as everyone will see for himself, after a little reflection.

PROP. XXI.  No one can desire to be blessed, to act rightly, and to live rightly, without at the same time wishing to be, act, and to live–in other words, to actually exist.

Proof.  The proof of this proposition, or rather the proposition itself, is self-evident, and is also plain from the definition of desire.  For the desire of living, acting, &c., blessedly or rightly, is (Def. of the Emotions, i.) the essence of man–that is (III. vii.), the endeavour made by everyone to preserve his own being.  Therefore, no one can desire, &c. Q.E.D.

PROP. XXII.  No virtue can be conceived as prior to this endeavour to preserve one’s own being.

Proof.  The effort for self-preservation is the essence of a thing (III. vii.); therefore, if any virtue could be conceived as prior thereto, the essence of a thing would have to be conceived as prior to itself, which is obviously absurd. Therefore no virtue, &c.  Q.E.D.

Corollary.  The effort for self-preservation is the first and only foundation of virtue.  For prior to this principle nothing can be conceived, and without it no virtue can be conceived.

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Yam shel Shelomoh On Bava Kamma 8:59


Solomon ben Jehiel Luria was a rabbi and author of several analytical discourses on the Talmud [q.v.] and its early commentaries. He was born in Brest-Litovsk, Lithuania, and was educated as a child by his grandfather, Rabbi Isaac Klauberia, in Poznan. After returning home and continuing his studies in 1535, Luria married and was made rabbi of Brest. In 1555, he became leader of Lublin’s celebrated yeshivah, or Talmudic academy. Luria, careful and methodical in his studies of Jewish law, said of himself, “I was painstaking always to trace the last source of the Halakah,” and his assiduous reliance on Jewish law and its sources was combined with a distrust of all forms of secular philosophy. Luria once told a friend and fellow scholar, Rabbi Moses Isserles, a student of classical philosophy, “You are turning to the wisdom of the uncircumcised Aristotle. Woe unto my eyes that they should see such a thing.” Luria’s many works include Hokmat Shelomoh (1582), a collection of analytical glosses on the Talmud, and Yam shel Shelomoh (1615), a study of several individual treatises of the Talmud. He died in Lublin on November 7, 1573, several years before his major commentaries were published.

Luria approaches the question of suicide in his commentary On Bava Kamma, dealing particularly with the authoritative tradition concerning the suicide of Saul in the Hebrew Bible [q.v.] and the story of Rabbi Chanina ben Tradyon’s martyrdom in Avodah Zarah [q.v., under Babylonian Talmud and under Tosafot]. Luria contributes interpretations of the prohibition of suicide, a prohibition that had long since become general within Judaism. Arguing that allowing or even encouraging others to kill themselves can in some circumtances be permissible; that even setting the house on fire is somehow akin to letting things happen rather than to direct self-killing; and that Saul’s suicide was permissible not because he sought to spare himself suffering, but rather to save the lives of many others. At the same time he draws a distinction between actively committing suicide and allowing oneself to be killed, concluding that the latter is allowable while the act of self-killing is prohibited, even in cases of torture and coercion to commit sin.

Solomon ben Jehiel Luria, Yam shel Shelomoh On Bava Kamma 8:59.  Tr. Baruch Brody.



It seems to me that even if one is captured by the idolators and he is afraid that they will torture him until he worships idols, he should not kill himself.  He should do his best to endure the tortures… One should let oneself be killed and not commit these sins, and this is not considered suicide, as Asheri says that it is not considered suicide when one allows himself to be killed [rather than commit idolatry].  But to kill himself is certainly prohibited.  And that is what we find in the case of Rabbi Chanina ben Tradyon… But he did ask others to hasten his death.

But if one is afraid that they will torture him because of other Jews, and many lives will be lost, as some rulers have forced one Jew to falsely testify against all the others so that afterwards many died, then he is permitted to kill himself.  And perhaps Saul thought of this when he fell on his sword.  He thought that if he was captured alive, they would mock him and torture him.  The children of Israel would not be able to see and hear the suffering of the king, and they would not think of their lives, but would avenge him and save him and many thousands would die… To save the lives of others it is permissible to kill oneself…

Nevertheless, one can set the house afire so that he and his children will be burned to death in a time of decrees [i.e., persecutions], and this is not considered suicide, but like letting oneself be killed, and this is permissible. Rabbi Chanina ben Tradyon also asked [the executioner] to hasten his death, but he would not do it himself by opening his mouth to allow in the fire, as this is literally committing suicide.

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(12-14th centuries)

On Avodah Zarah 18a
On the Torah: Concerning Genesis    Rabbah (Genesis 9:5)


Tosafot, meaning “additions,” refers to a body of explanatory and critical remarks made by a group of Talmudic scholars known as the tosafists, who wrote in France and Germany from the late 11th–12th through the 14th centuries, during the time of the Crusades, and while Spanish Jewry in the 14th and 15th centuries was subject to the Inquisition and the Expulsion. The first recorded tosafists, Meir ben Samuel of Ramerupt and Judah ben Nathan, were sons-in-law to the famous 11th-century Talmudic scholar Rashi; it is debated whether the Tosafot were written as direct commentary on the Talmud [q.v., under Babylonian Talmud] or as a supplement to Rashi’s commentary. Another of the first recorded tosafists, Rashi’s grandson Jacob ben Meir Tam, was the leading figure in the French school of Tosafot. Many schools of Tosafot followed in the next two centuries; the commentaries they produced were gathered together to form a significant contribution to rabbinic literature. They were intended for those well advanced in the study of Talmud, and their seeming simplicity presupposes extensive familiarity with a complex prior tradition.

Two tosafist selections are included in this volume. The first is a commentary on the description of the death of Rabbi Chanina ben Tradyon in Avodah Zarah, a tractate of the Babylonian Talmud [q.v.]. In the commentary, the tosafist states a general conclusion that despite Rabbi Chanina’s pronouncement that he should endure death by fire rather than “harming himself” {i.e., hastening his death by inhaling the flames}, it is proper to commit suicide to avoid sinning {i.e. apostasy} under great duress not only is such an act permissible, but in these circumstances, it ought to be done. The tosafist approvingly cites as precedent the suicides of the 400 boys and girls who drowned themselves to escape forced prostitution.

The second passage presented here is a 13th-century commentary from the Tosafot on the Torah [q.v., under Hebrew Bible], which reflects some of the arguments relating to the brief statements in Genesis Rabbah [q.v.] regarding the prohibition of suicide and some possible exceptions. In this passage, the tosafist raises questions about suicide and martyrdom, including opposing views about whether allowing oneself to be martyred or actively killing oneself in times of persecution are rightful acts. Some later commentators, such as Luria [q.v.] will argue no; others, like Margolioth [q.v.], appear to say yes, and the question raised here remains a pressing one throughout the later Jewish tradition.


Tosafot: On Avodah Zarah 18a, on Genesis 9:5. Trans. Baruch Brody.



R. Tam said: In those cases in which they are afraid that idolaters may force them to sin by tortures that they will not be able to withstand, then it is a mitzva to destroy themselves as in the case of the young people taken captive to be used as prostitutes who threw themselves into the sea.


This means that I might think that even people like they [Channanyah, Mishael, and Azaryah] who gave themselves to martyrdom could not kill themselves if they were afraid that they could not stand the test. “But” tells me that in times of persecution one can allow oneself to be killed and one can kill oneself. The same with Saul…And it is from here that those who killed the children in the time of persecution brought a proof [to justify their action]. Others prohibit the practice. They explain [the remarks of Breishit Rabbah] as follows; I might think that this prohibition applies even to Channanyah and his friends who are already sentenced to death. We are told otherwise by “but.” Even they, however, cannot kill themselves….Saul acted against normative opinion…There was one rabbi who killed many children in the time of persecution because he was afraid that they would be forcibly apostasized. A second rabbi who was with him was very angry and called him a murderer.  He [the first rabbi] paid no attention…Afterwards, the decree was lifted and if he had not killed the children, they would have lived.


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(c. 890-c. 960)

from The Book of Lighthouses and Watchtowers


Ya’qub al-Qirqisani was a biblical scholar and a recorder of religious and secular law, writing during a period in which Jewish life had been heavily influenced by the rise of Islam and the centralization of Muslim rule in the caliphate at Baghdad. Al-Qirqisani was a member of the Karaite sect, a Jewish group living in what is now Iran. The Karaites (“karah” comes from the same  root as “scripture”) differed from most Jewish communities by refusing to acknowledge the postbiblical tradition of canonical inclusions into the Talmud based on oral sources, the tradition known as that of the “Two Torahs.” Instead, in the view of Anan, the sect’s founder, oral law merely reflected the interpretations of various rabbis, not divine word. By not recognizing the oral law as one of the Two Torahs, the Karaites also challenged the Talmud, and some commentators have compared them to Protestant Christian reformers inasmuch as Anan and his disciples held, respectively, both that they had the right to confront the text directly and that they could interpret it themselves.

Al-Qirqisani was the most significant chronicler of the code of Karaite law, and in a chapter of his work Kitab al-Anwar wa’l-Maraqib (The Book of Lighthouses and Watchtowers), he approaches the issue of suicide not from a moral point of view, but exclusively from the point of view of legality according to Old Testament law. Based on the scriptural evidence that he cites in his argument, al-Qirqisani concludes that a person “may not commit suicide under any circumstances.”


Ya’qub al-Qirqisani, “On Suicide” from The Book of Lighthouses and Watchtowers, ed. and tr. Leon Nemoy, The Journal of Biblical Literature,  Philadelphia: vol. 57, no. 4, December 1938, pp. 414-420.


On Suicide

This is an outlandish subject, and scarcely any writer has anything to say about it.  The reason I am mentioning it is that I have seen that some people who pretend to be adherents of pure reason maintain that suicide is permissible and that he who kills himself will incur no punishment [in future life], inasmuch as he has caused harm to no one [else], but has merely injured his own self, which is his [own] property [to do with as he pleases].

I say, therefore, that there is no difference between him who kills himself and him who kills someone else.  Should someone ask, why do I say this, I would answer, because the Scripture says [Ex 20:13] “thou shalt not kill,” in a general way, without specifying one object [of killing] to the exclusion of another.  In the same manner the Lord has said to Noah [Gen 9:6] “He that sheddeth the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.” The command [to kill the shedder of blood] and the prohibition [of killing] having thus been given in a general way, we have no right to apply them to specific instances [only], or to make any exceptions, saving what God himself has excepted, either in the very place where He has prohibited [killing], or in another place.

But—the inquirer might continue—thou canst not deny that the expression “Thou shalt not kill” was intended to mean “Thou shalt not kill anyone else,” and that one’s own self is not included in this prohibition, just as the prohibition of destroying someone else’s property does not imply that one may not [lawfully] waste away one’s own possessions, since one is surely allowed to give away as much as he wishes of his own wealth, while at the same time one may not give away property belonging to someone else.  Similarily, one may seize a diham[‘s] or a dinar[‘s worth] of one’s own property, or more, and throw it away [if one is so minded], not withstanding that one may not waste as much as [the worth of] a grain of silver of someone else’s wealth.

There is also—the inquirer might continue—another way [of looking at the problem], to wit, the fact that the Scripture invariably speaks of things that customarily take place [in actual life].  Now it is not common for men to kill themselves, rather it is men’s custom to kill others, out of covetousness, fear, or [a desire for] relief [from oppression].  The prohibition of killing must, therefore, have been issued in this direction; and as for a man killing himself, this is not embraced by the prohibition, since it is an uncommon occurrence and is outside of the [three] varieties of [contributory causes for] killing mentioned above.  Moreover, the Scriptural dicta “He that sheddeth the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed,” and [Lev 24:21] “He that striketh a man [to death], let him be put to death,” are [evidently] explanatory to “Thou shalt not kill,” meaning that it is forbidden to kill him whose murder can possibly be avenged by putting the killer to death [in retaliation] for the victim.  Whereas, when a man kills himself, no one else can possibly be held to account for it, nor can the suicide’s blood be required, or retaliation demanded, of anyone; this, therefore, does not enter into the prohibition.  A further proof of this assertion is the verse [Num 35:33] “And the earth shall not be cleansed of the blood that hath been spilled upon it, save by the blood of him who had spilled it,” which shows that the [kind of] killing which is forbidden and of which the earth cannot be cleansed is that of spilling [another man’s blood], whereas it is within the realm of possibility to spill the blood of the spiller.  Consequently, inasmuch as when a man kills himself it is impossible to spill another blood in retaliation for the spilling of his blood, the earth remains free of blame for his blood, and [it follows that] the [kind of] killing which is forbidden is that which renders it possible to spill the blood of the murderer.

The answer to this is as follows: Granting that all these dicta were uttered with reference to him who kills someone else, [the fact remains that] since the command “Thou shalt not kill” is a general one, I have no right to turn it into a specific one, unless I have proof which makes it specific and shows clearly that suicide is permissible.  Now inasmuch as I find nothing of the kind, and perceive no proof of the permissibility of suicide, the prohibition must remain in the state of generality, rendering suicide unlawful and making no distinction between it and murder of someone else.  Moreover, I see that the Scripture says [Ez 33:4] “If the listener should hear the sound of the trumpet and take no precaution, and the sword should come and take him away, his blood shall be upon his [own] head,” meaning that if one is warned of the sword, but uses no caution and is consequently killed, his blood is upon his own head.  Now the latter expression is the same as the one used in the verse [Jos 2:19] “And it shall be that whosoever shall issue from the doors of thine house into the outside, his blood [shall be] responsible for his own blood, which proves that a man may be held accountable for his own blood, but since retribution cannot possibly be visited upon him in this world, the intention must be that he shall be called to account for it in the next.  It is evident, therefore, that suicide is unlawful, and that the suicide is no different from the murderer.

Nevertheless—the inquirer might continue—all my foregoing arguments have shown that the Scriptural command “Thou shalt not kill” is a specific one, and does not cover suicide.  However, I shall [disregard it for the moment and shall] add another argument, to wit: the Scripture says [Lev 25:17] “Do ye not cheat one another,” forbidding fraud; and further [Deut 22:3] “And thus shalt thou do with what thy brother hath lost;” and also [ibid. 22:4] “thou mayest not ingnore,” all these making it unlawful for a man to ignore [his brother’s property] that has gone astray and has been lost.  Nevertheless, I cannot deduce therefrom that it is unlawful for a man to defraud himself for the benefit of someone else by accepting from him a small amount [of merchandise] than that which he had bought, or a lesser prices than that for which he ought to sell, just because it is unlawful for him to defraud someone else in his dealings with him.  In a similar fashion, it is not unlawful for a man to ignore that of his own property which he has dropped or has [otherwise] lost, and refrain from searching for it; by the same token, he ought not to be forbidden to take his own life, just because it is unlawful for him to take the life of someone else.  As for the injunctions “His blood [shall be] upon his [own] head” and “His blood shall be upon his [own] head,” they do not signify that he shall be held accountable for his own blood, but rather that inasmuch as he had not guarded his own life, notwithstanding the sentry’s warning, no one else shall be held responsible for his death, and his blood shall remain unavenged, since he himself was the cause of his own perdition.  And in fact, after the phrase “His blood [shall be] upon his [own] head” the Scripture goes on to say “And we shall be free of guilt,” explaining thereby that whosoever of them shall issue from the gate shall be [regarded as] one who has taken his own life, they being clear of all responsibility for his blood.

Furthermore, we see that [king] Saul has indeed committed suicide, without drawing upon himself the Scripture’s condemnation for it, which manifestly proves the truth of what we have said.

The answer to all this is as follows: As for the Scripture’s failure to condemn Saul for taking his own life, that is not proof whatsoever, for Saul had committed other sins without being condemned by the Scripture for them. Rather did the Scripture ascribe his peridition to [only] two of his [many] transgressions, to wity, [I Chr 10:13] “For the Lord’s command which he hath not observed,” referring to the affair of the Amalekites, and [loc. Cit.] “As well as inquiring of the soothsayer and seeking [guidance from him].” It mentions [in this connection] neither his assassination of the Gibeonites, nor his killing of the priests, nor his seeking the life of David, so that even if it were certain that he is free of sin in the matter of his suicide, this would not prove that all suicides are free of guilt. For, as a matter of fact, Saul killed himself because he knew that he was doomed to die anyway, but fearing that his enemies might torture him he chose to take his own life before his enemies would [be able to] take it, or inflict upon him that which is worse than death, and that is the [true] reason for his suicide having been held free of blame.

As for the verse “Do ye not cheat one another” and the passage concerning lost property, both of these have been bound up with specific things, to wit: “Do ye not cheat one” is followed by [the specifying word] “another,” so as not to make the command a general one; likewise, the injunction regarding lost property has not been left in an indefinite form, but has been made specific by means of the expression “thy brother”; as a result, both regulations forbid the [respective] actions [only] as applied to someone other than thyself.  In the matter of killing, however, the case is different, for the injunction there is a broad and general one, and has not been restricted to those other than thyself, as has been done in the preceding examples.  The prohibition “Thou shalt not kill” covers everyone, thyself as well as others than thyself.

As for the passage “His blood [shall be] upon his [own] head,” it is followed by “But whosoever shall be with thee within thine house, his blood [shall be] upon us,” stating [clearly] that should anyone be killed within [Rahab’s] house, they [the Israelite spies] would accept responsibility for it, in accordance with their oath.  We are to conclude therefrom that the foregoing “Whosoever shall issue from the doors of thine house, his blood shall be upon his [own] head” implies that such a person having been killed, is to be held accountable for his own blood.

Another proof—to continue our reply—that suicide is forbidden is that fact, discussed in a foregoing chapter of our work, that if a man seeks the life of another man, the pursued is permitted to kill the pursuer [as a matter of self-defense].  Were the killing of another man [the only kind of killing that is] forbidden, while suicide were permitted, it would have been unlawful for me to save him whose killing is permissible [meaning myself] by assassinating him whose killing is [otherwise] forbidden [meaning my pursuer].  Therefore, since the Scripture has permitted me to kill another man in order to preserve my [own] life [against his murderous designs], it is evident that the duty to save my [own] life and keep it from being lost is greater than the duty to refrain from killing someone else.

Another proof are the Scriptural statements regarding people who in times of famine took to eating their [own] children, e.g. [Thr (Lamentations) 4:10] “The hands of merciful women have cooked [the flesh of] their [own] children.”  Should someone retort that this took place only after the children had died of starvation, he will have to be confronted with the story of the two women, one of whom accused the other before [king] Jehoram, saying [II Kings 6:29] “And she had concealed her son.”  The [primary] source of these [accounts] is the Scriptural curse [Deut 28:53] “Thou shalt eat the fruit of thine [own] belly,” and if anyone should claim that this does not imply that it is permitted, but is rather a statement of the same nature as [Deut 4:28] “And you shall worship there gods fashioned by human hands,” his claim would be void, because the latter is a [simple] statement of their actions and their deliberate choice of evil [deeds], whereas “Thou shalt eat the fruit of thine [own] belly” is a forecast of the trials which are to fall upon them and the dire necessity which is to force them to [do] such [awful things].  For it is said [Deut 28:56] “Even the tender and delicate woman amongst thee,” and the rest of the story, to the effect that there shall befall them such calamity, [such] want and destitution, that [even] tender and delicate women will be driven to eat their [own] afterbirths and their [own] newly-born children, yea, even while the children are yet alive.

Another proof is that we find that some of the saintly Patriarchs, e.g. Job, Elijah and Jonah, have, on particular occasions, wished for death and have besought God, in time of [great] affliction, to grant it to them. Had they been permitted to take their own lives, they would have proceeded quickly to do so, and would have had no need to ask [God] for death.  Yet Job says [Job 3:21] “Those who wait for death, and yet it cometh not; who would dig for it more [eagerly] than for hidden treasures,” and further [ibid. 3:22] “They that rejoice at finding a grave.” This is an [especially] strong [piece of] evidence, showing that a man may not kill himself, any more than he may kill someone else, there being no difference between the two [cases].

At this point one may ask: If it is unlawful for a man to take his own life, on the ground of the verse “Thou shalt not kill,” suppose he had committed a crime calling for capital punishment, is he permitted in such a case to commit suicide for that [particular] reason?  For the Scripture, in saying [Ex 23:7] “Kill not the innocent and righteous,” forbids only the assassination of those free of crime or wrongdoing, and you [yourself] have said that he who kills a man who deserves killing is free of responsibility for it, even if this had happened without a judge[‘s authorization] and in the absence of witnesses [as required for a legal execution, but had taken place privately in the way of self-defense].  Moreover, the Scripture itself requires the execution of the murderer, the adulterer and the profaner of the Sabbath; therefore, if a man has committed one of these [capital] crimes, admit then that he may lawfully take his own life.

Our answer to this is as follows: If the one who kills himself for the sake of his [grave] sin and his disobedience [to God’s commands] does so solely in order to seek God[‘s forgiveness] and to undo that which he has wrought, there is [at his disposal] that which is more efficacious than suicide and which might undo many [capital] sins, to wit, repentance, for his suicide merely wipes out one of his sins, whereas repentance would undo all of them.  This being so, it is many degrees better for him to preserve his life in order to repent and come back to God, rather than take his own life, for by remaining alive it is within his power to perform various good deeds, such as would make his repentance doubly beneficial.  Suicide, on the other had, can perform nothing of the sort.  It is [clear], therefore, that he may not commit suicide under any circumstances.

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(compiled 3rd-5th century)

Commentary on Genesis 9:5


Because of its age and significance, the expository commentary on the book of Genesis [q.v., under Hebrew Bible] Bereshit Rabbah, commonly known in English as Genesis Rabbah, is considered to be of primary position in the Midrash, a collection of scriptural exegesis and commentary that is part of the larger body of rabbinic literature. The Talmudic literature, including the Mishnah and the Babylonian [q.v.] and Palestinian Talmuds, along with the midrashic commentaries like Genesis Rabbah, forms the primary written authority for Jewish civil and religious law.

The midrashic writings of the rabbinic literature are a collection of biblical exegesis divisible into two main categories: the Midrash Aggadah, or exegesis with a didactic or edifying purpose, and the Midrash Halakha, or exegesis with the purpose of establishing law. The word “midrash” means “to study” or “to investigate,” and it is used to signal works of expository exegesis, either didactic or legal, from different periods of time.

The midrash Genesis Rabbah is attributed by tradition to the rabbinic teacher R. Hoshaiah, who lived in Palestine during the 3rd century a.d. However, there is evidence of numerous later additions to the work, and it is probable that the text was not fixed for several centuries after its original composition. Genesis Rabbah is of primary importance in the midrashim, and the biblical commentary it includes has exerted a significant influence on subsequent exegesis and Jewish law.

In Genesis Rabbah, the text of Genesis is explicated in an unbroken sequence, verse by verse, except for the genealogies and a few repetitious passages, which are omitted. The commentary on Genesis 9:5 presented here—just a few short sentences—is of signal importance in Jewish theology and law because it “creatively,” as Noam Zohar puts it, finds in this passage the basis for the prohibition of suicide. The commentary defines suicide as a form of murder. However, the fact that the verse is prefaced by “but” or “yet”(omitted in most translations) is taken, following midrashic practice, to signify that the prohibition may also allow for exceptions applies, as in cases like that of Saul, who first asked his armor-bearer to kill him and then fell on his sword to avoid capture and torture by the Philistines, and in cases like those of Chananyah, Mishael, and Azaryah (often called by their foreign names, Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego) in the Book of Daniel, where they choose to die in the fiery furnace rather than worship Nebuchadnezzar’s idol. No explicit reason is given for such exceptions, though the distinction may refer to the motive for choosing death, rather than the causal manner of bringing it about. Nevertheless, the passage has been of signal importance in Jewish thought, serving to differentiate martyrs from suicides; whether martyrs may actively kill themselves would later be hotly debated in medieval Judaism.


Genesis Rabbah, tr. Baruch Brody. Material in introduction from Noam Zohar and Daniel J.H. Greenwood.



This [prohibition of murder (in Genesis 9:5, “for your life-blood I shall demand satisfaction,”)] includes the person who strangles himself. I might think it applies in the case like that of Saul. The verse says “but.” I might think that it applies to Chananyah, Mishael, and Azaryah. The verse says “but.”

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(37-c. 100)

from The Jewish War
   The Defeat at Jotapata
   The Fall of Masada


Originally born Joseph ben Matthias in Jerusalem, Titus Flavius Josephus was a Jewish military commander and then historian. He was of priestly and royal descent, educated in both Hebrew and Greek literature. At age 16, he went into the desert, staying with the hermit Bannus; after this, he joined the Pharisees, and in 66 A.D., he reluctantly (or so he claims) took part in the Jewish revolt against Rome. After the Roman siege of Jotapata, Josephus, who as governor of Galilee led its defense, was captured and imprisoned in a Roman camp. He was later freed by the emperor Vespasian and became a Roman citizen. Adopting the Vespasian family name of Flavius, Josephus endeavored to act as a mediator between the Romans and the Jews during the assault on Jerusalem by Titus in the year 70. His attempts at mediation were unsuccessful, as he was distrusted by both the Jews as a traitor and the Romans for being a Jew. Jerusalem was besieged and destroyed by the Roman legions. Josephus returned to Rome where, with imperial patronage, he dedicated himself to writing until his death, sometime between 93 and 100 A.D..

Josephus wrote several works including the Antiquities of the Jews (c. 94; a history of the Jewish people from the Creation to 66 A.D., in 20 books), an Autobiography (c. 99), and Against Apion (c. 97; a defense of the Jewish people and their religion), but he is perhaps best known for his historical account of the Jewish revolt against Rome, The Jewish War (75–79). Much of the account of the revolt is taken from Josephus’ firsthand experiences. The influence of his Hebrew and Greek education, and of his Greek assistants, is also evident in its pages. Perhaps in an effort to defend himself against charges of treason, Josephus paints the Jews as their own worst enemies for being unwilling to bow to Roman might. While Josephus’ historical writings suffer from inaccuracy and frequent exaggeration, and while the details of matters affecting himself, as in the accounts of suicide presented here, may be particularly unreliable—probably at least in part a fabrication designed to please his Roman masters—they nevertheless provide a direct look at the relationship between the Jews and the secular Roman world.

The first of the two selections from The Jewish War is an account of the siege of the fortress of Jotapata. Josephus, the military leader at the fortress, successfully held off a Roman assault for 47 days, but the city fell to Vespasian on July 20, 67. Josephus hid for safety in a cave with 40 other Jews. When discovered by the Romans three days later, Josephus was on the point of surrendering, but his companions urged him to die rather than do so: “we will lend you a right hand and a sword.” Josephus tried to persuade them of the wrongness of suicide; his discourse is presented here, replete with Greek arguments against suicide. He alludes to the Athenian law that the hand of a suicide was to be cut off and buried separately and to a variation of the Pythagorean argument used by Plato that man is the property of God and should not “fly from the best of masters.” He also anticipates a natural-law argument later used by Thomas Aquinas that everything seeks to keep itself in being. Nevertheless, Josephus’ companions insisted on death. Josephus quickly devised a plan whereby each surrendered his throat to one before him, and Josephus, one of the last two in line, escaped.

The second selection is Josephus’ account of the siege of the fortress of Masada. After the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., the fortress—built in a seemingly impregnable position at the top of a massive rock promontory on the western shore of the Dead Sea—became one of the last outposts for the Jewish nationalists known as the Zealots. On May 2, 73, during a major offensive by the Roman army, 960 Zealot revolutionaries under the command of Eleazar chose to commit mass suicide rather than to yield to the Roman attack. Eleazar’s arguments favoring suicide are counterparts to those Josephus had used against it: voluntary death gives liberty to the soul; it preserves honor and protects the pride of the Jewish nation; it spares one’s family and oneself from slavery and torture if captured. Incited by Eleazar, each husband killed his wife and children and was then killed by the next man in line; the last man willingly killed himself. Only two women and five children, hiding in the underground aqueducts, survived to tell the tale.


Josephus, The Jewish War, tr. H. St. J. Thackeray, London: William Heinemann; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1927,  Vol. 2 (I-III), 1927;  Vol. 3 (IV-V), 1928, odd-numbered pp. Vol. 2, 665-689, Vol. 3, 591-619. Book III: The Defeat at Jotapata; Book VII: The Fall of Masada.


The Defeat at Jotapata

Meanwhile the defenders of Jotapata were still holding out and beyond all expectation bearing up under their miseries, when on the forty-seventh day of the siege the earthworks of the Romans overtopped the wall. That same day a deserter reported to Vespasian the reduced numbers and strength of the defence, and that, worn out with perpetual watching and continuous fighting, they would be unable longer to resist a vigorous assault and might be taken by stratagem, if the attempt were made. He stated that about the last watch of the night-• an hour when they expected some respite from their sufferings and when jaded men easily succumb to morning slumber -the sentinels used to drop asleep; and that was the hour when he advised the Romans to attack. Vespasian, knowing the Jews’ loyalty to each other and their indifference to chastisement, regarded the deserter with suspicion. For on a former occasion a man of Jotapata who .had been taken prisoner had held out under every variety of torture, and, without betraying to the enemy a word about the state of the town, even under the ordeal of fire, was finally crucified, meeting death with a smile. However, the probability of his account lent credit to the traitor; and so, thinking that the man might be speaking the truth, and that, even if his story were a trap, no serious risk would be run by acting upon it, Vespasian ordered him into custody and made ready his army for the capture of the city.

At the hour named they advanced in silence to the walls. The first to mount them was Titus, with one of the tribunes, Domitius Sabinus, followed by a few men of the fifteenth legion. They cut down the sentries and entered the city.  Behind them came Sextus Calvarius, a tribune and Placidus, with the troops under their command. The citadel had actually been taken, the enemy was ranging through the heart of the town, and it was now broad daylight, before the vanquished ‘inhabitants were aware of the capture. Most of them were worn out with fatigue and asleep, and if any awoke, a thick mist, which happened at the time to envelop the city, obscured their vision. At length, when the whole army had poured in, they started up, but only to realize their calamity; the blade at their throat brought home to them that Jotapata was taken.

The Romans, remembering what they had borne during the siege, showed no quarter or pity for any, but thrust the people down the steep slope from the citadel in a general massacre. Even those still able to fight here found themselves deprived of the means of defence by the difficulties of the ground: crushed in the narrow alleys and slipping down the declivity, they were engulfed in ‘ the wave of carnage that streamed from the citadel. The situation even drove many of Josephus’s picked’ men to suicide; seeing themselves powerless to kill a single Roman, they could at least forestall death at Roman hands, and, retiring in a body to the outskirts of the town, they there put an end to themselves .

Those soldiers of the guard who, the moment it was known that the town was taken, had succeeded in escaping, took refuge in one of the northern towers, where for some time they held their own; but, being surrounded by large numbers of the enemy, they at length surrendered and cheerfully extended their throats to their assailants. The Romans might have boasted that this last phase of the siege had cost them no loss of life, had not one of them, the centurion Antonius, fallen when the town was captured. He was killed by treachery. One of the many fugitives who had taken refuge in the caverns besought Antonius to extend his hand to him, as a pledge of protection and to assist him to rise; the centurion incautiously complied, whereupon the Jew from below instantly stabbed him with his spear beneath the groin, and killed him on the spot.

On that day the Romans massacred all who showed themselves; on the ensuing days they searched the hiding-places and wreaked their vengeance on those who had sought refuge in subterranean vaults and caverns, sparing none, whatever their age, save infants and women. The prisoners thus collected were twelve hundred; the total number of the dead, whether killed in the final assault or in the previous combats, was computed at forty thousand. Vespasian ordered the city to be razed and had all its forts burnt to the ground. Thus was Jotapata taken in the thirteenth year of the principate of Nero, on the new moon of Panemus.

A search for Josephus was then instituted by the Romans, to satisfy both their own resentment and the keen desire of their general, who considered that the issue of the war depended largely on his capture. So the bodies of the slain and the men in hiding were closely examined. But Josephus, when the city was on the point of being taken, aided by some divine providence, had succeeded in stealing away from the midst of the enemy and plunged into a deep pit, giving access on one side to a broad cavern, invisible to those above. There he found forty persons of distinction in hiding, with a supply of provisions sufficient to last for a considerable time. During the day he lay hid, as the enemy were in occupation of every quarter of the town, but at night he would come up and look for some loophole for escape and reconnoitre the sentries; but, finding every spot guarded on his account and no means of eluding detection, he descended again into the cave. So for two days he continued in hiding. On the third, his secret was betrayed by a woman of the party, who was captured; whereupon Vespasian at once eagerly sent two tribunes, Paulinus and Gallicanus, with orders to offer Josephus security and to urge him to come up.

On reaching the spot they pressed him to do so and pledged themselves for his safety, but failed to persuade him. His suspicions were based not on the humane character of the envoys, but on the consciousness of all he had done and the feeling that he must suffer proportionately. The presentiment that he was being summoned to punishment persisted, until Vespasian sent a third messenger, the tribune Nicanor, an old acquaintance .and friend of Josephus. He, on his arrival, dwelt on the innate generosity of the Romans to those whom they had once subdued; assuring him that his valour made him an object rather of admiration, than of hatred, to the commanding officers, and that the general was anxious to bring him up from his retreat, not for punishment – that he could inflict though he refused to come forth – but from a desire to save a brave man. He added that Vespasian, had he intended to entrap him, would never have sent him one of his friends, thus using the fairest of virtues, friendship, as a cloak for the foulest of crimes, perfidy; nor would he himself have consented to come in order to deceive a friend.

While Josephus was still hesitating, even after Nicanor’s assurances, the soldiers in their rage attempted to set fire to the cave, but were restrained by their commander, who was anxious to take the Jewish general alive. But as Nicanor was urgently pressing his proposals and Josephus overheard the threats of the hostile crowd, suddenly there came back into his mind those nightly dreams, in which God had foretold to him the impending fate of the Jews and the destinies of the Roman sovereigns. He was an interpreter of dreams and skilled in divining the meaning of ambiguous utterances of the Deity; a priest himself arid of priestly descent, he was not ignorant of the prophecies in the sacred books. At that hour he was inspired to read their meaning, and recalling the .dreadful images of his recent dreams, he offered up a silent prayer to God. “Since it pleases thee,” so it ran, “who didst create the Jewish nation, to break thy work, since fortune has wholly passed to the Romans, and since thou hast made choice of my spirit to announce the things that are to come, I willingly surrender to the Romans and consent to live; but I take thee to witness that I go, not as a traitor, but as thy minister.”

With these words he was about to surrender to Nicanor. But when the Jews who shared his retreat understood that Josephus was yielding to entreaty, they came round him in a body, crying out, “Ah ! well might the laws of our fathers groan aloud and God Himself hide His face for grief – God who implanted in Jewish breasts souls that scorn death! Is life so dear to you, Josephus, that you can endure to see the light in slavery? How soon have you forgotten yourself! How many have you persuaded to die for liberty! False, then, was that reputation for bravery, false that fame for sagacity, if you can hope for pardon from those whom you have fought so bitterly, or, supposing that they grant it, can deign to accept your life at their hands. Nay, if the fortune of the Romans has cast over you some strange forgetfulness of yourself, the care of our country’s honour devolves on us. We will lend you a right hand and a sword. If you meet death willingly, you will have died as general of the Jews; if unwillingly, as a traitor.” With these words they pointed their swords at him and threatened to kill him if he surrendered to the Romans.

Josephus, fearing an assault, and holding that it would be a betrayal of God’s commands, should he die before delivering his message, proceeded, in this emergency, to reason philosophically with them. “Why, comrades,” said he, “this thirst for our own blood? Why set asunder such fond companions as soul and body? One says that I am changed: well, the Romans know the truth about that. Another says, “It is honourable to die in war’: yes, but according to the law of war, that is to say by the hand of the conqueror. “Were I now flinching from the sword of the Romans, I should assuredly deserve to perish by my own sword and my own hand; but if they are moved to spare an enemy, how much stronger reason have we to spare ourselves? It would surely be folly to inflict on ourselves treatment which we seek to avoid by our quarrel with them. “It is honourable to die for liberty,’ says another: I concur, but on condition that one dies fighting, by the hands of those who would rob us of it. But now they are neither coming to fight us nor to take our lives. It is equally cowardly not to wish to die when one ought to do so, and to wish to die when one ought not.. What is it we fear that prevents us from surrendering to the Romans? Is it not death? And shall we then inflict up an ourselves certain death, to avoid an uncertain death, which we fear, at the hands of our foes?  “No, it is slavery we fear,” I shall be told. Much liberty we enjoy at present! “It is noble to destroy oneself,” another will say. Not so, I retort, but most ignoble; in my opinion there could be no more arrant coward than the pilot who, for fear of a tempest, deliberately sinks his ship before the storm. “No; suicide is alike repugnant to that nature which all creatures share, and an act of impiety towards God who created us. Among the animals there is not one that deliberately seeks death or kills itself; so firmly rooted in all is nature’s law – the will to live. That is why we account as enemies those who would openly take our lives and punish as assassins those who clandestinely attempt to do so. And God – think you not that He is indignant when man treats His gift with scorn? For it is from Him that we have received our being, and it is to Him that we should leave the decision to take it away. All of us, it is true, have mortal bodies, composed of perishable matter, but the soul lives forever, immortal: it is a portion of the Deity housed in our bodies. If, then, one who makes away with or misapplies a deposit entrusted to him by a fellow-man is reckoned a perjured villain, how can he who casts out from his own body the deposit which God has placed there, hope to elude Him whom he has thus wronged? It is considered right to punish a fugitive slave, even though the master he leaves be a scoundrel; and shall we fly from the best of masters, from God Himself, and not be deemed impious? Know you not that they who depart this life in accordance with the law of nature and repay the loan which they received from God, when He who lent is pleased to reclaim it, win eternal renown; that their houses and families are secure; that their souls, remaining spotless and obedient, are allotted the most holy place in heaven, whence, in the revolution of the ages, they return to find in chaste bodies a new habitation? But as for those who have laid mad hands upon themselves, the darker regions of the nether world receive their souls, and God, their father, visits upon their posterity the outrageous acts of the parents. That is why this crime, so hateful to God, is punished also by the sagest of legislators. With us it is ordained that the body of a suicide should be exposed unburied until sunset, although it is thought right to bury even our enemies slain in war. In other nations the law requires that a suicide’s right hand, with which he made war on himself, should be cut off, holding that, as the body was unnaturally severed from the soul, so the hand should be severed from the body.

“We shall do well then, comrades, to listen to reason and not to add to our human calamities the crime of impiety towards our creator. If our lives are offered us, let us live: there is nothing dishonourable in accepting this offer from those who have had so many proofs of our valour; if they think fit to kill us, death at the hands of our conquerors is honourable. But, for my part, I shall never pass over to the enemy’s ranks, to prove a traitor to myself; I should indeed then be far more senseless than deserters who go over to the enemy for safety, whereas I should be going to destruction – my own destruction. I pray, however, that the Romans may prove faithless; if, after pledging their word, they put me to death, I shall die content, for I shall carry with me the consolation, better than a victory, that their triumph has been sullied by perjury.”

By these and many similar arguments Josephus sought to deter his companions from suicide. But desperation stopped their ears, for they had long since devoted themselves to death; they were, therefore, infuriated at him, and ran at him from this side and that, sword in hand, upbraiding him as a coward, each one seeming on the point of striking him. But he, addressing one by name, fixing his general’s eye of command upon another, clasping the hand of a third, shaming a fourth by entreaty, and torn by all manner of emotions at this critical moment, succeeded in warding off from his throat the blades of all, turning like a wild beast surrounded by the hunters to face his successive assailants . Even in his extremity, they still held their general in reverence; their hands were powerless, their swords glanced aside, and many, in the act of thrusting at him, spontaneously dropped their weapons. But, in his straits, his resource did not forsake him. Trusting to God’s protection, he put his life to the hazard, and said: “Since we are resolved to die, come, let us leave the lot to decide the order in which we are to kill ourselves; let him who draws the first lot fall by the hand of him who comes next; fortune will thus take her course through the whole number, and we shall be spared from taking our lives with our own hands. For it would be unjust that, when the rest were gone, any should repent and escape.” This proposal inspired confidence; his advice was taken, and he drew lots with the rest. Each man thus selected presented his throat to his neighbor in the assurance that his general was forthwith to share his fate; for sweeter to them than life was the thought of death with Josephus. He, however (should one say by fortune or by the providence of God?), was left alone with one other; and, anxious neither to be condemned by the lot nor, should he be left to the last, to stain his hand with the blood of a fellow-countryman, he persuaded this man also, under a pledge, to remain alive.

Having thus survived both the war with the Romans and that with his own friends, Josephus was brought by Nicanor into Vespasian’s presence. The Romans all flocked to see him, and from the multitude crowding around the general arose a hubbub of discordant voices: some exulting at his capture, some threatening, some pushing forward to obtain a nearer view. The more distant spectators clamoured for the punishment of their enemy, but those close beside him recalled his exploits and marvelled at such a reversal of fortune. Of the officers there was not one who, whatever his past resentment, did not then relent at the sight of him. Titus in particular was specially touched by the fortitude of Josephus under misfortunes and by pity for his youth. As he recalled the combatant of yesterday and saw him now a prisoner in his enemy’s hands, he was led to reflect on the power of fortune, the quick vicissitudes of war, and the general instability of human affairs. So he brought over many Romans at the time to share his compassion for Josephus, and his pleading with his father was the main influence in saving the prisoner’s life.


The Fall of Masada

The Roman general [Silva] having now completed his wall surrounding the whole exterior of the place [Masada] and taken the strictest precautions that none should escape, applied himself to the siege. He had discovered only one spot capable of supporting earthworks. For in rear of the tower which barred the road leading from the west to the palace and the ridge, was a projection of rock, of considerable breadth and jutting far out, but still three hundred cubits below the elevation of Masada; it was called Leuce. Silva, having accordingly ascended and occupied this eminence, ordered his troops to throw up an embankment. Working with a will and a multitude of hands, they raised a solid bank to the height of two hundred cubits, This, however, being still considered of insufficient stability and extent as an emplacement for the engines, on top of it was constructed a platform of great stones fitted closely together, fifty cubits broad and as many high. The engines in general were similarly constructed to those first devised by Vespasian and afterwards by Titus for their siege operations; in addition a sixty-cubit tower was constructed entirely cased in iron, from which the Romans by volleys of missiles from numerous quick-firers and ballistae quickly beat off the defenders on the ramparts and prevented them from showing themselves. Simultaneously, Silva, having further provided himself with a great battering-ram, ordered it to be directed without intermission against the wall, and having, though with difficulty, succeeded in effecting a breach, brought it down in ruins. The Sicarii, however, had already hastily built up another wall inside, which was not likely to meet with a similar fate from the engines; for it was pliable and calculated to break the force of the impact, having been constructed as follows. Great beams were laid lengthwise and contiguous and joined at the extremities; of these there were two parallel rows a wall’s breadth apart, and the intermediate space was filled with earth. Further, to prevent the soil from dispersing as the mound rose, they clamped, by other transverse beams, those laid longitudinally. The work thus presented to the enemy the appearance of masonry, but the blows of the engines were weakened, battering upon a yielding material which, as it settled down under the concussion, they merely served to solidify. Observing this, Silva, thinking it easier to destroy this wall by fire, ordered his soldiers to hurl at it showers of burning torches. Being mainly made of wood, it quickly caught fire, and, from its hollow nature becoming ignited right through blazed up in a volume of flame. At the first outbreak of the fire, a north wind which blew in the faces of the Romans caused them an alarm; for, diverting the flame from above, it drove it against them, and the fear that all their engines would be burnt up had almost reduced them to despair. Then suddenly the wind veering, as if by divine providence, to the south and blowing with full force in the opposite direction, wafted and flung the flames against the wall, which now through and through was all ablaze. The Romans, thus blessed by God’s aid, returned rejoicing to their camp, with the determination of attacking the enemy on the morrow; and throughout that night they kept stricter watch lest any of them should secretly escape.

However, neither did Eleazar himself contemplate flight, nor did he intend to permit any other to do so. Seeing the wall consuming in the flames, unable to devise any further means of deliverance or gallant endeavour, and setting before his eyes what the Romans, if victorious, would inflict on them, their children and their wives, he deliberated on the death of all. And, judging, as matters stood, this course the best, he assembled the most doughty of his comrades and incited them to the deed by such words as these:

“Long since, my brave men, we determined , neither to serve the Romans nor any other – save God, for He alone is man’s true and righteous Lord; and now the time has come which bids us verify that  resolution by our actions. At this crisis let us not disgrace ourselves; we who in the past refused to submit even to a slavery involving no peril, let us not now, along with slavery, deliberately accept the irreparable penalties awaiting us if we are to fall alive into Roman hands. For as we were the first of all to revolt, so are we the last in arms against them.  Moreover, I believe that it is God who has granted us this favour, that we have it in our power to die nobly and in freedom  – a privilege denied to others who have met with unexpected defeat. Our fate at break of day is certain capture, but there is still the free choice of a noble death with those we hold most dear. For our enemies, fervently though they pray to take us alive, can no more prevent this than we can now hope to defeat them in battle. Maybe, indeed, we ought from the very first – when, having chosen to assert our liberty, we invariably experienced such hard treatment from one another, and still harder from our foes – we ought, I say, to have read God’s purpose and to have recognized that the Jewish race, once beloved of Him, had been doomed to perdition. For had he continued to be gracious, or but lightly incensed, he would never have overlooked such wholesale destruction or have abandoned His most holy city to be burnt and razed to the ground by our enemies. But did we forsooth hope that we alone of all the Jewish nation would survive and preserve our freedom, as persons guiltless towards God and without a hand in crime – we who had even been the instructors of the rest? Mark, now, how He exposes the vanity of our expectations, by visiting us with such dire distress as exceeds all that we could anticipate. For not even the impregnable nature of this fortress has availed to save us; nay, though ample provisions are ours, piles of arms, and a superabundance of every other requisite, yet we have been deprived manifestly by God Himself, of all hope of deliverance, For it was not of their own accord that those flames which were driving against the enemy turned back upon the wall constructed by us; no, all this betokens wrath at the many wrongs which we madly dared to inflict upon our countrymen. The penalty for those crimes let us pay not to our bitterest foes, the Romans, but to God through the act of our own hands. It will be more tolerable than the other. Let our wives thus die undishonoured, our children unacquainted with slavery; and, when they are gone, let us render a generous service to each other; preserving our liberty as a noble winding-sheet. But first let us destroy our chattels and the fortress by fire; for the Romans, well I know, will be grieved to lose at once our persons and the lucre. Our provisions only let us spare; for they will testify, when we are dead, that it was not want which subdued us, but that in keeping with our initial resolve, we preferred death to slavery,”

Thus spoke Eleazar; but his words did not touch the hearts of all hearers alike. Some, indeed, were eager to respond and all but filled with delight at the thought of a death so noble; but others, softer-hearted, were moved with compassion for their wives and families, and doubtless also by the vivid prospect of their own end, and their tears as they looked upon one another revealed their unwillingness of heart. Eleazar, seeing them flinching and their courage breaking down in face of so vast a scheme, feared that their whimpers and tears might unman even those who had listened to his speech with fortitude. Far, therefore, from slackening in his exhortation, he roused himself and, fired with mighty fervour, essayed a higher flight of oratory on the immortality of the soul. Indignantly protesting and with eyes intently fixed on those in tears, he exclaimed:

“Deeply, indeed, was I deceived in thinking that I should have brave men as associates in our struggles for freedom – men determined to live with honour or to die. But you, it seems, were no better than the common herd in valour or in courage, you who are afraid even of that death that will deliver you from the direst ills, when in such a cause you ought neither to hesitate an instant nor wait for a counselor.  For from of old, since the first dawn of intelligence, we have been continually taught by those precepts, ancestral and divine – confirmed by the deeds and noble spirit of our forefathers – that life, not death, is man’s misfortune. For it is death which gives liberty to the soul and permits it to depart to its own pure abode, there to be free from all calamity; but so long as it is imprisoned in a mortal body and tainted with all its miseries, it is, in sober truth, dead, for association with what is mortal ill befits that which is divine. True, the soul possesses great capacity, even while incarcerated in the body; for it makes the latter its organ of perception, invisibly swaying it and directing it onward in its actions beyond the range of mortal nature. But it is not until, freed from the weight that drags it down to earth and clings about it, the soul is restored to its proper sphere, that it enjoys a blessed energy and a power untrammelled  on every side, remaining, like God Himself, invisible to human eyes. For even while in the body it is withdrawn from view: unperceived it comes and unseen it again departs, itself of a nature one and incorruptible, but a cause of change to the body. For whatever the soul has touched lives and flourishes, whatever it abandons withers and dies; so abundant is her wealth of immortality.

“Let sleep furnish you with a most convincing proof of what I say – sleep, in which the soul, undistracted  by the body, while enjoying in perfect independence the most delightful repose, holds converse with God by right of kinship, ranges the universe and foretells many things that are to come. Why then should we fear death who welcome the repose of sleep? And is it not surely foolish, while pursuing liberty in this life, to grudge ourselves that which is eternal?

“We ought, indeed, blest with our home training, to afford others an example of readiness to die; if however, we really need an assurance in this matter from alien nations, let us look at those Indians who profess the practice of philosophy. They, brave men that they are, reluctantly endure the period of life, as some necessary service due to nature, but hasten to release their souls from their bodies; and though no calamity impels nor drives them from the scene, from sheer longing for the immortal state, they announce to their comrades that they are about to depart. Nor is there any who would hinder them: no, all felicitate them and each gives them commissions to his loved ones; so certain and absolutely sincere is their belief in the intercourse which souls hold with one another. Then, after listening to these behests, they commit their bodies to the fire, that so the soul may be parted from the body in the utmost purity, and expire amidst hymns of praise. Indeed, their dearest ones escort them to their death more readily than do the rest of mankind their fellow-citizens when starting on a very long journey; for themselves they weep, but them they count happy as now regaining immortal rank. Are we not, then, ashamed of being more mean-spirited than Indians, and of bringing, by our faint-heartedness, shameful reproach upon our country’s laws, which are the envy of all mankind?

“Yet, even had we from the first been schooled in the opposite doctrine and taught that man’s highest blessing is life and that death is a calamity, still the crisis is one that calls upon us to bear it with a stout heart, since it is by God’s will and of necessity that we are to die. For long since, so it seems, God passed this decree against the whole Jewish race in common, that we must quit this life if we would not use it aright. Do not attach the blame to yourselves, nor the credit to the Romans, that this war with them has been the ruin of us all; for it was not their might that brought these things to pass, but the intervention of some more powerful cause has afforded them the semblance of victory.

“What Roman weapons, I ask, slew the Jews of Caesarea? Nay, they had not even contemplated revolt from Rome, but were engaged in keeping their Sabbath festival when the Caesarean rabble rushed upon them and massacred them, unresisting, with their wives and children, without even the slightest respect for the Romans, who regarded as enemies only us who had revolted. But I sha1l be told that the Caesareans had a standing quarrel with their Jewish residents and seized that opportunity to satisfy their ancient hate. What then shall we say of the Jews in Scythopolis, who had the audacity to wage war on us in the cause of the Greeks, but refused to unite with us, their kinsmen, in resisting the Romans? Much benefit, to be sure, did they reap from their goodwill and loyalty to the men of Scythopolis!  Ruthlessly butchered by them, they and all their families – that was the recompense that they received for their alliance; the fate from which they had saved their neighbours at our hands, that they endured, as though they had themselves desired to inflict it. Time would fail me now to name each instance severally; for, as you know, there is not a city in Syria which has not slain its Jewish inhabitants, though more hosti1e to us than to the Romans. Thus, the people of Damascus, though unable even to invent a plausible pretext, deluged their city with the foulest slaughter, butchering eighteen thousand Jews, with their wives and families. As for Egypt, we were told that the number of those who there perished in tortures perhaps exceeded sixty thousand.

Those Jews, maybe, perished as they did, because they were on alien soil, where they found themselves no match for their enemies. But consider all those who in their own territory embarked on war with Rome: what did they lack of all that could inspire them with hopes of assured success? Arms, ramparts, fortresses well nigh impregnable, a spirit undaunted by risks to be run in the cause of liberty –  these encouraged all to revolt. Yet these availed but for a brief season, and after buoying us up with hopes proved the beginning of greater disasters. For all were taken, all succumbed to the enemy, as though furnished for his more glorious triumph, and not for the protection of those who provided them. Those men who fell in battle may fitly be felicitated, for they died defending, not betraying, liberty; but the multitudes in Roman hands who would not pity? Who would not rush to his death ere he shared their fate? Of them some have perished on the rack or tortured by fire and scourge; others, half-devoured by wild beasts have been preserved alive to provide them with a second repast, after affording merriment and sport for their foes. But most miserable of all must be reckoned those still alive, who have often prayed for death and are denied the boon.

“And where now is that great city, the mother-city of the whole Jewish race, intrenched behind all those lines of ramparts, screened by all those forts and massive towers, that could scarce contain her munitions of war, and held all those myriads of defenders? What has become of her that was believed to have God for her founder? Uprooted from her base she has been swept away, and the sole memorial of her remaining is that of the slain sti1l quartered in her ruins! Hapless old men sit beside the ashes of the shrine and a few women, reserved by the enemy for basest outrage.

“Which of us, taking these things to heart, could bear to behold the sun, even could he live secure from peril? Who such a foe to his country, so unmanly, so fond of life, as not to regret that he is still alive to-day? Nay, I would that we had all been dead ere ever we saw that holy city razed by an enemy’s hands, that sacred sanctuary so profanely uprooted! But seeing that we have been beguiled by a not ignoble hope, that we might perchance find means of avenging her of her foes, and  now that hope has vanished and left us alone in our distress, let us hasten to die honourably; let us have pity on ourselves, our children and our wives, while it is still in our power to find pity from ourselves. For we were born for death, we and those whom we have begotten; and this even the fortunate cannot escape. But outrage and servitude and the sight of our lives being led to shame with their children – these are no necessary evils imposed by nature on mankind, but befall, through their own cowardice, those who, having the chance of forestalling them by death, refuse to take it. But we, priding ourselves on our courage, revolted from the Romans, and now at the last, when they offered us our lives, we refused the offer. Who then can fail to foresee their wrath if they take us alive? Wretched will be the young whose vigorous frames can sustain many tortures, wretched the more advanced in years whose age is incapable of bearing such calamities. Is a man to see his wife led off to violation, to hear the voice of his child crying “Father!” when his own hands are bound? No, while those hands are free and grasp the sword, let them render an honourable service. Unenslaved by the foe let us die, as free men with our children and wives let us quit this life together! This our laws  enjoin, this our wives and children implore of us. The need for this is of God’s sending, the reverse of this is the Romans’ desire, and their fear is lest a single one of us should die before capture. Haste we then to leave them, instead of their hoped-for enjoyment at securing us, amazement at our death and admiration of our fortitude.”

He would have pursued his exhortation but was cut short by his hearers, who, overpowered by some uncontrollable impulse, were all in haste to do the deed. Like men possessed they went their way, each eager to outstrip his neighbour and deeming it a signal proof of courage and sound judgement not to be seen among the last: so ardent the passion that had seized them to slaughter their wives, their little ones and themselves. Nor, as might have been expected, did their ardour cool when they approached the task: inflexibly they held to the resolution, which they had formed while listening to the address, and though personal emotion and affection were alive in all, reason which they knew had consulted best for their loved ones, was paramount. For, while they caressed and embraced their wives and took their children in their arms, clinging in tears to those parting kisses, at that same instant, as though served by hands other than their own, they accomplished their purpose, having the thought of the ills they would endure under the enemy’s hands to console them for their constraint in killing them. And in the end not one was found a truant in so daring a deed: all carried through their task with their dearest ones. Wretched victims of necessity, to whom to slay with their own hands their own wives and children seemed the lightest of evils! Unable, indeed, any longer to endure their anguish at what they had done, and feeling that they wronged the slain by surviving them if it ere but for a moment, they quickly piled together all the stores and set them on fire; then, having chosen by lot ten of their number to dispatch the rest, they laid themselves down each beside his prostrate wife and children, and, flinging their arms around them, offered their throats in readiness for the executants of the melancholy office. These, having unswervingly slaughtered all, ordained the same rule of the lot for one another, that he on whom it fell should slay first the nine and then himself last of all; such mutual confidence had they all that neither in acting nor in suffering would one differ from another. Finally, then, the nine bared their throats, and the last solitary survivor, after surveying the prostrate multitude, to see whether haply amid the shambles there were yet one left who needed his hand, and finding that all were slain, set the palace ablaze, and then collecting his strength drove his sword clean through his body and fell beside his family. They had died in the belief that they had left not a soul of them alive to fall into Roman hands; but an old woman and another, a relative of Eleazar, superior in sagacity and training to most of her sex, with five children, escaped by concealing themselves in the subterranean aqueducts, while the rest were absorbed in the slaughter. The victims numbered nine hundred and sixty, including women and children; and the tragedy occurred on the fifteenth of the month Xanthicus.

The Romans, expecting further opposition, were by daybreak under arms and, having with gangways formed bridges of approach from the earthworks, advanced to the assault. Seeing none of the enemy but on all sides an awful solitude, and flames within and silence, they were at a loss to conjecture what had happened. At length, as if for a signal to shoot, they shouted, to call forth haply any of those within. The shout was heard by the women-folk, who, emerging from the caverns, informed the Romans how matters stood, one of the two lucidly reporting both the speech and how the deed was done. But it was with difficulty that they listened to her, incredulous of such amazing fortitude; meanwhile they endeavoured to extinguish the flames and soon cutting a passage through them entered the palace. Here encountering the mass of slain, instead of exulting as over enemies, they admired the nobility of their resolve and the contempt of death displayed by so many in carrying it, unwavering, into execution.

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Filed under Ancient History, Cowardice, Courage, Bravery, Fear, Josephus, Judaism, Martyrdom, Mass Suicide, Middle East, Military Defeat, Success, Strategy, Selections

(c. 12th-1st centuries B.C.)

Genesis: The Prohibition of Bloodshed
Exodus: The Ten Commandments
Judges: Samson and the Philistines
I Samuel-II Samuel: Saul and his    Armor-Bearer
Job: The Sufferings of Job
Daniel: Shadrach, Meschach, Abednego    and the Fiery Furnace
II Maccabees: The Suicide of Razis


The collection of texts originating among the Hebrews of the first millennium B.C., the Hebrew Bible, generally referred to as the Tanakh by Jews and as the Old Testament by Christians, is a compilation recognized as scriptural in both traditions. It is complex in textual history. Written in classical Hebrew (except for some brief portions in a cognate language, Aramaic), it includes material believed to have been transmitted orally, as well as in written form, spanning over a thousand years of history from the 12th through the 1st century B.C.. No original manuscripts from the earliest period have survived, though the Qumran manuscripts of some sections, known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, date from as early as the 1st century B.C. After the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., Jewish religious leaders compiled a comprehensive text from those manuscripts that survived the destruction; the earliest surviving manuscripts of this Bible date from the 9th century A.D..

The oldest sections of the Hebrew Bible, the “five books of Moses” or Pentateuch, comprising the Torah in the strict sense, are the five books from Genesis through Deuteronomy. These books, from which the first two selections here are taken, provide among other things the Hebrews’ origin accounts. The Deuteronomic histories (the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings), which chronicle Hebrew history, are the source of the second two selections. A selection is also included from the Book of Job, framed around a central poetic dialogue, probably written around the time of the Persian Conquest and the Jewish Exile of the 6th century B.C. Also included is a passage from one of the Apocrypha: II Maccabees. The Apocrypha are books and portions of books written in Hebrew or Greek in the second and first centuries B.C., ultimately rejected as canonical by later Jewish authorities but preserved in Christian textual collections and whose inclusion in the Old Testament canon was disputed by Christian thinkers. While II Maccabees is not recognized as part of the Hebrew Bible by Jews or as part of the Old Testament by Protestant Christians, it is recognized as scriptural and part of the Old Testament by Catholics and Orthodox Christians. 

Within the older material of the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, two kinds of text bear on the issue of suicide: statements or imperatives held to define the morality of suicide, and accounts of specific instances of suicide. Of the first kind are Genesis 9:5, “for your lifeblood I will demand satisfaction,” now often said to be the basis on which Judaism’s prohibition of suicide is grounded, and Exodus 20:13, “thou shalt not kill” (or, in the New English Bible translation used here, “Do not commit murder”), the principal basis of Christianity’s prohibition. Christian authors do not typically appeal to Genesis 9:5 as the basis of the prohibition, nor do Jewish authors typically appeal to Exodus 20:13, though both texts are scriptural for both traditions. Of the second kind are the six instances of suicide narrated in the Hebrew Bible proper, as well as two in the Apocrypha: Abimelech (Judges 9:54); Samson (Judges 16:23-32); Saul and his armor bearer (the story runs continuously from I Samuel 31:4 through II Samuel 1:6, and is also related in I Chronicles 10:4); Ahithophel (II Samuel 17:23); Zimri (I Kings 16:18); Razis (II Maccabees 14:41); and Ptolemy Macron (II Maccabees 10:13). These narratives neither moralize about suicide nor express any explicit prohibition of self-killing. Job provides a negative instance of suicide, in which it is not undertaken despite a strong wish for death and a wife’s urging, and the Book of Daniel’s account of Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego as they are thrown into the fiery furnace has served in the Jewish tradition as a paradigm of martyrdom to avoid apostasy (generally distinguished from suicide).

These texts pose numerous interpretive challenges. The plain meaning of the selection from Genesis does not explicitly address suicide per se. The explanation of how it has come to serve as the basis of Judaism’s prohibition of suicide involves what Noam Zohar calls “creative midrashic interpretation—so grammatically fantastic (as is not unusual in midrash) as to hardly merit being called an ‘interpretation’ at all.” Daniel Greenwood, in contrast, disagrees that there is a syntactical problem. But both agree on the conceptual implications: Genesis 9:5 eloquently expresses a basic valuation of human life, easily extended to a new context. As Zohar says, its “proclaim[ation of] the sanctity of human life, created in God’s image, and the consequent view of its destruction as amounting to sacrilege . . . provides (far more clearly than a turn of phrase in verse 9:5) the basis for the later midrashic interpretation as prohibiting suicide. . . .” The later interpretation applying the verse to suicide is to be found in Genesis Rabbah [q.v.] and in subsequent texts, including Tosafot [q.v.].

The story of Samson in Judges 16, which may seem to have implications for contemporary discussions of tactical suicide in military and quasi-military situations for subject peoples, is notable for its reference to intention. Samson asks for (and apparently receives) God’s assistance in destroying over 3,000 people and killing himself in the process. As in other military cultures, it is unclear whether Samson’s own death, whether seen as revenge for his blinding or as self-sacrifice in the cause of military success, is to be classified as a form of suicide.

1 Samuel 31:3 and the beginning of II Samuel present a substantial textual challenge: the phrase rendered here describing Saul as “wounded severely” can also be translated, and perhaps more plausibly, as holding that Saul was “very afraid of the archers.” How the passage is translated and how the alternative versions are understood make substantial differences in whether Saul’s suicide, or request for euthanasia, the coup de grâce, is to be understood as preemptive, as the hastening of a dying process already underway, as an act of cowardice, or—as David appears to think—murder, indeed regicide.

In the Book of Job—its inquisition modeled, some commentators hold, on the Persian secret service of the post-Conquest period—God permits “the Adversary,” Satan, to test Job’s renowned piety by imposing hardships on him. Job has had an ample family, extensive property, and good fortune and repute; and so, Satan argues, faith may be easy. With the permission of God, Satan inflicts a series of calamities on Job: his family dies, he loses his property, and he suffers painful physical ailments. The text is excerpted here to highlight not so much Job’s remonstration with God, the usual focus of readings of the text, but the strength of Job’s wish for death. In later commentaries, Job stands as the preeminent scriptural figure of endurance: Despite his wish for death as a relief from his unbearable afflictions, and even in spite of his wife’s suggestion that he curse God and thereby bring about his own death, he does not kill himself.

The selection from the Book of Daniel relates the story of Chananyah, Mishael, and Azaryah, who have been given the foreign names Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego; it describes how they are thrown into a fiery furnace for refusing to worship Nebuchadnezzar’s idol. Even though they are miraculously saved in the end, their willingness to die rather than commit apostasy serves as a paradigm of martyrdom for much of later Judaism.

The final selection, recounting the suicide of the Jewish patriot Razis, is taken from the Apocryphal text II Maccabees. This text, said to be an abridgment of a longer historical work by Jason of Cyrene written in Greek that is no longer extant, narrates resistance under the leadership of the priest Matthias and his son Judas Maccabaeus to Hellenization by the Seleucid rulers of Palestine, and the forced introduction of idols and other forms of worship to Judea in general and the Jerusalem temple in particular. The rebellion succeeded, culminating in the rededication of the Temple in 164 B.C.. Significant in this episode is Razis’s desire, as he faces capture by the enemy, to “die nobly” in otherwise humiliating circumstances, both echoing the legacy of Saul and showing the influence of Roman Stoicism.


Genesis 9:1-6; Exodus 20:1-22; Judges 15:9-16:31; I Samuel 31:1-II Samuel 1:16; Job 1:1-4:17, 5:6-5:9, 5:17-5:18, 6:1-7:21, 9:32-10:22, 27:1-6, 36:1-12, 37:14-16, 37:19-38:18, 42:1-6; II Maccabees 14:37, The Oxford Study Bible: Revised English Bible with the Apocrypha, eds. M. Jack Suggs, Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, and James R. Mueller,  New York: Oxford University Press, 1992, pp. 18, 82-83, 264-266; 310-311; 510-517, 519-520, 534, 543-546, 549-550, 1255-1256. The Book of Daniel, The New English Bible, with the ApocryphaOxford Study Edition, ed. Samuel Sandmel, New York:  Oxford University Press, 1976, pp. 945-950.  Quotations in introduction from Noam Zohar and Daniel J.H. Greenwood.





The Prohibition of Bloodshed

God blessed Noah and his sons; he said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in numbers, and fill the earth.  Fear and dread of you will come on all the animals on earth, on all the birds of the air, on everything that moves on the ground, and on all fish in the sea; they are made subject to you.  Every creature that lives and moves will be food for you; I give them all to you, as I have given you every green plant.  But you must never eat flesh with its life still in it, that is the blood.

And further, for your life-blood I shall demand satisfaction; from every animal I shall require it, and from human beings also I shall require satisfaction for the death of their fellows.

‘Anyone who sheds human blood,
for that human being his blood will be shed;
because in the image of God
has God made human beings.’



The Ten Commandments

God spoke all these words: I am the LORD your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.

You must have no other God besides me.

You must not make a carved image for yourself, not the likeness of anything in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth.

You must not bow down to them in worship; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sins of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me. But I keep faith with thousands, those who love me and keep my commandments.

You must not make wrong use of the name of the LORD your God; the LORD will not leave unpunished anyone who misuses his name.

Remember to keep the Sabbath day holy.  You have six days to labour and do all your work; but the seventh day is a Sabbath of the LORD your God; that day you must not do any work, neither you, nor your son or your daughter, your slave or your slave-girl, your cattle, or the alien residing among you; for in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and on the seventh day he rested.  Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and declared it holy.

Honour your father and your mother, so that you may enjoy long life in the land which the LORD your God is giving you.

Do not commit murder.
Do not commit adultery.
Do not steal.
Do not give false evidence against your neighbour.
Do not covet your neighbour’s household: you must not covet you neighbour’s wife, his slave, his slave-girl, his ox, his donkey, or anything that belongs to him.

When all the people saw how it thundered and the lightning flashed, when they heard the trumpet sound and saw the mountain in smoke, they were afraid and trembled.  They stood at a distance and said to Moses, ‘Speak to us yourself and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us or we shall die.’

Moses answered, ‘Do not be afraid.  God has come only to test you, so that the fear of him may remain with you and preserve you from sinning.’  So the people kept their distance, while Moses approached the dark cloud where God was.

The LORD said to Moses, Say this to the Israelites: You know now that I have spoken from heaven to you.



Samson and the Philistines

. . . Samson fell in love with a woman named Delilah, who lived by the wadi of Sorek.  The lords of the Philistines went up to her and said, ‘Cajole him and find out what gives him his great strength, and how we can overpower and bind him and render him helpless.  We shall each give you eleven hundred pieces of silver.’

Delilah said to Samson, ‘Tell me, what gives you your great strength?  How could you be bound and made helpless?’  ‘If I were bound with seven fresh bowstrings not yet dry,’ replied Samson, ‘then I should become no stronger than any other man.’  The lords of the Philistines brought her seven fresh bowstrings not yet dry, and she bound him with them.  She had men concealed in the inner room, and she cried, ‘Samson, the Philistines are upon you!’  Thereupon he snapped the bowstrings as a strand of tow snaps at the touch of fire, and his strength was not impaired.

Delilah said to Samson, ‘You have made a fool of me and lied to me.  Now tell me this time how you can be bound.’  He said to her, ‘If I were tightly bound with new ropes that have never been used, then I should become no stronger than any other man.’

Delilah took new ropes and bound him with them.  Then, with men concealed in the inner room, she cried, ‘Samson, the Philistines are upon you!’  But he snapped the ropes off his arms like thread.

Delilah said to him, ‘You are still making a fool of me, still lying to me.  Tell me: how can you be bound?’  He said, ‘Take the seven loose locks of my hair, weave them into the warp, and drive them tight with the beater; then I shall become no stronger than any other man.’  So she lulled him to sleep, wove the seven loose locks of his hair into the warp, drove them tight with the beater, and cried, ‘Samson, the Philistines are upon you!’  He woke from sleep and pulled away the warp and the loom with it.

She said to him, ‘How can you say you love me when you do not confide in me?  This is the third time you have made a fool of me and have not told me what gives you your great strength.’  She so pestered him with these words day after day, pressing him hard and wearying him to death, that he told her the whole secret.  ‘No razor has touched my head,’ he said, ‘because I am a Nazirite, consecrated to God from the day of my birth.  If my head were shaved, then my strength would leave me, and I should become no stronger than any other man.’

Delilah realized that he had told her his secret, and she sent word to the lords of the Philistines: ‘Come up at once,’ she said; ‘he has told me his secret.’  The lords of the Philistines came, bringing the money with them.

She lulled Samson to sleep on her lap, and then summoned a man to shave the seven locks of his hair.  She was now making him helpless.  When his strength had left him, she cried, ‘Samson, the Philistines are upon you!’  He woke from his sleep and thought, ‘I will go out as usual and shake myself’; he did not know that the Lord had left him.  Then the Philistines seized him, gouged out his eyes, and brought him down toGaza. There they bound him with bronze fetters, and he was set to grinding grain in the prison.  But his hair, after it had been shaved, began to grow again.

The lords of the Philistines assembled to offer a great sacrifice to their god Dagon, and to rejoice and say, ‘Our god has delivered into our hands Samson our enemy.’

The people, when they saw him, praised their god, chanting: ‘Our god has delivered our enemy into our hands, the scourge of our land who piled it with our dead.’

When they grew merry, they said, ‘Call Samson, and let him entertain us.’  When Samson was summoned from prison, he was a source of entertainment to them.  They then stood him between the pillars, and Samson said to the boy who led him by the hand, ‘Put me where I can feel the pillars which support the temple, so that I may lean against them.’  The temple was full of men and women, and all the lords of the Philistines were there, and there were about three thousand men and women on the roof watching the entertainment.

Samson cried to the Lord and said, ‘Remember me, Lord God, remember me: for this one occasion, God, give me strength, and let me at one stroke be avenged on the Philistines for my two eyes.’  He put his arms round the two central pillars which supported the temple, his right arm round one and his left round the other and, bracing himself, he said, ‘Let me die with the Philistines.’  Then Samson leaned forward with all his might, and the temple crashed down on the lords and all the people who were in it.  So the dead whom he killed at his death were more than those he had killed in his life.



Saul and his Armor-Bearer

The Philistines engaged Israel in battle, and the Israelites were routed, leaving their dead on Mount Gilboa.  The Philistines closely pursued Saul and his sons, and Jonathan, Adinadab, and Malchishua, the sons of Saul, were killed.  The battle went hard for Saul, and when the archers caught up with him they wounded him severely.  He said to his armour-bearer, ‘Draw your sword and run me through, so that these uncircumcised brutes may not come and taunt me and make sport of me.’  But the armour-bearer refused; he dared not do it.  Thereupon Saul took his own sword and fell on it.  When the armour-bearer saw that Saul was dead, he too fell on his sword and died with him.  So they died together on that day, Saul, his three sons, and his armour-bearer, as well as all his men.  When the Israelites in the neighborhood of the valley and of the Jordan saw that the other Israelites had fled and that Saul and his sons had perished, they fled likewise, abandoning their towns; and the Philistines moved in and occupied them.

Next day, when the Philistines came to strip the slain, they found Saul and his three sons lying dead on Mount Gilboa.  They cut off his head and stripped him of his armour; then they sent messengers through the length and breadth of their land to carry the good news to idols and people alike.  They deposited his armour in the temple of Ashtorethand nailed his body on the wall of Beth-shan.  When the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead heard what the Philistines had done to Saul, all the warriors among them set out and journeyed through the night to recover the bodies of Saul and his sons from the wall of Beth-shan.  They brought them back to Jabesh and burned them; they took the bones and buried them under the tamarisk tree in Jabesh, and for seven days they fasted.

AFTER Saul’s death David returned from his victory over the Amalekites and spent two days in Ziklag.  On the third day a man came from Saul’s camp; his clothes were torn and there was dust on his head.  Coming into David’s presence he fell to the ground and did obeisance.  David asked him where he had come from, and he replied, ‘I have escaped from the Israelite camp.’  David said, ‘What is the news?  Tell me.’  ‘The army has been driven from the field,’ he answered, ‘many have fallen in battle, and Saul and Jonathan his son are dead.’  David said to the young man who brought the news, ‘How do you know that Saul and Jonathan are dead?’  He answered, ‘It so happened that I was onMountGilboaand saw Saul leaning on his spear with the chariots and horsemen closing in on him.  He turned and, seeing me, called to me.  I said, “What is it, sir?”  He asked me who I was, and I said, “An Amalekite.”  He said to me, “Come and stand over me and dispatch me.  I still live, but the throes of death have seized me.”  So I stood over him and dealt him the death blow, for I knew that, stricken as he was, he could not live.  Then I took the crown from his head and the armlet from his arm, and I have brought them here to you, my lord.’  At that David and all the men with him took hold of their clothes and tore them.  They mourned and wept, and they fasted till evening because Saul and Jonathan his son and the army of the Lord and the house of Israel had fallen in battle.

David said to the young man who brought him the news. ‘Where do you come from?’  and he answered, ‘I am the son of an alien, an Amalekite.’  ‘How is it’, said David, ‘that you were not afraid to raise your hand to kill the Lord’s anointed?’  Summoning one of his own young men he ordered him to fall upon the Amalekite.  The young man struck him down and he died.  David said, ‘Your blood be on your own head; for out of your own mouth you condemned yourself by saying, “I killed the LORD’s anointed.”’



The Sufferings of Job

THERE lived in the land of Uz a man of blameless and upright life named Job, who feared God and set his face against wrongdoing.  He had seven sons and three daughters; and he owned seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, and five hundred she-donkeys, together with a large number of slaves.  Thus Job was the greatest man in all the East.

His sons used to meet together and give, each in turn, a banquet in his own house, and they would send and invite their three sisters to eat and drink with them.  Then, when a round of banquets was over, Job would send for his children and sanctify them, rising early in the morning and sacrificing a whole offering for each of them; for he thought that they might somehow have sinned against God and committed blasphemy in their hearts.  This Job did regularly.

The day came when the members of the court of heaven took their places in the presence of the LORD, and the Adversary, Satan, was there among them.  The LORD asked him where he had been.  ‘Ranging over the earth’, said the Adversary, ‘from end to end.’

The LORD asked him, ‘Have you considered my servant Job? You will find no one like him on earth, a man of blameless and upright life, who fears God and sets his face against wrongdoing.’ ‘Has not Job good reason to be godfearing?’ answered the Adversary.

‘Have you not hedged him round on every side with your protection, him and his family and all his possessions?  Whatever he does you bless, and everywhere his herds have increased beyond measure.  But just stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and see if he will not curse you to your face.’

‘Very well,’ said the LORD.  ‘All that he has is in your power; only the man himself you must not touch.’  With that the Adversary left the LORD’s presence.

On the day when Job’s sons and daughters were eating and drinking in the eldest brother’s house, a messenger came to Job and said, ‘The oxen were ploughing and the donkeys were grazing near them, when the Sabaeans swooped down and carried them off, after putting the herdsmen to the sword; only I have escaped to bring you the news.’

While he was still speaking, another messenger arrived and said, ‘God’s fire flashed from heaven, striking the sheep and the shepherds and burning them up; only I have escaped to bring you the news.’  While he was still speaking, another arrived and said, ‘The Chaldaeans, three bands of them, have made a raid on the camels and carried them off, after putting those tending them to the sword; only I have escaped to bring you the news.’  While this man was speaking, yet another arrived and said, ‘Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking in their eldest brother’s house, when suddenly a whirlwind swept across from the desert and struck the four corners of the house, which fell on the young people.  They are dead, and only I have escaped to bring you the news.’

At this Job stood up, tore his cloak, shaved his head, and threw himself prostrate on the ground, saying:

‘Naked I came from the womb,
naked I shall return whence I came.
The LORD gives and the LORD takes away;
blessed be the name of the LORD.’

Throughout all this Job did not sin, nor did he ascribe any fault to God.

Once again the day came when the members of the court of heaven took their places in the presence of the LORD, and the Adversary was there among them. The LORD enquired where he had been. ‘Ranging over the earth’, said the Adversary, ‘from end to end.’  The LORD asked, ‘Have you considered my servant Job?  You will find no one like him on earth, a man of blameless and upright life, who fears God and sets his face against wrongdoing.  You incited me to ruin him without cause, but he still holds fast to his integrity.’  The Adversary replied, ‘Skin for skin!  To save himself there is nothing a man will withhold.  But just reach out your hand and touch his bones and his flesh, and see if he will not curse you to your face.’  The LORD said to the Adversary, ‘So be it. He is in your power; only spare his life.’

When the Adversary left the LORD’s presence, he afflicted Job with running sores from the soles of his feet to the crown of his head, and Job took a piece of a broken pot to scratch himself as he sat among the ashes.  His wife said to him, ‘Why do you still hold fast to your integrity?  Curse God, and die!’

He answered, ‘You talk as any impious woman might talk.  If we accept good from God, shall we not accept evil?’  Throughout all this, Job did not utter one sinful word.

When Job’s three friends, Eliphaz of Teman, Bildad of Shuah, and Zophar of Naamah, heard of all these calamities which had overtaken him, they set out from their homes, arranging to go and condole with him and comfort him. But when they first saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him; they wept aloud, tore their cloaks, and tossed dust into the air over their heads.

For seven days and seven nights they sat beside him on the ground, and none of them spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.

Job’s complaint to God

AFTER this Job broke his silence and cursed the day of his birth:

Perish the day when I was born, and the night which said, ‘A boy is conceived’!
May that day turn to darkness;
may God above not look for it,
nor light of dawn shine on it.
May gloom and deep darkness claim it again;
May cloud smother that day, blackness eclipse its sun.

May blind darkness swallow up that night!
May it not be counted among the days of the year
or reckoned in the cycle of the months.
May that night be barren for ever,
may no cry of joy be heard in it.
Let it be cursed by those whose spells bind the sea monster,
who have the skill to tame Leviathan.
May no star shine out in its twilight;
may it wait for a dawn that never breaks,
and never see the eyelids of the morning,
because it did not shut the doors of the womb that bore me
and keep trouble away from my sight.

Why was I not stillborn,
Why did I not perish when I came from the womb?
Why was I ever laid on my mother’s Knees
or put to suck at her breasts?
Or why was I not concealed like an untimely birth,
like an infant who never saw the light?
For now I should be lying in the quiet grave,
asleep in death, at rest
with kings and their earthly counselors
who built for themselves cities now laid waste,
or with princes rich in gold
whose houses were replete with silver.

There the wicked chafe no more,
there the tired labourer takes his ease;
the captive too finds peace there,
no slave-driver’s voice reaches him;
high and low alike are there,
even the slave, free from his master.

Why should the sufferer be born to see the light?
Why is life given to those who find it so bitter?
They long for death but it does not come,
they seek it more eagerly than hidden treasure.
They are glad when they reach the grave;
when they come to the tomb they exult.
Why should a man be born to wander blindly,

hedged about by God on every side?

Sighing is for me all my food;
groans pour from me in a torrent.
Every terror that haunted me has caught up with me.
There is no peace of mind, no quiet for me;
trouble comes, and I have no rest. . . .

. . . Does not every mortal have hard service on earth,
and are not his days like those of a hired labourer,
like those of a slave longing for the shade
or a servant kept waiting for his wages?
So months of futility are my portion,
troubled nights are my lot.
When I lie down, I think,
‘When will it be day, that I may rise?’
But the night drags on,
and I do nothing but toss till dawn.
My body is infested with worms,
and scabs cover my skin;
it is cracked and discharging.
My days pass more swiftly than a weaver’s shuttle
and come to an end as the thread of life runs out.

Remember that my life is but a breath of wind;
I shall never again see good times.
The eye that now sees me will behold me no more;
under your very eyes I shall vanish.
As a cloud breaks up and disperses,
so no one who goes down to Sheol ever comes back;
he never returns to his house,
and his abode knows him no more.

But I cannot hold my peace;
I shall speak out in my anguish of spirit
and complain in my bitterness of soul.

Am I the monster of the deep, am I the sea serpent,
that you set a watch over me?
When I think that my bed will comfort me,
that sleep will receive my complaint,
you terrify me with dreams
and affright me through visions.
I would rather be choked outright;
death would be better than these sufferings of mine.
I am in despair, I have no desire to live;
let me alone, for my days are but a breath.
What is man, that you make much of him
and turn your thoughts towards him,
only to punish him morning after morning
or to test him every hour of the day?
Will you not look away from me for an instant,
leave me long enough to swallow my spittle?
If I have sinned, what harm can I do you,
you watcher of the human heart?
Why have you made me your target?
Why have I become a burden to you?
Why do you not pardon my offence
and take away my guilt?
For soon I shall lie in the dust of the grave;
you may seek me, but I shall be no more.

God is not as I am, not someone I can challenge,
and say, ‘Let us confront one another in court.’
If only there were one to arbitrate between us
and impose his authority on us both,
so that God might take his rod from my back,
and terror of him might not come on me suddenly.
I should then speak out without fear of him,
for I know I am not what I am thought to be.

I am sickened of life . . .
You granted me life and continuing favour,
and your providence watched over my spirit.
Yet this was the secret purpose of your heart,
and I know what was your intent:
that, if I sinned, you would be watching me
and would not absolve me of my guilt.
If indeed I am wicked, all the worse for me!
If I am upright, I cannot hold up my head;
I am filled with shame and steeped in my affliction.
If I am proud as a lion, you hunt me down
and confront me again with marvelous power;
you renew your onslaught on me,
and with mounting anger against me
bring fresh forces to the attack.

Why did you bring me out of the womb?
Better if I had expired and no one had set eyes on me,
if I had been carried from womb to grave
and were as though I had not been born.
Is not my life short and fleeting?
Let me be, that I may be happy for a moment,
before I depart to a land of gloom,
a land of deepest darkness, never to return,
a land of dense darkness and disorder,
increasing darkness lit by no ray of light.

Then Job resumed his discourse

I swear by the living God, who has denied me justice,
by the Almighty, who has filled me with bitterness,
that so long as there is any life left in me
and the breath of God is in my nostrils,
no untrue word will pass my lips,
nor will my tongue utter any falsehood.
Far be it from me to concede that you are right!
Till I cease to be, I shall not abandon my claim of innocence.
I maintain and shall never give up the rightness of my cause;
so long as I live, I shall not change.

God’s answer and Job’s submission

THEN the LORD answered Job out of the tempest:

Who is this who darkens counsel
with words devoid of knowledge?
Brace yourself and stand up like a man;
I shall put questions to you, and you must answer.
Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations?
Tell me, if you know and understand.
Who fixed its dimensions? Surely you know!
Who stretched a measuring line over it?
On what do its supporting pillars rest?
Who set its corner-stone in place,
while the morning stars sang in chorus
and the sons of God all shouted for joy?. . .

Who supported the sea at its birth,
when it burst in flood from the womb—
when I wrapped it in a blanket of cloud
and swaddled it in dense fog,
when I established its bounds,
set its barred doors in place,
and said, ‘Thus far may you come but no farther;
here your surging waves must halt’?

In all your life have you ever called up the dawn
or assigned the morning its place?
Have you taught it to grasp the fringes of the earth
and shake the Dog-star from the sky;
to bring up the horizon in relief as clay under a seal,
until all things stand out like the folds of a cloak,
when the light of the Dog-star is dimmed
and the stars of the Navigator’s Line go out one by one?

Have you gone down to the springs of the sea
or walked in the unfathomable deep?
Have the portals of death been revealed to you?
Have you seen the door-keepers of the place of darkness?
Have you comprehended the vast expanse on the world?
Tell me all this, if you know.

Job answered the LORD

I know that you can do all things
and that no purpose is beyond you.
You ask: Who is this obscuring counsel yet lacking knowledge?
But I have spoken of things
which I have not understood,
things too wonderful for me to know.
Listen, and let me speak. You said:
I shall put questions to you, and you must answer.
I knew of you then only by report,
but now I see you with my own eyes.
Therefore I yield,
repenting in dust and ashes.


WHEN the LORD had finished speaking to Job, he said to Eliphaz the Temanite, ‘My anger is aroused against you and your two friends, because, unlike my servant Job, you have not spoken as you ought about me.

Now take seven bulls and seven rams, go to my servant Job and offer a whole-offering for yourselves, and he will intercede for you.  I shall surely show him favour by not being harsh with you because you have not spoken as you ought about me, as he has done.’

Then Eliphaz the Temanite and Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite went and carried out the Lord’s command, and the Lord showed favour to Job when he had interceded for his friends.

The LORD restored Job’s fortunes, and gave him twice the possessions he had before . . . Job lived another hundred and forty years; he saw his sons and his grandsons to four generations, and he died at a very great age.



Shadrach, Meschach, Abednego and the Fiery Furnace

In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and laid siege to it.  The LORD delivered Jehoiakim king of Judah into his power, together with all that was left of the vessels of the house of God; and he carried them off to the land of Shinar, to the temple of his god, where he deposited the vessels in the treasury.  Then the king ordered Ashpenaz, his chief eunuch, to take certain of the Israelite exiles, of the blood royal and of the nobility, who were to be young men of good looks and bodily without fault, at home in all branches of knowledge, well-informed, intelligent, and fit for service in the royal court; and he was to instruct them in the literature and language of the Chaldaeans.  The king assigned them a daily allowance of food and wine from the royal table.  Their training was to last for three years, and at the end of that time they would enter the royal service.

Among them there were certain young men from Judah called Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah; but the master of the eunuchs gave them new names: Daniel he called Belteshazzar, Hananiah Shadrach, Mishael Meshach and Azariah Abednego.  Now Daniel determined not to contaminate himself by touching the food and wine assigned to him by the king, and he begged the master of the eunuchs not to make him do so.  God made the master show kindness and goodwill to Daniel, and he said to him, ‘I am afraid of my lord the king: he has assigned you your food and drink, and if he sees you looking dejected, unlike the other young men of your own age, it will cost me my head.’  Then Daniel said to the guard whom the master of the eunuchs had put in charge of Hananiah, Mishael, Azariah and himself, ‘Submit us to this test for ten days.  Give us only vegetables to eat and water to drink; then compare our looks with those of the young men who have lived on the food assigned by the king, and be guided in your treatment of us by what you see.’  The guard listened to what they said and tested them for ten days.  At the end of ten days they looked healthier and were better nourished than all the young men who had lived on the food assigned them by the king.  So the guard took away the assignment of food and the wine they were to drink, and gave them only the vegetables.

To all four of these young men God had given knowledge and understanding of books and learning of every kind, while Daniel had a gift for interpreting visions and dreams of every kind.  The time came which the king had fixed for introducing the young men to court, and the master of the eunuchs brought them into the presence of Nebuchadnezzar.  The king talked with them and found none of them to compare with Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah; so they entered the royal service.  Whenever the king consulted them on any matter calling for insight and judgement, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and exorcists in his whole kingdom.  Now Daniel was there till the first year of King Cyrus.

In the second year of his reign Nebuchadnezzar had dreams, and his mind was so troubled that he could not sleep.  Then the king gave orders to summon the magicians, exorcists, sorcerers, and Chaldaeans to tell him what he had dreamt.  They came in and stood in the royal presence, and the king said to them, ‘I have had a dream and my mind has been troubled to know what my dream was.’  The Chaldaeans, speaking in Aramaic, said, ‘Long live the king!  Tell us what you dreamt and we will tell you the interpretation.’  The king answered.  ‘This is my declared intention.  If you do not tell me both dream and interpretation, you shall be torn in pieces and your houses shall be forfeit.  But if you can tell me the dream and the interpretation, you will be richly rewarded and loaded with honours.  Tell me, therefore, the dream and its interpretation.’  They answered a second time, ‘Let the king tell his servants the dream, and we will tell him the interpretation.’  The king answered, ‘It is clear to me that you are trying to gain time, because you see that my intention has been declared.  If you do not make known to me the dream, there is one law that applies to you, and one only.  What is more, you have agreed among yourselves to tell me a pack of lies to my face in the hope that with time things may alter.  Tell me the dream, therefore, and I shall know that you can give me the interpretation.’  The Chaldaeans answered in the presence of the king, ‘Nobody on earth can tell your majesty what you wish to know; no great king or prince has ever made such a demand of magician, exorcist, or Chaldaean.  What your majesty requires of us is too hard; there is no one but the gods, who dwell remote from mortal men, who can give you the answer.’  At this the king lost his temper and in a great rage ordered the death of all the wise men of Babylon.  A decree was issued that the wise men were to be executed, and accordingly men were sent to fetch Daniel and his companions for execution.

When Arioch, the captain of the king’s bodyguard, was setting out to execute the wise men ofBabylon, Daniel approached him cautiously and with discretion and said, ‘Sir, you represent the king; why has his majesty issued such a peremptory decree?’  Arioch explained everything; so Daniel went in to the king’s presence and begged for a certain time by which he would give the king the interpretation.  Then Daniel went home and told the whole story to his companions, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah.  They should ask the God of heaven in his mercy, he said, to disclose this secret, so that they and he with the rest of the wise men of Babylon should not be put to death.  Then in a vision by night the secret was revealed to Daniel, and he blessed the God of heaven in these words:

Blessed be God’s name from age to age,
for all wisdom and power are his.
He changes seasons and times;
he deposes kings and sets them up;
he gives wisdom to the wise
and all their store of knowledge to
the men who know;
he reveals deep mysteries;
he knows what lies in darkness,
and light has its dwelling with him.

To thee, God of my fathers, I give
thanks and praise,
for thou hast given me wisdom and power;
thou hast now revealed to me what we asked,
and told us what the king is
concerned to know.

Daniel therefore went to Arioch who had been charged by the king to put to death the wise men of Babylon and said to him, ‘Do not put the wise men of Babylon to death.  Take me into the king’s presence, and I will now tell him the interpretation of the dream.’  Arioch in great trepidation brought Daniel before the king and said to him, ‘I have found among the Jewish exiles a man who will make known to your majesty the interpretation of your dream.’  Thereupon the king said to Daniel (who was also called Belteshazzar), ‘Can you tell me what I saw in my dream and interpret it?’  Daniel answered in the king’s presence, ‘The secret about which your majesty inquires no wise man, exorcist, magician, or diviner can disclose to you.  But there is in heaven a god who reveals secrets, and he has told King Nebuchadnezzar what is to be at the end of this age.  This is the dream and these the visions that came into your head: the thoughts that came to you, O king, as you lay on your bed, were thoughts of things to come, and the revealer of secrets has made known to you what is to be.  This secret has been revealed to me not because I am wise beyond all living men, but because your majesty is to know the interpretation and understand the thoughts which have entered you mind.

‘As you watched, O king, you saw a great image.  This image, huge and dazzling, towered before you, fearful to behold.  The head of the image was of fine gold, its breast and arms of silver, its belly and thighs of bronze,e  its legs of iron, its feet part iron and part clay.  While you looked, a stone was hewn from a mountain, not by human hands; it struck the image on its feet of iron and clay and shattered them.  Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver, and the gold, were all shattered to fragments and were swept away like chaff before the wind from a threshing floor in summer, until no trace of them remained.  But the stone which struck the image grew into a great mountain filling the whole earth.  That was the dream.  We shall now tell your majesty the interpretation.  You, O king, king of kings, to whom the God of heaven has given the kingdom with all its power, authority, and honour; in whose hands he has placed men and beasts and birds of the air, wherever they dwell, granting you sovereignty over them all—you are that head of gold.  After you there shall arise another kingdom, inferior to yours, and yet a third kingdom, of bronze, which shall have sovereignty over the whole world.  And there shall be a fourth kingdom, strong as iron; as iron shatters and destroys all things, it shall break and shatter the whole earth. As, in your vision, the feet and toes were part potter’s clay and part iron, it shall be a divided kingdom.  Its core shall be partly of iron just as you saw iron mixed with the common clay; as the toes were part iron and part clay, the kingdom shall be partly strong and partly brittle.  As, in your vision, the iron was mixed with common clay, so shall men mix with each other by intermarriage, but such alliances shall not be stable: iron does not mix with clay.  In the period of those kings the God of heaven will establish a kingdom which shall never be destroyed; that kingdom shall never pass to another people; it shall shatter and make an end of all these kingdoms, while it shall itself endure for ever.  This is the meaning of your vision of the stone being hewn from a mountain, not by human hands, and then shattering the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver, and the gold.  The mighty God has made known to your majesty what is to be hereafter.  The dream is sure and the interpretation to be trusted.’

Then King Nebuchadnezzar prostrated himself and worshipped Daniel, and gave orders that sacrifices and soothing offerings should be made to him.  ‘Truly,’ he said, ‘your god is indeed God of gods and Lord over kings, a revealer of secrets, since you have been able to reveal this secret.’  Then the king promoted Daniel, bestowed on him many rich gifts, and made him regent over the whole province of Babylon and chief prefect over all the wise men ofBabylon.  Moreover at Daniel’s request the king put Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in charge of the administration of the province of Babylon.  Daniel himself, however, remained at court.

King Nebuchadnezzar made an image of gold, ninety feet high and nine feet broad.  He had it set up in the plain of Dura in the province of Babylon.  Then he sent out a summons to assemble the satraps, prefects, viceroys, counselors, treasurers, judges, chief constables, and all governors of provinces to attend the dedication of the image which he had set up.  So they assembled—the satraps, prefects, viceroys, counselors, treasurers, judges, chief constables, and all governors of provinces—for the dedication of the image which King Nebuchadnezzar had set up; and they stood before the image which Nebuchadnezzar had set up.  Then the herald loudly proclaimed, ‘O peoples and nations of every language, you are commanded, when you hear the sound of horn, pipe, zither, triangle, dulcimer, music, and singing of every kind, to prostrate yourselves and worship the golden image which King Nebuchadnezzar has set up.  Whoever does not prostrate himself and worship shall forthwith be thrown into a blazing furnace.’  Accordingly, no sooner did all the peoples hear the sound of horn, pipe, zither, triangle, dulcimer, music, and singing of every kind, than all the peoples and nations of every language prostrated themselves and worshipped the golden image which King Nebuchadnezzar had set up.

It was then that certain Chaldaeans came forward and brought a charge against the Jews.  They said to King Nebuchadnezzar, ‘Long live the king!  Your majesty has issued an order that every man who hears the sound of horn, pipe, zither, triangle, dulcimer, music, and singing of every kind shall fall down and worship the image of gold.  Whoever does not do so shall be thrown into a blazing furnace.  There are certain Jews, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, whom you have put in charge of the administration of the province of Babylon.  These men, your majesty, have taken no notice of your command; they do not serve your god, nor do they worship the golden image which you have set up.’  Then in rage and fury Nebuchadnezzar ordered Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to be fetched, and they were brought into the king’s presence.  Nebuchadnezzar said to them, ‘Is it true, Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego, that you do not serve my god or worship the golden image which I have set up?  If you are ready at once to prostrate yourselves when you hear the sound of horn, pipe, zither, triangle, dulcimer, music, and singing of every kind, and to worship the image that I have set up, well and good.  But if you do not worship it, you shall forthwith be thrown in to the blazing furnace; and what god is there that can save you from my power?’  Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego said to King Nebuchadnezzar, ‘We have no need to answer you on this matter.  If there is a god who is able to save us from the blazing furnace, it is our God whom we serve, and he will save us from your power, O king; but if not, be it known to your majesty that we will neither serve your god nor worship the golden image that you have set up.’

Then Nebuchadnezzar flew into a rage with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, and his face was distorted with anger.  He gave orders that the furnace should be heated up to seven times its usual heat, and commanded some of the strongest men in his army to bind Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and throw them into the blazing furnace.  Then those men in their trousers, their shirts, and their hats and all their other clothes, were bound and thrown into the blazing furnace.  Because the king’s order was urgent and the furnace exceedingly hot, the men who were carrying Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were killed by the flames that leapt out; and those three men, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, fell bound into the blazing furnace.

Then King Nebuchadnezzar was amazed and sprang to his feet in great trepidation.  He said to his courtiers, ‘Was it not three men whom we threw bound into the fire?’  They answered the king, ‘Assuredly, your majesty.’  He answered, ‘Yet I see four men walking about in the fire free and unharmed; and the fourth looks like a god.’  Nebuchadnezzar approached the door of the blazing furnace and said to the men, ‘Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, servants of the Most High God, come out, come here.’  Then Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego came out from the fire.  And the satraps, prefects, viceroys, and the king’s courtiers gathered round and saw how the fire had had no power to harm the bodies of these men; the hair of their heads had not been singed, their trousers were untouched, and no smell of fire lingered about them.

Then Nebuchadnezzar spoke out, ‘Blessed is the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego.  He has sent his angel to save his servants who put their trust in him, who disobeyed the royal command and were willing to yield themselves to the fire rather than to serve or worship any god other than their own God.  I therefore issue a decree that any man, to whatever people or nation he belongs, whatever his language, if he speaks blasphemy against the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego, shall be torn to pieces and his house shall be forfeit; for there is no other god who can save men in this way.’  Then the king advanced the fortunes of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the province of Babylon.



The Suicide of Razis

A man call Razis, a member of the Jerusalem senate, was denounced to Nicanor.  He was a patriot and very highly spoken of, one who for his loyalty was known as Father of the Jews.  In the early days of the revolt he had stood trial for practicing the Jewish religion, and with no hesitation had risked life and limb for that cause.  Nicanor, wishing to demonstrate his hostility towards the Jews, sent more than five hundred soldiers to arrest Razis; he reckoned that this would be a severe blow to the Jews.  The tower of his house was on the point of being captured by this mob of soldiers, the outer gate was being forced, and there were calls for fire to burn down the inner doors, when Razis, beset on every side, turned his sword on himself; he preferred to die nobly rather than fall into the hands of evil men and be subjected to gross humiliation.  With everything happening so quickly, he misjudged the stroke and, now that troops were pouring through the doorways, he ran up without hesitation on to the wall and heroically threw himself down into the crowd.  They hurriedly gave way and he fell to the ground in the space they left.  He was still breathing and still ablaze with courage; streaming with blood and severely wounded as he was, he picked himself up and dashed through the crowd.  Finally, standing on a sheer rock, and now completely drained of blood, he tore out his entrails and with both hands flung them at the crowd.  And thus, invoking him who disposes of life and breath to give them back to him again, he died.

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