Leviticus 26:29 – Cannibals Rejoice?

In Leviticus 26 God tells the Jewish people the blessings they will enjoy when they observe His commandments.

He also tells them that disobeying the commandments will result in serious curses.

Here is one of those curses:

Leviticus 26

29. And you will eat the flesh of your sons, and the flesh of your daughters will you eat.

Commanded to be Cannibals?

It has been brought to my attention that some people claim that in this verse God is commanding the Jewish people to be cannibals!

One of our first clues to reach a clear understanding of any verse is to determine the context of the verse.

Of course, we all use context clues in our daily lives.

For example, look at this image:

Pool Closed

Imagine it’s a hot summer day and you and a friend arrive at the local swimming pool. You are greeted by the sign in Column 1.

You read it according to Column 2 and start to walk away.

Your friend calls you back and announces that the pool is actually open. He’s reading the sign according to Column 3.

Is there any real chance that your friend is correct?

Since the pool is closed, you decide to go to the nearby lake for your afternoon swim.

Again you see a sign:

crocodiles do not swim here

You decide the sign is a warning. Even though there is no punctuation, you understand it means: “Crocodiles! Do NOT swim here!”

Once again your friend has a different reading: “There were Crocodiles, but they Do Not Swim Here any more.” There just wasn’t enough room on the sign to write the full message.

Your friend is clever, but how likely is it that his understanding of the 2 signs is correct?

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Outline of Leviticus 26

Those were just a couple of fun examples to illustrate the importance of context. (It’s also a message about choosing your friends carefully.)

Let’s look at the context of Leviticus 26. Here’s a brief outline of the chapter:

  • 3-13: The blessings for obeying God’s commandments
  • 14-39: The curses for not obeying
  • 40-46: The promise of redemption

There are no specific commandments in these verses.

Even though some of the verses may sound like commands, they are prefaced by conditional statements.

As we would expect, each if-statement is followed by a then-statement.

Verse 26:3 begins: “If you will walk in my statutes …”

Followed by verse 26:4: “then I will provide …” with the rest of the promised blessings.

It’s the same with the curses. Verse 26:14 begins: “But if you will not listen …”

Followed by verse 26:16: “then I will do the same to you…”

God is telling His people what will happen to them, not commanding them to do it.

Now let’s look at Leviticus 26:29 in more detail.

The Severe Famine

Rav Saadia Gaon writes that this verse teaches us the severity of the famine(s) that the Jewish people will face. How bad will it be? So bad that you will eat your sons and daughters.

Similarly, Ibn Ezra writes that there is no worse famine than this that the parents come to the place of becoming cannibals.

Chizkuni points out that this curse is the mirror image of the blessing in verse 26:9, “I will make you fruitful and increase you.” That is a blessing of having many children. But the curse is about the destruction of those same children by their parents.

Why Sons and Daughters?

Why does Leviticus 26:29 mention both sons and daughters? The verse could have simply stated: And you will eat the flesh of your children.

In Ha’amek Davar the Netziv notes the change in word order in the Hebrew (also reflected in the English translation above).

He says that during a famine sons will be moving about searching for food. Therefore, the parents will only eat them after they die. However, the daughters will be at home. What will happen is that the parents will actually kill the daughter to be able to eat her!

Or HaChaim has a similar approach. He writes that the parents will eat the sons first. This is because they might try to escape when they see the parents getting ready to eat the daughters. So they will eat the sons and then the daughters who are weaker and easier to subdue.

Similar Prophecies

There are at least two other prophecies in the Bible about severe famines leading to cannibalism.

In Lamentations, the prophet Jeremiah bemoans the coming destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. These days we read Lamentations as a description of the event. But he wrote it as a prophecy to warn the people.

Lamentations Chapter 4

10. The hands of compassionate women have boiled their own children; they were their food in the destruction of the daughter of my people.

The prophet Ezekiel also writes about parents eating their children. He adds that the opposite will also happen: The children will eat their parents.

Ezekiel Chapter 5

10. Therefore the fathers shall eat the sons in the midst of you, and the sons shall eat their fathers; and I will execute judgments in you…

Cannibalism Happened

There are many reports through history of desperate people turning to cannibalism to survive.

Here’s one event recorded the book of Kings:

2 Kings Chapter 6

28. And the king [King Jehoram] said to her, What ails you? And she answered, This woman said to me, Give your son, that we may eat him today, and we will eat my son tomorrow.
29. And we boiled my son, and ate him; and I said to her on the next day, Give your son, that we may eat him; and she had hid her son.

This happened when Aram was fighting against the Kingdom of Israel. There was a natural famine made worse by the war and the siege of Samaria.

King Jehoram went to Elisha the prophet. As he came to him he said:

2 Kings Chapter 6

33. .. and he [the king] said, Behold, this evil is of the Lord. …

The king is acknowledging that the famine and the cannibalism are a fulfillment of the curses that God proclaimed would happen.

Consolation

Leviticus 26 is not an easy chapter to read. May we soon see the consolation and redemption that God promises at the end of the chapter:

Leviticus 26

42. Then will I remember my covenant with Jacob, and also my covenant with Isaac, and also my covenant with Abraham will I remember; and I will remember the land.

45. But I will for their sakes remember the covenant of their ancestors, whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt in the sight of the nations, that I might be their God; I am the Lord.


A Note on the Translations
The translation of Bible verses is based on the Judaica Press Tanach.
The translation of Gemara is based on the Soncino Talmud.
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2 thoughts on “Leviticus 26:29 – Cannibals Rejoice?”

  1. Amen to the consolation! We must remember why Rabbi Akiva laughed when he saw a fox in the ruins; if that prophecy of destruction came true, then the prophecy of redemption and rebuilding is true. I like the humorous signs and the importance of interpretation ( and friends, and punctuation!) Todah!

    • Thanks for mentioning Rabbi Akiva. It’s important to remember that God is in charge. Rabbi Akiva did not live to see that redemption. May it come soon, in our days.

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