The Anglican Church’s 1662 Book of Common Prayer prescribes a ritual for burial at sea, in which the officiant declares, “We therefore commit his body to the deep, to be turned into corruption….” The word “corruption” is here used in its original, primary, literal sense: putrefaction, decomposition as a consequence of death, physical dissolution.
So, too, in “Mikrokosmographia: A Description of the Body of Man,” the 1615 anatomy textbook by Helkiah Crooke, court physician to James I: “If we are to keep the body long, the dissection must be begun at those parts which are most subject to corruption.”
A more recent attestation of the term in its literal sense is found in the reference by Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre to “putting off our corruptible bodies” (1847).
The use of the term “corruption” to describe graft and bribery, and self-serving or dishonest conduct by holders of political office or others in positions of power, is a metaphorical application of the original meaning: the disintegration of a political system, the loathsome decay of a moral code. Thus, President Andrew Jackson: “I weep for the liberty of my country when I see at this early day of its successful experiment that corruption has been imputed to many members of the House of Representatives, and the rights of the people have been bartered for promises of office.”
The dual meaning of “corruption” is also evident in Biblical Hebrew. A corpse, carcass, or carrion is referred to as “neveilah” (root n.b.l.). See, for example, I Kings 13:22 — “Your corpse (neveilah) shall not come to the grave of your fathers.” Similarly, “Your carcass (neveilah) shall become food for all the birds of the sky and all the beasts of the Earth…” (Deuteronomy 28:26). Deuteronomy 14:21 prohibits Israelite consumption of carrion: neveilah. The hanged or impaled body (neveilah) of an executed criminal must not be left on ignominious display to rot, but is to be buried forthwith (Deuteronomy 21:23).
The metaphorical use of naval or nevalah to indicate moral, societal, or political decay is found in Proverbs 30:32 — “If you have advanced yourself through corruption (navalta), if you have been a schemer….”
When Tamar attempts to fend off rape by her brother Amnon, she refers to the incestuous assault as nevalah — an outrageous act of moral decadence, a loathsome corruption of basic moral standards (II Samuel 13:12).
So, too, when Abigail acts to dissuade King David from his lethal designs against her husband, Naval, she makes reference to the unfortunate if fitting etymology of his name: “Please, my lord, pay no attention to that contemptible man, Naval. For he is just what his name suggests. His name is Naval, and he is a corrupt, rotten scoundrel” (nevalah – I Samuel 25:25).
This linguistic evolution is critical to understanding Parshat Yitro, in which the same verb root (n.b.l.) makes a defining appearance. Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro (Yitro) finds Moses single-handedly adjudicating all personal and legal disputes in the Israelite camp — matters great and small alike. Jethro cautions God’s Prophet: “This thing you are doing is not right… The task is too heavy for you. You cannot do it alone” (Exodus 18:18). Jethro advises Moses to share his juridical responsibilities with a broad, well-organized network of morally principled judges: “capable individuals who fear God, trustworthy souls who spurn ill-gotten gain” (18:21). Otherwise, Jethro warns, “Navol tibol” — not “You will wear yourself out,” as in most translations… but “You will become corrupted.”
The double verb form (navol tibol) is the “infinitive absolute” — used to convey special emphasis and to express certainty or inevitability. (For examples of this Hebrew verb form, see Genesis 2:17; Numbers 23:25; I Samuel 20:6, etc.) Jethro’s earnest counsel to Moses might thus best be translated as “You will become absolutely corrupted!” (or, possibly, “You will absolutely become corrupted!”). Indeed, I submit that Jethro’s phrase constitutes the biblical source of Lord John Acton’s 1887 axiom: “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Acton originally offered this oft-cited insight on corruption in reference to Renaissance era popes, in a letter to Mandell Creighton, a bishop of the Church of England and Acton’s University of Cambridge faculty colleague. Even popes, Acton insisted — holy men at the pinnacle of religious leadership — were subject to corruption, just as Jethro warned God’s chosen prophet, Moses, of the same danger, should he persist in his unilateral, autocratic style of judicial leadership, be it ever so benevolent in intent. It makes perfect sense that Lord Acton, a leader of liberal English Roman Catholics opposed to the doctrine of papal infallibility, would, in his correspondence with an establishment cleric, have offered literary homage to Jethro, a Midianite priest who so forthrightly addressed the frail humanity of religious leaders. “This thing you are doing is not right.”
Lord Acton understood: all who despise autocracy and loathe corruption — all who cherish diversity of religious perspective, democracy, and an independent judiciary — owe a profound historic debt to Jethro. On this Shabbat named for that Midianite priest, we also recognize our indebtedness to Moses, who — despite the unmatched clarity of his access to the Divine will — humbly embraced his father-in-law’s wisdom. We of far lesser spiritual gifts are — to an absolute certainty — duty bound to do the same.