In the Torah reading of Yitro is the story of the revelation of the tablets on Sinai and the ten statements – and, the Biblical term is ten statements and not ten commandments. There is a midrash (rabbinic commentary) according to which only the first two of the ten statements (“I am the Lord your God” and “You shall have no other gods before Me”) were transmitted directly to the people Israel on Sinai – and, the rest of the statements were transmitted through the mediation of Moses. However, in the plain meaning of Scripture, all of the ten statements in their entirety are revealed to the people Israel directly, and not through the prophetic mediation of Moses.
Just prior to the revealing of the ten statements, Moses is directed to descend from Mount Sinai below to the people Israel (Exodus 19, 25), and immediately after the revelation of the ten statements to the entire people Israel Moses approaches God on the mountain (Exodus 20, 18). Immediately following the great revelation of the ten statements, directly transmitted to the people Israel, it is written (Exodus 20, 15-16):
And all saw the thunder, and the lightning and the sound of the shofar, and the mountain smoking, and when the people saw it they were shaken, and stood afar off. And they said to Moses, speak you with us and we will hear, but let God not speak with us lest we die.
An obvious question that arises here is how the Israelites could see thunder or the sound of the shofar! I want to suggest that vision, as a sensory perception, leads to images, and feelings in response to those images, but not necessarily to understanding. Thus, the Israelites standing at the foot of Mount Sinai have some kind of powerful and profound religious and spiritual experience including images and sensations (thunder, fire and smoke), provoking feelings, such as fear, as they express to Moses in saying “Speak you with us and we will hear, but let God not speak with us lest we die“. This statement of the Israelites implies that they were unable to hear the voice of God in the revelation of the ten statements, as they say to Moses – “Speak you with us and we will hear” (as if until this point they could not hear). However, the Hebrew word hear (נשמע) means not only to hear physically but also to understand (as in English slang “I hear you”).
I want to suggest that the Israelites were not able to understand the great and transcendent revelation of the ten statements. The reason why I suggest such an interpretation is that not only would it be absurd to suggest that the Israelites could not hear the revelation in a physical sense, but the commandments and laws (of a conditional nature) that the Israelites received in the Book of Exodus (following the great and transcendent revelation on Sinai of the ten statements) through the prophetic mediation of Moses are completely different than those of the ten statements both in terms of content (particular and legal rather than universal and moral) and style (conditional rather than absolute). There would be no reason for giving commandments so different in content and style than the ten statements if the Israelites had been able to understand the ten statements and unable to hear them merely in a physical sense.
In my view, what the Israelites would have been incapable of grasping regarding the ten statements would not have been the content of the transcendent revelation of the ten statements (as the content in general is fairly straightforward and simple, especially regarding such direct and absolute moral commands as “You shall not murder” or “You shall not steal”) but, rather, the religious conception implied in the revelation of the ten statements. The religious conception implied in the great revelation of the ten statements on Sinai (constituting a revolution in the ancient, near east, and western culture as a whole) is that God demands morality as an inherent part of God’s nature and that morality is the essence of religion – as reflected in the opening verse of the ten statements, “I am the Lord your God who brought you forth out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery”, which is shocking.
The Bible opens with a story in which God is depicted as the Creator and Ruler of the universe and the obvious question that arises in the opening of the ten statements is why God is presented merely as the God of Israel and redemption (who has redeemed the people Israel from slavery) rather than as the Creator and Ruler of the universe! I want to suggest that the great revolution of the Bible is reflected here in the opening statement of the ten statements.
In the surrounding pagan cultures in the ancient, Biblical world, the gods were conceived of as forces or powers of nature that were powerful, but not inherently or necessarily moral – and thus act within nature, and influence human affairs, not as an expression of moral will but as an expression of their power. The gods in the pagan conception can be influenced or appeased by offering sacrifices, or by performing some other ritual practice – and, ritual practice is conceived as the very essence of religion.
From the Biblical account of the creation we can infer only that God is necessarily powerful in having created the entire universe, but not that God is necessarily moral. It may be (from a purely logical point of view) that an evil and powerful god (or evil and powerful gods) created the universe. The great revolution of the Hebrew Bible is the way in which God is conceived (as a moral God who demands morality), as reflected in the opening statement of the ten statements in which God is presented not as the Creator and Ruler of the universe (as a God of power), but as the God of Israel (as a God of revelation and redemption) in redeeming the people Israel from slavery and oppression (“I am the Lord your God who has brought you forth out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery”). From this, that God acts within history to redeem the people Israel from oppression, we infer that God necessarily demands morality – and, this revolutionary conception of God in turn transforms the essence of religion from ritual practice (as in the pagan conception) to morality. Thus, for the first time in human history, there is a necessary connection between religion and morality, in which the very essence of religion is conceived to be morality.
The ten statements include commandments of a moral, universal and absolute rather than legal, particular and conditional nature. It is only after the Israelites request the prophetic mediation of Moses when they are unable to understand and grasp the religious conception of the great revelation on Sinai that they are then given commandments of a legal, particular and conditional nature with which they are already familiar.
The ten statements are moral, universal and rational in nature, requiring no prophetic mediation from Moses. Indeed, the commandments of the ten statements are written in second person singular because they are addressed directly to the people Israel without prophetic mediation – and, they are formulated in the form of absolute commands (such as “You shall not murder”), not dependent upon any particular case or conditions. The commandments that follow after the revelation of the ten statements (Exodus 21-23) are in the main (though not entirely) in third person singular, transmitted through the mediation of Moses – and, they are of a legal, particular and conditional nature, bound to and dependent upon particular conditions and circumstances.
For example, laws of slavery begin with a commandment of a legal, particular and conditional nature: “If you buy a Hebrew servant, (then) six years he shall serve” (Exodus 21, 2). The conditional form (if, then) indicates that the law is bound to and dependent upon a particular case or set of circumstances, and not an absolute commandment, as in the case of the ten statements. The law does not require or prohibit in an absolute sense that one own a servant. Rather, the law regulates the conditions in which one may own a servant. Such conditional laws reflect particular social conditions of an ancient agricultural society in which slavery is allowed. The absolute commandments of the ten statements are in the form of absolute moral imperatives that are universal in nature transcending any particular conditions, culture or time period. The ten statements are eternally relevant to any human being, no matter what culture or time period he or she may live in, even though they happen to be directed to the people Israel.
It is clear that legal, particular and conditional commandments, such as laws regarding animal sacrifice as a form of worship (Exodus 20, 21), or civil laws regarding slavery, damages and other various subjects following the ten statements (Exodus 21-23), that do not appear in the ten statements, are not of a transcendent moral and universal nature as those of the ten statements but of a legal nature relevant to the particular society in which the Israelites live, and with which they are familiar – as conditional laws of a legal nature were known throughout the ancient near east long before the Hebrew Bible, and appear in the Babylonian law code of Hammurabi or ancient Hittite law codes. However, absolute, moral commandments of God, such as characterize the ten statements, have no precedent, and are not to be found outside the Bible in other ancient near eastern law codes and literature.
Civil law codes that preceded the Bible in the ancient near east, such as the law code of Hammurabi, were promulgated in the name of a particular god or gods, or in the name of the king who was viewed as a deity, so that civil law was seen to be within the larger confines of religion as in the Bible. Furthermore, there is also prior precedent in the ancient near east (both in Egypt and Mesopotamia) for the wisdom literature of the Bible (the Book of Proverbs, the Book of Job, the Book of Ecclesiastes and various Psalms) in which human wisdom is seen as a legitimate source of moral guidance independent of Divine revelation. However, there is no prior precedent whatsoever for the revolutionary idea of the Hebrew Bible that God demands morality (and commands absolute moral imperatives, as reflected in the ten statements) as an inherent part of God’s moral nature, and that morality thus constitutes the very essence of religion. In my view, it is this revolutionary idea that the Israelites were incapable of grasping in the revelation of the ten statements at Sinai.