1 Yitro (Exodus 18, 1 – 20, 23) – the moral nature of the ten statements

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. I want to point out that the ten statements, which represent in the Hebrew Bible the high point of the revelation of God’s moral will to the Jewish people, are overwhelmingly moral in nature. There is support for a contrary view that the first tablet containing the first 5 statements are “between a person and God” (spiritual-religious) and the second tablet containing the second 5 statements are “between a person and one’s fellow human being” (moral-secular) – in each of the 5 statements of the first tablet the name of God (YHVH) appears, while in each of the 5 statements of the second tablet the name of God does not appear at all. However, I would suggest that the appearance of the name YHVH in each of the statements of the first tablet, symbolizing that God demands morality, reflects the moral nature even of the first tablet.

 

The great revolution of the Bible is not monotheism, but the way in which God is conceived (as a moral God who demands morality), as reflected in the story of the burning bush, which is a story of revelation – revelation of the very name of God (YHVH) to Moses. The essence of the revelation to Moses at the burning bush is that God demands morality. God reveals God’s nature to Moses as a God of history as opposed to a power of nature (as in the pagan conception of gods as powers of nature) – “Thus shall you say to the children of Israel, the Lord (YHVH) God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you; this is My name for ever…I have surely visited you, and seen that which is done to you in Egypt” (Exodus 3, 15-16). God, in the verse here, is depicted as having seen the oppression and persecution that the people Israel have suffered in Egypt, and the mentioning that YHVH is the name of God in the verse signifies God’s moral opposition to such oppression and persecution.

 

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” 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. Indeed, in the opening account of creation there is no moral demand from God to human beings. It is proclaimed five times by the Bible after various acts of creation “and God saw that it was good”, and after the creation as a whole it is proclaimed “behold, it is very good”. However, aside from such value judgment, the story of creation is absent of any moral aspect in the sense that there isn’t any moral demand at all from God regarding human behavior.

 

The great revolution of the Hebrew Bible is the way in which God is conceived (as a moral God who demands morality), as reflected not only in the story of the burning bush but also 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. Immediately following this opening statement of the ten statements come the moral demands and commandments of God that are incumbent upon the people Israel.

 

The second statement, which demands loyalty to God (YHVH) and that God (YHVH) be served and worshipped exclusively, is a continuation of the first statement:

 

You shall have no other gods beside Me.  You shall not make for yourself any carved idol, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: You shall not bow down to them, nor serve them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God…

 

The worship of other gods, of forces of nature, particularly in the ancient Canaanite cultures, expressed itself in the form of fertility cults. The question of who is to be served and worshipped – YHVH, the God of Israel, or Ba’al, the Canaanite god – is a moral and experiential (rather than an abstract philosophic) question expressing itself in the choosing of a certain way of life. That is, the question of who is to be worshipped, YHVH or Ba’al, is ultimately a question of whether one will live a life of morality in accordance with the moral demands of YHVH, or a life of crass materialism, sensuality and sexual orgy as part of a fertility cult of Ba’al. The second statement prohibits not only the worshipping of other gods but worshipping even YHVH in a physical or material manner as forces of nature were worshipped since morality, the essence of YHVH’s nature, is completely spiritual in nature – “You (the people Israel) shall not make for yourself any carved idol” and “You (the people Israel) shall not make with Me (YHVH) gods of silver, neither shall you make for yourselves gods of gold” Exodus 20, 20).

 

Without doubt the demand of the people Israel to worship God (YHVH) exclusively involves a faith commitment (though the term faith is strikingly absent from the ten statements). However, the nature of faith or worship that is being demanded in the ten statements is characteristically psychological and experiential rather than theological or propositional. The demand of exclusive worship of YHVH is not in response to an abstract theological question as to whether God truly exists, but is an expression of moral commitment in which the worship and service of God necessarily expresses itself in a moral and spiritual life. Moreover, the terms that are used in the verse prohibiting the worship of other gods are not theological but behavioral and experiential concepts – bowing to them (worship) and service of them (“You shall not bow down to them, nor serve them”).

 

Regarding the third statement – “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain” – the very essence of the name of the Lord, YHVH, is that YHVH demands morality. This is the revelation to Moses at the burning bush where God is first revealed as a God of history, revelation and redemption as opposed to a power of nature – “Thus shall you say to the children of Israel, the Lord (YHVH) God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you; this is My name for ever…I have surely visited you, and seen that which is done to you in Egypt” (Exodus 3, 15-18). Thus, to take the name of the Lord in vain should not be understood narrowly as a legal prohibition forbidding the swearing or taking of an oath by the name of God in vain, but rather as a moral prohibition forbidding the committing of any dishonest or immoral act that would disgrace or profane the name of God.

 

The fourth statement, the commandment to observe the Sabbath is the only statement among the ten statements that involves a ritual practice. However, the emphasis regarding observance of the Sabbath in the ten statements is upon the moral and social consequences of the practice – rest, once a week, physically and spiritually, for the entire society, including women, children, slaves and animals. Incidentally, even into the 20th century in Europe and the United States people, including women and children, worked in factories seven days a week. The Bible several thousand years ago prescribed a Sabbath rest once a week for everyone including slaves and animals.

 

The rest of the ten statements are clearly of a moral and social nature, concerned with our relationship with our parents and to our fellow human beings, with the exception of the last statement – “You shall not covet” – which is psychological in nature, primarily concerned with our moral character. Thus, the thrust of the ten statements as a whole including the first tablet is a moral thrust – all of the statements on both tablets (expressing moral values as the essence of religion) are of a religious (moral) and spiritual (moral) nature, and the two tablets are thus One.

 

 

Jeffrey Radon

Author of orthopraxjudaism.com

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