We who are privileged to be alive today have at our disposal a wealth of newly unearthed data that illuminates the Bible. Cuneiform tablets shed light on two of the commandments—the second and tenth—as we shall soon note. Moreover, the text of the Ten Commandments as a whole takes on new meaning as we restudy it with the tools and materials of modern scholarship.
The Ten Commandments were originally addressed to the children of Israel. The opening words—“I am Yahweh, your God, Who brought you from the Land of Egypt, from the house of slaves”—are directed by God to his particular people. The text is a guide to a way of life worthy of his followers.
The purpose of this article is to review the contents of the commandments against a background of collateral evidence so that we may understand more fully how and why the commandments have become relevant not merely for ancient Israel but for mankind throughout the ages.
The commandments are not law in the legal sense. They are beyond law-court legality. We are to obey them, not because there is a penalty for breaking them, but because we love God. It is impossible to impose a legal penalty for coveting; violating the tenth commandment draws no punishment according to the Bible or to any other code. The Ten Commandments do not even allude to any legal punishment for theft, adultery, or murder. The text enjoins obedience on us for the love of God, not for fear of a penalty imposed by a court. It states that while God punishes sins down to the third and fourth generation, he metes out loving-kindness down to thousands of generations “for those that love Me and keep My commandments.” The commandments are thus beyond law in the ordinary sense, and will be practiced by those who love God, because to love God requires the fulfillment of his commandments. The Hebrews did not have to justify the validity of the commandments, as the Greek philosophers had to justify morality and ethics, for reasons to be given below.
The Ten Commandments appear twice, once in Exodus 20 and again in Deuteronomy 5. Some variant wording distinguishes the two versions, but the commandments are the same in both cases. The only significant difference is the reason given for the Sabbath. Exodus stresses that Sabbath observance is required by God’s example; like him, we must labor six days but rest on the seventh. Deuteronomy, on the other hand, reminds Israel that since they once experienced the evils of slavery, they should be careful to give a day of rest to those who work for them.
The first commandment forbids the worship of other gods. Israel had been rescued from slavery by its God, who therefore claims Israel’s sole allegiance: “I am Yahweh, your God, Who brought you from the Land of Egypt, from the house of slaves. You shall have no other gods in addition to Me.” No issue is made about the existence of other gods. The Hebrews in those early times did not seek converts, nor were they concerned about what other nations believed or practiced religiously. They were concerned with living by the rules of conduct required of them by their God.
For some time to come, Israel was to remain envisaged as a city-state: twelve tribes living in a fairly small land with a single national shrine to which everyone was to make pilgrimages, thrice yearly if possible: at the festivals of Tabernacles, Passover, and Pentecost. Israel was not a power to be reckoned with politically or militarily in the world at large until the Empire of David and especially of his son Solomon. It was primarily the internationalism of Solomon’s Age in the tenth century B.C. that paved the way for the spiritual universality of Israel’s immortal prophets starting with the eighth century B.C.
The second commandment forbids the making of images: “You shall not make for yourself any graven image, even any likeness of what is in the heavens above, in the earth beneath, and in the waters under the earth. You shall not bow down to them nor serve them for I, Yahweh your God, am a jealous God, visiting the sin of parents on children down to the third and fourth generations of those that hate Me, but working loving-kindness to the thousands, for those that love Me and keep My commandments.”
Individual Israelites were not above manufacturing their own private gods. Judges 17 relates how a Hebrew named Michah made an idol of silver and proceeded to set up a private family cult around it. To be sure, this was well meant and all in Yahweh’s name (see verses 2, 3, 13); but the fact remains that we have taken an overt step toward breaking with our fathers’ faith when we manufacture a new idol and build our own private cult about it.
The commandments seek to keep the people united by an undivided allegiance to God and his rules of living. Making new gods is a sure way of splitting up a community and of breaking up families as well. If all of us did what Michah did in the chaotic days of the judges, every household would have its own cult; the resultant spiritual chaos would contribute to general chaos in family, national, and world affairs. Most men of good will today rightly feel that the world needs spiritual unity rather than more gods.
The Nuzu Tablet
What we have just said about the second commandment may seem somewhat farfetched if we try to comprehend the biblical text without some external information. After all, the Ten Commandments were worded directly not for us but for a Near Eastern people over three thousand years ago. In our quest for a deeper understanding of the Bible, it is always helpful to gain access to pertinent data from biblical antiquity. The second commandment is now illuminated by a legal document from about 1400 B.C. The document is written in Babylonian on a clay tablet and comes from the town of Nuzu located near the modern Iraqian city of Kirkuk. (Professor E. R. Lacheman’s copy of the tablet is available as text 108 in Volume XIV of the Harvard Semitic Series [Cambridge, Mass., 1950].) It is the last will and testament of a father to his sons. The father commands his sons not to make other gods. Instead he deposits the household idols with his eldest son so that all his sons will be united through the worship of the family gods at the home of the chief heir: “After I die, my sons shall not make gods; my gods I leave with my eldest son.”
The religion of that Nuzu man is not like the religion of Moses. (But it is not unlike the religion of Laban, who had such gods, according to Genesis 31.) The Ten Commandments enjoin upon us the worship of one God; and even he must not be represented iconically. The Nuzu family was both polytheistic and idolatrous. But the Nuzu tablet shows us a danger that was recognized in the Bible world; namely, that making idols is divisive and should therefore be shunned. (We cannot enter into all the implications of idolatry in later times, but it is worth noting that defeated nations, on seeing their idols dragged off or smashed, tended to become demoralized and lose their identity. Assyria, Babylonia, the Seleucids, and Rome could not destroy the Jewish religion partly because God and his people’s allegiance to him were incorporeal and therefore indestructible. The second commandment thus paved the way for the historic survival of Yahwism.) Some of the prophets and the New Testament eschatology envisage the unity of all the nations in peace and in worship. But the Chosen People in the second millennium B.C. did not start out with any ecumenical program for immediate implementation. The structure of society in the Pentateuch is geared, as we have observed, to the requirements of a city-state. Pentateuchal regulations are not designed for a country the size of the United States of America, with its great distances and with a population much too large to assemble in the capital.
The city-state aspect of ancient Israel is not, of course, what made Israel distinctive or great. Other city-states (including Athens and Sparta) also shared the same general structure. What made Israel different and significant was the content of its law that took it out of the religious and moral pattern of all its neighbors. The other nations not only were idolatrous and polytheistic but also made a place (and all too often an honored place) for lax morality and warped ethics. Israel accepted the law that consciously forbade those internationally accepted usages. Nowadays, when biblical teachings are in theory approved (no matter how much they are violated in practice), the Ten Commandments seem self-evident, and it takes less courage to live by them than to flout them. But this was not so for the early Israelites, whose law put them out of step with the world and made them the objects of scorn and hate in pagan antiquity. The Roman historian Tacitus accused the Jews of turning the standards of the world topsy-turvy by inverting the accepted definitions of “sacred” and “impious.” From the standpoint of Mediterranean paganism, Tacitus was not entirely wrong. The Pentateuch (e.g., Leviticus 18:1–5, 30) tells us not to follow the customs of the other nations, because those customs are abominable; but instead to follow God’s laws, which, as we now know, are often in conscious opposition to the laws of Israel’s neighbors.
The third commandment forbids perjury: “You shall not swear by the name of Yahweh your God to a falsehood; for God will not clear anybody who swears by His name to a falsehood.” This commandment, by the way, is not an innovation. It was a widespread view that swearing to a falsehood would incite the god invoked to punish the perjurer. The idea is that when we offend God by misusing his name, he avenges his honor by bringing retribution on us.
The fourth commandment orders us to “remember to keep the Sabbath day holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work but the seventh day is a Sabbath unto Yahweh your God. (On it) neither you nor your son and daughter, your male or female slave, nor your cattle, nor the resident who is within your gates, shall do any work. For in six days Yahweh made the heavens, the earth and the sea and all that is therein, but He rested on the seventh day. Therefore Yahweh blessed the Sabbath day and sanctified it.”
A Rest Day For All
Other nations divided time into units of seven, but it remained for the Bible to establish the seventh day as a day of rest for the entire community. In the Exodus version which we have just translated, keeping the Sabbath is required by divine example. He labored for six days and rested on the seventh; hence it behooves us to do likewise. The Deuteronomy version, however, stresses the social side. The Israelite was to give his dependents a day of rest for humanitarian reasons: “Neither you nor your son and daughter, your male or female slave, nor your ox, ass or any of your cattle, nor the stranger who is within your gates, shall do any work, so that your male and female slave may rest like you. You shall remember that you were a slave in the Land of Egypt and Yahweh your God brought you out from there with a strong hand and outstretched arm. Therefore Yahweh your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.” Israel’s slavery had conditioned the nation to understand this commandment.
In antiquity slavery existed everywhere, even in Israel. The abolition of slavery lay far ahead in history; but humane treatment of the slave is a divine commandment, and his right to a weekly day of rest is guaranteed by the law. Tyranny can be exercised not only over one’s slaves but also over one’s children, so the commandment protects them, too. It remains to note that the ancient concept of the community embraces domestic animals as well as people. Accordingly, the work animals are to have their day of rest. It is interesting to note that after the Flood, God made his covenant not only with Noah and his sons but also with the animals on the ark (Gen. 9:8–17). To cite only one of many more examples: the slaying of the Egyptian firstborn applied to Egyptian cattle as well as people (Ex. 11:5).
The fifth commandment, to honor parents, is the key to social stability. Without it we run into juvenile delinquency and a general breakdown of law and order. Respect for society must be rooted in respect for parents in the home from early childhood. Israel took this responsibility seriously; Deuteronomy 21:18–21 prescribes the death penalty for incorrigible juvenile delinquents for the express purpose of “wiping out evil from the midst” of the community. We do not know how often, or indeed if ever, this drastic measure was implemented; but we do know that ancient Hebrew society did not spawn whole generations of children who wantonly violated the law and brought disgrace on their parents. No biblical Israelite youth was so delinquent as to come home and slay his parents because they were exercising their parental authority over him and not letting him run his life as he pleased. There is no dearth of crime narrated in the pages of Scripture, but the people who considered respect for parents a divine ordinance did not have any general problem of juvenile delinquency. The commandment reads: “Honor your father and mother in order that your days may be long on the Land that Yahweh your God is about to give you.” Note that the reward is long life in the Promised Land for the virtuous members of God’s particular people. The world as a whole was not yet ready for the Ten Commandments. Many ancient city-states had their own special law codes, but Israel alone had a law that has remained a living force throughout the centuries. Indeed, with the spread of Christianity, it is still widening its influence, whereas the laws of the other ancient nations are objects of study but not guides for living.
The sixth commandment (“You shall not murder”) is not directed against killing in general. Hebrew, like English, has entirely different words for “murder” and “kill.” This commandment does not apply, for example, to capital punishment meted out to criminals under law; nor does it apply to killing the enemy on the battlefield. Murder designates assassination or some other kind of treacherous or criminal manslaughter.
Sins Among The Gods
One might think that the prohibitions against murder, adultery (the seventh commandment), and stealing (the eighth) would be universal, but it is not so. In ancient Sparta, it was getting caught, not stealing, that was reprehensible. In Canaan the natives worshiped the goddess Anath, who, as we know from the Ugaritic poems, had a man murdered to rob him of his bow. (Ugarit was a city-state on the northern coast of Syria. The religious texts found there constituted “the Bible of the Canaanites,” so to speak, around 1400–1200 B.C.) The Homeric Hymn to Hermes glories in telling how that beloved god was a remarkable thief from infancy. And Zeus himself became enamored of married women—like Amphitryon’s wife Alcmene—and impregnated them.
In other words, the Hebrews lived in a world where people revered gods who committed theft, adultery, and murder. In Israel, however, the concept of God left no place for such behavior. Pagan gods—as we know from the religious texts of the pagans themselves—all too often set a sub-human standard for their devotees. In Israel the divine pattern uplifted men. This is why the biblical tradition, in which men are created in the image of God, leads men toward moral perfection by inspiring them to imitate their Maker. We are told, for instance, to follow God’s example by resting on the Sabbath. The perfect example of our righteous and unsinning God made it unnecessary for Hebrew moralists to set up a philosophical system for the good way of life. In Israel right living consisted in conforming to the divine pattern. Conduct was to be in accord with God’s commandments. At a later date the prophets found it unnecessary to justify virtuous living and social perfection, for these followed automatically from the nature of God as the people of Israel understood it.
Another talented people, the Greeks, also aspired to the good life; but they could not do so by emulating their deities. Instead the Greeks had to justify morality and ethics by systematic philosophy, a development the ancient Hebrews did not experience because they had no need for it. Yahweh provides a pattern for the moral man; Zeus does not.
The ninth commandment is, “You shall not bear false witness against the other fellow.” As we shall presently observe, distinguished neighbors of the Hebrews stooped to this crime even though universal agreement held it to be wrong. In Israel, however, it could not go unpunished.
Baal And Covetousness
The tenth commandment often seems enigmatic. How can anyone be found guilty of coveting unless it leads to theft or adultery?—and the latter offenses are punishable as such, regardless of the coveting that led to them. In our society today we expect a degree of coveting on the part of any normal person who wants to get ahead. In fact, a young man who does not aspire to the standard of living of those better off than he is considered ambitionless and as such reprehensible. In any case it seems at first strange that the Ten Commandments prohibit coveting, classifying it with theft, adultery, and murder. “You shall not covet the house of your neighbor, nor covet your neighbor’s wife, his male or female slave, nor his ox or ass, nor anything he has.” The biblical emphasis against coveting is clarified by Ugaritic literature, according to which the pagan god Baal is a god who covets the houses of his fellow gods and then succeeds in getting the best of all houses built for himself. The Bible is to a great extent a reaction against pagan values. Anything honored in pagan religion is likely to be regarded as an abomination in Israel. It is no accident that the very first article we are told not to covet is our neighbor’s house, for Baal coveted just that. Ugaritic literature also tells us that Baal coveted some mythological animals; this is countered by the biblical prohibition against coveting our neighbor’s livestock. The version in Deuteronomy 5 adds the field of our neighbor among the objects we must not covet; we may compare the Ugaritic tablet that tells of Baal’s coveting fields. (I have referred to the specific Ugaritic texts in “A Note on the Tenth Commandment,” The Journal of Bible and Religion 31, 1963, pp. 208, 209.) The emphasis against coveting is now clear from the Ugaritic texts that attribute covetousness to Baal.
The clash between Israelite and local pagan values is illustrated by the ill-starred marriage of Ahab and Jezebel. Ahab was weak vis-à-vis his foreign wife. Each was a product of his own culture. When Ahab wanted Naboth’s vineyard and Naboth refused to sell or trade it, Ahab, though distressed, would not put pressure on Naboth (1 Kings 21). Ahab as a Hebrew was not to covet another’s field, let alone bear false witness, steal, and murder to gain possession of it. Jezebel approached matters differently. She was of Phoenician-Canaanite background and a devotee of Baal. Far from outlawing covetousness, Baal had set the pattern for it. As a result Jezebel could not understand her husband’s scruples, and like her god she proceeded to get the coveted object. She filched the vineyard for Ahab by trumping up a false accusation against Naboth, hiring lying witnesses against him, and having him murdered so that Ahab could confiscate his property. Nowhere could we find a clearer contrast between Israel and the culture that surrounded it. By her native Phoenician standards she was a normal queen who never did anything worse than Baal or Anath. Ahab’s scruples were as incomprehensible to Jezebel as her behavior is to the average Bible reader today.
Once we grasp the values of Canaanite Baalism, we can begin to understand the magnitude and nature of the reaction embodied in Israel’s Yahwism.
Coveting is all too common. It characterizes vulgar people, and while not a punishable offense in itself, it frequently is the prelude to open transgression. The tenth commandment is designed to save us from the dangerous blight of such commonness.
The Ten Commandments are a landmark in human history, because they sum up in a few verses so much of what society and the individual need for a good, orderly, and productive life. All of us should aspire to accomplishing the best we have in us during the six working days of every week. If we were to follow these sacred precepts, we would become as free as possible from the turmoil that results from transgression, and from the dissatisfaction that stems from coveting. We would have a more stable society in which parents and children would be better united in respect and love. We would be more atune to the divine order of things through following the commandments of God.
But the modern man is not content with this. He asks: “How do we know there is a god who revealed these laws? What authority have they? As an intelligent person should I not work out my own code of morality?” And so forth. Once we relinquish our traditional moral absolutes, we succumb to moral relativism. Like the Greeks of old, we must then set about constructing our own system of right and wrong. The end of all such inquiries (if they are successful!) must quite closely approximate the Ten Commandments. But in the process of rediscovering time-honored, tested, and self-evident moral truth, we can fritter away much of our lifetime.
We should all have our appointed tasks. A few of us are philosophers whose professional business it may be to question ethical and moral systems; but most of us are in other walks of life. Our duty to society, to ourselves, and to our God is to live useful lives in our chosen fields and to be good citizens. Relativism in morality and ethics tends to deflect a man from his work and sometimes renders him in need of psychic therapy as well. The man who accepts the Ten Commandments as absolute has a better chance of being released for efficient work during six days, and refreshed on the Sabbath, every week.
Cyrus H. Gordon is professor of Near Eastern studies and chairman of the Department of Mediterranean Studies at Brandeis University. The author of several books, including “The World of the Old Testament” and “Before the Bible,” he belongs to a conservative synagogue. Dr. Gordon may be described as upholding the Jewish tradition that scriptural study is not only an academic pursuit but a sacrament and a way of life.
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