The Ten Commandments

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May 1, 2012
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Tzemah Yoreh

I believe in the vital importance of the Ten Commandments, both to the fabric of my life and to Western Civilization, yet I am agnostic with regard to the Jewish God, and do not accept scripture as divinely ordained. How does this work for me?

The Bible is often understood, within religious circles (Jewish and Christian), as monolithic when it comes to the values it imparts, the belief system it advocates, and the laws that it legislates. It is as though, from the perspective of many groups, the Bible exclusively supports one worldview. This is simply not true. Neuroscientist and public atheist Sam Harris and other neo-atheists have referred to the Bible as the great justifier, and I would agree with them — less the disparaging attitude they often evince toward religious texts.

The Bible, for example, is often thought to be an exclusively monotheistic text; it is not. In Genesis 6, the sons of God cohabit with human females who give birth to heroic demigod figures; in Leviticus 16, a sacrifice is offered to Azazel, a demon; and Deuteronomy 33 describes Yahweh, the Israelite God, as one of the 70 sons of the God Elyon.1

Found in the Bible are verses that legislate genocide and other verses that command one to be kind to the stranger. And while the Bible is primarily a patriarchal-hierarchical text, the Song of Songs is remarkably egalitarian.

Because of the variety of what we find within the Bible’s 1,000 or so chapters, I, personally, have the freedom as a practicing Jew to disagree with particular biblical texts but nevertheless feel that my Judaism is authentic. So, how do I relate to the Ten Commandments?

One of the primary ways I relate to biblical texts is through the lens of biblical criticism, specifically through the supplementary hypothesis. At its most basic level, this theory suggests that the way in which biblical narrative evolved was one of successive additions upon one original and complete text. This was done to make the stories and the laws of the Bible relevant to new generations of readers in different places and later times. The earliest stratum, the kernel, if you will, of the Ten Commandments (as found in Exodus 20) is seven terse negative injunctions (You shall have no God but me; make yourselves no idols; don’t murder; don’t steal; don’t commit adultery; don’t offer false witness; don’t covet). These injunctions are not meant to function as a comprehensive law code or even as principles. Rather, they are a few of the most important discrete laws people should live by. Here, the act of revelation is more important than the laws. The revelation is meant to prove that Moses, who led Israel out of Egypt, is God’s messenger and speaks with God’s authority. These Seven Commandments are part of the strong non-nomian (libertarian) strand found in the Bible: Laws are relatively unimportant. Only God is king, and ultimately one’s primary responsibility is to be true to God.

To this earliest stratum, a later author added laws about observing the Sabbath and honoring one’s parents. But the most prominent addition is a long explanation regarding proper monotheistic worship. This is because, according to this later author, the Ten Commandments (there are ten of them now), are the prelude to a pact between God and Israel, and, as such, proper worship of the deity becomes very central.

The final stratum, or layer, adds only half a verse to the text of the Ten Commandments. And yet, this addition manages to change the entire tenor of the passage. This author adds that the reason for observing the Sabbath is that God created the world in six days and on the seventh God rested; in other words, law and order are integral and inherent to the fabric of the universe that the Jewish people inhabit. This final author, unlike the original composer of the seven injunctions, believed that without law, order, and hierarchy, life would not exist, and that all laws derive from this overarching imperative.

The function of the commandments changed as the Bible slowly accreted into its canonical form. And the way we relate to the Bible and the Ten Commandments, which stand at its center, also continues to evolve. Somewhat like this final priestly layer, I see the Ten Commandments as a symbol of law and order that must prevail so I am free to pursue my heart’s desire without always having to think of my basic needs and safety. This is how I (perhaps a mite too generously?) choose to interpret the desire of my fellow Americans to place the Ten Commandments before statehouses and courts. I may not buy into the law’s authority, and may not agree with some of the Ten Commandments, but I will never deny that what they represent is absolutely necessary to the fabric of my life.

1 For example, see the Dead Sea Scrolls and modern Christian translations of the Bible for interpretations of Deuteronomy 33: “When the Most High (Elyon) apportioned the nations, when he divided humankind, he fixed the boundaries of the peoples according to the number of the gods; Yahweh’s own portion was his people, Jacob his allotted share.”

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Tzemah Yoreh has a doctorate in Bible from the Hebrew University. He works to make prayer and Bible meaningful and accessible to people with conventional and non-conventional views, and he can be contacted via his website biblecriticism.com. He is the author of The First Book of God (Walter de Gruyter) and editor of Vixens Disturbing Vineyards (Academic Studies Press). Yoreh also folds origami into abstract shapes, participates in Esperanto conventions, and attends Yiddish concerts where he lowers the average age significantly.

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