Ten Commandments, and Their Back Story



The Ten Commandments are the best-known section of the Bible. In recent years, our society has debated what place, if any, the commandments should have in the public square. Yet we can ask a more fundamental question regarding these sacred commandments: "Are there really 10?"

This week's portion lists the "Ten Commandments," but just as in the earlier listing of them in Exodus, there appears to be only nine. The first "commandment" (according to the Jewish parsing, as opposed to the Christian) is: "I am Hashem, your God, who has brought you forth from the land of Egypt, the house of slavery." The first "commandment" seems to be only a statement of introduction.

There is a simple answer to our dilemma, as well as a more religiously satisfying one. The simple one is that in Hebrew, the Ten Commandments are called Eseret Ha'Dibrot ("the 10 statements"), so there is no problem claiming that these 10 statements consist of one introductory line by God, followed by nine other statements that are also divine commandments.

The second answer is more religiously satisfying because it makes us aware of the magnitude of God's introduction. By introducing himself as Israel's liberator, God is reminding us that he has earned our respect through his past actions, and therefore has the authority to command. The 10 "commandants" are part of the covenant between God and Israel, in which God sets forth some of his most basic conditions. The covenant as a whole is spelled out in Deuteronomy.

For example, latter in Va'etchanan, we encounter the first paragraph of what is said to be the most famous Jewish prayer: the Shema. Yet the Shema is not a prayer; it's the word of God, in which God requires our allegiance to him by loving him with all of our heart, soul and might.

The first "commandment" is fundamental to our national relationship with God. God is not simply one who arrived at Mount Sinai and imposed his demands on a newly freed band of slaves. We are only free because of God's merciful intervention into Israelite history. Thus, God has earned the right to command.

One could easily suggest that the Israelites were freed by one tyrant, Pharaoh, only to be forced to submit to another, God. History is full of episodes of people being "liberated" by a conquering ruler, only to become enslaved to their conquering liberator.

The "Ten Commandments" appears to follow the pattern of ancient Near Eastern suzerain-vassal covenants, in which the suzerain ("ruler") demands the absolute obedience of his vassals because of a past act of kindness preformed by the suzerain. Typically, the covenant provides rewards for the obedient vassal and punishments for the disobedient.

However, the Ten Commandments do not fully conform to this model. In the typical suzerain-vassal model, the suzerain is only concerned with obtaining the vassals continued obedience. Not so with God. The second side of the commandments (which deal with man's relations with his fellow man) demonstrates that God is not solely concerned with securing our loyalty, as an autocrat would be, but is focused on our interpersonal relations as well.

In other words, God is not solely concerned with the establishment of monotheism; he is concerned with the establishment of an ethical monotheism.

God did not impose his commandments in order to enslave us; he gave us his commandants to draw us closer to him by sanctifying ourselves with the following of his laws. We sanctify ourselves by loving God with all our heart, soul and might, but this does not simply mean that we refrain from worshipping the gods of others. It means that we treat fellow humans with dignity, respect and kindness, as God has compassionately commanded us. Through such action, we elevate our behavior to the realm of the divine.

Steven Saks is the rabbi of Adath Zion Congregation in Northeast Philadelphia.


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