Yitro – Revelation and The Ten Commandments

 

                                                                               Yitro

 

                                                                (Chapters 18:1–20:23)

 

                                  Revelation and the Ten Commandments (Chapter 20:1–14)[1]

 

The events preceding the revelation are told in chapter 19. Moses ascends Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:3) and communicates with God on the third day of the third month. He descends on the same day (Exodus 19:7) and communicates God’s words to the people. Moses brings the people’s response to God the next day (Exodus 19:8). God says that he will speak to Moses from a thick cloud so that the people can also hear. On the fourth day, Moses repeats what the people said to God (Exodus 19:9). God commands Moses to go to the people and request that they prepare on that day and the morrow, the fifth day (Exodus 19:10). They are to be ready on the sixth day (the third day of preparation)[2] to receive the Ten Commandments (Exodus 19:11). In Exodus 19:16–24 and 20:15–19, we find a vivid description of the scene at Sinai that left an indelible impression upon the people.

 

With such a precise record of the events leading to and following the giving of the Ten Commandments, and with the memory of that event being repeated generation after generation to the Israelites’ descendants, is it reasonable to question the credibility of the revelation of the Ten Commandments? This is Yehudah Halevi’s position in his book The Kuzari. He felt that the fact that Jews have “remembered” the event for several millennia “proves” that this revelation occurred. While many people accept this reasoning, others do not. They even feel that we do not have to prove that the revelation occurred.

 

Many people are convinced that the entire Torah now in our possession is the same one that was given by God to Moses. Many Jews say that this applies both to the Written and the Oral Law.[3] But there is no reference to an Oral Law in the Torah. Two Jewish sects, the Sadducees in the time of the Second Temple and the Karaites in the Middle Ages rejected the idea that there is a divine Oral Torah. These groups faded, for all practical purposes, out of Jewish life. Does the triumph of those who believed that the Oral Law is also God’s law give credence to their position? Or might it simply be an accident of history?

 

***

 

The term “ten commandments” is not of Jewish origin. The Torah never refers to these laws as Ten Commandments in its three references to them (Exodus 34:28, Deuteronomy 4:13, and Deuteronomy 10:4). They are called aseret hadibrot or aseret hadevarim, the “ten statements.” The Greek equivalent is “the Decalogue.”

 

The Decalogue contains more than ten commands. Depending on the authority, we find between thirteen (Abrabanel) and fifteen (Maimonides). There is even a controversy concerning whether the opening statement is a prologue or a commandment. According to the prevailing opinion (and that of Maimonides), “I am the Lord your God” (Exodus 20:2) is the first commandment, requiring, according to the consensus, belief in the existence of God, or in Maimonides’ view, the duty to understand about God by studying science to learn as much as possible about how God functions in the world so that we can improve ourselves and society.

 

However, other great scholars contend that it is a prologue. In fact, although most people fail to notice it, the Masoretic Bible[4] text that we use treats it as an introduction, and breaks what people consider to be the last commandment into two. There are no other commandments in the Torah that require a belief; they only require deeds.[5] This supports Maimonides’ view.

 

Do we need to prove that God exists? Do you agree with Maimonides’ position that we should study the sciences and try to know how God functions in the world? Isn’t this a practical view, for it will help us live a better life?



[1] This is a version of what Dr. Stanley M. Wagner and I wrote in our book “What’s Beyond the Bible Text?”

[2] Note the repeated use of the number three in the description of this event. Three is used in over two dozen times in Scripture to describe events, such as when Abraham went to sacrifice his son Isaac; he came to the place on the third day (Genesis 22). Abraham ibn Ezra explained that seven is used in Scripture to indicate a complete act and three, being about half of seven, indicates a somewhat long, but not very long period.

[3] While some define Oral Law, or Oral Torah, as the explanations of the written Torah text that God gave to Moses when he handed him the written Torah, others say it is the way Jews decided to interpret the Torah over the past millennia due to changed circumstances and the needs of the later times; it is human not divine.

[4] The Masorites were scholars who lived during the second half of the first millennia. They fixed the Torah text and, among much else, divided the Torah into sections. In this case they set a division after what most Jews today consider the second command, and thereby indicated that they felt that the first two statements were one.

[5] The concept of “faith” is not Jewish. It is not in the Hebrew Bible. It is an idea developed by Paul in the first century CE. He wanted to convert pagans to Judaism (for early Christianity was a form of Judaism, with a belief that Jesus was the messiah). The pagans were reluctant to join Jews because the men did not want to undergo circumcision and both sexes disliked the kosher restriction. Paul solved the problem by saying: you do not need to do these things; all that God requires is that you have faith in Jesus. Many Jews not knowing that faith is Christian think it is Jewish.

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