Across the Western world, the Ten Commandments have become a source of inspiration and controversy, whether in court rulings, in film and literature, or as a religious icon gracing houses of worship of every denomination. But what do they really mean? According to polls, less than half of all Americans can even name more than four of them. For most of us, agnostics and faithful alike, they have been relegated to the level of a symbol, their teachings all but forgotten. In Western life today, the Ten Commandments are everywhere-except where we need them most. In The Ten Commandments, David Hazony offers a powerful new look at our most venerable moral text. Combining a fresh reading of the Bible's most riveting stories with a fearless exploration of what ails society today, Hazony shows that the Ten Commandments are not just a set of obscure laws but the encapsulation of a valuable, relevant approach to life. The Ten Commandments begins with a daring claim: Although they have become a universally recognizable symbol of biblically based religion, they are not, strictly speaking, a religious text. Rather than addressing faith or mystical realms, they contain a coherent prescription for how to make a better world. At their core stands what Hazony calls the "spirit of redemption," which he describes as one of the two basic spiritual components of Western civilization. While the Greeks gave us the "spirit of reason," teaching that we should be free to explore and express our views, the spirit of redemption teaches that every individual can, and should, act to improve the world. This spirit reached us from ancient Israel and has stood at the heart of the greatest social movements in our history. Going through the commandments one by one, Hazony shows how each represents a poignant declaration about honesty, the self, life, love, freedom, community, and inner peace. Each commandment adds another piece to the puzzle of how the redemptive spirit may help us become more caring, world-changing individuals. Part memoir, part scholarship, part manifesto for a vital approach to life, The Ten Commandments tackles some of the most painful human questions that stand at the heart of who we are as modern, thinking people-and offers answers that are sure to start a new discussion about the meaning of one of our most enduring, yet least understood, traditions.
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David Hazony, an American-born writer based in Jerusalem, has written for the New Republic, Commentary, and many other publications, and has served as editor in chief of Azure, the quarterly journal of Jewish public thought published by the Shalem Center.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
I am the Lord your God who took you out of Egypt, from the house of slaves.
Imagine you are a ten-year-old child, living in Europe in the middle of the last century. Your father disappeared when you were a baby, sent off to war like so many fathers. All you know of him are stories you’ve heard from your brothers and sisters, or maybe a photo or two in an album. He is a stark presence in your childhood, sometimes painful and sometimes revered, but always missing.
But then the war reaches your own country. Enemy forces overrun your town, and your community is plunged into darkness and fear. You and your family are transferred to a prison camp where you suffer intense deprivations of hunger and cold and forced labor, every day and night for long months—just a child, enduring the horrors of war, dreaming of being saved.
And then one night, you are awakened by gunfire and confusion. Guards and prisoners fall dead, sirens blare, and quickly it turns out that partisan forces hiding in the nearby forest have engineered a daring escape from the camp. For weeks you are led through snowy woods, struggling with the elements but free from your captors, until finally you reach an encampment where you are given food, clothing, rest, and medical attention. On the third day, the rebel commander finally makes his appearance, a tall and imposing figure sporting a uniform and beret, inspiring both awe and fear. He takes your hand, looks you in the eye—and suddenly you recognize him. “I am your father,” he says. “I took you out of prison.”
This is something like what the Israelites must have felt when hearing the dramatic opening of the Ten Commandments. Born into unbearable slavery in Egypt, they had been taught all their lives that one day God would fulfill his promise to their father Abraham and lead them to freedom. Now a leader had appeared, Moses by name, claiming that God had sent him to take the Israelites out of slavery, but such an escape required the miraculous devastation of Egypt and an unfathomable journey into the wilderness of Sinai. The Israelites had followed, not because they knew what was coming (they didn’t), but because anything was better than where they had been. For three days now they had encamped at a mysterious mountain, watching in terror as storm clouds gathered and supernatural sounds and sights grew ever more intense. And yet none of this prepared them for the revelation of the First Commandment. God was here after all. He had a name. He had saved them.
Many of us have a hard time with God. Throughout our lives we hear contradictory messages about who or what he is and what he wants from us, and we’re forced to choose among countless teachings, theories, and accounts of him in order to define our own faith. He is, we are told, a pristine and perfect being, a loving father, a violent ruler, the Unmoved Mover, the entirety of everything, or even a dead relic, a fiction that has led countless people astray. He has been commercialized, dehumanized, metaphorized, turned into a philosophical proposition, an idea or hypothesis, an immoral mythological beast whose proper place is the same dustbin that holds Apollo and Thor. As religious people we have developed thousands of denominations, Jewish and Catholic and Protestant and Muslim streams, each with its own theology and practices. As secular people we have scrutinized God as either a literary character who changes drastically over the course of the Bible, or an amalgam of unconnected textual traditions with no coherent personality or meaning to him. If God is dead, as Nietzsche said, it is because we have beaten him to death by endless redefinition.
But beyond the problem of knowing who God is, we often carry emotional baggage that makes him hard to focus on. According to some of our traditions, the Almighty is so awesome as to render us mortals worthless and irreparably sinful, robbing us of any hope for existential self-confidence or a decent spiritual life.
When I was in fifth grade, I had an ex-marine for a teacher, a man who instilled fear and reverence in every child. In woodshop, he taught us to make household items the way they made them in the eighteenth century. The Colonial Spoon Rack—the words still make me shiver—consisted of two pieces of wood: a larger one as the backing of the rack, and a small, thin piece with holes in it where you put the spoons. It was this smaller piece that I kept failing at; I’d misalign the holes, or screw up the little slots you cut in the wood to make the spoons slide into them. This went on for days, and when I brought it to him on the third or fourth try, this giant of a man looked at my piece of wood in cool disdain, saw that one of the slots was a little crooked, and said, “Do it again.” It seems petty now, but at the time I felt like my world had collapsed, that while all the other kids somehow managed to finish the job and go play kickball, I would likely spend the rest of my days drilling holes, cutting slots, and failing.
Many of us have been taught to feel the same way when we hear the word “God”: infinitesimal and unworthy and condemned. To think about him seriously means either plunging into despair or rejecting him, feeling not inspiration but resentment for being reminded of our inadequacy.
All these issues make it hard enough to approach the First Commandment with a fresh eye and an open mind. Add to it the fact that this text appears in the thick of the Old Testament, a vast and complex ancient work to which we have little direct access (usually we read it through the eyes of later Jewish and Christian interpreters) and more than a little discomfort—especially with the description of God.
We want to find God as a perfect and sublime being, something pure and antithetical to us flawed mortals. But in the Old Testament we instead find a God who is exceedingly human. He is creative, impassioned, demanding, irascible, loving, vindictive, wrathful, deeply engaged in our world. He has high expectations for his greatest creation, man, and reacts in frustration, anger, and disappointment when they are not met. Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit, and God banishes them from Eden. Cain murders his brother Abel, so God exiles him from human society. A wretched world of thievery and slavery emerges, and he brings down a flood to destroy all and begin again. In Babel, the greatest nation on earth attempts to challenge their Creator with a tower to the heavens, and he disperses them and confounds their tongues. Sodom and Gomorrah, two particularly iniquitous cities, are reduced to brimstone. And so on.
God is human also in a more positive sense: Through all his anger, he continues to believe in the potential of humanity, preserving the race through unique and beloved individuals: Adam and Eve, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac. Eventually Abraham’s grandson Jacob, or Israel, is chosen to found a “great nation,” a people that will benefit from a special relationship with the Divine, who will be protected and guided, who will serve as a “light unto nations.”1 This is a God who hears the cries of Israel’s descendants in bondage, who destroys their enemies with plagues, who vents his emotions through his prophets, who is deeply concerned with everything that happens on earth.
We cannot read the Ten Commandments without coming to terms with this God, the God of ancient Israel, the too-human God of the First Commandment. Nothing would be easier than to dance around “the God issue,” to use the multiplicity of definitions and the psychological burdens as an excuse to describe the Ten Commandments solely in secular terms for a secularized twenty-first century. The First Commandment’s phrasing forecloses that option. Like the child in the woods, like the Israelites on Mount Sinai, we do not have the luxury of distance, of treating these words as some kind of metaphor, of avoiding the presence of God. I am the Lord your God who took you out of Egypt, from the house of slaves is not a proposition to be debated, or a command to be accepted under duress. It is a bold introduction to the Divine, a revelation of a relationship each of us may have with him.
The First Commandment introduces us to the God of Israel—a God whose eyes we recognize but whom we do not yet really know.
After the initial shock of the First Commandment had worn off, we may guess that the Children of Israel were filled with questions. Who is this God who addresses us in the first person? What does it mean for him to be “our” God, as the text insists? And why is his role in the exodus from Egypt the only thing about him worth putting into the First Commandment? To answer these is to get to the bottom of what the First Commandment asks of us.
A description of God is first of all a description of an ideal to guide our lives. If he seems too human, too imperfect, it is because this is the God we humans are meant to emulate.
Unlike the gods of ancient Greece, and unlike the ephemeral god ideas of the East, God in the Bible is neither arbitrary nor abstract, but righteous—which is another way of saying that we are meant to see his behavior as a model for our own. The Bible describes man as God-like, having been created, as God puts it, “in our image, after our likeness,” and becoming even more God-like after Adam and Eve eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, when the Lord begins to fear that man might “become like one of us.” Man is commanded to “walk in his ways”; Enoch is depicted as having “walked with God”; while Moses is said to have spoken with God “face-to-face.”2
Earlier I hinted that the word “commandment” might not be such a good translation of the Hebrew davar, which means something like “utterance” or “pronouncement,” and nowher...
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