Blogging The Bible

Do We Need All Ten Commandments? Or Only Six?

Dear readers:

Thank you for correcting an error and clearing up a mystery in my last entry. First, the error. I wrote that the Passover seder “never pauses to consider the suffering of the Egyptians.” Wrong! Many, many, many of you pointed out that we remember the Egyptians’ misery during seder by spilling wine on our plates during the recitation of the plagues. A pretty modest gesture, if you ask me, but it’s something.

The mystery: I wondered whether I had somehow missed the “redemption” of my own son, perhaps at his bris. It turns out I didn’t. A number of you enlightened me about the Jewish practice known as “pidyon ha-ben” (scroll down the page to read about it). This ceremony, which is separate from the bris, takes place 31 days after the birth of a first-born child who is a son. The father “redeems” the son by paying five silver coins to a kohein (a member of Judaism’s traditional priestly caste). Since my son was my second child, there was no pidyon ha-ben required. Phew. (Interesting fact learned while Googling: The pidyon ha-ben doesn’t apply to a firstborn son delivered by C-section or born after a miscarriage, because it is only for a first-born who “opened his mother’s womb.”)

Now back to Exodus.

Chapter 15

A woman! There’s a woman! For the first time in ages a living, breathing female appears. Aaron’s sister “Miriam the prophetess” leads the celebratory singing and dancing when the Israelites cross the sea and the Egyptian army drowns. Thank goodness for a woman who’s not trying to cuckold her husband, defraud her son, or scam the king; a woman who’s not merely a wife to be mentioned in passing or a daughter tacked on to the end of a long list of sons.

Moses leads the Israelites into the wilderness—Day 1 of their 40-year trek. They immediately complain that they’re thirsty and the only available water is bitter. We’re a grumbling people, aren’t we? Freedom after 430 years of captivity, and nothing to do but grouse. The Israelites had crabbed to Moses when Pharaoh made them gather their own straw. When the Egyptian army pursued them to the Sea of Reeds, they had griped to Moses that they would rather have stayed in Egypt as slaves than die by the sea. Now they’re fussing that they’re thirsty. God gives Moses a piece of wood that cleans up the water—the world’s first Brita filter. Then the Lord reminds them that they’re His chosen people, telling them that if they follow His laws and behave, they will be free of all the diseases that plagued the Egyptians. This is a resonant moment: His people suffering, God helps them, and lets them know that He will always be there for them.

Chapter 16

But does that stop the Israelites from bellyaching? Nope. Just a few verses later they’re complaining of hunger and chastising Moses for taking them out of Egypt, where at least they had plenty to eat. Again, God delivers, supplying manna to feed them, and even a double portion on Friday so they don’t need to go out and collect it on the Sabbath. When a few of the Israelites try to gather manna on the Sabbath anyway, God explodes at Moses: “How long will you men refuse to obey My commandments and My teachings?”

But the Lord keeps delivering the manna, which gets at the central drama of Exodus. God, who hasn’t hesitated to rub out other doubters, idolators, and sinners (Sodomites, Lot’s wife, Pharaoh, etc.), is amazingly patient with the Israelites, and tolerant of their distrust. Over and over, God tries to persuade his obstinate, suspicious, doubting Chosen People to put their faith in Him. They disappoint Him, and He tries again. (I suspect that the rest of Exodus, perhaps all the rest of the Torah, is going to be a variation on this theme.) God’s understanding of human weakness and His persistent hope that we can overcome it is a powerful argument for faith—or perhaps a necessary one. Is it even possible to worship a God who doesn’t forgive sin?

Here’s a detail for all you foodies out there: The Israelites subsisted on manna for the entire time they wandered in the desert, all 40 years, three meals a day. Poor souls!

Chapter 17

They’re complaining about the water again. This time God tells Moses to strike a rock and fresh water will come out.

Chapter 18

What a fantastic chapter! It begins unpromisingly: We are reintroduced to Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, who has traveled from Midian to join the wandering Hebrews and accept God. It starts to pick up when Jethro watches Moses at work and sees that he spends all day settling petty disputes. Appalled by the drain on Moses’ time and energy, Jethro sits Moses down and tells him he can’t do everything by himself. Jethro tells him he must deal only with the big issues—issuing laws and ruling on the largest disputes. All minor matters should be resolved by magistrates selected by Moses. These judges, Jethro advises, should be capable, godfearing, and incorruptible. Jethro seems to suggest several layers of judges: some to preside over small groups of people (“fifties and tens”), and others for groups of thousands. Jethro, in short, designs the first judicial system, and it’s a superb one—largely independent, well-organized, with clear lines of authority and even an appellate system. Is it any wonder that Jews are the world’s great lawyers?

Chapter 19

The Israelites arrive at Mt. Sinai, and an exceptionally confusing episode ensues involving 1) Moses going up and down and up the mountain; 2) the Lord, appearing as smoke and fire, warning that the Israelites will die if they touch the mountain; 3) Moses instructing the people to avoid sex so they’re pure for God’s appearance—all of this leading up to….

Chapter 20

…The Ten Commandments! Or at least I think it’s the Ten Commandments. I counted them different ways, and came up with 9, 10, and 11 Commandments, depending on how I read the first few verses. Does “You shall not make yourself a sculptured image. … You shall not bow down to them or serve them” count as one commandment or two? And are those instructions themselves merely a subset of the first commandment “You shall have no other gods besides Me”? By counting the combination of no “sculptured image” and no bowing down as a single commandment, I managed to get 10.

As I read it, Moses announces the commandments to the Israelites. There is nothing about stone tablets. Perhaps they come later?

Please forgive me for the following sentence, which is, I realize, a point made by approximately 3.28 billion people before me: If you had to summarize morality into a few sentences, the Ten Commandments is about as good as you can do. The last six commandments—honor parents, don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t bear false witness, don’t covet—pretty much cover it.

Speaking of those six commandments, here’s something I would like explained, probably by readers who are more religious than I am. You could easily argue that all we need for daily life are those last six commandments. The first four, which concern man’s relationship to God, aren’t obviously necessary for a good world. So the question to you is: Why do we need those first four commandments? Can the last six stand on their own without them? Why or why not? If you’re a believer, please tell me why morality is impossible to sustain without faith and God. If you’re not a believer, please tell me how morality can be sustained without a higher authority to ratify and enforce it. (Yes, I realize that most of the last 2,000 years of philosophy and theology have been a struggle with these questions. They’re too much for my small brain to handle, which is why I’m asking you.)

God says something curious during the commandments, when He’s warning against idol worship: “For I the Lord your God am an impassioned God [other translations have the more vivid “jealous God”], visiting the guilt of the parents upon the children, upon the third and upon the fourth generations of those who reject Me, but showing kindness to the thousandth generation of those who love Me and keep My commandments.” Let’s ignore the mathematical paradox of this. (i.e., if I keep commandments but my children don’t, shouldn’t they be protected by that thousandth generation rule? A pointless question, because the Torah is not, as my colleague Sian Gibby keeps reminding me, a book of logic.)

What I am struck by is God visiting the guilt of the parents on the children. It’s obvious why God would threaten it: There is no better way to discourage straying from the fold than instilling the fear that such straying will destroy your own children. Even so, this seems pretty unfair. I had always thought that we all get our own clean slate in Judaism, a life that we can make or ruin on our own. It’s alarming to think that we may not, that God is holding our parents’ sins against us. Ma and Pa—have you been keeping any false gods at home that you haven’t told me about? If so, can you please chuck them.

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