From Death to Life

The story of the Exodus—of Israel’s escape from Egypt—has been told and retold so many times down the ages in literature, song, and art that it brings us up short to realize that the story does not belong to history proper, but to the prehistoric lore of a minor Semitic tribe that had not yet learned to read and write, a tribe so unimportant that it makes virtually no appearance in the contemporary history of its powerful—and literate—neighbors. When we examine the considerable extant literatures of Mesopotamia and Egypt, we find no obvious mention of the Israelites. If, as the majority of scholars have provisionally concluded, Israel escaped from Egypt in the reign of Rameses II about midway through the thirteenth century B.C., why is there no record of this marvelous defeat in any Egyptian text or inscription? Of course, the defeat may have been so embarrassing to Egypt that, like many great powers, it could not allow itself to record honestly what happened. Alternatively, the story of the drowning of Pharaoh’s army may have been inflated over time by Hebrew oral tradition, and what had been a minor skirmish in Egyptian eyes (we know, for instance, that Rameses II died not in a watery grave but in his bed) was eventually puffed up beyond all recognition. Most radically: the Exodus may never have taken place, but may be just a story concocted, like Gilgamesh, by nomadic herdsmen in need of an evening’s entertainment.

This last hypothesis, though temptingly unambiguous, can be maintained only by ignoring certain undeniable aspects of the actual text of the Bible. There are real differences—literary differences, differences of tone and taste, but, far more important, differences of substance and approach to material—between Gilgamesh and Exodus, and even between Gilgamesh and Genesis. The anonymous authors of Gilgamesh tell their story in the manner of a myth. There is no attempt to convince us that anything in the story ever took place in historical time. At every point, rather, we are reminded that the action is taking place “once upon a time”—in other words, in that pristine Golden Time outside meaningless earthly time. The story of Gilgamesh, like the gods themselves, belongs to the realm of the stars. It is meant as a model for its hearers, who believed, in any case, that everything important, everything archetypal, happened, had happened, was happening—it is impossible to fix this occurrence clearly in one tense, since it occurs outside time—beyond the earthly realm of unimportant instances. For all the ancients (except the Israelites, the people who would become the Jews), time as we think of it was unreal; the Real was what was heavenly and archetypal. For us, the heirs of Jewish perception, the exact opposite is true: earthly time is real time; Eternity, if we think of it at all, is the end of time (or simply an illusion).

The text of the Bible is full of clues that the authors are attempting to write history of some sort. Of course, as we read the patriarchal narratives of Genesis or the escape-from-Egypt narrative of Exodus, we know we are not reading anything with the specificity of a history of FDR’s administration. The people who constructed these narratives did not, like Doris Kearns Goodwin, have access to the card catalogue of the Library of Congress or the resources of the Internet. They had heard the story they were writing down, had received it from an oral culture, had in fact received it in two or three variant forms—in the varieties we would expect from tales told over and over down the centuries at one caravan site after another. They did their best to be faithful to their tradition, even if one strand of that tradition occasionally contradicted another. But there is in these tales a kind of specificity—a concreteness of detail, a concern to get things right—that convinces us that the writer has no doubt that each of the main events he chronicleshappened. More than this, that they happened—that God spoke to Avraham and told him to leave Sumer for the unknown, that God spoke to Moshe and told him to lead the Israelites out of Egypt—is the whole point. These are not, like Gilgamesh, archetypal tales with a moral at the end: they share nothing essential with other ancient myths from Gilgamesh to Aesop to Grimms’ fairy tales. If the stories of Cupid and Psyche or Beauty and the Beast never happened in real time, no one is the poorer for that. But if Avraham and Moshe never existed, or if they did not receive their commissions from God, their stories have no point at all—nor does the genetic collection known as “the Jewish people,” nor do Christians or Muslims, who also count themselves heirs of Avraham.

We are looking here at one of the great turning points in the history of human sensibility—at an enormous value shift. What was real for the Sumerians (and for all other peoples but the Jews) was the Eternal. What was to become gradually real for the Jews and remains real for us is the here and now and the there and then. The question that springs constantly to our lips—“Did that really happen?”—had little meaning in any ancient civilization. For the ancients, nothing new ever did happen, except for the occasional monstrosity. Life on earth followed the course of the stars; and what had been would, in due course, come around again. What was peculiar or unique, like Oedipus’s union with his mother, was of necessity monstrous. Surprise was to be eschewed; the wise man looked for the predictable, the repeatable, the archetypal, the eternal. One came to inner peace by coming to terms with the Wheel.

In the two great narratives of the first two books of the Bible, Israel invents not only history but the New as a positive value. It may seem trivial to remark that we could not even have advertising campaigns for soap commercials without the Jews (since soap commercials are always flogging “new” and “revolutionary” improvements). But no “commercial” of the ancient world flogged the New. The beer of the Sumerians was good because of its associations with the eternal, with the archetypal goddess who took care of such things. If the brewer had announced his product as new—as singular and never-before-known—he would have been committing entrepreneurial suicide, for no one would have drunk it. The Israelites, by becoming the first people to live—psychologically—in real time, also became the first people to value the New and to welcome Surprise. In doing this, they radically subverted all other ancient worldviews.

The past is no longer important just because it can be mined for exemplars but because it has brought us to the present: it is the first part of our journey, the journey of our ancestors. So in retelling their life stories, we have a serious obligation to get their histories straight. We are not merely creating literature: we are retelling a personal story that really happened and that has helped to make us the people that we are.

This is what impelled the Israelites to take such care with genealogies—whose son was whom, the names of even such normally unimportant people as wives. And though we cannot expect that the literate redactors—the authors of the Books of Genesis and Exodus, who finally set down this grand jumble of oral material some centuries after the events described—were academic historians, checking and rechecking their facts against the surviving documents of antiquity, we should not doubt that their intention was to write a chronicle of real events, essentially faithful to their sources.

We, reading their work in a wholly different age, surrounded as we are by linguistic and documentary assistance that would have astonished the authors of the Bible, are able to detect many mistakes. We know, for instance, that the name Moshe or Moses, which the authors of Exodus took for a Hebrew name, is actually Egyptian. But this only shows their faithfulness. Though they misguidedly tried to interpret the name as a Hebrew one, they have left us unintentional proof that the man they are writing about was indeed raised as an Egyptian and could have been named by Pharaoh’s daughter. This constitutes circumstantial evidence that the story of Moses is true (or at least that he is not a fictional character), for how else could such indirect evidence have been planted in the Bible by authors who could not have meant to put it there? Similarly, the weird incident of the “blood bridegroom,” which presents God, the hero of this story, in such a peculiar light, would have been omitted by any author who wished to present a consistent character. It is there only because, however contrary to the image of an all-knowing, all-powerful God, who carries out his purposes—the image the authors obviously wish to establish—it was part of the oral tradition, which the literate redactors were not free to whitewash, however much they might have been tempted.

Of course, for us, with our superior tools of textual analysis, the inconsistencies, the jarringly awkward juxtapositions of one strand of tradition against another, the outright errors all stand out in ways they could have done for no age before our own. But our ability to see how this narrative was constructed over time should not blind us to its immense achievement: mankind’s first attempt to write history, a history that mattered deeply because one’s whole identity was bound up with it.

For the ancients, the future was always to be a replay of the past, as the past was simply an earthly replay of the drama of the heavens: “History repeats itself”—that is, false history, the history that is not history but myth. For the Jews, history will be no less replete with moral lessons. But the moral is not that history repeats itself but that it is always something new: a process unfolding through time, whose direction and end we cannot know, except insofar as God gives us some hint of what is to come. The future will not be what has happened before; indeed, the only reality that the future has is that it has not happened yet. It is unknowable; and what it will be cannot be discovered by auguries—by reading the stars or examining entrails. We do not control the future; in a profound sense, even God does not control the future because it is the collective responsibility of those who are bringing about the future by their actions in the present. For this reason, the concept of the future—for the first time—holds out promise, rather than just the same old thing. We are not doomed, not bound to some predetermined fate; we are free. If anything can happen, we are truly liberated—as liberated as were the Israelite slaves when they crossed the Sea of Reeds.

This marvelous new sense of time did not descend upon the Israelites all at once. What began as the call of Avraham to leave his place and people and set out for an unknown destiny blossomed into the vocation of Moshe to lead his enslaved people out of the god-haunted ambience of cyclical Egypt, where everything that would be had already been and all important questions had been answered, already set in stone like the staring, immobile statues of Pharaoh. In these two journeys we have gone from the personal (the destiny of Avraham) to the corporate (the destiny of the People of Israel). We have gone from a patronal god, a household god that one carries along for good luck, to YHWH, the God of gods, whose power is mightier even than the mightiest power earth can summon. Taken together, these two great escapes give us an entirely new sense of past and future—the past as constitutive of the present, the future as truly unknown.

But what of the present? Is it just a moment, glinting briefly between past and future, hardly worth elaborating on? No, it is to be the pulsing, white-hot center of all the subsequent narrative, the unlikely intersection of time and eternity, the moment where God is always to be found. This completion of the Jewish religious vision will claim the virtue and intelligence of all the priests, prophets, and kings who will fill the rest of the story of Israel. For it will take all the skill and devotion of this people through all their history to revere the past without adoring it, to bow before the opaque mystery of the future without offering it the fear that is reserved to God alone, and to stand neither in the storied past nor the imagined (or dreaded) future but in the present moment.

This motley band of escaped slaves, revering its memories of distant ancestors who also trudged through the desert, now makes its way from its victorious escape at the seashore to the harsh realities of desert existence. The desert is Sinai, the wedge-shaped peninsula that lies between Egypt and Canaan—and one of our planet’s most desolate places. It would be hard to conjure up a landscape more likely to lead to death—a land bereft of all comfort, an earth of so few trees and plants that one may walk for hours without seeing a wisp of green, a place so dry that the uninitiated may die in no time, consumed by what feels like preternatural dehydration. By contrast, the gentler Judean desert of John the Baptist seems almost an oasis.

But this desert brings not death but epiphany, the wildest, most exhausting, most terrifying epiphany of the whole Bible. As the people pass through the wretchedly barren Wilderness of Syn, they grumble repeatedly. They can’t find potable water, they are running out of food, now there is no water at all. Each of these complaints God answers to their satisfaction: by making the unpotable water sweet; by giving the people quails and a starch they term “mahn-hu”;1 by instructing Moshe to strike a rock to bring forth a spring. But despite these miraculous answers to their incessant whining, the people keep regressing, wishing even that they had died in their captivity and longing (in the Bible’s memorable phrase) for the fleshpots of Egypt.

Moshe needs God’s promptings, because on his own he possesses little political acumen. Even Moshe’s father-in-law, Jethro, who shows up at this point, is chagrined by Moshe’s sorry lack of organization when he observes him sitting alone, settling every dispute, “while the entire people stations itself around you from daybreak until sunset.” Moshe explains that it’s up to him to keep the peace, to “judge between a man and his fellow.”

But, exclaims Jethro sensibly,

    “Not good is this matter, as you do it!

    You will become worn out, yes, worn out, so you, this people that are with you,

    for this matter is too heavy for you,

    you cannot do it alone.”

As the world’s first business consultant, Jethro advises Moshe that he needs a middle-management team so that he can concentrate on priorities:

    “So shall it be:

    every great matter they shall bring before you,

    but every small matter they shall judge by themselves.”

Even Jethro’s cameo appearance at this point is providential, for the caravans of Israel are now approaching the Mountain, the place where God first spoke to Moshe and promised to do so again. And during the course of this new encounter, during Moshe’s absence on the Mountain, we can easily imagine how impossibly chaotic the grumbling people would have become without Moshe’s newly appointed middle managers. As we shall see, even with them the people do not show themselves to advantage.

Before Moshe ascends the terrible Mountain, God imparts to him messages of comfort for this fickle people, the reminders they are so constantly in need of:

    “You yourselves have seen

    what I did in Egypt,

    how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to me.

    So now,

    if you will hearken, yes, hearken to my voice

    and keep my covenant,

    you shall be to me a special-treasure from among all peoples.

    Indeed, all the earth is mine,

    but you, you shall be to me

    a kingdom of priests,

    a holy nation.”

As will be noted by the early rabbis in their midrash (or commentary), the great God YHWH, who alone has dominion over all, here adopts the posture of a suitor, one who woos a demanding woman, patiently explaining how highly he values her and how exalted he foresees their life together. The people are being prepared for something more than they have already experienced. Moshe knows he must climb the Mountain alone, but God tells him that though he will come to Moshe “in a thick cloud,” the people will “hear when I speak to you.”

By the time all preparations have been completed—the people purified and instructed not even to touch the Mountain—the trembling Mountain is enveloped in smoke and fire, an active volcano; and it is this sputtering, pulsing apparition that Moshe must approach, the only man worthy to face YHWH. He ascends into the fiery fog. Then, out of nowhere and with no previous hint of what is to come, these words break forth, the great theophany that rings not only down the Mountain to the Chosen People assembled at the base but down the ages, finding its reverberations in the hearts of billions of men and women:

    “I am YHWH your God,

    who brought you out

    from the land of Egypt, from a house of serfs.

    “You are not to have

    any other gods

    before my presence.

    You are not to make yourself a carved-image or any figure

    that is in the heavens above, that is on the earth beneath, that is in the waters beneath the earth;

    you are not to bow down to them,

    you are not to serve them,

    for I, YHWH your God,

    am a jealous God,

    calling-to-account the iniquity of the fathers upon the sons, to the third and fourth (generation)

    of those that hate me,

    but showing loyalty to the thousandth

    of those that love me,

    of those that keep my commandments.

    “You are not to take up

    the name of YHWH your God for emptiness,

    for YHWH will not clear him

    that takes up his name for emptiness.


    the Sabbath day, to hallow it.

    For six days, you are to serve, and are to make all your work,

    but the seventh day

    is Sabbath for YHWH your God:

    you are not to make any kind of work,

    (not) you, nor your son, nor your daughter,

    (not) your servant, nor your maid, nor your beast,

    nor your sojourner that is within your gates.

    For six days YHWH made

    the heavens and the earth,

    the sea and all that is in it,

    and he rested on the seventh day;

    therefore YHWH gave the seventh day his blessing, and he hallowed it.


    your father and your mother,

    in order that your days may be prolonged

    on the soil that YHWH your God is giving you.

    “You are not to murder.

    “You are not to adulter.

    “You are not to steal.

    “You are not to testify

    against your fellow as a false witness.

    “You are not to desire the house of your neighbor;

    You are not to desire the wife of your neighbor,

    or his servant, or his maid, or his ox, or his donkey,

    or anything that is your neighbor’s.”

    Now all the people were seeing

    the thunder-sounds,

    the flashing-torches,

    the shofar sound,2

    and the mountain smoking;

    when the people saw,

    they faltered

    and stood far off.

The people cry up to Moshe:

    “You speak with us, and we will hearken,

    but let not God speak with us, lest we die.”

And he cries down to them:

    “Do not be afraid!

    For it is to test you that God has come,

    to have awe of him be upon you,

    so that you do not sin.”

But the people keep their distance, as Moshe on the heights is swallowed by the storm.

This is the first presentation of the Ten Commandments in the Bible, but because there is a variant—in Deuteronomy 5:6–22—there is no reason to assume that the words quoted here were intended to constitute an exact record of what God said. By submitting these sentences to careful linguistic and textual analysis and comparing them with the variant presentation (which is not substantially different), most scholars have come to the conclusion that the original sentences were all bluntly brief in the manner of “You are not to murder”—so brief in fact that each one may have been but one word, that is, a verb in the imperative form preceded by a negative prefix of one syllable. In this way, the originals may actually have been Ten Words—utterly primitive, basic injunctions on the order of “No-kill,” “No-steal,” “No-lie.” These Ten Words (which is the term the Bible uses, not “Commandments”) would have been memorizable by even the simplest nomad, his ten fingers a constant reminder of their centrality in his life. So contemporary readers who are repelled by God’s vengefulness—his need to punish not only the perpetrator but children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren—are welcome to take such warnings as the glosses of scribes of a later age.

The exact numbering of the commandments has been a conundrum for aeons. In Jewish medieval tradition, they tended to be broken into five for God (the commandments that mention God’s Name) and five for men. Augustine of Hippo in the early fifth century of our era divided them into three for God (by combining the first sentence, God’s self-description and not technically a command, with the commandment against idol worship) and seven for men (by breaking the last commandment into two: one for “your neighbor’s wife,” who appears first in the Deuteronomy list, and a second for “your neighbor’s goods”). Augustine’s numbering has been followed by the Latin church and by Lutherans and Anglicans. The Greek and other Eastern churches, however, have generally followed what appears to be the most reasonable numbering: four for God (through the Sabbath commandment) and six for men. Since this numbering has been followed by the Reformed churches as well, it is the numbering one is most likely to encounter in the United States.

But this attention to minutiae (which of the words are original? how should we divide the text to achieve ten?) can, like so many scholarly considerations, deflect us all too easily from appreciating what is happening here. There is no document in all the literatures of the world that is like the Ten Commandments. Of course, there are ethical guidelines from other cultures. But these are always offered in a legal framework (if you do that, then this will be the consequence) or as worldly-wise advice (if you want to lead a happy life, you will be sure to do such-and-such and avoid so-and-so). Here for the first—and, I think, the last—time, human beings are offered a code without justification. Because this is God’s code, no justification is required and (except for the few poor phrases of scribal commentary) no elaboration. Who but God can speak ten words—“Thoushalt” and “Thou-shalt-not”—with such authority that no further words are needed?

There is an almost perfect story by G. K. Chesterton about a jewel thief who is pursued by a priest—a very confident jewel thief, Flambeau, and a very humble parish priest, Father Brown, who understands human hearts because he knows the sinfulness of his own. Toward the story’s end, the priest finds himself on Hampstead Heath, looking up admiringly at the heavens as night descends and sitting next to the jewel thief, who is blissfully unaware that this bumbling little parson is his pursuer. Flambeau, who is also dressed as a priest in order to steal a precious object of religious art—the “Blue Cross” that gives the story its name—scorns with what he imagines to be priestly piety the attitudes of “modern infidels,” who “appeal to their reason.” Looking up at the sky, now spangled with stars, he continues: “But who can look at those millions of worlds and not feel that there may well be wonderful universes above us where reason is utterly unreasonable?”

“Reason and justice,” replies Father Brown, “grip the remotest and the loneliest star. Look at those stars. Don’t they look as if they were single diamonds and sapphires? Well, you can imagine any mad botany or geology you please. Think of forests of adamant with leaves of brilliants. Think, the moon is a blue moon, a single elephantine sapphire. But don’t fancy that all that frantic astronomy would make the smallest difference to the reason and justice of conduct. On plains of opal, under cliffs cut out of pearl, you would still find a notice-board, ‘Thou shalt not steal.’ ”

Father Brown is alluding, of course, to the famous absoluteness of the Ten Commandments. They require no justification, nor can they be argued away. They are not dependent upon circumstances, nor may they be set aside because of special considerations. They are not propositions for debate. They are not suggestions. They are not even (as a recent book would have us imagine in the jargon of our day) “ten challenges.” They are exactly what they seem to be—and there is no getting around them or (to be more spatially precise) out from under them. But the only thing new about them is their articulation at this moment amid the terrifying fires of Sinai. They have been received by billions as reasonable, necessary, even unalterable because they are written on human hearts and always have been. They were always there in the inner core of the human person—in the deep silence that each of us carries within. They needed only to be spoken aloud.

The age to which these Ten Words were first spoken was a brutal one, an age of spiteful goddesses and cruel god-kings (not a bit like our own). The people who first heard these words were unrefined and basic, the Dusty Ones, wandering through Sinai’s lunar landscape, denuded of the ordinary web of life, baked in absolute heat and merciless light. This was no age or people or environment for anything but the plainest, harshest truths. We should not be surprised that these words were never spoken to the powerful, the comfortable, and the subtle. This was the time, this the place, these the people who must receive the unassailable truth of the Ten Words and carry them forward.

Readers who do not believe in God may well have reached the end of their rope by now. For surely the first commandments—the ones about God—will strike them not as unassailable but as meaningless. But let the unbeliever focus on the commandments about man and ask himself which he would drop and what he would add. Here, I think, both believer and unbeliever are brought to heel. There is nothing to add, really, nothing to subtract. Oh, I could add something about ecology perhaps or about racism or sexism or, if I were of such a mind, about the sacredness of free markets or the solidarity of the human race—all concerns born of recent times. But if I can peer through the mists of history and see the begrimed, straightforward faces straining upward toward the terrors of Mount Sinai and if I can imagine this immense throng of simple souls trudging through the whole of history—all the ordinary people down the ages in need of moral guidance in all the incredibly various situations and cultures that this planet has known—it must be admitted that it would be fairly impossible to improve on the Decalogue as we have it. The sins it catalogues are the great sins, and those it does not mention explicitly—such as withholding sustenance from those who have nothing—can be deduced from it, which is what the Israelites did almost immediately by, for instance, categorizing society’s abandonment of widows and orphans as “murder.” Even as far away from Sinai in time and civilization as Hampstead Heath at the turn of the century or Central Park at the turn of the millennium, there are few who do not know that if we were to keep these commandments our world would be an entirely different place. This is such a simple, incontestable thing to say that it sounds banal. But for all our resourcefulness we have never yet managed to do it.

Besides the innovation of speaking the unspoken moral law aloud, one should note the lesser—but hardly unimportant—innovation of the weekend, which got its start in the Jewish Sabbath (or “Ceasing”). No ancient society before the Jews had a day of rest. The God who made the universe and rested bids us do the same, calling us to a weekly restoration of prayer, study, and recreation (or re-creation). In this study (or talmud), we have the beginnings of what Nahum Sarna has called “the universal duty of continuous self-education,” Israel being the first human society to so value education and the first to envision it as a universal pursuit—and a democratic obligation that those in power must safeguard on behalf of those in their employ. The connections to both freedom and creativity lie just beneath the surface of this commandment: leisure is appropriate to a free people, and this people so recently free find themselves quickly establishing this quiet weekly celebration of their freedom; leisure is the necessary ground of creativity, and a free people are free to imitate the creativity of God. The Sabbath is surely one of the simplest and sanest recommendations any god has ever made; and those who live without such septimanal punctuation are emptier and less resourceful.

The patriarchs are present here at Sinai, for we now have in these commandments a codification of the Abrahamic covenant of blood. Circumcision was the outward sign of this covenant; the Commandments are the invisible sign, circumcision of the heart. God will be their God, and they will be his people, his kingdom of priests, his holy nation, if only they will keep his Commandments. This is an exclusive relationship, which specifically excludes bedding down with strange gods. As the medieval rabbis noted, it is very like a marriage. As modern commentators have noted, it is very like a typical suzerainty treaty between contracting parties in the ancient Near East—like the pact Avraham made with the Canaanite kings—but the big difference is that in this case the king is God.

Of the many innovations that Sinai represents—the codification of Abrahamic henotheism (that one God is to be worshiped, even though others are presumed to exist), the articulation of “ought-ness” (or what Kant will one day call the “categorical imperative”), the invention of the Sabbath—nothing is as provocative as the way in which this tremendous theophany brings to completion the new Israelite understanding of time. The journey of Avraham and the liberation wrought by Moshe transformed human understanding of past and future: the past is all the steps of my forebears and myself that have brought me to this place and moment; the future is what is yet to be. But the past is irretrievable and the future is a blank. The one is fixed, the other unknown. For the past I can have only regret, for the future only anxiety. To live in real time, to live in history, can be a horrible experience—and no wonder that the ancients contrived to escape such torments by inventing cyclical time and the recurrent Wheel, leading only to the peace of death.

But this gift of the Commandments allows us to live in the present, in the here and now. What I have done in the past is past mending; what I will do in the future is a worry not worth the candle, for there is no way I can know what will happen next. But in this moment—and only in this moment—I am in control. This is the moment of choice, the moment when I decide whether I will plunge in the knife or not, take the treasure or not, begin to spin the liar’s web or not. This is the moment when the past can be transformed and the future lit with radiance. And such a realization need bring neither regret nor anxiety but, if I keep the Commandments, true peace. But not the peace of death, not the peace of coming to terms with the Wheel. For in choosing what is right I am never more alive.

The standard of the Ten Words gradually gives to subsequent Israelite history a reliability and consistency of texture that we search for in vain in other ancient cultures. In all the ancient epics left to us, the dwelling places of the gods—the heavenly realms of ultimate reality—prove to be shifting and insubstantial. Zeus is driven by his insatiable lusts, Ishtar by her fathomless ill humor; and we earthlings are at the mercy of their incomprehensible heavenly mood swings. Even these hapless earthbound wanderers, the Israelites, were people of the ancient world; and they tended to give their God YHWH a human personality—a jealousy that makes him seem at times not unlike the difficult gods of alien pantheons. But the gulf that has opened between the worldview of Israel and that of all other ancient societies will only widen as time goes on.

It is important at this juncture to take full account not only of the primitive quality of the Ten—their almost caveman awkwardness—but also of their wonderful flexibility. This is because, like any effective declaration or constitution, they do not say too much, which enables them to be elaborated and interpreted by later ages in contexts that would have been unimaginable at the foot of Mount Sinai. We have already noted Israel’s interpretation of the murder prohibition as including an obligation in justice to have-nots. Throughout history no commandment will receive more attention or be more hotly debated than this one, used even in our own day by left-wingers and right-wingers, by pacifists and pro-lifers, by anti-death-penalty activists and death-penalty advocates, as their ultimate justification. But whether you are president of the Joint Chiefs or of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a supporter of Right to Life or of NARAL, Jesse Helms or Helen Prejean, you would hardly urge the scrapping or suppression of this commandment.

Another aspect of this bare-knuckled theophany that should give pause to those who believe in an afterlife is its paucity of rewards. Long life is promised to those who take care of their parents, but eternal life is promised to no one. No one had even thought of such a thing, except as a fanciful and impossible goal, as in the Epic of Gilgamesh, for

    When the gods created mankind

    They appointed death for mankind,

    Kept eternal life in their own hands.

Even the promise of long life is almost certainly a later accretion. As had never been the case before—and as would never be so starkly the case again—virtue is its own reward. I must obey these commands because they must be obeyed.

Something in human beings resists all this, leaving one wanting to respond truculently, “Oh, yeah? That’s what you think, YHWH!” “It is religion itself which we all by nature dislike, not the excess merely,” said John Henry Newman. “Nature tends toward the earth, and God is in heaven.” And surely nothing is less appealing than a religion of unappealable commands. Nothing so quickly provokes the urge to sin as an extended meditation on virtue. And, this being so, we can hardly raise an eyebrow at what happens next.

The Children of Israel waste no time in breaking as many Commandments as possible. Exasperated by Moshe’s long absence on the Mountain, they regress. They pressure Aharon to do something—and his knee-jerk solution is to return to the easy comforts of the ancient worldview: he collects the gold jewelry that the Israelites absconded with, melts it down, and fashions an idol, a visible sign for the anxious people to worship. Exodus calls it “a molten calf,” though this is by way of denigrating the idol. It was actually a bull, probably rampant and in rut, the aboriginal symbol of potency. This, cries Aharon,

    “This is your God, O Israel,

    who brought you up from the land of Egypt!”

What follows is an orgy of prostrations, animal slaughter, feasting, drinking, and, as the Book of Exodus puts it discreetly, “reveling”—that is, sexual indulgence in the manner of a pagan liturgy. The bull, as we have seen, was a common image of divinity in Mesopotamia, as it was in Egypt; and though we cannot be certain that the people thought they were worshiping a bull-god (they may only have meant to worship YHWH as the invisible God who stands on the bull as his footstool), they have surely made “a carved image” of a visible figure. They have mistaken YHWH for his creation. They have broken the first two Commandments. They have also dishonored their forebears—their ancient fathers and mothers—who had so long refrained from idol worship; and, in the course of their reveling, it is most unlikely that they managed to refrain from adultery and sexual covetousness. With a little ingenuity, we might even conclude that they succeeded in breaking all Ten Commandments—but even five out of ten is a pretty good average for so short a time.

Meanwhile, back on Mount Sinai, Moshe, who now has the Ten Words in written form—“the two tablets of Testimony”3—is told by God that

    “your people

    whom you brought up from the land of Egypt

    has wrought ruin!”

The Covenant has already been broken—as it were, minutes after it was made. The people are no longer God’s but Moshe’s. God calls them “stiff-necked” (in King James; “hard-necked” in Fox, like the hard-hearted Pharaoh), and he asks Moshe’s leave to destroy them. He will use Moshe alone to “make into a great nation,” as he used Noah after the Flood.

For the first time (but hardly for the last) God’s chosen representative argues with him:


    O YHWH,

    should your anger flare out against your people

    whom you brought out of the land of Egypt

    with great power,

    with a strong hand?

    For-what-reason should the Egyptians (be able to) say, yes, say:

    ‘With evil intent he brought them out,

    to kill them in the mountains,

    to destroy them from the face of the soil’?

    Turn away from your flaming anger,

    be sorry for the evil (intended) against your people!

    Recall Avraham, Yitzhak and Yisrael your servants,

    to whom you swore by yourself

    when you spoke to them:

    ‘I will make your seed many

    as the stars of the heavens,

    and all this land which I have promised,

    I will give to your seed,

    that they may inherit (it) for the ages!’ ”

    And YHWH let himself be sorry concerning the evil

    that he had spoken of doing to his people.

Well, the truth is that YHWH is something of a bull—and he shouldn’t be so surprised that the people have decided to picture him thus. It is obvious that at this period—a period in which this odd little phyla of Semites is ever so gradually evolving from polytheists to monotheists—they are attributing to their favorite God the qualities of other principal Middle Eastern deities: he is a storm god, who appears in heavenly fire and fog and whose angers, like his thunderbolts, are sudden and destructive, fulminating and volcanic (like Vulcan, fire god of the Romans). As we shall see, these depictions of divine wrath will eventually give way to a purer understanding of God, but at this moment we have a snapshot of monotheism in its tadpole stage.

It should also be noted that God’s portrayal of the Israelites as “stiff-necked” will one day serve as the dominant note in Christian caricatures of Jews. It will be Shylock’s “stiff-necked” and literalist adherence to an outmoded morality of revenge that will enable Shakespeare to cast him in so unfavorable a light. The assumption will be that Jews, because of their moral vision of an unforgiving God, do not forgive but always insist on their “pound of flesh.” It is this supposedly “Jewish” quality that will serve as a fundamental justification for the anti-Jewish attitudes that so infected the Middle Ages—right up to the late modern period, when new theories of racial inferiority made it possible for medieval anti-Hebraism (which was basically a kind of character assassination) to be replaced by the more horrifyingly effective weapon of “scientific” anti-Semitism.

What is ghoulishly fascinating about the history of Christian depictions of Jews (even as early as the fourth century A.D. in the elegantly vicious sermons of John Chrysostom) is that the people being excoriated are presumed to exhibit the unyielding qualities of God himself—the same God whom Christians claimed to worship and whose sacred scriptures they revered. A good case can be made that medieval anti-Hebraism and its modern offspring anti-Semitism are both forms of God-hatred, masquerading as self-justifying intolerance. The hatred of Christians for Jews may have its ultimate source in hatred of God, a hatred that the hater must carefully keep himself from knowing about. Why would one hate God? To find the answer we probably need look no further than the stark, unyielding Ten.

Following hard on the revelation of the Ten come interminable series of prescriptions which fill most of the rest of the Torah4 and are understood to this day by observant Jews as the heart of the Torah. They did not issue from Sinai, though the final compilers (in the fifth century B.C., six centuries after the desert theophany) would have us believe so. They have been shoehorned in, gracelessly interrupting the narrative with insertions meant to govern the activities of a people long settled on their land, not the wanderers of Sinai. And their language is the language of lawyers and priests, not storytellers. One prescription, called lex talionis, the law of retaliation (“eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot”), has often been used to demonstrate the harshness of “Old” Testament morality and its commonality with the laws of Sumer—and, in fact, the lex talionis appears in the Code of Hammurabi, many centuries before its repetition here.

It is true that one finds in the Torah many laws that can only make us wince: “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” has been used repeatedly in Western history to get rid of inconvenient old women, as at Salem, Massachusetts; and the commands in Leviticus to execute homosexuals and burn alive both the perpetrator of incest and his victims are unlikely to commend themselves to modern ears. But it is also true that this long-winded, unwieldy compilation of assorted prescriptions represents an overall softening—a humanizing—of the common law of the ancient Middle East, which easily prescribed a hand not for a hand but for the theft of a loaf of bread or for the striking of one’s better and which gave much favor to the rights of the nobility and virtually none to the lower classes. The casual cruelty of other ancient law codes—the cutting off of nose, ears, tongue, lower lip (for kissing another man’s wife), breasts, and testicles—is seldom matched in the Torah. Rather, in the prescriptions of Jewish law we cannot but note a presumption that all people, even slaves, are human and that all human lives are sacred. The constant bias is in favor not of the powerful and their possessions but of the powerless and their poverty; and there is even a frequent enjoinder to sympathy:

    “A sojourner you are not to oppress:

    you yourselves know (well) the feelings of the sojourner,

    for sojourners were you in the land of Egypt.”

This bias toward the underdog is unique not only in ancient law but in the whole history of law. However faint our sense of justice may be, insofar as it operates at all it is still a Jewish sense of justice.

The link between the mainstream traditions of the Western world and the traditions of the Jews shows itself at its weakest when we consider the many prescriptions in the Torah that will come to serve as the basis for halakha, the body of Jewish prescriptive law that is meant to govern every aspect of life and that has grown to enormous proportions from the late classical period to the present. A single sentence in Exodus, for instance—“You are not to boil a kid in the milk of its mother,” probably a proscription against cruelty—will become the basis for a large portion of Jewish dietary laws about keeping all meat and fowl separate from all milk and milk-based foods, even to the complication of maintaining two sets of dishes and kitchen implements. Such laws, elaborated from the prescriptions of the Torah, then expanded in the Mishna, the early rabbinic law code of the late second century of our era, then interpreted further in the Talmuds of the early medieval period and reinterpreted further in (often obscurantist) rabbinic commentaries down to our day, have never gained much influence beyond the relatively small circles of observant Jews, never entered the mainstream of Western consciousness and ideas—so they are largely beyond the purview of this book. The endless legal refinements made down the centuries by the rabbis have given the word talmudic the connotation of “differentiating to the point of absurdity.” They have also set Jew against Jew, so that we hear even in our day the invidious charge of the super-Orthodox that more flexible forms of Judaism aren’t Judaism.

But, even at their most hairsplittingly bizarre, these laws remain testimony to the fact that the Jews were the first people to develop an integrated view of life and its obligations. Rather than imagining the demands of law and the demands of wisdom as discrete realms (as did the Sumerians, the Egyptians, and the Greeks), they imagined that all of life, having come from the Author of life, was to be governed by a single outlook. The material and the spiritual, the intellectual and the moral were one:

    Hearken O Israel:

    YHWH our God, YHWH (is) One!

The great formula is not that there is one God but that “God is One.” From this insight will flow not only the integrating and universalist propensities of Western philosophy but even the possibility of modern science. For life is not a series of discrete experiences, influenced by diverse forces. We do not live in a fragmented universe, controlled by fickle and warring gods. As Bob Dylan sings:

    Ring them bells, sweet Martha,

    for the poor man’s son.

    Ring them bells so the world will know

    that God is one.

God and “the poor man’s son” belong together. Because God is One, life is a moral continuum—and reality makes sense.

Bloodshed follows the orgy of betrayal. Moshe descends from the Mountain, the two tablets of the Ten Words in his hands, hears “the sound of choral-song”—the antiphonal chanting characteristic of ancient liturgy—and sees “the calf and the dancing,” at which

    Moshe’s anger flared up,

    he threw the tablets from his hands

    and smashed them beneath the mountain.

The Covenant is now literally broken. Moshe melts down the idol and grinds it to powder, which he mixes with water, and forces the Children of Israel to drink the vile mixture. Then, rounding on Aharon, he almost beseeches him to exonerate himself, which Aharon manages dextrously:

    “Let not my lord’s anger flare up!

    You yourself know this people, how set-on-evil it is.

    They said to me: ‘Make us a god who will go before us,

    for Moshe, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt,

    we do not know what has become of him!’

    So I said to them: ‘Who has gold?’

    They broke it off and gave it to me,

    I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf.”

    Now when Moshe saw the people: that it had gotten-loose,

    for Aharon had let-it-loose for whispering among their foes,

    Moshe took-up-a-stand at the gate of the camp

    and said:

    “Whoever is for YHWH—to me!

    Thus says YHWH, the God of Israel:

    ‘Put every-man his sword on his thigh,

    proceed and go back-and-forth from gate to gate in the camp,

    and kill

    every-man his brother, every-man his neighbor, every-man his relative!’ ”

    The Sons of Levi did according to Moshe’s words.

    And there fell of the people on that day some three thousand men.

Is there a way to understand this passage about a God who has hardly finished issuing an absolute command against murder when he delivers the command for a general slaughter? Moshe was leader of a primitive desert tribe, set on open rebellion. There were no courts to appeal to, no law besides the word of YHWH and Moshe’s resolve to enforce it. Had he not allied himself with the sword-wielding sons of Levi, the Exodus story might have ended right here. There are also in this episode hints of later factionalism—of the northern Levitical priests in competition with the Aharonid priesthood, which would come to control the Jerusalem Temple in the south—a rivalry that is retrojected into this narrative. But the slaughter oppresses the reader’s spirit. We can tell ourselves as often as we like that this was a primitive people who needed to be dealt with harshly or that the episode can be explained by later social tensions. We still need to understand why God is enshrined in this narrative as demanding slaughter. There may be no answer, except the answer of Augustine of Hippo: “We are talking about God. Which wonder do you think you understand? If you understand, it is not God.”

But there are many mysteries in the text of Exodus that do not demand a resort to mystagogy—mysteries that are basically textual. Moshe’s ascents and descents are hard to keep track of; and it is his disappearance into the smoke on the Mountain’s summit for forty days that makes the Israelites desperate and provokes their backsliding. Puzzling (even sometimes exasperating) to a modern reader are the interruptions of the narrative by lengthy later insertions—elaborations of the original Ten; rules for farmers and herders; detailed rubrics for building an ark (or portable cabinet) that will enclose the tablets (Moshe eventually ends up with a second set) and for the “tent of meeting” that will serve as shelter for the ark when Israel is encamped.

Despite the thinning of their numbers, the Children of Israel do not improve. They lose heart at the least reversal, their complaints are never-ending, their quickness to revolt a constant threat to the whole enterprise. After putting up with their yammering for a couple of years, God decides to make them wander the Sinai for a full forty years before settlement in Canaan, in this way ensuring that the whole generation of Egyptian-bred complainers will die out and be replaced by a more rugged generation, hardened by wilderness trials—born nomads who expect always to journey on, rather than displaced city mice longing for the remembered fleshpots.

One of the most remarkable features of the Torah narrative—and a feature evidenced in no other ancient literature—is a hypersensitivity to the decisive influence of environment and its ability to shape both conscience and consciousness. Neither Sumer nor Egypt is ever described; from the Bible alone we would know virtually nothing of the first, and of the second mainly that its king was a fool who thought he could withstand the Real God. Any good museum of art can give us a better sense of these ancient societies than does the Bible, which actually sprang from these lush cultural sources. We can walk through an exhibition, admiring the golden statues of the pharaohs and the winged gods of Babylon without the least inclination to incline the head or bow the knee. But the Bible is a believer’s history, not a history of art or culture, and one that was all too close to the temptations of Egypt’s fleshpots and Sumer’s hieratic cruelties. Its authors felt no need to indulge in literary descriptions of civilized luxury, for cult and culture were so wedded in the ancient world that any appreciation of the cultural values of Egypt or Sumer (and, later, Babylon) could only tempt weak and wayward Israelites from the difficult way of the living God to the easy worship of the Golden Calf.

It is no accident, therefore, that the great revelations of God’s own Name and of his Commandments occur in a mountainous desert, as far from civilization and its contents as possible, in a place as unlike the lush predictabilities and comforts of the Nile and the Euphrates as this earth of ours can offer. If God—the Real God, the One God—was to speak to human beings and if there was any possibility of their hearing him, it could happen only in a place stripped of all cultural reference points, where even nature (which was so imbued with contrary, god-inhabited forces) seemed absent. Only amid inhuman rock and dust could this fallible collection of human beings imagine becoming human in a new way. Only under a sun without pity, on a mountain devoid of life, could the living God break through the cultural filters that normally protect us from him. “YHWH, YHWH,” he thunders at Moshe, the man alone on the Mountain:


    showing-mercy, showing-favor,

    long-suffering in anger,

    abundant in loyalty and faithfulness,

    keeping loyalty to the thousandth (generation),

    bearing iniquity, rebellion and sin,

    yet not clearing, clearing (the guilty),

    calling-to-account the iniquity of the fathers upon the sons and upon sons’ sons, to the third and fourth (generation)!”

This is God’s self-description, the one he would have us remember. He is the God of mercy and forgiveness, the God who never deserts his people, faithful to the end, patient with all our failings however dismaying, but reminding us that a household—a familial environment, holding three (or sometimes four) generations—cannot escape the sins of the oldest generation; they necessarily infect the atmosphere.

Moshe, the medium for this revelation, is both God’s representative and the people’s. To God he speaks on the people’s behalf, to the people on God’s behalf. His is a far more difficult calling than that of Avraham, who was almost a Sumerian Odysseus—a man with a mission, all right, but a wily character who seemed up to any challenge. Moshe is a man who does not think highly of himself, who never relies on his own talents, only on God’s word. He was, as Exodus says of him, “the humblest man on earth,” an extraordinary description in a world of boastful heroes. In his humility he has been hollowed out like a reed, so that there is nothing in him—no pride or quirk of personality—to distort God’s message. He can serve, therefore, as an authentic medium, a true channel.

The difference between the two great figures of Judaism’s beginnings constitutes additional evidence of their essential historical authenticity. Both men are alike in that they were settled and prosperous but called to be nomads—to wander over many years without any timetable for eventual settlement. But if their stories were simply the myths of an oral Semitic culture, we would find it hard to distinguish between them, for they serve such similar functions. We cannot know how many Sumerian businessmen God may have tried to speak to before Avram heard his voice. Nor can we know how many Hebrews, engaged in building Egyptian cities like Rameses, may have heard a troubling voice before they flicked it away like a fly and returned to their bricks. But Moshe, building on the cherished ancestral stories of a God who spoke to men, is able to add new definition and concreteness of detail to this revelation—of a God who leads his pilgrim people, refusing to desert them despite their appalling limitations.

The family god of Avraham, the Terror of Yitzhak, the Angel who wrestled all night with Israel, has become the God of a people, the Israelites, whom he means to guard like a jealous husband. But he is more than the God of Israel, for he is the universal God, the Creator of all, who has deigned in his mysterious mercy to single out this people and make them his holy nation. Everything proceeds from the double revelation of Sinai, the covenant of the Ten Words and the revelation of God’s essential self: He-Who-Is, He-Who-Will-Be-There.

The fire of Sinai, both in the revelation of the Ten and in the revelation of the Name, will not desert Israel, but will gradually be reconfigured from a symbol of the storm god’s anger to the refining fire of God’s love:

    We only live, only suspire

    Consumed by either fire or fire,

wrote T. S. Eliot. We must be consumed either by the anger of the storm god or by the love of the living God. There is no way around life and its sufferings. Our only choice is whether we will be consumed by the fire of our own heedless fears and passions or allow God to refine us in his fire and to shape us into a fitting instrument for his revelation, as he did Moshe. We need not fear God as we fear all other suffering, which burns and maims and kills. For God’s fire, though it will perfect us, will not destroy, for “the bush was not consumed.”

This insight into God is the unearthly illumination that will light up all the greatest works of subsequent Western literature. From the psalms of David and the prophecies of Isaiah to the visions of Dante and the dreams of Dostoevsky, the bush will burn but will not be consumed. As Allen Ginsberg will one day write, “The only poetic tradition is the voice out of the burning bush.”

1 Mahn-hu, or “whaddayacallit,” which most English Bibles transliterate as “manna” (and is traditionally thought of as “the bread of heaven”), was probably white edible insect secretions to be found on the branches of some rare Sinai plants.

2 The sound of the ram’s horn, still blown in Jewish ritual.

3 It is the mention of two tablets that encouraged later commentators to assume a division of the Commandments into two kinds, those concerning God and those concerning man. But the two tablets probably hark back to the treaty conventions of the ancient Middle East, with one copy intended for each party to the agreement, just as we provide in contracts to this day What writing system the Ten could have been written in and who could have read them are unanswerable questions. The alphabet is a Semitic invention, developed in the Levant by Phoenician scribes. Its stupendous advantage over the earlier Sumerian and Egyptian systems, which required mastery of thousands of symbols, lies in its simplicity, which allows it to be learned by anyone, not just the cultivated and leisurely. It represents, therefore, a giant step toward democratization (and it would over the ensuing centuries be copied with variations by Greeks and Romans). But whether Moshe, who would have known hieroglyphics (from which the Semitic scribes borrowed most of the forms for their new system), could have been aware of such a system (which did, indeed, exist by the likely date of Exodus), we just don’t know

4 The Torah (or “Teaching,” sometimes translated inadequately as “Law”) is the name Jews give to the first five books of the Bible. (For more information, see “The Books of the Hebrew Bible” at the end of this book.) The Torah is like a great mosaic, and though its simple underlying pattern may be attributed to one artist (according to later tradition, Moshe himself) its intricate parts and complex impression are the work of many hands. Despite what I take to be the essential historicity of this material, it is hardly without special agendas. Patched into the narrative of the Egyptian captivity, for instance, are ritual prescriptions that date to a much later time, when Israel was long settled in Canaan and its priests had the leisure to develop intricate rubrics. In this way, the Passover Lamb and the prescriptions concerning the matzahs (or unleavened bread to be used at the Passover Seder), which stemmed originally from springtime agricultural festivals, were added at a much later date to the original narrative, because the priests wanted the great story of liberation as justification for their rituals.

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