February 08, 2007

Exodus 33-35: The other ten commandments

Today's reading is Exodus 33-35 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers several encounters between Moses and God, including Moses' viewing of God's back; the text of the second two tablets; and the offerings the Hebrews gave for the tabernacle.

So, you think you know the ten commandments? If you don't, feel free to review what I wrote already or even the text itself: Ex. 20 (link to NIV). Reacquainted with the text of the two tablets? That's too bad, because you're wrong.

Instead, the text of the second set of tablets is set out in Ex. 34:12-26. There are, in fact, ten commandments, but I'll bet that you've never heard this set. Here's the list, paraphrased into my own words:

  1. Do not make treaties with the people in the land you are going, lest you worship their gods. (Ex. 34:12-16)
  2. Do not make cast idols (Ex. 34:13)
  3. Keep the feast of unleavened bread (ie: Passover; Ex. 34:18)
  4. The first offspring of every womb belongs to God, both animals and men. Redeem all your sons. (Ex. 34:19-20)
  5. Do not work on the seventh day. (ie: the sabbath; Ex. 34:21)
  6. Celebrate the feast of weeks (ie: Shavouot; Ex. 34:22)
  7. Celebrate the feast of ingathering. (ie: Sukkot; Ex. 34:22) -- Between the feast of unleavened bread, the feast of weeks, and the feast of ingathering, all men must appear before the lord three times per year. (Ex. 34:23-24)
  8. Do not offer blood sacrifices with yeast, and do not let the Passover sacrifice remain until morning. (Ex. 34:25)
  9. Bring the first fruits of the land to the house of God. (Ex. 34:26)
  10. Do not cook a young goat in its mother's milk. (Ex. 34:26)

Ex. 34:27-28 informs us that these commandments, not the ones in Ex. 20, were inscribed on the two tablets. These, not the ones in Ex. 20, were the holy commandments for the Israelites. And, I'd wager, most fundamentalist Christians would strenuously object to these commandments on the walls of their courthouses and schools.

There are, of course, parallels between these commandments and the ones encountered previously in Exodus. Both argue against making idols, both command the observation of the Sabbath. It could even be argued that the first commandment of each list can be interpreted the same way: that the Hebrews should worship only God and no other gods.

But there the differences stop. This list contains commands the Israelites to worship the three main holidays, and Hannukah isn't among them. The three holidays at which the Hebrews are required to bring sacrifices to the house of God are Passover, Shavuout, and Sukkot. These were all harvest festivals, appropriately. At these times, the Hebrews would have a new batch of crops, and God required his share of them. However, my guess is that unless my readers have had a Jewish education or done study into the Jewish calendar, you probably have never heard of the latter two festivals, despite their importance.

This list of commandments is more highly focused on God's portion of the Hebrews' wealth. In addition to the sacrifices at the holidays listed above, it also notes that God receives the firstborn of every womb (though the human males must be redeemed and returned to their parents) and the first fruits of the land. It also gives instructions for how to administer the sacrifices: blood sacrifices must not be mixed with yeast ("leaven" in KJV). The final commandment is the beginning of Jewish dietary laws, and contains what many have interpreted as the proscription against eating meat and milk at the same meal.

I mentioned, in my analysis of the first ten commandments, that at least half of them (specifically, the latter half) were reasonable, universal laws that could be applied to almost any well-ordered society. The first five commandments, while not so universal, were still moderately so, and could be applied to many monotheistic societies. It is a list that, even if you are not Christian, you might be willing to accept (at least in part) on the wall of a courthouse.

This list has an entirely different feel. Gone are the universal laws not to murder, not to steal, not to covet the property of another. Gone are the proscriptions against bearing false witness. Instead, this set of commandments is much more tribal, much more cultural. These are laws specifically for the people who have made a covenant with God: their festivals, their dietary restrictions, the sacrificial requirements. The is not a general document; it is a highly specific one.

It is precisely these sorts of specific requirements, of which there are many more in Leviticus, that the early Christians turned away from. In fact, the earliest Christians were Jews, and likely obeyed all ten of these commandments in addition to the ones in Ex. 20. However, by the time of Saul of Tarsus, otherwise known as St. Paul, new Christians were no longer required to be Jews as well. Certainly by the turn of the first century after Christ's death, Christians could be gentiles. In many ways, the focus shifted to universal laws, such as the original ten commandments, away from the specific Jewish requirements, such as these. Many Christians today have no idea that such commandments even exist, let alone follow them.

Were the ten commandments universal laws that could be applied, in large part, to most societies, or were they specific, tribal rules for a specific ancient people? The answer, I suspect, lies largely in which set of commandments you choose to identify.

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