Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Exodus: The Ten Commandments

(Note: In case you haven’t read previous postings, you may notice that when I directly quote the Bible I use the name Yahweh a lot. You’re probably used to seeing “the LORD” in those passages. The reason for the substitution is simple: I actually read the translation notes for the version I’m reading and quoting from, where it states that the translators use “the LORD” wherever the original text uses God’s personal name YHWH – which we would say as Yahweh. So what I’m really up to is undoing a substitution the translators have made, which I believe they do for the purpose of emotional manipulation).

Alright, so we finally have the Israelites to the sides of Mount Sinai, the site at which God appears to deliver the Ten Commandments. But as usual there’s more to the story than most people remember and/or are told. So as usual I’m going to dwell on the details a bit. Here we go!

The Israelites arrive at Sinai about three months after leaving Egypt. While the people camped there, Moses went up the mountain to talk to God. And God’s message is to tell the Israelites that as long as they keep his covenant and obey his commandments, they will be his “treasured possession among all peoples,” and a holy nation. So Moses tells the people this, and they agree to go along with the deal. Moses relays their consent to God, who then tells him that in three days he will come down as a thick cloud so that the people can hear him speak to Moses and thus believe Moses (I guess it was somehow unclear so far whether Moses was actually speaking for God or not).

God then instructs Moses to tell the people to consecrate themselves and wash their clothes to be ready for his appearance on the third day. And also that Moses should set limits around the mountain and that anyone who tries to cross them and climb the mountain should be shot or stoned to death. So Moses goes back down the mountain to relay the message, and tosses in “Do not go near a woman.” I guess women deconsecrate men or something, and you don’t want to come near God with woman on you. God hates cooties.

“Ex 19:16 On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled. 17 Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain. 18 Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because Yahweh had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the show mountain trembled greatly. 19 And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder.”

Now… does this sound to anyone else like a bunch of primitives mucking around at the base of a volcano and thinking it’s a god? Note that in this passage God does not respond in words, but in thunder. Which is a perfectly natural occurrence. Then Moses goes up the mountain where suddenly God is talking to him in words again (where no one else can hear).

In these words, God tells Moses to go back down and warn the people once again not to try and break through the perimeter they set up, and that any priests who are to come near should consecrate themselves. Moses seems a bit confused about this mention of priests coming up, and he reminds God that he had forbidden anyone to come up on the mountain. So God is like “Oh yeah… umm… I mean go bring Aaron back. The priests have to stay back there with the people like I said before.” This passage makes God sound like kind of a dim bulb. Or something made up by a fallible author. Take your pick.

But now… we’re finally there: The Ten Commandments!

“Ex 20:1 And God spoke all these words, saying

2 ‘I am Yahweh your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. 3 You shall have no other gods before me.

4  ‘You shall not make for yourself any carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in the heavens above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I, Yahweh your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.

7 ’You shall not take the name of Yahweh your God in vain, for Yahweh will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.

8 ‘Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to Yahweh your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. 11 For in six days Yahweh made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore Yahweh blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

12 ‘Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that Yahweh your god is giving you.

13 ‘You shall not murder.

14 ’You shall not commit adultery.

15 ‘You shall not steal.

16 ‘You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

17 ‘You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.”

Now, for those of you who think American law is based on the Ten Commandments, take note of a few things here. The First Commandment is directly contradicted by the First Amendment to the Constitution. The second, third, fourth, and fifth have no representation in law. The sixth, eighth, and ninth do appear in American law… as well as in the laws of pretty much every society ever formed on the earth whether they had ever heard of Yahweh or not. The seventh shows up merely as grounds for divorce (and is also very common in non-Abrahamic law systems as well). And the tenth is a thought crime held to be completely unenforceable and therefore not written into American law, and violating it is pretty much the driving force behind our entire economic system. Coveting shit is pretty much what capitalism is all about.

Basically, there is absolutely nothing that is both unique to the Ten Commandments and part of American law. Because our founding fathers had better sense than that.

Now it’s a little unclear whether these words were actually spoken in the presence of the people of Israel. Although the delivery of the commandments is immediately followed by a bit about how the people saw thunder and lightning and the mountain smoking, and heard trumpet blasts, and got scared and moved far away. There’s nothing about them hearing God’s words. Though there’s a request from the people for Moses not to let God speak directly to them because they’d die, but rather for Moses to speak and they would listen to him. So I’m inclined to think that nobody but Moses heard actual words. The whole thing reads very much like some huckster taking advantage of the magnificent backdrop of an erupting volcano to con a bunch of hungry, desperate primitives into thinking he speaks for God.

Anyhow, that’s far enough for today. Not sure exactly how I’m going to handle the next section, which is a pretty tedious recital of laws and remarkably specific instructions for precisely how God wants to be worshipped. I’ll probably try to hit the highlights without going into too much eye-glazing detail.

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