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 nowhere is that felt more acutely than in the First Commandment, the only one that is not phrased as a command. But despite this, there is a normative statement being made, an assertion of God that has implications for our self-understanding as human beings. The pronouns here are crucial: “I am the Lord your God”: not a dry theological statement but a vibrant moral one; the listener is as deeply implicated as is the speaker. To have a God means to embrace his example.
But to say he is an ideal does not move us any closer to knowing what, exactly, he is meant to represent. We need to learn who this God is, and the only way to do so is to look at what he did before he uttered the First Commandment—to read it, in other words, in its literary context. We need to go back to the very beginning, to the Creation of the universe in Genesis, where God makes his first appearance.
I’ve always read the Creation story with a feeling that it is not just a story but an introduction to God, that everything we need to know about him is encapsulated in it. It is here, after all, that we first encounter the relationship between God and the universe—that is, between the ideal we are supposed to emulate and the reality to which we are supposed to apply it. The first and third days of Creation offer a good example of this:
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was unformed and void, and darkness was across the depths, and the spirit of God hovered over the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good, and God separated the light from the darkness. And God called the light day, and the darkness he called night, and it was evening, and it was morning, a single day . . .
And God gathered the waters that were below the heavens into one place, that the dry places be revealed, and it was so. And God called the dry places “land,” and the gathered waters he called “sea,” and God saw that it was good. And God said, “Let the land be full of grass, plants that create more plants, fruit trees that bear fruit each of its kind, which have the seeds in them to plant in the ground,” and it was so. And the land produced grass, plants that create more plants, trees bearing fruit with seeds in them, each of its kind, and God saw that it was good. And it was evening, and it was morning, the third day. (Genesis 1:1–13)
Two things become clear about God here. First, he creates: As though effortlessly, he introduces the basic elements of our life-giving world and acts to change things according to his design. Second, he judges: He draws conclusions about the value of what has been done, and observes that it is “good.” This combination of creation and judgment is the essence of what God is throughout the Hebrew Bible—a powerful synthesis that has reverberated through the generations and continues to resonate in our own lives.
To create is to intervene in the world and change it according to our design and will. Anytime we see something in our world that is different from what we want to see, and we change it, we are “creating” in the biblical sense. Most of us think of creativity as bringing into being something that was not there before: a work of art, a handicraft, a business or building or book. This view of creation is limited, because it prejudices our judgment as to what kinds of change are or are not “creative,” when in fact what is most interesting here is the idea that God can change things at all.
In most of the ancient world, the prevailing belief was that neither gods nor men could change the basic functioning of the universe, that there was a certain primordial reality that everyone needed to adapt himself to. In the Bible we have the opposite. God creates the universe, and he does not stop there. His continued interventions include also catastrophic acts of destruction—the tower of Babel, Sodom and Gomorrah, Egypt under Pharaoh. God continues to impose his will, and indeed much of the biblical narrative is dedicated to his interventions. Every word he utters, every punishment he metes out, every act of redemption is another act of creation, for he is acting in freedom, imposing his will, changing things. One need think only of the flood, when God, having seen the depth of human corruption, “repented” at having created the world and sought to begin again. He is an inventor, forever tinkering with his imperfect work. God “re-creates the universe each and every day,” says the Talmud.3
When we change things, we re-create the universe just as God does. A changed world is a new one, even when the change is small. One of our most important discoveries in early childhood is that the world is not a given, but that we can affect it: A baby pushes buttons on a toy, causing a light to flash and music to play; a toddler builds a tower of blocks; an older child invites her friends over and avoids an afternoon alone; a teenager changes his attitude toward schoolwork and begins getting better grades. All these minor successes give us a rush of the effectiveness of our will—something especially cherished by children who are so used to having the world and its rules presented to them as unchangeable.
We often forget how easily we may be agents of change. We no longer live in a world where the crucial choices of spouses, careers, and religious commitments are dictated by our parents and communities. Our lives are our own to a degree unimaginable just a few centuries ago, and even as we grow older, we are free to make both major and minor changes in the contours of our lives. Some of these, such as embarking on a new career, marriage and divorce, or religious conversion, entail not only promise but also enormous risk and pain. But as major acts of change, they reaffirm the infinite possibilities of which every one of us is capable. In a sense, every time we exercise our will in recrafting our lives, we imitate God in re-creating the universe.
Our modern, democratic world could never have sprung from a civilization that did not believe in change the way the Bible, and pretty much no one else in the ancient world, did. Modernity, if nothing else, is the unleashing of the individual’s creative will, through political institutions that protect our right to make choices, and through the cultural reverence for the individual as a source of change. This is most obvious in economics and business, where all growth begins with the creative entrepreneur who seeks to provide new goods and services that people will want to pay for. But it is no less central to democratic politics, where every new candidate must prove his ability to change things, even in societies where people are generally happy and prosperous. This is also the assumption behind the vast self-help industry: You do not have to accept things as they are, we are told. You can change anything in your life.
We should not be too quick, however, to praise change for its own sake. The creative will includes the potential for making things worse or for hurting those who are weaker than we are in our effort to get ahead. The world as we receive it is full of things that are as they are for good reason and should not be changed; traditions often contain wisdom that the compulsive reformer lacks. To take the point to its extreme, the most murderous regimes of the twentieth century all started out as movements for change, as an effort to reinvent the world in light of their leaders’ new designs.
When man exercises his creative will on the world, in other words, he can do great evil as well as great good. For this reason, he requires the second aspect of God in the story of Creation: He must also be a judge.
To judge is to evaluate reality in light of an ideal—to assess the “is” in light of the “ought.” When God judges the universe to be “good,” he is saying that it could have been otherwise, that there is always a better and a worse way to do things. In doing so, he also affirms the human obligation to judge the world in light of a moral ideal of which it frequently falls short, and to make sure that our interventions are actually good ones. If creativity means change, judgment means deliberation. In human society, this is most strikingly exemplified in the figure of the judge in a court of law, who is tasked with arbitrating disputes, freeing the innocent, and convicting criminals—that is, of determining, carefully and definitively, how life should be lived in light of a conception of the good represented in the laws of the land.
It is difficult to overestimate the role of the judge in the Hebrew Bible. In the modern era, we tend to look at judges as a professional class, to whom the responsibility of adjudicating legal matters is delegated, separate from questions of morality. In the biblical view, however, no such separation exists. Everyone is potentially a judge. In the legal passages of the Torah, the number of admonitions and prescriptions aimed at judges far exceeds those for political leaders. And when the rules governing priests or kings are addressed, these figures are invariably addressed in the third person (“the high priest shall do such and such”), whereas statements about how to be a good judge appear in the second person (“Do not pervert justice; do not favor the poor, nor give favor to the rich”). Moses, we find, spends the great majority of his days in the desert not in prayer, study, strategy, or speeches, but rather in judgment, adjudicating the day-to-day disputes and petty crimes of ordinary Israelites—an occupation so important that he is reluctant to delegate it to anyone until the burden grows so great as to threaten his own health. From the time of Joshua’s conquest of the Promised Land until the advent of the monarchy centuries later in the book of Samuel, the Israelites live under the rule of “judges”—an extremely unusual title for rulers in the ancient Near East—who appear to emerge organically as judicial, moral, and military leaders. And the reign of King Solomon, depicted as the pinnacle of the Israelite commonwealth, is known above all else not for the king’s grand public works, nor for his considerable military achievements, but for his wisdom in judgment.
The Bible’s preoccupation with judges reflects its belief that God himself is a judge, and that we should be as well. To be a judge means not only developing opinions about how things ought to be, but developing good opinions, grounded as deep as possible in an understanding of both what is and what can be. Though we tend to think of judgment as something cold and dispassionate, in truth it begins with a passionate urge to identify good and evil in our world, to find out what we can do about it, and to go beyond ourselves and take responsibility, at least with our minds, for what happens to others.
So often we fail to be judges precisely because we lack this sort of moral passion. We send our children off to school, accepting its policies, contents, and standards as givens, breathing a sigh of relief when our kids get good grades and avoid trouble but never asking whether our schools are really educating them, morally and intellectually, to their fullest. We watch the news about our country’s ills without so much as wondering what we could be doing about it, or whether we have a duty to learn more about questions of economics, public policy, and foreign relations on which informed political action must be based. We hear the cries of a child or wife next door and do not ask ourselves whether there is a horrible string of abuses taking place, a crime to which we may be lending a hand if we do not act.
In such cases, our “lapse of judgment” begins with a kind of laziness, an intellectual absence from the world. It is only when we habitually think about our world as something that we not only can but must understand, a place where we have a duty to be mentally and morally present, only when we habitually ask whether the school, the government, or our neighbors are doing right and undertake to learn enough about them to make an informed assessment of our own—only then have we internalized the call to judgment implicit in the First Commandment. Our opinions are our most precious moral asset, and by developing the habits of opinion making, we imitate God with our minds just as we imitate him in our actions by pushing for a changed world.
By presenting God as a deeply opinionated personality, the Bible is teaching us the importance of the restless moral mind, a mind that constantly seeks to understand and appraise. This restlessness is absolutely central to the biblical ideal, so central that on more than one occasion we find the greatest heroes challenging even God’s own judgment, invoking higher ideals in an attempt to influence God’s decisions—as when Abraham challenges God over his intention to wipe out Sodom and Gomorrah (“Shall the Judge of all the world,” he asks, “not do justice?” [Genesis 18:25]), or when Moses takes God to task for threatening to destroy the Israelites for the sin of the Golden Calf and convinces him to withhold his wrath.4 The assumption in these stories is not that God is perfect and everything he does or says is by definition right, but that just as he is the supreme judge, so too are we obligated to judge right and wrong as he does—and therefore to question even the actions of God when they look wrong to us.
Later on the rabbinic tradition took this a step further, suggesting that moral judgment is so central to the biblical worldview that it is embedded in the founding act of Creation, that at its deepest level it is inseparable from God’s creativity. “When any judge judges truthfully, even for a moment,” the rabbis taught, “it is as though he were a partner to the Holy One in the creation of the universe.”5 Our capacity to judge good and evil is similar to our creative capacity, in that it starts with the belief that the world should not be accepted as is, and that we have a responsibility to make it better.
Yet judgment is different in its dynamic experience from the creative will. Here we muster not just our courage but also our intellect, imagination, and moral instinct to understand how things really ought to be; here we assume a position of humility rather than presumption, of patience in action and impatience in thought, because we are searching for a right answer. We start out assuming that we do not already have the answer, but that neither do we have the luxury of abandoning the search, for moral understanding is attainable nonetheless.
These two aspects of the God of Creation—his creative intervention in the universe and his judgment of right from wrong—combine into an exceptionally potent synthesis that is the heart of what the First Commandment is about: the principle of redemption.
Creativity without judgment is change and power for their own sake. In the best case it leads to indifference to others and addiction to the thrill of willfulness; in the worst case, to coherent, methodical evil. Judgment without creation, however, is static and passive, incapable of combating evil of any kind. Like two benign ingredients that react massively when combined, the combination of creativity and judgment yields something beyond both of them, something that sets the Hebrew Bible apart from anything else the ancient world produced, something capable of inspiring an entire world. On some level, redemption is the God of the First Commandment. When we accept redemption as an ideal for human behavior, we make him our God, regardless of whatever we may “believe” in terms of our faith.
If we consider God’s behavior throughout the early books of the Bible, and the way he is spoken of by the prophets in the later books as well, we discover that redemption is the central defining feature of God’s character. Where he exhibits emotions such as love and anger, these are always translated into righteous action rather than detached amusement, contemplative repose, or arbitrary willfulness. Everywhere that God reveals himself to us, it is for the purpose of improving the world—either by advising the patriarchs whose importance is bound up in the nations they will sire, or by chastising kings and leaders for their failure to make their nations good, or by intervening directly and miraculously to ensure the salvation of good people.
God always is moved to act, and he is always “right,” not by definition but by intention, meaning that in every case there exists a standard of right and wrong against which he is held accountable. God, however, is not that standard: He is, rather, an ideal example of someone living up to that standard. This is a crucial distinction, one whose failure to be grasped has caused endless confusion among theologians. If God’s will were good by definition, we would have a hard time understanding Abraham’s haggling with him over Sodom and Gomorrah, or Moses’ successful attempts to protect the Israelites from his anger. Our goal would not be to imitate him but to carry out his orders, blindly and in good faith—which is precisely what many interpretations of the biblical religion have demanded.6 God is not the ultimate Commander but the ultimate Redeemer, an archetype, a model to inspire us.
God is not the Bible’s only exemplar of the redemptive spirit, however. A very specific type of human hero also is constantly on display. What all the Old Testament’s patriarchs, judges, and kings have in common is the idea that worldly deliverance comes from human intervention: from Noah, who builds an ark and saves the living world from destruction; to Abraham, who leaves civilization to found a new people and a new faith; to Moses, who leads this people out of bondage to freedom; to heroines like the judge Deborah, who leads the tribes in war; Yael who kills the evil King Sisera; and Esther, who becomes queen of Persia and saves her people from the murderous Haman; to righteous kings like David and Josiah; to tragic figures like Samson. Even when someone is explicitly known not for valor but for wisdom—someone like King Solomon—it turns out that such wisdom is found first of all in his righteous action rather than theoretical or legal mastery.
Not only bold leaders are revered. The Bible is filled with prophets, as well—men and women who carry a message from God, who have heard his words through a revelatory experience that is the product, apparently, of extensive training and devotion. But here too we find nothing like Buddha’s call to self-detachment, or the Greek gods’ whimsical one-upmanship, but rather a consistent message enjoining leaders and peoples to correct the ills of their world. Isaiah and Amos, Nathan and Ezekiel, Jeremiah and Jonah—all of them called upon individuals or peoples to correct their ways, to repent from sin, and to build a life on this earth under a vision of the good.
What the prophets share with the kings and judges is that all of them are engaged in a lifelong effort to imitate God as a redeemer, whether through actions or words. Indeed, in TheGuide for the Perplexed, perhaps the most important work of rabbinic theology in the medieval period, Moses Maimonides asserts that bold, redemptive acts and prophetic words are really two sides of the same coin. The redemptive act is, in his view, a form of prophecy, for it is imbued with what the Bible calls the “spirit of God”:
The first degree of prophecy consists in the divine assistance which is given to a person, and induces and encourages him to do something good and grand, e.g., to deliver a congregation of good men from the hands of evildoers; to save one noble person, or to bring happiness to a large number of people; he finds in himself the cause that moves and urges him to this deed. This degree of divine influence is called “the spirit of the Lord.” . . . All the judges of Israel possessed this degree. . . . This faculty was always possessed by Moses from the time he had attained the age of manhood; it moved him to slay the Egyptian, and to prevent evil from the two men that quarreled; it was so strong that, after he had fled from Egypt out of fear, and arrived in Midian, a trembling stranger, he could not restrain himself from interfering when he saw wrong being done; he could not bear it.7
• • •
The declaration I am the Lord your God, in other words, proclaims the centrality of redemption—as an ideal and as a mandate for our lives. That this is the real meaning behind the First Commandment becomes even clearer when we read the second half of the verse: who took you out of Egypt, from the house of slaves.
What should be obvious here is that the exodus from Egypt is, simply, the central story of redemption in the entire Bible. The whole story takes up the better part of five biblical books, Exodus through Joshua, and may be the most stirring catharsis the ancient world has to offer. God is given one shot, as it were, to describe himself in the First Commandment, and of all the possible self-introductions, he chose this one.
In the exodus story, two redemptions are described: God’s intervention to save Israel from slavery and to lead them to freedom, and the Israelites’ own efforts to save themselves.
That God is above all an exemplar of the redemptive spirit seems so overwhelmingly evident from the story of the exodus that it seems almost as though this, rather than the creation of the universe, is his crowning achievement in the whole Bible. God here is the ultimate redeemer. He “hears Israel’s cries” as they suffer in slavery; he appears before Moses in the burning bush and instructs him on how to act; he brings the plagues upon Egypt; he parts the Red Sea as the Israelites are being chased by Pharaoh’s army; he leads them to Sinai where they receive the two tablets; he guides them through the desert where they learn the fundamentals of nationhood, from government to warfare to worship; and he takes them on a path to ultimate victory and freedom. Indeed, gratitude to God for the exodus and the journey to the Promised Land constitutes the central theme of Judaism’s three major festivals, and whose retelling occupies the entirety of the traditional Passover night celebration.
Yet in all this divine succor, man is anything but passive; indeed, what makes the exodus story so crucial for understanding the First Commandment is not so much God’s interventions as those of so many individuals whose heroic efforts make the difference between success and failure.
At the center is, of course, Moses, who must repeatedly overcome impossible conditions—his origins as a newborn male of Israel decreed to die by Pharaoh’s order, his exile in the desert after killing an Egyptian who was beating an Israelite slave to death, his speech impediment that made him an unlikely leader, and above all, the infuriating reluctance of the Israelites to be saved.
But there are many other individuals who undertake bold, redemptive acts. We have Jethro, a Midianite desert-king who takes Moses in during the latter’s early exile from Egypt, during which time he is exposed to the burning bush and the entire idea of the exodus is presented to him, and who later becomes Moses’ father-in-law and personal adviser in the desert, where he successfully promotes what were arguably the most important governmental reforms in ancient Israel’s history. Women play a conspicuous role in the exodus as well: Whether it is the Israelite midwives Shifra and Pua, who risk their lives to save the Israelite babies; or Jochebed, who hides her newborn child, Moses, avoiding detection by the murderous Egyptian authorities; or the daughter of Pharaoh, who takes Moses in and raises him despite his evident Israelite origins; or Moses’ big sister, Miriam, who stands watch as the baby floats down the river in a basket, and then initiates the plan by which Jochebed will serve as wet nurse to Pharaoh’s daughter, hiding the fact that she is the baby’s true mother.
Indeed, so central is the role of the human redeemer throughout the exodus epic that the rabbinic tradition emphasized the role of redemptive individuals even where the original text seems to be stressing God’s actions rather than man’s. In the parting of the Red Sea, God saves Israel in the most dramatic fashion. With Pharaoh’s chariots barreling down against them, the slave-mass of Israelites find themselves pinned against the banks of the sapphire sea with only a pillar of smoke between them and the pursuing hordes. God tells Moses to put forth his staff, and the sea parts, creating walls of raging waters on either side with a dry seabed path offering an unthinkable escape.
In the rabbinic retelling, however, the sea does not part immediately. Rather, it is Nachshon, son of Aminadav, chief of the tribe of Judah, who must literally take the plunge, wading into the seething brine in an act of apparent lunacy (slaves in Egypt, we may presume, were not expert swimmers). Only when the waters reached his nose, the rabbis tell us, did they part.8
The implications of this legend are clear: God may offer opportunities for miraculous salvation; but only when man plays his own role as redeemer, through a courageous act of righteous initiative, will he make the transition from slave to human being and fulfill the mandate of the First Commandment. The tribe of Judah, of course, is a powerful symbol: It is this tribe’s patriarch, Judah son of Jacob, who displays consistent and effective leadership in the book of Genesis, saving his brother Joseph from certain death after the brothers cast him into a pit, showing humility and responsibility after his affair with his daughter-in-law Tamar, and playing a decisive role twenty years later in reuniting the brothers after Joseph has separated from them in Egypt. It is from his loins that the kings of Israel, including David, Solomon, and the future Messiah, are destined to emerge. As chief of the tribe of Judah during Moses’ time, Nachshon is the heir to this legacy, and it is no surprise that for centuries thereafter, the figure of Nachshon came to symbolize daring and redemptive deeds.
But if this is right, then the First Commandment really is not about God at all. An infinite number of things may be said about the infinite God, the God of the philosophers and theologians, the God who is omnipotent and omniscient and all-encompassing, the God who may be studied and dissected forever. But none of these are the message of the First Commandment.
It is, rather, a message about who we can be, about what every one of us, to some degree, is capable of. What the First Commandment teaches us is that just as God is at heart a redeemer, so too are we, each of us, potential redeemers. Deep inside, we all possess the capacity for creation and judgment, the ability to understand our world, to imagine it better, and to act in its improvement, even in directions where humanity has never gone. We can indeed re-create ourselves each and every day, and re-create our world as well, each of us playing a unique role in, and experiencing our own version of, the trek through the desert and into the Promised Land.
Many of us are resistant to the redemptive calling. Life, we tell ourselves, is hard enough as it is—caring for children and a spouse and parents and our health and our homes and our finances and our careers—without having to worry about other people’s troubles.
Yet both the Bible and the rabbinic tradition that followed always insisted that no matter how hard life becomes, we never have the luxury of abandoning the redemptive perspective. Though the Old Testament offers a long list of rules and regulations, many of which no longer speak to us, the central message of the Ten Commandments seems to be that God’s word is one that ordinary people can follow if we only set our minds to it. “The Torah was not given to the ministering angels,” the rabbis taught.9 According to rabbinic tradition, Mount Sinai was neither the highest nor the lowest mountain in the region, but a medium-sized one, symbolizing the average person to whom the Ten Commandments were addressed.10
The power of the Ten Commandments, in other words, derives not from their impossibly high standards but from the insistence that real human beings, with all their faults and failings, can improve themselves and the world around them.
The jarring truth is that the revelation of God in the First Commandment is, above all, a revelation about ourselves. When the child in the forest looks into the eyes of his partisan father, he recognizes them not just because of the old photos he has seen, but mainly because they are his own eyes. In discovering that the redeemer is his father, the child learns about who he himself is, about what he is ultimately capable of being, a lesson he will carry with him for the rest of his life, using his father’s example as a measure for his own behavior.
In hearing the First Commandment, we recognize God not just because of the old stories about Abraham and Moses, or because of our commitments to one religious faith system or another. We recognize him because his eyes are our own.
The First Commandment raises more questions than it answers. What does it actually mean to be a “redeemer”? How do we instill in ourselves the redemptive spirit without sacrificing who we really are? How do we tell good from evil? And how does the ideal of redemption apply to our world—to our relationships with family, friends, community, and beyond?
As we shall see in the chapters that follow, it is one thing to recognize this redemptive potential in each of us, quite another to understand it thoroughly, to put it into practice in a meaningful and consistent way. The First Commandment sets the tone, making the boldest possible statement about who God is and what kind of example he sets for us. As such, it lays the groundwork for the entire Ten Commandments, in which the redemptive spirit is explored and elaborated on and applied to every significant area of our lives—morality, integrity, the self, wisdom, life, love, wealth, community, and inner peace.
Yet the redemptive spirit is not itself to be taken for granted. Profound forces are at work today seeking to undermine our belief in one or more of its component parts. We are told that there is no point in worldly or political action, or that the individual self is an illusion, that we have no right to judge right from wrong, or simply that our careers and hobbies are more important than our inner character or the communities around us. There are competing beliefs about “character” as well, some of which push toward a kind of servility to authority or fashion or the workplace, while others place self-expression, rather than improvement, above everything. One by one, a great many of the traditional building blocks of the redemptive spirit have come under brutal critique, and the results have been a steady erosion of our will and ability to struggle for a better world.
Of all these, however, none has been more profound, or potentially more dangerous, than the attack on the concept of moral truth—that there is such a thing as a “better” world at all. To understand what is at stake requires a close look at the Second Commandment, and its prohibition of idolatry.
© 2010 David Hazony
How Our Most Ancient Moral Text Can Renew Modern Life
The Ten Commandments
How Our Most Ancient Moral Text Can Renew Modern Life
In The Ten Commandments, David Hazony offers a powerful new look at our most venerable moral text. Combining a fresh reading of the Old Testament’s most riveting stories and ancient rabbinic legends with a fearless exploration of what ails society today, Hazony shows that the Ten Commandments are not just a set of obscure laws but encapsulate a deeply valuable approach to life—one that is as relevant now as it was when they first appeared more than two millennia ago.
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 making a statement about faith or mystical realms inaccessible to reason, 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, in the form of the Hebrew Bible, and has stood at the heart of the most important 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, we discover, adds another piece to the puzzle of how the redemptive spirit may enter our lives and 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.