In the third month after leaving Egypt, the Israelites came to Sinai. Tradition says it was fifty days after the Passover that the Law was given there. That is a reason for the holiday of Shavuos (Pentecost). It is a day traditionally given over to the study of the Law. Shavuos falls on May 15, 2013, so it is appropriate that we finish a series of articles about the Ten Commandments in this month.
The first three commandments established who God is and what the Jewish response to that should be. The fourth command established a period of rest for the Jewish people, and especially for their slaves, servants, and animals. The fifth commandment legislated familial relationships. The remaining five commandments, most of which existed long before the Ten Commandments were given, and have been incorporated into laws of other nations since, establish one’s responsibilities in the society of the Jewish nation and generally extend beyond the physical/societal boundaries of Jewishness.
One of the reasons for the Ten Commandments was to set the Jewish people apart from the rest of the world. If so, one might think that these final five commandments are superfluous. Did not everyone accept these as law? While most societies, just to exist asThe legal execution of a criminal after due process of law is built into the Law of Moses. a civilization, included these laws, sometimes they only applied to the lower classes. The real innovation of the Ten Commandments was that they applied across the board. King David could be as guilty of murder as the third-undershepherd.
“Thou shalt not kill.” (Ex 20:13) Ever since Cain slew Abel, murder has been on God’s list of no-nos. Without this law, there can be no society or civilization. When people get together, disagreements happen. The difference between a man of God and a man of the flesh is that God’s man will not take the disagreement to the extreme. Rabbi Yeshua said, “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.” (Matt 5:21-22) He brought the commandment down to the root cause: anger. Leopold and Loeb notwithstanding, the majority of murders by otherwise reasonable people are based in anger.
Because the King James Version uses the word “kill,” many people have taken this command to another extreme. The commandment was clearly never meant to limit the killing of animals (or plants), because other laws specifically demanded blood sacrifices or limited what animals could be used for food. There are limitations within the Law of Moses to prevent cruelty to animals, even while killing them.
This commandment was also never intended to prohibit capital punishment. The legal execution of a criminal after due process of law is built into the Law of Moses. There are even provisions for preserving the life of the one guilty of manslaughter while still providing for the execution of a murderer. That is where the Law of Moses differs from many other laws at the time. Murder is not determined by the class of the one committing it, but the intent. Even a king was liable to trial and execution for murder.
Nor, clearly, was this a prohibition against killing in warfare. There were no provisions for conscientious objectors among the Jewish people, based on this law. One could get out of military service for various reasons, but not by claiming it was a violation of the Ten Commandments to kill another person.
“Thou shalt not commit adultery.” (Ex 20:14) The sanctity of marriage was inviolable. Whether one was married to one person or to many, taking another person’s spouse was more than merely stealing. It was a violation of both parties to the marriage, even if one consented.
Other laws dealt with sexual relationships outside of marriage. This was a specific prohibition of sexual intimacy when one of the parties was married to someone else. From ancient times, marriage was held to be binding only within one’s social class or below. The Epic of Gilgamesh documents a king’s prerogative to ignore the marriage rights of a husband, particularly on the night of the wedding. In the Middle Ages some feudal lords demanded a marriage tax, supposedly in place of their right to violate the marriage bed.
God was here telling the Jewish people that droit du seigneur was not acceptable. The master had no such rights over a married slave. Furthermore, the wife could expect the fidelity of the husband, and the husband of the wife. Polygamy was allowed, especially among the upper classes, but even then the husband was bound to his wives, and not allowed to go elsewhere.
The prophets often used adultery as a metaphor for the failed relationship between the Israelites and God. When the people worshipped other Gods, it was called adultery.
The LORD said also unto me in the days of Josiah the king, Hast thou seen that which backsliding Israel hath done? she is gone up upon every high mountain and under every green tree, and there hath played the harlot. And I said after she had done all these things, Turn thou unto me. But she returned not. And her treacherous sister Judah saw it. (Jer 3:6-7)
“Thou shalt not steal.” (Ex 20:15) This is a prohibition against taking by stealth, such as theft. Technically, it is not a prohibition against robbery (forceful taking directly from a person), although most authorities would include that as falling under this law.
Outright robbery is serious, because of the threat of bodily harm along with the taking of property. Theft is perhaps considered more heinous because of the stealthy nature and the feeling of violation of one’s security. One may not be able to take precautions against a robber, but one tends to think that keeping valuables in a locked house is more secure. When a thief “digs through” an adobe wall to take something, it seems more of a violation. There was a greater expectation of safety. It seems even worse when another finds property and makes no attempt to find the owner.
When the rabbis begin a study of Torah with a new learner, the first thing studied is not the Ten Commandments. It is the laws about finding property (such as animals) and returning it to the rightful owner. Just as limitations on what happens during a disagreement are essential to civilization, so also is the concept of ownership. When one acts the child, thinking that “what I see is mine,” there is no civilization. The prohibition against theft, therefore, is really about living with others.
“Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.” (Ex 20:16) Many people have interpreted this commandment to prohibit lying in any form, but it is really only about perjury. This command is about justice.
God is just, and he demands justice of his people. One of the most scathing accusations in the prophets and the proverbs is that judges took bribes to cause them to decide in favor of the rich. Perjury, lying under oath in a court of law, perverts justice. Through perjury, many a person has been falsely convicted.
For many bare false witness against him, but their witness agreed not together. And there arose certain, and bare false witness against him, saying, We heard him say, I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and within three days I will build another made without hands. But neither so did their witness agree together. (Mk 14:56-59)
Perversions of justice generally favor the rich or powerful. The poor man usually has no recourse but the truth, which bears little weight against the privileged class. “But ye have despised the poor. Do not rich men oppress you, and draw you before the judgment seats?” (Jas 2:6) Just as the command of the sabbath was to show kindness to the poor, so the command against perjury holds the powerful accountable for the welfare of those under them.
“Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour's.” (Ex 20:17) This is the onlyWhen one acts the child, thinking that “what I see is mine,” there is no civilization. command that legislates what one thinks rather than what one does. The command not to steal does not limit a person from wanting to steal. The command not to commit murder does not mean the thought cannot pass through a person’s mind. Certainly if one dwells on it, the thought becomes the parent of the action. But most commands, as most laws anywhere, legislate actions. Here God says, “don’t even think it.”
Covetousness was the original sin. The same word used here to mean covet was used in Genesis to say that the tree of knowledge of good and evil was “desirable” and “pleasant.” Covetousness may be the root of all sin. There has never been a religious war; there have been many wars over desirable property that used religion as an excuse.
God knows what is best for his people; therefore, they need not desire. If it is good, he will give it. If it has to be coveted, it is probably not good for a person. “Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts.” (Jas 4:3)
People have to live together. The last five of the Ten Commandments helped the Jewish people to live together. More, they applied across the board. They are designed so that all the people were equal before God’s law. Nobody was above the law.