Light from the Sidra


Exodus 18:1-20:23.Haftarah: Isaiah 6:1-7:6,9:5-6

Many years ago I spoke to a Jewish lady in Sydney, Australia. She was of the opinion that, in order to establish some semblance of order among the rabble that had come out of Egypt, Moses climbed Sinai, engraved ten laws on a couple of stones and managed to fool the people into believing the laws had been written with the finger of God.

I asked if she thought the Ten Commandments were good laws. She said they were the very foundation of western civilisation and its laws. I then pointed out that if Moses had made up the Torah and passed it off as the very words of God, the greatest legal system in history was founded on a fraud. How could a moral system based on a lie sustain the great legal system from which we in the West have benefitted? That was why we noted in the comments on Bereshit that Genesis 1:1 is the most important verse in the Bible. If the universe is the result of blind, random forces, there is no basis for law. Without a Creator, the universe is meaningless and therefore no law can have real authority. That is why we instinctively want there to be certain things that are absolutely wrong or absolutely right. But in order to establish rock-solid values, we need an absolute authority to which we can appeal. The Torah is that authority because it comes from the God who, in the beginning, created the heavens and the earth.

In God’s dealings with Israel in biblical times, he often made use of customs and practises with which the people were familiar. A common motif was that of covenant. God himself initiated the custom of covenants after Noah and his family exited the ark in Genesis 11. Kings and nations began to establish covenants in their dealings with each other, and those covenants took on a certain structure and required written treaties to be drawn up. Exodus 20, in which the “Ten Commandments” are set out, takes a form almost identical to that of a covenant treaty. As we will see later in our studies, the entire book of Deuteronomy, in which the Torah is repeated, is set out in the form of a covenant treaty.  

In the ancient Middle East, treaties between kings were common. If the relationship between them was cordial, the parties were referred to in the covenant document as “father” and “son.” If the covenant was purely political, the parties were referred to as “lord” and “servant”, “suzerain” and “vassal”, or “greater king” and “lesser king.”  

Suzerain treaties all follow the same structure. The documents feature a Preamble in which the Suzerain is identified by name and title, after which there follows a historical survey of the his dealings with the vassal. The purpose of the preamble was to establish what the Suzerain had done for the vassal and what the vassal therefore owed in terms of submission, allegiance and obedience.

The next section of the treaty lists certain stipulations in which the vassal’s obligations and duties are spelled out in principal and detail. The section often concludes with the requirement that the vassal deposit his copy of the treaty in his temple, where he is to read and study it to refresh his memory concerning his duties.  

The last section of a Suzerain treaty lists the blessings that will follow obedience to the covenant and the curses that will follow should the vassal fail to meet the stipulations. Two copies of the treaty would be drawn up. The Suzerain would keep one copy and the vassal the other.

The structure of Exodus 20 is remarkably similar to a Suzerain treaty. The first two verses form the preamble, in which Yahweh states who he is and what he has done for Israel: “And God spoke all these words, saying: I am [Yahweh] thy God, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (Jewish Publication Society translation).

The “Ten Commandments” in verses 3 - 17 are a preliminary list of stipulations (more will follow) with selected blessings and curses as, for example:

“I [Yahweh] thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate Me; and showing mercy unto the thousandth generation of them that love Me and keep My commandments” (vv 5-6, JPS translation).

“Honour thy father and thy mother, that thy days may be long upon the land which [Yahweh] thy God giveth thee” (v12, JPS translation).

As we continue our studies in the Torah, we will see the way the covenant structure is repeated and developed but for the moment we learn two lessons. First of all, the covenant God established with Israel at Sinai was conditional. Unlike the covenant made with Abraham in Genesis 15,Israel’s obedience to the Sinai covenant will result in blessing and disobedience will draw down a curse.

The second lesson is that the Torah is a written document. The two tablets on which the Torah of God was written were identical. One tablet was God’s copy of the covenant, which was to be placed in the ark of the covenant, and the other was Israel’s copy, given to remind them of what their God had done for them and what was expected of them in return. If Israel could not remember to keep the written instruction of Yahweh, what hope would there be that they could remember, let alone keep, an Oral Torah!

Israel’s future happiness or misery will depend on their faithfulness to God’s mitzvot. Israel’s ultimate destiny, however, depends on the sheer mercy and grace of God revealed in his unconditional covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15.

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