Light from the Sidra

Yitro (‘Jethro’). 18 January 2014. 17 Shevat 5774

Torah: Exodus 18:1–20:23. Haftarah: Isaiah. 6:1–7:6; 9:5–6.

Please note that unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from Tanach (The Artscroll™ Series/Stone Edition, April 2013. Published and Distributed by Mesorah Publications, Ltd, 4401 Second Avenue / Brooklyn, New York 11232)

Law and Mercy

I once met an elderly Jewish lady in Sydney, Australia. She was a Holocaust survivor who had been so traumatized by the things she suffered in Auschwitz that she no longer believed in God. She was of the strong opinion that Moses, in order to establish some semblance of order among the rabble that came out of Egypt, climbed Mount Sinai, engraved the Ten Commandments on a couple of stones and fooled the Jewish people into believing the laws had been written by the finger of God.

When I asked if she thought the Ten Commandments were good laws, she said they were the bedrock of western civilisation and its laws. I suggested that if Moses had made up the Torah and passed it off as the 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 benefited?

Genesis 1:1 is the most important verse in the Bible because if the universe is the result of blind, impersonal random forces, there is no solid basis for law. Without a Creator, the universe is meaningless and therefore no law can have real authority. Everything is a matter of opinion. But we instinctively want there to be certain things that are absolutely wrong or absolutely right. In order to establish rock-solid values, however, we need an absolute authority to which we can appeal. The Torah can only be that authority if it really came 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 practices with which the people were familiar. A common motif was that of covenant. God 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 ancient Middle Eastern covenant treaties. In fact, the entire book of Deuteronomy, in which the Torah is repeated, is set out in the form of such a treaty.

In the ancient Middle East, treaties between kings, tribes and nations 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 followed the same structure. The documents feature a preamble in which the ‘suzerain,’ or lord, is identified by name and title, after which there follows a historical survey of his dealings with the ‘vassal,’ or servant. 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 structure of Exodus 20 is remarkably similar. The first two verses form the preamble, in which God states who he is and what he has done for Israel: ‘God spoke all these statements, saying: I am HASHEM your God, Who has taken you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery.’

The next section of the treaty would list certain stipulations in which the vassal’s obligations and duties were spelled out in principal and in detail. The section often concluded with the requirement that the vassal deposit his copy of the treaty in his temple, where he was to read and study it to refresh his memory concerning his duties. The last section of a suzerain treaty listed the blessings that would follow obedience to the covenant and the curses that would 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 Ten Commandments in verses 3 - 17 are a preliminary list of stipulations (more will follow) with selected blessings and curses as, for example:

You shall not prostrate yourself to [idols] not worship them, for I am HASHEM, your God—a jealous God, Who visits the sin of the fathers upon children to the third and fourth generations, for My enemies; but who shows kindness for thousands of generations of them those who love Me and observe My commandments (vv 5-6).

Honour your father and your mother, so that your days may be lengthened upon the land that HASHEM, your God, gives you (v12).

From this, we learn two vital lessons. First of all, the covenant God established with Israel at Mount Sinai was conditional. Unlike the covenant God made with Abraham in Genesis 15, Israel’s obedience to the Sinai covenant would result in blessing, whereas disobedience would 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 under his royal throne, 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.

Pirke Avot – ‘The Ethics of the Fathers’ – in the Mishnah starts by stating that God gave the Oral Law to Moses on Mount Sinai; Moses passed it by mouth to Joshua and so on until the Oral Law was entrusted to the rabbis. That statement is fraught with difficulty; if Israel could not remain faithful to the ten written commandments, how on earth could they be expected to remain faithful to hundreds – if not thousands – of unwritten commandments. What hope would there be that Israel could remember – let alone keep – an Oral Torah!

Israel’s future happiness or misery will depend on their faithfulness to God’s written mitzvot. Israel’s ultimate destiny, however, depends on the sheer mercy and truth of God revealed in his unconditional covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15. And that mercy and truth is to be found in Israel’s Messiah.

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