The giving of the law on Mount Sinai is as momentous as the parting of the Red Sea even though it might seem to be different because the people might not think they need the law while they certainly knew that they could get across the Red Sea only if there were some sort of miracle. God again solves a problem, but only in extremis and at the last minute. These people could all have perished in the desert or at least have ceased to be recognizable as a people. So some may think that the Ten Commandments are natural in the sense that they are the rules of the road that any people would come up with, the fundamentals of any legal code. But not according to “Exodus”. They are a particular code not so much in their content as for their categorical nature that associates on a general level issues of torts (not to want someone else’s property) with matters that are criminal (such as the prohibition against murder). And they have been imposed on the Israelites rather than discovered by them, yet another indication that this god is the God of the unnatural, of what is contrary to nature. Law does not “naturally” arise out of its functionality or as a reflection of reason but, according to “Exodus”, has to be imposed on people because they will not otherwise accept it and because it will not otherwise occur to them as a necessary part of going about the business of life.
It makes sense, therefore, for a modern theologian to ask where God was at Auschwitz. Asking such is not a metaphor or a reference to what might have been during a time when there were miracles. If Auschwitz was not an event momentous enough to call out for the direct intervention of God just this one time again, then what might such an event be? It is not a question of the number of people killed, but the enormity of the evil and the extent to which God’s people have their backs up against the wall, just as was the case with the Israelites at the Red Sea. God is supposed to show up under such circumstances.
As has been suggested, the Book of Exodus sequences its miracles by the necessity of God’s intervention. The God in the burning bush, however weighty, is a personal revelation, calling Moses to his task, and so is like Noah being called to his task, the burning bush of less significance than the parting of the Red Sea, and that not as weighty as the Ten Commandments, and not even that as important as arriving at the border of the Promised Land, for here the people will come into their own, something that will be understood in “Deuteronomy” as the completion of God’s plan, every aspect of the conquest of the new land proceeding because God wanted it to happen that way. “Exodus” thinks the establishment of a state for Israel to be earth shattering, though the modern world subsumes that to the establishment of freedom and universal law. But God had to intervene on the doorway to the Promised Land because it was very important that the conquest took place.
“Exodus” supplies a scaling of how miraculous are the miracles to go along with the comparison of their necessity. What might be called the intensity of the miracles is not arranged in either ascending or descending order. Rather, the miracles are arranged in a dramatic arc: the clarity of there having been a supernatural intervention grows and then ebbs. The discovery by the prince of Egypt, early on, that he responds to injustice can be thought of as rather minor in that it is a conventional story of a nobleman finding his roots in the people, and that is accomplishment enough if this is one of the first times it is found in literature. The encounter of the grown Moses with the burning bush can be touted as a real miracle and breakthrough in that this is a new way for God to be experienced: as a voice in the midst of an unnatural event and associated with what mystics have always seen in fire: the passing off into one another of what is visible and invisible. That makes it the personal communication between a person and God, and so the sort of miracle which has already been unfolded in Noah and in Abraham, though in those cases, the miracle was in voices rather than associated with an object. Moreover, like those earlier miracles, it foretells a mission rather than by itself accomplishes a goal. And at the end there is Moses losing his temper in bringing water from a rock and being denied more than a look into the promised land. This doesn’t make sense as a punishment and it has no consequence. It is just that Moses has gotten old and it is time to move him off of the scene, and any excuse will do. It is like what to do with Churchill in 1945. The challenges of conquest are rigorous and significant enough to require new leadership.
So that leaves two miraculous events as more sublime than those that precede them and that follow upon them: the parting of the Red Sea and the taking of the tablets down from Mount Sinai, the Ten Plagues too close to natural events to qualify. And those two events are so stupendous that they shape life ever since in that God, every once in a great while, does intervene to do good, and that it takes God’s inspiration and intrusion not only to save the people of Israel to provide law for them. The latter is known to the Greeks, but not the former, which is presented as a factual statement. It is true or not true; it is not a matter of interpretation. All of Hebraic and Hebrew inspired religion relies on the idea that the facts are the facts and if they are not the facts then it is a lie that there is a God who presides over the universe. The parting of the Red Sea introduces what the Greeks would argue you into: that there is convention but then again there is also truth, which is something that cannot be compromised or conditioned and so stands alone as its own kind of thing.
Moses bringing the tablets with the Ten Commandments down from Mount Sinai is in some ways comparable to the parting of the Red Sea. It is a public event, to be noticed by anyone who happens to be in the area. In that way, it is also like the Sermon on the Mount, where the content of the words are to be taken as in some way miraculous, an indication of how the future kingdom of God will be experienced, anyone in the area able to hear Jesus’ words. That makes the Sermon on the Mount a less esoteric event than the appearance of Jesus to his disciples at Cannae. The sight of the risen Christ might be a more supernatural event than the Sermon on the Mount, but it is witnessed only by the religious elite and so does not qualify as a public miracle, even as the curing of a leper, however much that is a public event, is also not a full scale miracle because it is the sort of trick any faith healer might claim to have pulled off.
The bringing of the Ten Commandments differs from the Sermon on the Mount because it is not a rhetorical event. Jesus triumphs because he makes a better life so appealing, so much better than the life people ordinarily live. He is engaged in a very high form of rhetoric, but rhetoric it still necessarily is because it is out to convince people of the truth that lies behind the words. The Ten Commandments, however, are not out to convince anyone of anything. These words may be engraved on tablets but they speak for themselves as being the law that abides whether people believe in them or not. Moreover, the breaking of the tablets and their replacement by a second set can be interpreted as something else than the anger of Moses at the people who have fallen back into the worship of idols-- or, perhaps, have taken up the worship of idols because those are the gods of the land they will be entering. That would be a warning of dangers to come rather than of the dangers they fled.
Rather, the breaking of the first set of tablets suggests that the words of the Ten Commandments are not engraved in stone but are something more permanent than the stone on which they are engraved. They are abstract entities. They have the power, like all words, to be everywhere and nowhere, and so are like the God who is emerging with Moses: the principles of the universe rather than of a nation. That the tablets are broken, even by Moses himself, is to say that the principles cannot be broken because they do not exist in the same way that other things exist, and the same can be said of God, who becomes along with his Law, a coadjutor of how the universe is governed. Without the law, it would be necessary for God to intervene regularly to, let us say, remind people of the law when they fall astray, while a world in which the law exists or is first made to exist, is itself a reminder not to go astray, even though that means that God too is limited in what he can do because the law stands there independant of God’s pronouncement of it once He has proclaimed it. It can be copied out on any parchment and retains its power and confers an aura on the parchment because of what it says, not the other way round.
A perception that the greatness of a nation can be based on something other than technology and a highly developed bureaucratized politics flies in the face of the traditions with which the Israelites are familiar as well as what we now think of as the way of nations: those that are culturally advanced are also scientifically and politically advanced and come to dominate other nations because of the triple punch of military, cultural and economic imperialism. There are any number of ways to measure the power of nations but the absolutism of a moral code, of the idea of the law, is a singularity upon which this great nation can stand.
The Israelites were original in that they thought up the idea of arguing with God, wherever He came to them, even as early as Adam and Eve, and particularly as that went on between Abraham and God. The Israelites therefore did more than indulge in ceremonies in honor of their god. But arguing is what merchants and traders do. They make their cases. That is their singular strength. The Israelites knew neither astronomy nor any science nor much about the religions of the tribes amidst whom they lived. They do not seem to be curious, only practical, a point of view that leads them to the abstract but not to the form of wealth that comes from the cultivation of the land which, in the early Middle Eastern civilizations, led to despotism. Cain was a cultivator, and God passed him over, and Cain took his revenge for being so disregarded, but attention to matters of justice did concern the Israelites, and so Cain was dealt with rather than becoming part of a story about how life switches back and forth between the Cain and Abel in all of us. What a strange people.
Whatever their material deficiencies, and however successful as sheepherders, which means that they were experts at selling their sheep to merchants, such as the caravan to which his brothers sold Joseph, the Israelites are primarily notable as a people who compose stories that are extremely clear and yet intricate in narrative structure and in the intricacies of the psychology needed to understand the characters in the stories. The reader has access to the structures of everyday reality as well as emotional relationships as intricate as any that would ever be known. The stories do not exist in some mythic supernatural even if the supernatural gets brought in every once in awhile in a way we know from Shakespeare and from the Greek tragedians. These sophisticated narrative constructions are of a much earlier time than the time when they are redacted during the Babylonian Captivity even if the final edition of “The Five Books of Moses” is arranged in terms of leitmotifs of exile and return. The materials the redactress worked with were far older than that because the individual stories of the patriarchal age and before are so individually complex and different from one another--a tale of incest next to a dialogue about justice--that it is unlikely that they could have all been rewritten rather than arranged and given a common emphasis. Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller were not one person.
That the Israelites are low on material culture presents a problem for present day students of economic and social evolution. Relatively low levels of material culture is supposed to mean that the Israelites would be deficient in intellectual culture as well. Even the Sioux had horses, and their level of material culture was not very high. No advanced culture got that way without the benefit of horses. (The Aztecs are an exception, but that is because there were no horses to be had before the Spanish Conquest.) Why is the fact that the Israelites were the poor relations of other Middle Eastern cultures not inhibit their spiritual and intellectual development?
The answer to that question may be that horses are not a sign of an advanced civilization, just the means of conquest whereby a less advanced people has a chance of catching up with the more advanced one. That may have happened in China as it moved from Genghis Khan to Kublai Khan, or even with those “barbarians” who were the conquerors of Rome but had, after all, been in contact with Rome for generations. And so one can posit that much of what the Israelites got was from the Egyptians. The theory of public policy (saving in prosperous times to even things out in bad times) that is championed by Joseph may have been learned in Egypt. That may go as well for the theory of bureaucracy (Moses dividing his army into hundreds). But that leaves too much out, particularly the central accomplishment of the Israelites, which was in religion and literature.
One might also consider the possibility of a theory of unequal development. Sometimes material and intellectual cultures are congruent. The Lowlands were the most prosperous part of Europe at the time when they were also its leader in art and philosophy and government. But Europe was materially far less well off than China and had imported little more than pasta when it embarked on the period of intellectual and spiritual growth that made it the dominant force in the world. You have to look at what happened in the unfolding of the Christian imagination to understand why that happened. Max Weber understood that it was the internal perturbations of a religion that were creative, and the development of the Protestant Ethic out of the resources of Christianity was only the most signal of these as well as the one most important for the history of the secular world.
This is still a controversial point. It is very different from the meta-theory of cultural diffusionism which posits that all ideas come from someplace else, or of “values” sociologists, who think ideas are applications of what are the distinctive spirits of individual cultures, or of cultural Marxists, who think culture is a very complicated derivative of structural conditions. For Weber, as for Harnack before him, ideas transmogrify into other and sometimes very different ideas all on their own, the process dependant only on the ability of the human imagination to see ideas as subject to alteration.
The ancient Israelites are a case that supports the Weber metathesis. They got neither their religion nor their legal system or their culture from the Egyptians. Those derived, I think, from the fact that their religion was the amalgamation of a variety of ethnic gods rather than the mutual tolerance of those gods. That is a cultural invention in that people had to come to think that it was a pleasing and satisfying solution to the problem of how different peoples will get along. It is an amazing invention in that it leads to the abstraction out of the gods to one God and that leads to the idea of one law, a common law, rather than tribal law.
This view that the Israelites were in the forefront of abstract thought is contrary to the views of Max Weber who thought their religion not equipped for a leap into capitalism because it was not sufficiently rational, no more rational than the religion of the Chinese or the Indians. That is because Weber used the Talmud as the basis for his views of Jewish law. He treated the legal system enforced by the rabbis beginning at about the time of Christ as a kind of traditional justice, decisions made to enforce a customary law rather than an abstract law, and therefore likely to be more arbitrary and helter-skelter than would be the case with an abstracted system of law as that was known to the Romans (who, however, also did not develop capitalism, though a case could be made that they were well on their way to doing so and that what happens with the rise of Protestantism is the development in a somewhat different guise of what would have happened had not Rome fallen and, worse still, Christendom taken its place).
A consideration of the Talmud will provide a portrait of life in Israel during what we would now consider early Christian times while a consideration of the Torah provides a portrait of how the history of Israel looked to those writing in Persian times. The Talmud is interested in regulation for regulation sake as well as in the exploration of what an ethical life entails. The Talmud is out to enforce some sort of cultural unity that will distinguish the Jews from the Romans and from Greek influenced culture. It also allows for loads of exceptions so as to make the yoke of law less burdensome, as one might expect of a legal system more interested in justifying itself as a distinctive culture than in imposing a Draconian code on the inhabitants of a city or province. Weber has less interest in the humanity of the Talmud than in its arbitrariness.
But Weber is wrong in that he is dealing with what might be called “second growth” culture or even third or fourth growth culture or even some iteration later than that. Jewish culture (like many or most cultures) is always consciously inventing new cultural forms whereby it can stay in touch, it believes, with the “original” culture, which in this case is the distinctive process whereby Jewish culture originally developed by fusing separate cultures into a single one rather than imposing a hierarchy of cultures, as happened in Indonesia following successive waves of Islamic and Chinese invasion of the Polynesian inhabited islands. That original event of the amalgamation of the tribes of Jacob and Isaac and Abraham into a single genealogy is largely lost to us, though we may surmise that it was a self conscious event in that cultural evolution is not accidental but is instead, as in the case of the integration of the various geographical sectors of the United States into a national culture, the result of authors working to overcome the strains that would lead to the division of North America into a European like set of nations. We have only the first known of the iterations. Certainly, the period of kings and the period of exile and the period of prophets and the confrontation with the Greeks and then the Christians created new iterations.
Again contrary to Weber, the law at its iteration in The Ten Commandments was meant in its full force to be a law so as to rein in a people rather than to separate them from other peoples. And the law is certainly rationalized in that it sets out central principles that are very abstract as they are to be applied on a case by case basis. A hint of where that comes from is the “Law of the Covenant” that is found in Exodus: 21-23 where rules are set up about assessing damages from tribes raiding one another and so which may predate the rationalization of the family of tribes into a single genealogy. That is the way long and debilitating feuds between tribes can be avoided. Again, tribal harmony is more important than the suppression of one tribe by another. The law expedites conflict resolution; it does not justify the society by punishing malfeasance. It is a kind of international law between tribes, a practical invention rather than a vehicle whereby, as Durkheim thinks, people are made able to worship authority.
That kind of international relations, whether between the members of the European Union or between the American colonies, is the basis for the distinctly abstract political structure of the Israelites. Given that their kings are mostly inept or corrupt, especially the first two, Saul and David, the cry that the Israelites needed a king was a retrogressive step, at least to the redactor who makes the previous era of judges a much more attractive time. The state survives not because of its kings but because of the idea of law however isolated that becomes in its identification with God himself as the lawgiver and the chief enforcer of the law, God the repository of what it means to be just even if few of his people are.
The Law of the Covenant is also important as a model for a full fledged law because it provides a very different basis for law than is the case with the despotic empires that surrounded Israel. In those empires, a covenant was an arrangement with legal or binding force between an authority and its suppliants. So and so was what the Pharaoh was willing to grant. Biblical scholars often treat the covenants between the Hebrew God and His people as of a similar manner. God self limits himself so that He will not bring another flood; God grants to Abraham that his people will multiply and prosper. But if the Law of the Covenant is used as a model for the consideration of covenants, then there is a negotiation between parties, and to that extent, for the purposes of negotiation, are putatively equal, even if not equal in power, that results in a deal useful to both parties. God wants humanity to survive and that is why He whispers a little something into Noah’s ear. God wants to free his people from their bondage in Egypt, and so performs miracles to make that come about even if His people do not seem very appreciative of what He has done for them.
Agreements based on a meeting of minds rather than seen as a privilege granted to underlings are two very different kinds of things. The former means that the less powerful party can raise issues that could not otherwise be raised for fear of giving offense. Abraham does that when he negotiates with God over how many good men there need to be in Sodom for the city to be saved. Moses may be going too far in having taken for granted that he could get water from a stone, but certainly that might well seem to be within the scope of the duties delegated to him and so God taking umbrage at Moses’ behavior seems unjust. And so, if anything is to distinguish Israelite thought from that of the rest of the Middle East and so explain why the ideas of secularism arose there, it might well be this issue of international law replacing the idea of hierarchical law as the basis of the disputational relationship.
International law also provides the basis for the very rich literary culture which a concern for the motives of others as those are externalized in interpersonal relations at least as complicated as are international relations. Everybody is always negotiating with other people and with their own consciences and tries to manage some way of living with both of them, even David, who has to deal with a conscience very guilty for a number of things as different as the genocide of the Amalekites and the murder of Bathsheba’s husband. Everybody is a mystery who is managed, as diplomats will say of other nations, only on the basis of their external behaviors. That is a theory of individuality before its time, because it posits an internality of self that is beyond direct observation, and it does not require horses for that concept to gain speed.