What Is Mosaic Law?

In the most pivotal moment of the Torah, Moses is called “up” the mountain of Sinai to retrieve the law for the Israelites (Exodus 19-20). The Mosaic law is too important for the Lord to come “down” the mountain, and communicate it to the people. Instead, the Lord ensures a shroud of secrecy behind the creation of the law, only for the eyes and ears of Moses and Aaron.

The law is hierarchical, proceeding from the top down. It begins with God who communicates the law onto stone or clay tablets to Moses. These words are then to be read aloud to the people. The law originates with the deity, then it is communicated to the leader of the people, who communicates it to his subjects. The people must be made to know the law, otherwise how will they be held accountable for committing criminal actions? In theory, one cannot be punished without the ability to recall the law. In other words, insane people may not be held to the same, or perhaps equal, standards.

For what reason does God give law to the Israelites?

His explicit purpose is to further confirm his “covenant” with the Israelites so they can become a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). Therefore, the law is given to the Israelites as a kind of tool. In the same way that a chisel is used to perfect a work of beauty out of a slab of marble, the Lord gives the gift of law in order to better shape the souls of the Israelites. Recall that the Lord’s relationship with humans is tumultuous. The humans try at every turn to disobey the Lord, and He attempts to dissuade, punish, confuse, and eventually destroy humans, though he ultimately salvages their existence with the story of Noah and the Flood. After His attempt to control humanity falls apart at every turn, the Lord decides to focus on one group – His chosen people, the Israelites. In order to successfully command and form this nomadic and enslaved ‘stiff-necked’ people into a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation”, he introduces law to which they are bound.

The ten “Commandments” or “Words” that God speaks to Moses, begin with an invocation of God’s authority and a reminder that he is the deity that brought the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt. He beckons the Israelites to recall the miracles and wonders that God performed. In the Mosaic Law, miracles and wonders must be performed as a precondition for law. The existence of law is not a self-justifying condition. It is not rational law, because it points to the possibility of the suspension of the natural order of things. Rather, the Israelites must be reminded of chaos through the law, in order to be compelled to a condition of political order.

The Mosaic Law is delivered by God in a series of words, or commands. The commands are given in the first person singular form, and are spoken as if to each individual Israelite, universally. They are also a-temporal, not bound by any time-frame, and unequivocally without context. The “Words” give no specific punishments for their demands (unlike when God delivers the promise of a punishment of death to the humans in early Genesis. Their punishment for eating of the forbidden fruit was that their eyes would be opened seeing both good and evil, and also that they would surely die. Apparently this false threat did not phase the humans). However, not all of Mosaic law delivers punishments. Some commands provide rewards. Therefore, God has notably changed his strategy for delivering the law to the humans in Exodus; He has has given incentives. This was not introduced in the Garden of Eden, and was a better strategy employed by the Serpent. Whereas God promised death, the serpent promised rewards. Perhaps God learned something from the serpent.

The ten “Words” proceed as follows:

1. “You shall have no other gods beside Me” (literally “upon my face” in the original Hebrew). The first “Word” begins with an acknowledgement of other deities, but with a strict commandment not to allow other extant deities to infringe on His sovereign authority. This first “Word” is directed to all Israelites, as a whole, perhaps mostly to the leaders and the priests -the faith leaders. This reading is also consistent with God’s purpose for giving the law to the Israelites; to shape a people of priests and a holy nation. The first “Word” is esoterically directed the faith leaders, but is exoterically directed both to the whole nation and also to each individual. As was aforementioned, there is no textual evidence regarding the punishment an Israelite would receive if they embraced another god aside from YHWH. It remains a mystery. Like a Greek tragedy, the assumed violence occurs in the imagination of the audience offstage. Perhaps this is why the law is more terrifying, than a cut and dry explanation of punishments.

2. “You shall make no carved likeness and no image of what is in the heavens above or what is on the earth below or what is in the waters beneath the earth.” The second “Word” is delivered explicitly to the creators, the artisans, as well as to every non-artisan in the Israelite community. This “Word”, as with the others, is communicated as a response to a presumed future actions, and perhaps also as a reaction to a past action. Both carved likenesses, such as statues, and also images, such as paintings, are prohibited. Thus far we have seen emphatic restrictions placed on both the priests and the artisans, similar to the banishing of the poets as described in Plato’s Politeia or Republic. Why do both the artists and the priests pose such a considerable risk to the lawgivers? For the person establishing the law, the priests and the poets and the artists all have the same status as creators to influence the body politic, however their capacity to influence the body politic need not be made for the good of the people. The artists are compelled by the wayward passions, rather than the wisdom of a political leader. However, unlike in Plato, the second “Word” is far more restrictive to the creators. It expressly forbids the creation of works of art that represent the three spheres of life: the heavens, the earth, and the waters. These works are also notably visual representations -such as statues or paintings – that are forbidden in the law.

Unlike the previous “Word”, the Lord informs the Israelites that they must not bow or worship these carved likenesses and images, because He is a jealous God that reckons the crimes of the fathers with third and fourth generation sons. This is the first acknowledgement of divine punishment, followed by the promise of rewards to the thousandth generation if the law is obeyed. This is a also a reminder of the Lord’s covenant.

3. “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not acquit whosoever takes His name in vain.” The Hebrew word used here means to “bear”, as in an oath or a vow. This “Word” is directed to each individual Israelite, rather than being emphasized to a particular group, such as priests and artists. God is concerned with his name, that it not be used falsely. Thus far, the Lord has not been able to control what is said about Him -He is the victim of rumors with the potential to ruin the enduring nature of His name. This “Word” is also coupled with a punishment that cannot be avoided. It is unforgivable. There is also, notably, no reward for good behavior in this law.

4. “Remember the sabbath day to hallow it. Six days you shall work and you shall do your tasks, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God.” The Fourth “Word” impels the people to remember -to recall the sabbath day. It is the sole calendar ritual of the commandments that can be replicated. Rather than a command not to perform an activity, the fourth “Word” presents a proactive ritual that must be performed, and also remembered. In other words knowledge is required to maintain this law, and this knowledge is of the creation story in Genesis.

5. “Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long on the soil that the Lord your God has given you.” The fifth commandment, according to Jewish tradition, marks a notable shift from human obligations to God, to human obligations toward one another. The fifth commandment encourages a proactive activity and ‘state of mind’ that is coupled with a reward of long life. Perhaps the commandment is directed to the younger generations of Israelites whose parents are still among the living. Note that the desire to live a long life overcomes the desire for honor or glory (contrast this ‘Word’ with the options given to Achilles in Homer’s Iliad, the choice between an honorable death or a forgettable but lengthy life).

6. “You shall not murder.” Rather than more modern and sophisticated translations, the original Hebrew for the sixth commandment explicitly forbids murder, not killing. We can assume that there are legal ways to kill people, perhaps through war according to the sixth ‘Word’. What constitutes murder is not explained, however it is important to note that a good kingdom cannot be founded on the unjustified killing of one another. From the sixth commandment on, each command is neither coupled with a punishment if disobeyed, nor a reward if obeyed.

7. “You shall not commit adultery.” Commandment seven is the first to address the politically vital issue of marriage. If adultery is permitted, then marriage is meaningless, and the foundation of the family, and also possibly the city (according to Giambattista Vico) is rendered null.

8. “You shall not steal.” Commandment eight is concerned with private property. Like the injunction not to murder, what constitutes stealing is not specified. If private property is eliminated, the body politic is rendered a peonage. The new Israelite kingdom is intended, at least, not to be tyrannical. The horrors of the 20th century, namely the communist revolutions of the east, were reactionary movements against these founding moral codes for civil society.

9. “You shall not bear false witness against your fellow man.” Integrity is the goal of the ninth “Word”. Much like the command to not profane the name of the Lord, humans are not to lie to one another. Otherwise, a system of laws will be meaningless. This “Word” is directed primarily to the masses. Notably, the ninth commandment introduces a crime of thought rather than action, as presumably one can seem to tell the truth outwardly, while maintaining a lie internally.

10. “You shall not covet your fellow man’s house. You shall not covet your fellow man’s wife, or his male slave, or his slavegirl, or his donkey, or anything that your fellow man has.” The tenth commandment is curious because it is redundant. Both the eighth “Word” protecting property and the seventh “Word” protecting marriage have addressed this issue. The only distinction is that this commandment alone addresses the inner desire, and yearning for personal property. Israelites should not steal from one another, and also they must not want to steal from another. A punishment for disobeying the tenth commandment must be entirely internal. The commandments have thus proceeded from the top of a hierarchical society down to the innermost thoughts of an individual Israelite.

These are presumably the conditions needed to build a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, as the Lord claims.

Throughout these ten “Words” runs the assumption that human nature is fraught with evil impulses that must be corrected, or at least kept at bay. In the past, the humans have forgone their promises, and forgetten their covenants made with one another, as well as with God. Therefore, the Lord decides He needs to correct the humans’ behavior. Rather than seeking out the inner intentions of the human beings, the Lord wants to persuade and compel their actions. Since he could not persuade individual humans, he decides to proceed from the kingdom down to the individual.

The commandments proceed in order of importance. The first four address the immediate threat to the Lord’s authority, and expressly forbid the activities that cause these threats from the leaders, while the remaining six are for the whole. The “Words” proceed from the few to the many. Moses, not the law-giver but rather the law-deliverer, is the vessel for the deity. In this way he is distinct from the Greek lawgivers, such as Lychurgus and Solon. Whereas Hesiod gives an account of the origins of the gods from a human perspective in his Theogony, Genesis gives an account of the origins of man from the deity’s perspective. Greek authors are named (Homer, Hesiod and so on) while Hebrew authors are anonymous, the work of many hands. The distinctions between Athens and Jerusalem grow sharper.

The “Words” or commandments are also distinct from the New Testament speech to the masses, commonly referred to as the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus delivers a list of blessings to the meek and the poor in spirit, and also a series of commands to love one another. This, it should be noted, is in stark contrast to the moral commands of YHWH in Exodus. With the ten “Words” he is concerned with restricting and controlling particular activities, rather sending blessings and love to the people. His goal is a kingdom on earth, while Jesus’s explicit focus is on the kingdom of heaven.

In the Mosaic law, there is no modern conception of a “separation of church and state” because the theological is intimately connected to the political; it is the necessary condition for the political. In Platonic terms, we might call it the noble lie, or the lie in waiting, though the word “lie” may be too strong. It is the necessary life-affirming myth to reaffirm the law. Therefore, the Mosaic law is more enduring than, say, the code of Hammurabi because of the compelling narrative, and also due to its simplicity: ten moral commands. Following these ten commands in Exodus 19-20, the Mosaic law is further augmented with ordinances and necessary rituals for the priests, or Rabbis, in Exodus and Leviticus.

However, the ten commandments are the beginning of the law. They set the parameters in which all further law must be followed. They are what we moderns might refer to as a constitution -they contain the express incentives and the prohibitions for the body politic. Also, as a whole, the ten commandments are to be given universally, spoken to the largest number of people, thereby establishing a moral foundation on which the kingdom can thrive.

For this reading I used Robert Alter’s masterful translation of the Torah.

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