Genesis I-III: The Birth of Law

Today, we moderns call Genesis a book. That is, a whole and complete text. However, Biblical scholarship suggests it may, instead, be a collection and compendium of varying and sometimes contradictory mythologies of the known world, rooted in ancient Canaanite, Babylonian, Egyptian, and Akkadian traditions. Ancient writers would have known it as an “account,” a retelling of stories from ancient anonymous sources. The title of Genesis is taken from Jerome’s Latin Vulgate, which was borrowed from the Greek title meaning “Origins.” The Hebrew word Beresit refers to the opening words of the book, “When God began to create…” (using Robert Alter’s masterful translation of the Hebrew Bible).

The first part of Genesis concerns the Primeval History (Chapters 1-11), a tale of the origins of the world: land, vegetation, animals, and humans. Then it tells the story of the spread of the known peoples in the fabled of Babel, as the people spread from Greece to Mesopotamia and also Asia Minor. It is an account of the early people, the spread of languages, and traditions.

The second part of Genesis concerns the Patriarchal Tales (Chapters 12-50), which focuses on the rise of Israel and the promise delivered by God to Abraham in Ur (Chapter 12) against the Chaldees. It is a story of Israel’s nationhood. Importantly, the nation has cosmic origins parallel to the birth of the world, not unlike the cosmologies recounted by Hesiod in his Theogony or Socrates in Plato’s Republic.

The first parts of Genesis express the importance of birth and reproduction, beginning in the Garden of Eden with the injunction to be “fruitful and multiply” and continuing with the promise to Abraham and his offspring of a great nation spawned by his seed. The Torah, in general, is a compendium of human wisdom and learning, but also it is a recounting of God learning how to handle His new human creation.

First, God creates humans “in [his] image” in the first creation story (1:26-32), but then in Genesis II a second creation story of humans occurs. God “fashions” humans from the soil and breathes life. He places the human to the “east” where He planted a garden in Eden (a word derived from ancient Sumerian and Akkadian origins most likely meaning a “well-watered plain” or “steppe”). The rivers are listed, two of which are the Tigris and Euphrates, and gold and lapiz lazuli are abundant. He places the human in the garden to “till it and watch it” (2:16-17).

However God makes one infamous command. “From every fruit of the garden you may surely eat. But from the tree knowledge, good and evil, you shall not eat, for on the day you eat from it, you are doomed to die” (2:17). He opens by explaining everything the humans are allowed to eat, except for one. He thus draws great attention to the Tree of Knowledge, Good and Evil. He says this just prior to creating a “sustainer” or woman for the human, so she presumably does not hear this law announced, though she later reiterates God’s first law to the serpent (3:2-3). The only difference in her account is that she adds that humans may not eat the fruit or “touch it” lest they die. Why does the woman add the element of touch to God’s prohibition? Recall that God’s first law initially only prohibited eating the fruit of the tree. Perhaps she had touched the fruit on another occasion and found that she also did not die.

God’s injunction forewarns to the humans of what will happen if they break the law. It is a threat of punishment. However, the cunning serpent (cunning is a play on the Hebrew word for naked) suggests that God is lying, and that he knows the humans will “become gods knowing good and evil” (3:6). Whereas God’s law had promised death, the serpent’s tantalizing promise is far more compelling. With the serpent, we are exposed to a fundamental truth in humans, one that befuddles God. Humans respond to positive incentives, rather than to threats of punishment. It is better, or more compelling, to dangle a carrot, than to threaten imprisonment. However, how can this be? Laws cannot all be positive incentives. The threat and the follow-through on punishments is key to the law. A person must be made to feel guilty if they break a law so as to preserve the integrity of the law. The law that threatens must follow-through on its threats if it is to remain credible, though it risks cunning people being persuaded by promises of incentives for those who break the law. Law is not neutral. It exists to enforce a a set of values.

What is it that convinces the woman to eat the forbidden fruit? The serpent promises her personal gain – from a human to a god. After the serpent plants this idea in her mind, she looks at the tree and sees that it is “good for eating” and that it is “lust to the eyes” so she takes the fruit and eats it, giving it to her man, as well. The “look” of the tree suddenly becomes the doorway to becoming godlike. For humans, laws are made to elevate humans above their base desires and instincts, but also to prevent them from gaining too much ground. Laws reflect the particular character of our being. In Eden, the woman has competing desires – one desire to follow the law of God, and another to capitulate to her desire to become a god. Recall, St. Augustine in his Confessions describing his lust for doing that which he did not want to do, like eating a shiny and tantalizing apple. In Romans, Paul also laments his need for law because he finds himself in a situation doing things against his own wishes. The law is the arbiter, the guide for the competing wills of humans. If done properly, the law will compel and persuade humans to pursue the good and just way, with a combination of prohibitions, threats, and promises.

However, as we know, God’s punishment is complicated. The serpent was correct, as admitted by God (3:22) that the humans became like gods knowing good and evil. As a result of eating the fruit, the humans suddenly realize their nakedness and they clothe themselves. When God discovers this, the man passes the buck to the woman, who blames the “beguiling” serpent. Thus god punishes them in reverse order: He orders the serpent to slither on the ground in enmity with the humans, the woman’s punishment is pain in child birth and longing for a man who will rule over her, and the man is punished with working the soil, sweating from it until he dies and returns to it one day (“from dust to dust”). We thus conclude that God introduces death to humans in Genesis by banishing the humans from Eden, because he is threatened by their potential to also eat from the tree of life, and live forever. Humans only become like gods in their moral knowledge, though they are physically barred from living forever. He establishes a “cherubim” with a fiery sword (winged beast in Near Eastern mythology). In this way, both God and the serpent were correct in their promises of what would happen if the humans ate fruit from the forbidden tree.


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

Moses as Lawgiver

What is a lawgiver? In exploring this question, we turn to Moses, the earliest example of a lawgiver, and we contrast his character with others who came before him, such Abraham or King Hammurabi.

rembrandt moses
Moses Breaking the Tablets by Rembrandt in 1659

Abraham, the teacher of the Israelites, is a father of a people -of “many nations” as promised by the Lord. He is given this covenant by the Lord, who routinely tests his obedience. The promise is first as expressed to Abraham in order to ‘make Abraham a great nation’, to ‘bless him’, to ‘make his name great’, and ‘make him a blessing’. Abraham, then called Abram, follows these instructions without qualification or question. He is, throughout his travels, rigidly obedient to the Lord, El Shaddai, also called El Elyon. For this reason, and of being exposed to divine revelation, Abraham is called a “prophet” (Genesis 20) for his mahazeh, or prophetic revelations from the Lord. However, Abraham never prophesies anything found in the text. He is model for the Israelite people, an obedient servant who flings “himself down on his face” before god more than once. He cannot be a lawgiver because he does not protect his own -he is not political. Consider his obedient decision to bring his only son, Isaac, as sacrifice. With cleaver in hand, a deux ex machina appears -a divine revelation from the “messenger” of God who prevents the killing. Abraham is held in high esteem by the Israelites for his “fear” of God, to the point of sacrificing his own progeny (22:12-15).

Moses on the other hand, is born of an unknown Leviite father, possibly the chid of rape (Exodus 2:1-4). His youth is also shrouded in secrecy as a product of the Egyptian law destroy all male children among the Israelites. Like Noah he is rescued through an ark, or tevah, by the pity of Pharoh’s daughter.

As Moses grows, he conceals his unjust deeds. He kills an Egyptian man for striking down a “Hebrew brother” (2:11-13), and returns out the following day to inquire about a brawl between two Hebrew men. Moses speaks to the one in the wrong, presumably Moses has already passed judgement on their moral status. The man responds by demanding authority for Moses by asking who sent him to prince or judge over the Hebrews. He then recalls Moses’s killing of the Egyptian and burying him in the sand. It is only at this point that Moses becomes alarmed, or “afraid” -only when knowledge of his illicit deed is seen or heard does Moses begin to fear. Unlike Abraham who lives terrified of the Lord, Moses lives beyond good and evil, living beyond the reach of the Pharonic regime.

When first the “messenger” of the Lord appears to Moses in the burning bush on Mount Horeb, and later the Lord appears in the smoke to tell him to bring the Israelites up out of Egypt, Moses asks for authority from God three times (Exodus 3-4). Moses is concerned with the political question, his authority must be justified to the people otherwise he will be laughed, at or killed. Therefore, the Lord provides three signs and wonders, miracles to persuade the people of Moses’s divine quest. For the masses are compelled by divine wonders more than anything else. However, Moses is still not satisfied and requires a speaking partner, Aaron, flaring the “wrath” of the Lord.

After the flight from Egypt, Moses goes up the mountain to receive the laws from God. The laws are masked in secrecy, their creation must be kept private from the masses. Nevertheless, the people grow impatient and, under Aaron, create a golden calf to worship the Lord. Moses pleads with the Lord and his wrath, not unlike the wrath of Achilles, to spare his people and remember the covenant He made -and this agreement works. Moses is able to persuade the Lord. However, back in the camp, he instructs the Levites to kill each of their brothers, men, and kin. Moses wants to burn a painful destructive memory into their heads, while preserving the Israelite tribe. 3,000  men are killed, and Moses rewrites the ten words on two tablets in his own hand. Moses is given the law, but not allowed the see the future city. He speaks it to the people, for law never proceeds from the bottom up, even in the most democratic regimes. The lawgiver can only give forth, like a cup that is overflowing.


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

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.