Moshe Kline

The Decalogue as Wisdom Literature:

Building a Bridge from Jerusalem to Athens

In loving memory of my first Rebbi, Jacob Klein

 

Introduction

The Hebrew word, dvarim, is usually translated "commandments" in the context of the Decalogue. The actual meaning is closer to "words, as in "These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel." (Deut.1.1), as indicated by the Greek logos in Deca-logue. In order to emphasize their special status, I will refer to the ten individual elements as "Words." This article will deal with reading the ten Words as a coherent text rather than a collection lacking internal integrity. The goal of the analysis is to clarify the set of formal relationships that lie at the heart of the Decalogue. I will refer to this set of relationships as tabular logic.

The basic aspect of tabular logic is derived from the fact that the Words were written on two tablets. I take this to imply that there is a significant division of some sort between the Words on one tablet and those on the other. Generally, representations of the Decalogue have the first five Words on one tablet and the next five on the second, so that each tablet is in fact like a column in a table. Illustrations usually show the Words ordered on the tablets like this:

1

6

2

7

3

8

4

9

5

10

(Actually, at best, this is a mirror representation. Since the tablets were written in Hebrew, they should be represented from right to left, that is, the columns should be reversed.) This format is so common that one might assume that it is of biblical origin. In fact, there is no clear evidence as to how the text was written on the tablets. We know only that the revelation at Mt. Sinai was made up of ten units of speech, dvarim, and that they were written on two separate stone tablets. No one but Moses is reported to have seen the writing on the tablets. The first set was destroyed before anyone could see them. Moses kept the second set in a box until it was placed in the ark. It is not recorded that the second set was ever shown to anyone. So it would seem that there is no way to determine definitively how the text appeared on the tablets. In this article I will suggest that literary analysis of the text points to the following arrangement:

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

10

This format brings out the full significance of the Words being written on two tablets. They are five sets of pairs composing a tabular text having components of meaning both in the rows and in the columns. In fact, the underlying multi-dimensional logic proves to be the paradigm for the organization of legal texts, both in the Torah and in the Mishnah. Thus there were at least two who "saw" the logic of the tablets, Moses and Rabbi Judah The Prince, the author of the Mishnah. It would appear that the inherent logic of the tablets was part of the body of esoteric knowledge that was transmitted to but a few in each generation. This would explain the fact that both the author of the Tosefta and some of the speakers in the Mechilta were apparently ignorant of its existence, while the author of Sefer Yitzirah promulgated a metaphysics closely related to it.

In this article I will discuss the logic of the ten Words as an expression of a literary paradigm. This literary paradigm is visible on three different levels of organization involving the Decalogue. I will refer to them as the macrostructure, the central structure and the microstructure. By macrostructure I mean the overview of the five separate versions, or editions, of the Decalogue mentioned in the Torah. The central structure is derived from reading the ten Words as five pairs according to the Scroll divisions. The microstructure is found in the five parts of the first Word and the five parts of the third Word. I will present each of the three structures separately and then examine their common characteristics.

The Central Structure: Ten Words

The Problem

This is how the Torah describes the writing on the tablets: "The tablets were written across from each other; (first) on one and (then) on the other were they written." (Exodus 32.15) This description is the only evidence we have concerning the writing on the tablets. The Hebrew phrase which I have paraphrased "across from each other", literally means "from both sides." The traditional Rabbinical commentators had great difficulty with this phrase. They could not find a simple meaning for the words, and so gave them a miraculous meaning. They said that this describes the inscription on the tablets as piercing the stone from "one side to the other." This required a double miracle. The letters appeared the same on both sides even though one side should have appeared reversed. The second miracle involved one of the Hebrew letters with a closed shape, like an O. Although the letter was completely cut around, it miraculously stood in midair. I do not want to be accused of abrogating miracles, but my reading of the text does not require one at this point. The Hebrew can be read to indicate that the Words were written alternately on both tablets: Word one on the first, Word two on the second, Word three returning to the first tablet, and so on. In other contexts, the Hebrew word ever is normally translated "across", as in ever hanahar, across the river. The plural form, which we have in the verse above, normally indicates a spatial relationship on a single plane such as two banks of a river. This could literally describe the two separate tablets. The Rabbinical understanding of "front and back" would, in fact, be a unique usage. I believe that they were forced into this position by either a basic misreading of the Words, or, more likely, in order to conceal something. The latter hypothesis is supported by the difficulties created by the Rabbinical division of the text into ten parts.

Surprisingly enough, the key question concerning the ten Words is "what are they." While the Torah states in several places that there are ten Words, nowhere does it indicate what they are. Both of the two editions recorded in the Torah can easily be read as containing over a dozen Words! The first problem is how to divide the text into ten parts. Since it is the division itself that determines what underlying logic can appear in the arrangement of the Words, I will address that issue first. There are two major traditions regarding the division of the text into ten parts, the Rabbinical and the Augustinian, or Catholic, divisions.

The division accepted by Jewish commentators was first described in the Mechilta, the same book that describes the miraculous writing on the tablets. I will demonstrate a different, quite possibly more ancient, Jewish division than that of the Mechilta. I will refer to as the scroll division. St. Augustine refers to it as the authentic Hebrew division, and since its adoption at the council of Trent it has been Church dogma.[1] That is to say, the scroll division is identical to the Augustinian. If the scroll division predates the Mechilta, which seems likely, we have the anomaly of the Church accepting the more ancient version while the Rabbis rejected it for a later reading. This last fact indicates that the Rabbis may have been trying to conceal something from the early Christians.

Here is the basis for St. Augustine's "Jewish" reading. The text of the Torah, as it appears in the traditional Torah scroll, is divided into paragraph-like sections called parshiot. There are very few variations in these divisions in scrolls from different parts of the world. This testifies to the fact that they represent an ancient tradition. The division into parshiot can be read as the earliest extant commentary on the Torah. The text of the ten Words is divided into ten parshiot in a manner that differs from the division in the Mechilta.

The Ten Words

According to the Mechilta

According to the Scroll

I the Lord am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage. 

You shall have no other gods beside Me. You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness, of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them. For I the Lord your God am an impassioned God, visiting the guilt of the fathers upon the children, upon the third and fourth generations of those who reject Me, but showing kindness to the thousandth generation of those who love Me and keep My commandments. 

You shall not swear falsely by the name of the Lord your God; for the Lord will not clear one who swears falsely by His name. 

Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord your God: you shall not do any work-you, your son, or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth and sea, and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day; therefor the Lord blessed the sabbath day and hallowed it. 

Honor your father and thy mother, that you may long endure on the land which the Lord your God is giving you. 

You shall not murder. 

You shall not commit adultery. 

You shall not steal. 

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. 

10

You shall not covet your neighbor's house: you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his male or female slave, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor's 

I the Lord am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods beside Me. You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness, of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them. For I the Lord your God am an impassioned God, visiting the guilt of the fathers upon the children, upon the third and fourth generations of those who reject Me, but showing kindness to the thousandth generation of those who love Me and keep My commandments. 

2 

You shall not swear falsely by the name of the Lord your God; for the Lord will not clear one who swears falsely by His name. 

3

 Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord your God: you shall not do any work-you, your son, or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth and sea, and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day; therefor the Lord blessed the sabbath day and hallowed it. 

Honor your father and thy mother, that you may long endure on the land which the Lord your God is giving you. 

You shall not murder. 

You shall not commit adultery. 

You shall not steal. 

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. 

You shall not covet your neighbor's house.

10

You shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his male or female slave, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor's 

There are two basic differences between the way the Mechilta divides the text and the way that the text appears in the Torah scroll. The variations appear at the beginning and the end of the list while the central six commandments from "Remember the sabbath" to "You shall not bear false witness" are common to both divisions. In the scroll, "I am the Lord" and "You shall have no other", are a single unit, while they are two commandments according to the Mechilta. The division into parshiot makes up for the missing Word by separating the two injunctions against coveting. The Mechilta develops a conceptual reading of the text based on its division. I will present a reading according to the scroll division.

At first glance, the division into parshiot does not provide the same conceptual satisfaction as the Mechilta, which justifies its division by explaining how the Words were divided between the tables. The first five Words according to the Mechilta all include a reference to the Lord, while none of the last five do. Therefore, the first tablet, which includes the first five Words, refers to one's obligations towards the Lord, mentioning Him in all five, while the second tablet, which includes the last five Words, relates one's obligations to his fellow man. This symmetrical division between heaven (the Lord) and earth (man) reflects the need to find a reason why the Lord wrote the Words on two tablets. So, according to the Mechilta, the Lord created two tablets and divided the Words into two sets of five in order to demonstrate the existence of two different categories of Divine laws, those which relate to the Lord and those which relate to man. The logic incorporated in the tablets is thus reduced to a simple dualism. There are a number of weaknesses in this reading:

1.     It implies an actual chasm between the Divine and the human (two tablets), which runs contrary to all of the Biblical narrative.

2.     It demands a miraculous understanding of Exodus 32.15.

3.     It offers no explanation for the significance of there being ten Words.

4.     It corrupts the literary unity of the first Word according to the scroll.

Reading the text as five pairs of Words, according to the scroll, eliminates these difficulties. In the following presentation I will explain why the Words should been viewed as five successive pairs. Each pair has one component from each tablet. The first Word appears on one tablet and the second on the other. For the sake of clarity I will assign the numbers from 1 to 5 to the pairs of Words, and the letters A and B to the elements within each pair. The division between A and B reflects the way the Words might have been arranged on the tablets: the first of each pair on tablet A and the second on tablet B.

 

A

 

B

1

1A

 

1B

2

2A

 

2B

3

3A

 

3B

4

4A

 

4B

5

5A

 

5B

I have adopted this marking convention because it reflects the literary structure of the ten Words when the are read as successive pairs according to the scroll division. Each of the tablets has its own particular attribute, A and B. Each pair of Words has its common element, 1-5. Each individual Word combines the element of its pair (number) and the attribute of its tablet (letter). This is the fundamental characteristic of all the tabular texts in the Torah and of the chapters of the Mishnah: each unit (in this case Word) is defined by the intersection of two "lines" of thought, the vertical and the horizontal. While the Mechilta recognized that each of the tablets embodies a different line of thought, it was not able to provide an adequate description of the correlation between the parallel Words on each tablet, nor the conceptual flow from pair one to pair five. The meaning of the text as an integrated unit is dependent on the underlying relationships between its parts. This is the level of meaning that I have referred to up to now as logic. It is found by abstracting from the text:

            the distinction between the two tablets

            the common elements of the five pairs

            the flow from pair to pair

Before presenting my reading of the five pairs of Words, I will present the case for the extended first Word according to the scroll. With it, I will introduce the five-part paradigm that plays such a significant role in our present text as well as in many other parts of the Torah and the Mishnah.

2. The Microstructure: Five Letters

The Five "Letters" of the First Word 

a. I the Lord am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage.

b. You shall have no other gods beside Me.

c. You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness,

of what is in heavens above,

or on the earth below,

or in the waters under the earth

d. you shall not bow down to them, or serve them; 

e. for I the Lord your God am an impassioned God, visiting the guilt of the fathers upon the children, upon the third and upon the fourth generation of those who reject Me, but showing kindness to the thousandth generation of those who love Me and keep My commandments.

The first Word, according to the scroll, has five distinct components, which I have marked a-e. These five parts are strikingly symmetrical. The first and last elements, (a,e) provide a balanced framework for the central substructure, (b-d).

a. I the Lord am your God...

b. You shall have no other...

c. You shall not...

d. you shall not...

e. for I the Lord your God...

The Lord speaks in the first person in both of the extreme elements, (a,e). In the middle (b-d) are three injunctions. We can then speak of two substructures, one, the framework containing the Lord's first person revelation, and the other, the core containing the three prohibitions against idolatry. Both of the substructures are ordered. The framework has a clear temporal element. The Lord first refers to the past: "who brought you out of the land of Egypt"(a). The fifth element relates to the future: "showing kindness to the thousandth generation"(e). Both elements of the framework have in common the Lord's actions, as opposed to the middle section that refers only to human activity. One could also differentiate between the historical-national perspective of the opening, as opposed to the personal justice implied in the fifth element. We should also note hat in the last element the Lord's actions are determined by human actions, which is not true of the redemption from Egypt.

The central structure, b-d, the realm of human actions, spans the gap between history and eschatology. This points to a fundamental characteristic of the text: it is ordered. There is meaning to be found in the arrangement of the parts of the text. Before we explore the meaning to be derived from the order of the parts, we can verify the fact that the order is significant by examining the three part central structure. It reflects within it the structure of the whole as an ordered triad. The whole Word divides into the triad of past(a), present(b-d) and future(e). The central element, (b-d) of this triad expands into a triad of persons ordered from the first to the third:

b. beside Me
c. for yourself
d. to them

As if the appearance of the second triad could leave the reader in doubt as to the significance of the two tri-part divisions, the text adds a third thread; thus the "tripled knot be not loosed". The third triad appears exactly as the previous, within the central element of a higher order triad. Element c is composed of three spatially ordered components:

that is in heaven above, or
that is in the earth beneath, or
that is in the water under the earth.

I will summarize the structure of the three triads in the form of a chart.

The Three Triads of the First Word

a

b

c

d

e

Past

Present

Future

 

Me

You

Them

 

 

 

Above

Earth

Below

 

 

The above chart is a graphic representation of the symmetrically layered structure of the first Word. The first line of the chart indicates that the Word is divided into five parts, a-e. The second line shows that the five elements of the Word group themselves into three subgroups that are based on time and ordered from past to future. In the third line we see that the central element of the second line divides into three ordered grammatical persons: first, second and third. Directly under the central element of line three, "you", we see the spatial triad within c, above the earth, earth, below the earth.

This triple symmetry of the first Word, according to the scroll, is completely lost when the Mechilta divides it into two Words. On the other hand, it is becoming clearer why the Rabbis of the period may have wished to suppress the metaphysical potential contained within the first Word according to the parshiot. At the time of  the Trinitarian schism in the first and second centuries, they may have wished to deny the schismatics any possible support from within the tradition, even at the expense of denying deep insights to the orthodox. So they suppressed the ancient reading according to the scroll and published the reading that appears in the Mechilta. Conceivably, this was done to prevent the heterodox from claiming that God revealed Himself at Sinai in a manner that could be perceived as having Trinitarian implications. The Word is clearly based on a tri-part division of reality into: time, person and space. These three dimensions are mentioned in the Sefer Yitzirah as shanah, time; nefesh, person; and olam, space. The author of the Mishnah used a similar triad in the overall structure of the Mishnah in six Orders which appear as three pairs according to this conceptual triad: Zerayim and Moed -Shanah; Nashim and Nzikin- Nefesh, Kodashim and Taharot- olam. We will see that this primary triad is a central feature of the Decalogue.

The most striking literary characteristic of the first Word is its symmetry. The overall effect of the symmetry is to focus on the center point that is defined by the middle element of each of the three dimensions:

The Focus of the First Word

a

Past

b

 

 

Me

 

 

c

 

 

 

 

Above

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Under

 

 

 

 

d

 

 

Them

 

 

e

Future

The above illustration is a slight variation on the previous one. In it I have emphasized the center point of the Word, which is the intersection of the central elements of the three dimensions of the Word: present tense, second person and the earth. The overall effect is to focus on a relationship between an I and a you in the here and now! The first Word of the Decalogue announces, albeit indirectly, that its focus is relationships in the here and now. Here and now I will demonstrate an almost identical relationship in a five part structure in the third Word.

The Structure of Word 2A 

a Remember the Sabbath day andkeep it holy. 

Human Sanctification 

b Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord

Human Labor  

c

I you shall not do any work-you,

II your son, or daughter,

III your male or female slave

IV or your cattle,

V or the stranger who is within your settlements

The Interface Between
Human and Divine:
Extended Self

d For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth and sea, and all that is in them, , and He rested on the seventh day

Divine Labor   

e therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day, and hallowed it  

Divine Sanctification  

 

The Focus of the Third Word

a. Human Holiness

Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy

b. Human Labor

 

 

Six days you shall labor

 

 

c. The Interface Between
the Human (immanent)
and the Divine (transcendent): Extended self

 

I

 

You

 

 

 

 

II

 

 

your son

 

 

 

 

 

III

 

 

your slave

 

 

 

 

 

IV

 

 

your cattle,

 

 

 

 

 

V

 

the stranger

 

 

 

d. Divine Labor

 

 

for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth

 

 

e. Divine Holiness

therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day, and hallowed it

The above chart demonstrates two levels of structure within the third Word. Both of them share some of the characteristics of the first Word. The third Word is divided into five parts, which divide symmetrically between Divine and human actions. The Word opens with human observance of the Sabbath (a) and closes with the Divine parallel (e). The second element (b), human labor, is reflected in the penultimate (d), the Divine creation. The first two elements are from the human perspective and the last two from the Divine. Whereas the first Word focused on human activity within the framework of the Divine, the third Word separates the human from the Divine. As in the first word, there is a sharp symmetry that focuses on the middle element, (c). The framework around the central element creates a conceptual pattern that prepares the reader to see the middle as a meeting point between the human and the Divine. Exegesis can then attempt to describe the way in which (c) demonstrates the interface between the Divine and the human.

Order Within the Central Element of Word 2A

I

you shall not do any manner of work-you, 

Self

II

your son or daughter, 

Dependent offspring

III

your male or female slave 

Dependent persons

IV

your cattle, 

Dependent livestock

V

or the stranger who is within your settlements 

other

There are two distinct ways to explore the significance of the central element as an interface between the human and the Divine. The difference between them is indicative of the difference between our expectations from linear writing, and what I am presenting as tabular writing. In the manner of traditional homiletics, we could note that man takes responsibility for other creatures in (c). These creatures are referred to in element (d), "the Lord made heaven and earth and sea, and all that is in them". From this point of view, the connection between the human and the Divine involves human responsibility for the Divine creation. While this conclusion is certainly true, it does not take into account the full depth of the text. In order to do so, it is necessary to relate to the ordered elements of (c). The central element, III, refers to a master/servant relationship. This is the focal point of the Word. The separate realms of the Divine (V, IV) and the human (I, II) meet at the element focused on the master/servant relationship. It is noteworthy that the five part third Word, as well as its five part third element are both organized from the immanent to the transcendent. Within the larger framework, the "other" is the Lord. Within element c the "other" is represented by the "stranger". The very center of the Word, the master/servant relationship, is a reflection of the relationship between the Lord and his servants, Israel. To summarize: we have seen that the symmetry of the third Word creates a conceptual picture; in elements a and b man; in elements d and e the Lord; in the central element, c, a set of relationships of dependency and authority that reflect the relationship between man and the Lord.

We have examined two similar micro-structures, the first and third Words according to the scroll. They have two similar characteristics. First, both are highly symmetrical. Second, the structure of both words utilizes the bold symmetries to create a focus around the central element as a focal point at the exact center of the Word. In both cases the focal point is ordered within itself. In the first Word the central element is ordered spatially: above, earth, below. We found that the central element of the third Word is ordered relationally, from the close to the distant. The effect of the focal symmetry is to draw the reader into the center of the Word. Once he focuses on the center point, he becomes aware of sets of relationships which underlie the text. This seems to imply a different paradigm for reading than we are accustomed to. The text has to be grasped as an image rather than simply a linear presentation. The reader is required to "see" the text as a whole that, as it were, spreads out from a central point. If this is an overstatement, at the very least, the reader must be attuned to the unique rhetoric of the text, a rhetoric based on order and symmetry. It is hard to believe that the author of the Mechilta was not aware of these characteristics of the Biblical text, and unwittingly deprived the following generations of their patrimony, the revelation at Sinai as transmitted in the Torah scroll reflecting the tabular paradigm of the tablets.

Reading the Ten Words According to the Scroll Divisions

I will now present the literary arguments for reading the ten Words as five pairs, based primarily on the connection between the form and the content of the text. I will demonstrate that the five pairs utilize the same symmetry we found in the micro-structures of the first and third Words. Seen as a whole, the five pairs repeat the pattern enunciated in the first Word, thereby raising the pattern to the level of paradigm. We will see later that the five-part paradigm is used also in other strata of the text. The analysis of the ten Words is divided into three parts. First I will offer the prima fascia evidence that the Words are in fact five pairs. After identifying the pairs, I will describe the conceptual flow from pair to pair. Finally I will show that there is a consistent distinction between the first and second element of each pair that creates the distinction between the two tablets.

The Five Pairs According to the Scroll Divisions

"They were inscribed on the one side and on the other."

1A

I the Lord am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods beside Me. You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness, of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them. For I the Lord your God am an impassioned God, visiting the guilt of the fathers upon the children, upon the third and fourth generations of those who reject Me, but showing kindness to the thousandth generation of those who love Me and keep My commandments. 

1B

You shall not swear falsely by the name of the Lord your God; for the Lord will not clear one who swears falsely by His name. 

2A

Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord your God: you shall not do any work-you, your son, or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth and sea, and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day; therefor the Lord blessed the sabbath day and hallowed it.

2B

Honor your father and thy mother, that you may long endure on the land which the Lord your God is giving you. 

3A

You shall not murder.

3B

You shall not commit adultery.

4A

You shall not steal.

4B

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor

5A

You shall not covet your neighbor's house; 

5B

You shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his male or female slave, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor's 

Five Pairs

The last two Words according to the division in the Torah scroll are clearly a pair, beginning with the same words: "You shall not covet". Also at the beginning of the list, in the other place where the scroll differs from the Mechilta, we can see a clear pair of Words. Both "I the Lord" and "You shall not swear falsely by the name of the Lord your God" refer directly to the Lord. The third and fourth Words according to the scroll are a structural pair. They are similar in several ways:

            They differ from all the other Words in that they are imperatives, "Remember" and "Honor", while the other eight Words are injunctions.

            Both imperatives include a temporal component "six days", "long endure"-lit.: "your days be long".

            They both state reasons for observing the Words and refer to the Lord in these reasons: "for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth", "that you may long endure on the land which the Lord your God is giving you". The two "reasons" have an interesting relationship to each other. The first is historical referring to the creation of the world. The second reason is also within the framework of time, but opposite in direction from the first, pointing to the future rather than the past: enjoying a long life in the future.

There are enough similarities between the third and fourth Words to warrant considering them a pair. Yet, as if the similarities may leave the reader with even the slightest doubt as to whether s/he should see these two Words as a pair, Moses drives the point home with the retelling of the ten Words in the book of Deuteronomy. There he adds the identical addition to both Words: "as the Lord your God commanded you". This common addition to the third and fourth Words removes any doubt that we are to read these two as a pair. Having now identified the first four and last two Words as three pairs, we are left with four simple injunctions:

3A. You shall not murder.
3B. You shall not commit adultery.
4A. You shall not steal.
4B. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor

All four Words refer to social offenses. The first two (3A and 3B) have a bodily component lacking in the next two. Murder and adultery have bodies as their objects while stealing and false witness do not. Although this distinction may not seem to be of great significance at first, it allows us to view the Words as five pairs. Each pair can be spread across both tablets with the first element of the pair appearing on the first tablet and the second element on the second tablet. In other words, one tablet contains the odd numbered Words and the other tablet contains the even numbered Words, thus fulfilling the literal meaning of Exodus 32.15.

The flow From Pair to Pair

We now have two tests for coherence within this division of the Words: first, the flow from pair to pair; second, the distinction between elements of each pair. The two together provide the key to understanding the logic implied by having the ten Words divided on two tablets. The five pairs are ordered from the Divine to the mundane. The first pair begins with the ultimate Divine revelation. The fifth pair is restricted to human envy. At the beginning is the absolute other who identifies himself by his name, anochi "I myself", at the end the individual self. Neither of the extremes mentions interpersonal actions. The first pair relates to the Lord as the sole object of worship and guarantor of the social order, while the last pair does not go beyond personal emotion. The fourth pair is inextricably connected to the fifth pair. It provides the domain in which envy can be expressed: "you shall not steal." Similarly, the second pair is closely linked to the first pair. It refers to time and the Lord's continuing involvement in creation, the domain in which He expresses His will. In the middle, between the upper realm of Divine creation, and the lower realm of private property and desires, stands the interface between two realms: naked corporeal man. Obviously, this is just a general outline of the figure generated by reading the Words as five pairs. Nevertheless, it provides a very clear framework within which to explore the relationships between the Words.

I am about to argue that meaning can be derived from the arrangement of the Words on the stone tablets. Certainly, from one point of view this can be seen as fantastic, since no one but Moses ever saw the tablets. Nevertheless, the reiteration of the two tablet figure in the Torah, as well as in the three millennia since it appeared, demand a serious analysis. The outline of my argument is as follows: Literary analysis of the ten Words as they are divided in the Torah scroll leads to the visualization of the Words as I laid them out above in five pairs. Once they are arranged in this format, additional meaning becomes available which is not otherwise apparent. My argument rests on the strength and value of the additional meaning. According to the Biblical narrative, the ten Words are the only text ever written by the Lord. As such, I look for an extreme cogency in the text, worthy of its reported origin. Thus I would expect the added meaning to amplify the significance of the tablets as a pact or testimony, as they are described throughout the Torah. If this added meaning significantly increases our understanding of the nature of the ten Words as a whole, and specifically the character of the tablets as evidencing a pact between God and man, then I will feel confident that the arrangement that I have provided was most likely the arrangement on the tablets.

The most interesting aspect of the figure inscribed on the tablets, according to this arrangement, is its similarity to the event at which the Words were stated, the revelation at Mount Sinai. It is as if the tablets were meant to create a universalized picture or impression of the event. The order of the pairs reflects the picture of God above, and the individual below, with a confrontation between self and another in the middle. At both extremes are subjects, at the top the Lord identified by His personal name, anochi, I My Self, the absolute Other, at the bottom the individual personal self. The repetition of "You shall not covet" emphasizes that the individual is seen in the last pair as desiring to receive something that properly belongs to another. On the other end, in the first pair, the Lord wishes to give that which is properly His, His commandments and His name. The five pairs can be read from either perspective: as they are presented in the Torah according to the Divine perspective, or from the bottom up, according to the human perspective. This is especially revealing in terms of the handing down of the tablets. The perspective of the Lord is from above, handing down. He must descend to the mountain. The perspective of the receiver is from below, from the perspective of the individual. He must climb the mountain. The tablets then, are impressed with a conceptual representation of the meeting of man and God, man rising from below and God coming down from above, the event reported at Mt. Sinai!

This reading of the tablets implies a relationship that is not an historical event, but rather a description of reality. There are three tiers or ranges of experience between the self and God, each with its own proper element. The closest to the human perspective is the range of things which can be coveted, pair four, the realm of possessions. If they are chattels, they can be stolen. If they are abstract, such as reputation, they can be abrogated through false testimony. This is the day to day world of change, commerce, fame. Its characteristic is attribution- mine, yours; true, false. The level of the second pair of Words, adjacent to the Divine perspective, is the realm of interdependencies, or causality. Its element is time. The middle level is personhood. Its element is life and sex. In the most ancient of kabbalistic books, Sefer Yitzirah, these are the three prime "dimensions": shanah- time, nefesh- life force, and olam- the physical world. This triad appears in the same order as it appears in Sefer Yitzirah in pairs 2-4 and in the structure of the first Word.

Let us summarize the overview of the five pairs of Words. The first and last pairs both deal with consciousness. The subject of the first is the universal consciousness, the Lord who speaks in the first person. At the other extreme, the creature, steeped in his own thoughts. Between them is a three dimensional field of action. The dimensions are: time, life and objective attribution.

End Part One

To Be Continued



[1] Commandments of God

Called also simply thE COMMANDMENTS, thE TEN COMMANDMENTS, or thE DECALOGUEUE (Gr. deka, ten, and logos, a word), the Ten Words of Sayings, the latter name generally applied by the Greek Fathers.

The Ten Commandments are precepts bearing on the fundamental obligations of religion and morality and embodying the revealed expression of the Creator's will in relation to man's whole duty to God and to his fellow-creatures. They are found twice recorded in the Pentateuch, in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5, but are given in an abridged form in the catechisms. Written by the finger of God on two tables of stone, this Divine code was received from the Almighty by Moses amid the thunders of Mount Sinai, and by him made the ground-work of the Mosaic Law. Christ resumed these Commandments in the double precept of charity--love of God and of the neighbour; He proclaimed them as binding under the New Law in Matthew 19 and in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5). He also simplified or interpreted them, e.g. by declaring unnecessary oaths equally unlawful with false, by condemning hatred and calumny as well as murder, by enjoining even love of enemies, and by condemning indulgence of evil desires as fraught with the same malice as adultery (Matthew 5). The Church, on the other hand, after changing the day of rest from the Jewish Sabbath, or seventh day of the week, to the first, made the Third Commandment refer to Sunday as the day to be kept holy as the Lord's Day. The Council of Trent (Sess. VI, can. xix) condemns those who deny that the Ten Commandments are binding on Christians.

There is no numerical division of the Commandments in the Books of Moses, but the injunctions are distinctly tenfold, and are found almost identical in both sources. The order, too, is the same except for the final prohibitions pronounced against concupiscence, that of Deuteronomy being adopted in preference to Exodus. A confusion, however, exists in the numbering, which is due to a difference of opinion concerning the initial precept on Divine worship. The system of numeration found in Catholic Bibles is based on the Hebrew text, was made by St. Augustine (fifth century) in his book of "Questions of Exodus" ("Qustionum in Heptateuchum libri VII", Bk. II, Question lxxi), and was adopted by the Council of Trent. It is followed also by the German Lutherans, except those of the school of Bucer. This arrangement makes the First Commandment relate to false worship and to the worship of false gods as to a single subject and a single class of sins to be guarded against--the reference to idols being regarded as mere application of the precept to adore but one God and the prohibition as directed against the particular offense of idolatry alone. According to this manner of reckoning, the injunction forbidding the use of the Lord's Name in vain comes second in order; and the decimal number is safeguarded by making a division of the final precept on concupiscence--the Ninth pointing to sins of the flesh and the Tenth to desires for unlawful possession of goods. Another division has been adopted by the English and Helvetian Protestant Churches on the authority of Philo Judus, Josephus Origen, and others, whereby two Commandments are made to cover the matter of worship, and thus the numbering of the rest is advanced one higher; and the Tenth embraces both the Ninth and Tenth of the Catholic division. It seems, however, as logical to separate at the end as to group at the beginning, for while one single object is aimed at under worship, two specifically different sins are forbidden under covetousness; if adultery and theft belong to two distinct species of moral wrong, the same must be said of the desire to commit these evils.

JOHN H. STAPLETON
Transcrby Marcia L. Bellafiore

From the Catholic Encyclope, copyright 1913 by the Encyclopedia Press, Inc. Electronic version copyright 1997 by New Advent, Inc.