In our researches with Anaiah, we got as far as the encounter between the Israelites and God at the holy mountain where Moses was given tablets inscribed with what we now call the Ten Commandments. The suggestion was made that the Ten Commandments were intended not only as a guide to life, but also as a window into God’s own nature. God, who created the universe, cannot be fully known by us, but something of his nature can be known from his acts.
The first two commandments told the Israelites to recognize God as the only God and to worship no idols. It takes an effort to remember that monotheism was a startling innovation in a world where not only the Egyptians but everybody else recognized and worshiped a multitude of gods. The prohibition of idols had a concrete purpose when considered against the many cult statues that figured so prominently in religious worship. The many gods had different attributes that lent themselves to physical depiction, but the one God could not be so distinguished or depicted, and so the Israelites came to understand that no physical representation of God was appropriate or legitimate. In contrast with the endless statues and wall carvings of the Egyptians, the Israelites made no pictures or statues of God.
The Ten Commandments also prohibited “taking the name of God in vain.” This may seem an odd requirement, but the Israelites attached great importance to names and especially to the name of God. When Moses met God at the burning bush he asked to know God’s name as a way of finding out God’s nature. Frequently in the Old Testament the name of God is praised. God’s name was considered so holy that the Israelites refused ever to say it. Though the name appears hundreds of times in the Old Testament, the Israelites, when reading those passages, would substitute the title “Lord” for the holy name.
Another commandment was to keep the Sabbath Day holy. This was the seventh day of the week, what we now call Saturday. The explanation was given that God had made the world in six days and rested on the seventh day, and so his people should do their work on six days and rest (and devote themselves to worship) on the seventh. The remaining commandments appear relatively straightforward: do not lie, steal, murder, etc. These have their parallels in other cultures, which makes sense because they have been found by all cultures to provide a bedrock of behavior needed for civil society to exist. Next time we will draw some conclusions from our review of the Ten Commandments.