–ConsciousnessI am the Lord your God,
who has taken you out of the land of Egypt,
from the house of slavery.
On a damp winter night in Seattle, I attended a protest rally against the first commandment. The Oxford biologist and best–selling author Richard Dawkins had come to address a crowd at Town Hall, a cavernous defunct church now used for cultural events. The suave Brit, a type for which Americans swoon, roused and delighted his listeners. Ostensibly, Dawkins’s subject was Darwinian evolution, of which he is the English–speaking world’s boldest and most charming advocate. But the mostly middle–aged, flannel–bundled Seattlites, packed tightly in the curving wooden pews of the old vaulted sanctuary, seemed less fired up by scientific details than by what the author had to say about modern life and values.
Dawkins set the evening’s tone by declaring himself “hostile to all forms of religion.” Over and over, he stuck his thumb in the eye of religionists by referring to the Darwinist belief that, far from being God’s children, humans are no more than animals. “We are all glorified lungfish,” he said with relish, exhaling contempt for any contrary opinion, “cousins of kangaroos and bacteria,” “fellow apes.”
He warned that with an evangelical Christian like George W. Bush in the White House, “People need to understand what they are up against in a society which is ruled by religious bigotry.” The audience clapped and guffawed. When Dawkins reflected on the fact that “My publishers are no fools and planned the best places to go” to promote his book, wild applause interrupted him. He continued: “Of eight states we’re visiting, all eight are blue states. Presumably these are states where they read books.” More wild clapping and giddy laughter ensued as Dawkins’s listeners applauded themselves for not being religious bigots, for living in a blue state, and for reading books. At one point, a member of the audience, standing up to ask a question, put her finger on the very central point, speaking passionately of how she “finds the naturalistic worldview immensely liberating compared to the alternative.”
I have set before you the fans of Richard Dawkins only as an initial illustration of a much wider–spread attachment to naturalism, also known as materialism, the viewpoint in which everything that ever happened in cosmic history, from the big bang to today, did so for purely natural, material reasons, never due to supernatural causes. It’s not atheism exactly, but it makes God beside the point. Darwinism is a prime example. Secularism, whose effects on our country's national life I intend to measure in this book, is the ideological view that would enshrine materialism as the official quasi–religion of American culture and government.
A goodly number of us assume that anyone who's not an idiot will of course take the purely naturalistic view. This question, which may sound abstract, is tearing America apart.
The Town Hall event occurred as America was heading for a crisis in the war over “ntelligent design,” the minority scientific viewpoint that finds evidence of a designer’s hand at work in life’s history over hundreds of millions of years. Darwinism and religious faith begin from mutually exclusive assumptions about reality. In The Origin of Species
, Darwin’s working premise is that God has no role in the unfolding of the story of life. In view of this belief, which he never states or defends, but simply assumes, he goes on to detail his theory about natural selection operating on random variation. It is only in the absence of a supreme being working out his will in history that we would even undertake Darwin’s search for a purely materialistic explanation of how complex organisms arise. As Darwin himself clarified in his correspondence, “I would give absolutely nothing for the theory of natural selection if it requires miraculous additions at any one stage of descent.” Religion, by contrast, does not assume that material reality is all there is. In the struggle between Darwin and intelligent design, a naive literal interpretation of the Bible’s creation story is not what is at issue. Rather, the point being debated, ultimately, is whether the universe ever had a need for a designer, whether God or otherwise.
It just so happens that, centuries before Darwin, medieval Jewish scholars understood that the distinction between the “naturalistic worldview” and its “alternative” was exactly the key to understanding the first commandment. Recall the exact wording: “I am the Lord your God, who has taken you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery.” The Jewish sages asked why, in defining Himself, God had harked back to the exodus of the Jews from Egyptian slavery, recounted in the Bible's Book of Exodus shortly before the giving of the Ten Commandments, rather than to a still more dramatic event: the creation of the world, which He accomplishes in the Bible’s opening chapter. It’s as if a parent, wanting to impress her child with the awesomeness of the parent–child bond, were to say, “I’m your mother, who picks you up from school every day,” rather than, “I’m your mother, who gave birth to you.”
Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno, an Italian sage born about 1470, taught that God saw it as a matter of highest priority to warn against what we today call a naturalistic worldview. If He had defined Himself here as the creator, that would not draw the line sharply enough. After all, there are ways to explain certain aspects of creation within the limits of naturalistic terms. But the Exodus is different. Accompanied by ten bizarre plagues that God inflicted on the Jews’ Egyptian oppressors, and climaxing with His splitting of the Sea of Reeds to drown the Egyptian army as it pursued the escaped slaves, the Exodus can only be comprehended as a miracle, a blatant violation of nature’s laws.
The point is, God does what He wants. He interferes. He gets involved in our lives and the lives of all creatures past and present, if often from inscrutable motives, reserving the right to direct the whole world down to the smallest details. He runs the show. And He doesn’t let nature stand in His way. This is the claim made by the first commandment, and it is one at which many Americans bridle.
Can it be true that such modern–sounding questions are what Moses had in mind in 1312 b.c.e., when, according to tradition, he led two million escaped Egyptian slaves to freedom and gave them the Ten Commandments? Did Moses somehow foresee our contemporary lives of more than three thousand years later? I don’t know what Moses thought, but the words attributed to him make an explosive and timely prediction. They predict the way a society’s ideas about God will influence the way its members interact with one another. You don’t have to be a religious believer to wonder if that prediction accurately reflects the way human cultures work. The United States today—whose culture, high and low, we’re about to embark on a tour of—will be our test case.
But the first nation to be confronted with the Ten Commandments and the incisive cultural critique they imply was, of course, that of the Jews. The first generation of the Jewish people, on their way to freedom in the land of Canaan, encamped in the wilderness at the foot of a low mountain, Sinai. There was thunder and lightning and a fire descending on the mountaintop. God instructed the people’s leader, Moses, to climb the mountain to receive an indication of what God wanted them to do now that they were no longer slaves. As the Bible’s Book of Exodus recounts, the Jews heard God’s own voice.
The entire Jewish people, as they would tell their children down through the millennia, heard God pronounce the first two of the Ten Commandments. But the sound of the divine voice was too much for them. They pleaded with God henceforth to communicate directly only with Moses. God agreed. Forty days later, Moses came down from Mount Sinai with a full record of what God had to say. This was the Torah, the Bible’s first five books, along with an explanatory tradition, conveyed orally. There is a Written Torah, and an Oral Torah. When I refer to “Torah” without qualification or definite article, I mean the combined tradition, or written and oral together.
This vast Torah, in turn, was summarized in just ten statements, the ultimate CliffsNotes. In the Bible itself, the Ten Commandments aren’t numbered. Different religious traditions, Jewish and Christian, number the verses of the scriptural text in slightly different ways, but everyone agrees there are ten separate statements. In this book, I will rely on the oldest tradition, that of Judaism—not only for numbering but for illuminating the meaning of the commandments altogether—because Jewish sages for three thousand years have been reflecting on the Hebrew Bible’s text in remarkable detail, basing their interpretations on the ancient oral tradition, or Oral Torah, later written down in the Talmud and the Midrash, for which other religions have no precise parallel. Following in the same spiritual and intellectual vein as the Hebrew prophets, some of the sages I will be introducing in this book lived in Talmudic times (roughly the first through the fourth centuries of the Common Era), others in the Middle Ages. Their unfamiliar names will become familiar as we go along.
I have called the commandments “statements” because the verses in Hebrew aren’t literally phrased as commandments, but as affirmations in the future tense. “You will not recognize the gods of others,” “You will not take the name of the Lord in vain,” “You will not kill,” “You will not commit adultery,” et cetera.
This is a curious feature of the so–called commandments. So, too, is the fact that God had Moses write them down on two tablets. Why not one? Did Moses lack a font size small enough to fit these relatively few words on a single tablet?
The use of two tablets was not due to an inadequacy in the available word–processing software. It was deliberate, and thus obviously crucial to understanding what the statements mean. As far back as the second century of the Common Era, in the rabbinic book Mechilta, Jewish tradition has taught that the mirror symmetry—five commandments on one tablet, five on the other—show how values influence a society’s success in every field of endeavor. The idea is alluded to in a cryptic form, according to the medieval commentator Rashi, in a verse from the Bible’s Song of Songs: “Your two breasts are like two young roes that are twins, which feed among the lilies” (4:5). The two “breasts,” mirroring each other, are the two tablets.
The first five statements deal with man’s relationship with God. The second five concern our relationships with other people, thus with how humane and civilized a way of life we enjoy. The nation that gets one through five right will stand a better chance of getting six through ten right also.
We can be more specific. Moses inscribed the commandments in descending rows on each tablet—the first commandment at the top of the column, with the second directly under that, the third under that, and so forth. On the second tablet, the sixth commandment comes first, followed by the seventh under it, and so on. The first lines up horizontally with the sixth, the second with the seventh, et cetera. The commandments can therefore be read not only from top to bottom but also across. So if you picture the first tablet as positioned next to the second, the first commandment may be read as if it were followed not by the second commandment but, rather, moving horizontally to the second tablet, by the sixth commandment. The paired commandments form a series of if/then statements: If a culture understands and reveres the first commandment (whose meaning we are investigating in this chapter), then it will also fulfill the sixth (against murder); if that culture lives by the second commandment (against idolatry), then it will fulfill the seventh (against stealing); et cetera. Since the chapters of this book are organized in the obvious fashion, one chapter per commandment, proceeding in the order the Bible gives, we’ll really start to see what this means only when we reach the sixth commandment.
In short, most of us, in contemplating the familiar yet highly enigmatic biblical text, understand a lot less about what Moses was communicating than we think we do. Which brings us back to the most enigmatic of the commandments, the first.
It doesn’t sound like a commandment, nor is it an affirmative statement in the future tense like the other nine on our list. It plainly concerns the belief in God—though the word belief doesn’t quite convey the factual certainty of the statement, in the Deity’s own voice: “I am the Lord your God.”
Rashi, the French medieval sage (1040-1105), greatest of the rabbinic expositors of the Bible, highlights the phrase “from the house of slavery.” He notes the irony that, having been released from one form of bondage, the Jews were entering another, as if God were saying, “From now on you will be slaves to the King, and not slaves to slaves.” Meaning that God is the true King. In relationship to Him, even Egypt’s pharaoh, who held the key to the bonds that held the Jews, is only a slave. The truth is, we are all enslaved, if not to a physical master then to a set of ideas. We all have our preset assumptions about how reality works, about how moral questions are adjudicated, about where truth is to be found. Otherwise, we could hardly get through the day. People who regard themselves as “freethinkers” are invariably enslaved to their own “transgressive” or “progressive” notions of right and wrong, notions that they received in turn from earlier self–congratulatory intellectuals or just from breathing the air of “enlightenment” and “open–mindedness” that envelops many of us so closely that, as with breathing actual air, we never realize what we are absorbing deep into ourselves at every moment.
The difference between someone who takes the first commandment to heart and someone who doesn’t is that the former accepts servitude to the King, to God, as a conscious act, wide awake, while the latter sleepwalks, never even guessing how enslaved he really is to other people, to the spirit of his times.
However, a more pertinent meaning of the first commandment has to do with negating the perspective of the materialist. In the vocabulary of the Talmud, a materialist is called an apicorus
. The ancient rabbis urged believers in the Bible to know how to rebut the philosophical claims of such a person. The hallmark of the apicorus
, they said, is the contempt he shows toward the teachers of biblical tradition. Obviously, the conflict between the “naturalistic worldview” and its “alternative” goes back a long way.
The word itself, apicorus, is simply an adaptation of the name of a Greek philosopher, Epicurus, whom scholars today credit with being the first Western thinker to spell out the implications of materialism.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Shattered Tablets by David Klinghoffer. Copyright © 2007 by David Klinghoffer. Excerpted by permission of Image, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.