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The Nine Commandments: uncovering the hidden pattern of crime and punishment in the Hebrew Bible.  By David Noel Freedman & others  Doubleday. 2000; 217 pp; US$24.95 hardcover.

The formal divisions of the Old Testament are artificial and have been dictated by non-literary and theopolitical considerations.

The first readers of the Torah and the Former Prophets were Jews in Exile in Babylon - the opening narratives in Genesis tell of ancestors leaving their homeland, as too Cain being exiled, while the last chapter of 2 Kings has the surviving remnant of Israel back in Babylon.

Israel's historical experience is defined in terms of the Covenant, each Commandment being violated - "one by one, book by book until they run of books and commandments" (p.xi). They are back in Babylon where they started, having lost everything. The penalty for transgression is death, but YHWH mitigates and the punishment becomes exile instead.

The journey back to Babel (Babylon) is a retrograde journey, and the biblical story is told from the perspective of losers. From Genesis to the end of 2 Kings there is a hidden trail of sin - their present exile results not from YHWH abandoning them but of their abandoning YHWH by breaching each Commandment. Just as Adam was exiled from Paradise so too Israel from the Promised Land, becoming again strangers on a strange land.

Freedman examines each of the Nine Commandments, the tenth not being verifiable unless accompanied by an action and so omitted from his study.

What does it mean to have no other gods before YHWH - henotheism, monolatry or monotheism. The worship of other gods was well practised in Israel eg Jer 2:28 and 11:10, including female goddesses eg Jer 44:16-17. And what about YHWH's wife (Asherah) attested to in recent archaeological finds at Kuntillet-Ajrud in  the Southern Negev. Has the YHWH of the First Commandment been sanitised to fit into the Exilic mind frame ?     The reasoning against idols is not specified in the Ten Commandments, but is drawn from inference that YHWH has already made images of himself in human beings. Cultic iconography of the Ancient Near East required images eg Aaron's golden calf (p.39) whose bull imagery is perfectly in keeping with the religious practices of the day as witnessed by finds from Ugarit, Hazor and Shiloh. 

The Third Commandment is problematic, though the common interpretation refers to taking up the name of YHWH while cursing or swearing, which is generally referred to as blasphemy, itself considered high treason against God. As I have shown in a detailed study of the relevant texts, in particular Leviticus 24 (Southern Cross Law Review vol 5 pp 26-47) all blasphemies have been erased from the Old Testament, with the Rabbinic use of HaShem developing to avoid any forms of misuse of the divine name. While Jesus was accused of blasphemy before the Sanhedrin, he was not executed for it by Pilate.

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