Editor's Note: Writer Philip Stine continues his series on the 10 Commandments and the people who don't fit neatly into them. This is the third and final installment. To read the first installment, click here. To read the second installment, click here.
In the 10 Commandments. . .
The Sabbath Commandment (“Remember the Sabbath Day, and keep it holy”.) Who benefits? Obviously those who are going to be taking a day off work. Let’s turn it around: in whose interest is it not to have this law?
• Those who are on the poverty line, who need to work every day to have enough to survive.
• Those who have animals to look after.
• Merchants. Amos 8.5 even has merchants wishing there were no Sabbath. So the merchants and the little people who have to buy every day would not benefit from this law.
• People with home-based manufacturing businesses. Both these groups want to have the market set up then because that’s when a lot of people are free to do their shopping.
So who does benefit? Those who stand to lose nothing, those who can make enough income in six days to be able to afford a day off. Not the poor, not the traders, not the home-craft people, not the priests (who work hard on the Sabbath): the urban elite, administrators, officials and the wealthiest of traders.
Worship Commandment (“You shall have no other gods before me.”)
Let’s assume that this commandment is not about theology or religious experience. When we have laws about religion, we are out of the realm of theology and into social control. Note that this law is not addressed to outside groups.
It is about behavior within Israel. It is one group of Israelites who are in a position to tell other Israelites whom they should worship. Who would do this? Those who want to make Israel different from the other nations, who want to lay out their separate identity. This is not the subsistence farmers trying to get along with the Philistines in the valley of Sorek, nor the itinerant potter trying to sell his wares to whomever. (After all, a Canaanite shekel is as valuable as an Israelite one!)
No, it is the wealthy who are at the apex of power in their society, whose position becomes precarious if social change is allowed to happen, if traditional forms of national identity are undermined. They are conservatives, and they are running scared. These are the people who insist they are not Canaanites but they have been brought out of the land of Egypt.
Why do they want the god whose words they invent for these commandments to define himself as the one who brought them out of Egypt? Because they are settlers who do not have long-standing title to the land. Whether their arrival there was a historical reality or not, they need to keep alive a memory of arrival, a memory that keeps a difference between them and their neighbors. They are, in short, the conservative old men who see themselves as inheritors of traditional ways of life.
The Social Commandments
• “You shall not steal.” Who needs a law against theft except those who have property to steal? Likewise with coveting. The very way these commandments are written means that the people who want to forbid stealing and coveting are owners of male and female slaves, of oxen and asses, of houses, i.e. the wealthiest stratum of society.
• How about bearing false witness against your neighbor? This law is not about lying, but about a specific kind, namely lying in a law-court where property was at stake.
• How about adultery? Note that adultery for the Hebrew people refers only to sex with someone else’s wife! Who would worry about someone sleeping with their wives enough to want a divine law against it?
A real problem in a polygamous society is that while the husband is occupying himself with one wife, the others are sort of out and about. And polygamy is a function of wealth. So it is the property-owning classes who are concerned about property going out of the family as a result of illicit liaisons. Of course, any Israelite would have felt robbed if someone else slept with his wife, but it is those who have landed property that goes with the offspring who are going to write such a law.
• (“You shall not kill.”) The law against killing is tricky. Note that execution and warfare are not forbidden – the Jews did that all the time with the approval (they felt) of Yahweh. The Hebrew word here (ratsah) usually means manslaughter, unintentional killing. But you wouldn’t forbid that. One possibility is that the word is also used for revenge killing after the unintentional killing (Numbers 35.27 is an example). Perhaps therefore this is a commandment against blood revenge by a group, not an individual, since this leads to social instability. Therefore it is the people with power who forbid it.