The Decalogue: The Proto-Narrative

On pages 275-278 of Etched in Stone, David Aaron lists what he believes were the stages in the development of the Decalogue traditions.  I will blog about these pages using my “one bite at a time” approach of making a series.

There’s the proto-narrative.  On page 275, Dr. Aaron states that “There was a strong cultural meme that involved the engaging of stones to symbolize the establishment of covenant.”  For example, in Joshua 24:26-27, Joshua marks the covenant at Shechem with a stone—which serves as a witness to the LORD’s words and a testimony to the people.  The stones were separate from the actual covenant document.  But proto-narrative 2 made the standing stones into a pair of “covenant stones with writing” (page 276)—which means that the stones were made into a covenant document.  The stones containing this document were portable, which “allowed them to be written in a mythological wilderness and transported to the promised land” (page 276).  Why is this important?  The reason is that the content of these stones at this stage—the Decalogue that came to be in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5—was written “by a cluster of intellectuals seeking to restructure the cultural rubrics that remained intact in a time of social and religious exile” (page 275).  We’re talking about the Judahite Diaspora here, when there were Jews who were away from their land, and even Jews in the land who lacked a king and a temple.  The stones of the covenant were therefore said to have originated outside of the land—at Sinai.  Mythological and portable stones of the covenant could be relevant to a people in exile.

The Decalogue of Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 was secular—in the sense that it did not deal with “cultic festivals and impurities, statutes for ethnic identity building, or the fabrication of cultic artifacts” (page 276).  Rather, it dealt with such issues as murder, adultery, theft, etc.  The Decalogue here is imitating law collections of Mesopotamia, such as that of Hammurabi, which dealt precisely with some of those issues.

But there was a slight difference.  The laws of Mesoptamian law codes were delivered by a god through a king.  But the Decalogue was delivered through Moses.  By disassociating Israel’s law from the monarchy, the ideologues who composed the Decalogue were ensuring that “the law’s legitimacy would not be undermined by the cessation of the monarchy” (page 276)—by such events as the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E.  This Decalogue was intended to allow Israel to have law and order, even without an earthly king.

One more thing: the contents of the tablets were said to be inscribed by the finger of God—whereas, elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, Moses and Joshua were said to write the document.  According to Dr. Aaron, this shows that the group that composed the Decalogue was outside of the inner circle of power and thus “clearly designed to ascribe a level of authority to a document that may have had no other basis for attaining authority” (page 276).  It did so by saying the document was written by God.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at the reaction against the proto-narrative.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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