Written by: Daniel Gordan

Shavuot and the Decalogue

One of the events that is traditionally commemorated during the Shavuot celebration is the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Strictly speaking, it was not the entire Pentateuch but rather the Ten Words or the Decalogue that was given at that time. It was the sign of the covenant between God and His people.

The celebration of Shavuot gives an outstanding opportunity to think about the significance of the Decalogue and the meaning of some of God's commandments.

First of all, contemplating the Ten Words, I would like to discuss a few interesting literary features of the Hebrew text.

The Great House or the House of Slaves?

Exodus 20:2 reads,

I am the Lord, your God, who brought you out of Egypt out of the house of slaves. [1]

The phrase "out the house of slaves" represents a literal translation of Hebrew “מִבֵּ֣ית עֲבָדִ֑ים” which is often translated as “the house of slavery.”

Why did God use these words? Why did He call Egypt “the house of slaves”?

One possible explanation may be found in the etymology of the word “pharaoh.”

According to The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, “The term per-aa (‘great house'), which was eventually transformed, via Greek, into the pharaoh, was initially used to describe the royal court or... the state itself.” [2] Indeed, Egypt was one of the greatest powers at that time, and the title “great house” characterized it precisely. However, from a divine point of view, Egypt was not a “great house” since Pharaoh was God’s opponent and a source of slavery for His people.

Today, many believers are tempted to see in politics and secular power a “great house.” Such people participate in political life and events and mesmerize themselves with the idea of a “better world.” Sadly, such a world will never exist on this earth. An experience with Billy Graham, one of the most influential preachers of the 20th century, is very illustrative.

Once, he said,

“Looking back, I know I sometimes crossed the line, and I wouldn't do that now." [3]

Many times, Jews looked back to Egypt, but it never helped them. Egypt is called “the house of slaves,” and this is fixed forever in the Decalogue.

The Only God

Exodus 20:3 reads,

You shall have no other gods before me. [4]

In the previous verse, we found important words,

I am the Lord, your God [5].

In the table below, I gave the Hebrew original text and supplied transliteration and an English translation.

אָנֹֽכִיִ֖֙

יְהוָהָ֣

אֱלֹהֶ֑֔י

ךָ

Anokhi

YHWH

Elokhei

ha

I

(am) the LORD

God

of yours

       

לֹא

יִהְיהֽ

־לְךָ

אֱלֹהִ֥֨ים

Lo

ikhye

lekha

elokhim

Not

be

for you

gods

As we can observe, traditional translations of “you shall not have” are literarily accurate but not precise. It would be better to translate these words as “let it not be.” Also, God’s name most probably derives from the verb היה, which means “to be, to exist.” Now let us look at the table. There, we can clearly see similar words, although in the second quotation, the idea is reversed. In the first quotation, God says, “I am the One Who Exists (YHWH), adding to that “your god.” In other words, when one believes in the God Who Exists, this existence is shared with the believer. And this existence sends all other gods to non-existence (the second phrase). If a person believes in the Lord, other gods are automatically annihilated.

You Shall Not Take the Name

Exodus 20:7 reads,

You shall not take the name of the Lord, your God, in vain, for the Lord will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain. [6]

Since «you shall not take» in Hebrew will be לֹ֥א תִשָּׂ֛א, (literally, «do not carry»), many readers of the Bible who are familiar with basic Hebrew are tempted to apply this meaning to the current text and conclude that the commandment also instructs us “not to carry” God’s name, or in other words, not to be called believers if we do not really believe and behave properly.

Although this interpretation is very attractive, it appears to be careless in dealing with the text.

Let us imagine that someone “killed two birds with one stone.” In this case, the phrase “to kill two birds with one stone” is a famous idiom. None of the birds are killed here; rather, the speaker wants to emphasize that two problems were solved at once.

A similar principle is used in the Decalogue, where an idiom is found. According to the Halot lexicon, נשׁא  … + שֵׁם means “pronounce” or “swear." Therefore, the commandment prohibits the careless use of God’s name and the words "God" and "the Lord" as well. I am sure that such substitutes as gosh, goodness, boy, word, etc. do not make God happy either. Indeed, today in English-speaking societies, the use of such words as “Lord,” “Jesus,” and “God” as interjections is widely accepted. But does this mean that God abolished His commandment? The text reads, “For the Lord will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain.”

I suggest that experimenting with disrespect for God’s name and titles is very dangerous. It is very possible that such an experimenter will achieve unwanted results and that these results will be eternal.

Keeping Commandments

The Ten Words are given to the people so that they keep them. Sounds very simple, right?

But in reality, it is not that simple.

Both Jews and Christians acknowledge the divine origin of the Decalogue; however, there were always numerous reasons not to keep the commandments of God.

The history of humanity keeps numerous records, such as idolatry, forgotten Shabbat, murdered opponents, and other evidence of lawlessness. Like Solomon said, “This only have I found: God created mankind upright, but they have gone in search of many schemes." Eccl. 7:29. [7]

I found a dialogue between American Adventists and Amish people very illustrative, which I was able to hear. The Adventists were happy to share their strong belief in the eternal nature of the Decalogue, and they emphasized that the fourth commandment had to be kept exactly as it was written. The Amish people did not argue against that, but in their turn said that it was necessary to avoid any pictures of God, as stated in the Decalogue. Both sides of this dialogue pointed out the problem: humans are neither called to discuss nor to interpret God’s commandments. The commandments are simple enough, and they have to be kept. Such arguments as “I keep Shabbat but on Sunday” or “I make pictures but do not worship them” are weak and awkward.

Shavuot as the Time of Contemplation

For some people, Shavuot is the time for visiting synagogues, special prayers, and delicious meals. Other people have not yet discovered this holy day. But regardless of whether or not you celebrate, everyone can benefit from Shavuot. Let us contemplate the Decalogue that was given to God’s people. The Decalogue measures our ability to obey. The season of Shavuot is a great opportunity to evaluate our obedience to God. "For rebellion is the sin of divination, and insubordination is iniquity and idolatry." (1 Sam. 15:23). [8]

 

Daniel Gordan

 

[1] Author’s translation.

[2] The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, (1995), s.v. "Kingship."

[3] https://www.npr.org/2018/02/24/587809173/billy-graham-walked-a-line-and-regretted-crossing-over-it-when-it-came-to-politi

[4] Author’s translation.

[5] Author’s translation.

[6] Author’s translation.

[7] Scripture quotations taken from the New American Standard Bible® (NASB), Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation Used by permission. www.Lockman.org unless other translation is indicated.

[8] Scripture quotations taken from the New American Standard Bible® (NASB), Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation Used by permission. www.Lockman.org unless other translation is indicated.

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