Today I’ll be continuing my blog series on reading the Decalogue in Hebrew, comparing the ten mitzvot in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. Let’s start, as my course did, with the prologue to Deuteronomy’s version:
א וַיִּקְרָא מֹשֶׁה, אֶל-כָּל-יִשְׂרָאֵל, וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת-הַחֻקִּים וְאֶת-הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי דֹּבֵר בְּאָזְנֵיכֶם הַיּוֹם; וּלְמַדְתֶּם אֹתָם, וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם לַעֲשֹׂתָם.
ב יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ, כָּרַת עִמָּנוּ בְּרִית–בְּחֹרֵב.
ג לֹא אֶת-אֲבֹתֵינוּ, כָּרַת יְהוָה אֶת-הַבְּרִית הַזֹּאת: כִּי אִתָּנוּ, אֲנַחְנוּ אֵלֶּה פֹה הַיּוֹם כֻּלָּנוּ חַיִּים.
ד פָּנִים בְּפָנִים, דִּבֶּר יְהוָה עִמָּכֶם בָּהָר–מִתּוֹךְ הָאֵשׁ.
ה אָנֹכִי עֹמֵד בֵּין-יְהוָה וּבֵינֵיכֶם, בָּעֵת הַהִוא, לְהַגִּיד לָכֶם, אֶת-דְּבַר יְהוָה: כִּי יְרֵאתֶם מִפְּנֵי הָאֵשׁ, וְלֹא-עֲלִיתֶם בָּהָר לֵאמֹר.
Note that the letters alef, bet, gimel are used as the numbers 1, 2, 3, etc. My translation:
1 Moses called to all of Israel and he said to them, “Hear, Israel, the decrees and the judgments which I speak in your ears today. And you shall learn them and keep them to do them.
2 The Lord our God cut with us a covenant at Horeb.
3 Not with our fathers did the Lord cut this covenant, but with us here today, all of us living.
4 Face to face the Lord spoke with you on the mountain, from the midst of the fire.
5 I am standing between God and you at that time, to make known to you the word of the Lord; for you were afraid in the face of the fire, and did not go up mountain when the Lord said:
This is simple Hebrew, as Deuteronomist language tends to be with its stock phrases and simple vocabulary. After spending a semester with biblical poetry, I had forgotten Hebrew could be this easy.
One common trope in this passage is the metaphorical use of body parts. In v. 1 we have “speak in your ears [ozen].” Then in 4 and 5 we have the Lord “face [pnei] to face” with Israel, who is afraid “in the face of the fire.” Hebrew is a very concrete language. Even highly abstract terms are evoked by concrete images, some of which are echoed in the New Testament. Body parts, especially the face, ear, and eyes, frequently represent the function they perform for the human and for God. So God has ears to hear the prayers and petitions of humans just as humans have ears to hear the commands of God. The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (TWOT) points out that ears represent not just hearing, but obedience. While some translators, such as Robert Alter, translate this “in your hearing,” I prefer to preserve the metaphor.
The face [pnei] is also a pervasive metaphor in Hebrew. TWOT points out that the pnei:
is described not merely as an exterior instrument in one’s physiology, but rather as being engaged in some form of behavioral pattern, and is this characterized by some personal quality. It is only natural that the face was considered to be extraordinarily revealing vis-a-vis a man’s emotions, moods, and dispositions. (1782)
This makes it possible for Hebrew to use some facial metaphors such as “hard” or “shining,” as in the popular biblical blessing “may the Lord make his face shine on you” (Num 6:25). Seeing one’s face connotes intimacy with that person. So while this passage says that God spoke face to face with Israel, that immediacy is mediated by the cloud. Moses cannot see God’s face. We cannot get to close to God, or we will die.
Another odd idiom here is to “cut a covenant” (carat berit). Studies of the covenant form of literature in Exodus show its similarities with political treaties in the ancient Near East. If this is the model for a covenant, why would the verb not be “sealed” (Alter), “made” (NAB, NRSV, NIV), “drawn up,” “signed,” or “ratified”?
In Genesis 15, Abraham makes a covenant with God:
7Then he said to him, ‘I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.’ 8But he said, ‘O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?’ 9He said to him, ‘Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtle-dove, and a young pigeon.’ 10He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two.
Scholars speculate that part of the covenant ritual in ancient Israel – whether between God and people or people and people – was cutting animals in half. Cutting a covenant was an arduous physical process, not just signing your name on a sheet of paper. And in the case of the covenant with God, it had the implication that the one who does not keep it might themself be cut.
Next up, I’ll be continuing with the commandments themselves.