The Nine Commandments
This long-awaited book by Dr. David Noel Freedman, the greatest biblical scholar of this century, is certain to be as controversial a book on the Bible as The Book of J (Harold Bloom) and The Gnostic Gospels (Elaine Pagels) and...
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This long-awaited book by Dr. David Noel Freedman, the greatest biblical scholar of this century, is certain to be as controversial a book on the Bible as The Book of J (Harold Bloom) and The Gnostic Gospels (Elaine Pagels) and The Bible Code (Michael Drosnin).
The First & Second Commandments You shall have no other gods before me You shall not make for yourself an idol The first two of the Ten Commandments, like many of the others, are the subject of extensive discussion and debate among scholars. The aforementioned numbering problems (is this commandment one, two, or one and two?) have only been part of the controversy. Some of the most interesting discussions surround what it means to have no other gods before Yahweh. Does this mean that other deities could be tolerated as long as Yahweh was given priority (a belief system known as henotheism)? Or, while acknowledging there are other gods, is this a demand that Israel worship only Yahweh (a belief system known as monolatry)? Or are we to understand this command the way it has been traditionally understood, as denying the existence of all other gods except Yahweh (a belief system known as monotheism)? While the traditional approach is often assumed to be the correct one, cross-cultural comparisons, as well as closer scrutiny of certain biblical passages, have called this understanding into question. Whether we look at the religions of ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, or even Canaan, we find many gods being worshiped. Even though an individual city or nation might have its chief deity, the cultures of the ancient Near East recognized and gave homage to a wide assortment of gods and goddesses. For example, Assyria's chief deity, and the one from whom the nation and capital derived its name, was Ashur. Nevertheless, Assyrian religion acknowledged a whole pantheon of deities and, on occasion, even incorporated new deities into their pantheon from their contact with (usually via conquest of) other nations. In light of this practice, could Yahweh be to Israel what Ashur was to Assyria--the "top god," but not the only god? And if so, did Yahweh always hold this position of priority in Israelite religion? Did Israel Ever Have Other Gods Before Yahweh? In a chance discovery in 1928, a Syrian farmer exposed an ancient tomb while plowing a field. What followed was the unearthing of a once bustling coastal city-state known in ancient times as Ugarit (modern Ras Shamra). Within the palace complex at Ugarit there was discovered a collection of sacred writings that give us a unique look into Canaanite religion and society of the fourteen and thirteen centuries b.c.e. While we already had glimpses of Canaanite culture from descriptions in the Bible (usually in the form of condemnatory remarks), the texts from Ugarit give us the perspective of the "other guys." These texts show that although only a small number of gods play an active role in their mythologies, god-lists found at Ugarit demonstrate that literally hundreds of gods were imagined to exist. With this in view, the first of the Ten Commandments, or Decalogue, if we are to interpret it as forbidding the acknowledgment or worship of any other god except Yahweh, would certainly go against the grain of what seems normative for the Canaanite culture that surrounded Israel. Yet, the texts from Ugarit, while giving us greater insight into ancient Canaanite religion, might shed light on the development of ancient Israelite religion as well. Do Gods Grow Old and Retire? A motif found in the mythological texts at Ugarit, as well as in other mythologies of the ancient Near East, is that of the senior, retiring god, who, while maintaining his formal position of authority, is largely displaced or, in some cases, completely supplanted by a younger, more energetic and active god. For example, at Ugarit, the senior god, El, usually serves as a backdrop for the exploits of the younger Canaanite storm-god, Baal. When the Canaanite pantheon is threatened by the deified Sea (Yamm) and later by Death (Mot), it is the self-asserting Baal who comes to the rescue. Similar scenarios are attested in the mytholog
In a book certain to be as controversial as Harold Bloom's The Book of J and Elaine Pagels's The Gnostic Gospels, David Noel Freedman delves into the Old Testament and reveals a pattern of defiance of the Covenant with God that inexorably led to the downfall of the nation of Israel, the destruction of the Temple, and the banishment of survivors from the Promised Land. Book by book, from Exodus to Kings, Freedman charts the violation of the first nine Commandments one by one-from the sin of apostasy (the worship of the golden calf, Exodus 32) to murder (the death of a concubine, Judges, 19: 25-26) to false testimony (Jezebel's charges against her neighbor, Naboth, I Kings 21). Because covetousness, Freedman shows, lies behind all the crimes committed, each act implicitly breaks the Tenth Commandment as well. ^In a powerful and persuasive argument, Freedman asserts that this hidden trail of sins betrays the hand of a master editor, who skillfully wove into Israel's history a message
DAVID NOEL FREEDMAN has been General Editor and a contributing coauthor of the distinguished Anchor Bible series since its inception in 1956. He is currently a professor of Hebrew Bible at the University of California, San Diego, and lives in nearby La Jolla. ý"From the Trade Paperback edition."