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The History of the Future
Through misreadings and mistranslations, the Ten Commandments have come to be seen as the rantings of a vain and vengeful God. In fact, they are an early blueprint for self-government forged by refugees escaping tyranny.
I am a fan of Christopher Hitchens. There's that delightful disdain with which he impales his opponents, his flashing wit-and the hints of seriousness to show that it's all more than just a jousting game.
But sometimes he gets things very wrong, and his attitude to the Ten Commandments-one he shares with many modern atheists-is one such mistake. They represent little more, he argues, than the rantings of an angry, vain and vengeful God. Who would possibly want to follow their "vague pre-Christian desert morality," which shows every sign of being invented by a "Bronze Age demagogue"?
Martin Luther King, for one. He found great power in the commandments and the entire Exodus story and through him it motivated many people in the struggle for civil rights, helping to transform the US at a crucial moment in its history.
Hitchens is responding to the mythical story of the commandments found in the standard religious accounts: the Koran and the old testament. But if he looked at them as a historian or an anthropologist, he might take a more sympathetic view of this extraordinary list-which has bequeathed to us the weekend, the principle of innocent until proved guilty, the Sunni/Shia split and much else besides.
Moses, of course, dominates the biblical account. On Mount Sinai, amid storms and booming trumpet blasts, it's he who brings down the perfect tablets, direct from God. Yet this is not the sole source of understanding of the commandments' power. Something quite extraordinary was also happening in real political history at the time. Clues scattered in the Bible, archaeological digs and other sources show that the commandments, at least at the beginning, were quite unlike anything a Bronze Age demagogue would have proposed. They weren't designed to keep a people in servile, superstitious passivity. In fact, they were a progressive creed: helping a band of escaping refugees to find freedom in a new land.
The story of the Israelites begins sometime between 1250 and 1150BC. At the start of that period, the ancient near east was little more than a giant prison house. Along the eastern Mediterranean coast, most people struggled as serfs, tied to the city-states that dominated the region. Further west, in the great kingdom of Egypt, serfdom was also widespread-and slavery was as harsh as described in the book of Exodus.
Some of these slaves were Semitic-speakers from Canaan (around modern Israel) who had emigrated as free men to the lush Egyptian delta, only to be enslaved. Others were Libyan sand-dwellers or black-skinned Nubians, often taken prisoner in wartime. Egypt's rulers had built a vast series of forts on their eastern borders, not just to defend the kingdom from attack, but also to keep these slaves in.
Egypt had divided the eastern Mediterranean with the kingdom of the Hittites (based in modern Turkey), and a flourishing buffer zone existed between them. This system had survived for centuries, and neither the serfs stuck in the city-states nor the slaves in Egypt stood much chance of escape.
Then, in the decades leading up to 1200BC, a series of changes unpicked this easy imperial détente, and began to destroy the structures that had kept these forced workers trapped for generations. At the northern limit of the known world, cities in ancient Greece began to be destroyed, swamped by mysterious attackers who came to be known as the "Sea peoples." No one knows precisely who they were. Some were probably displaced tribesmen from the north of Greece, others pre-existing pirates, others new recruits, joining when their cities were destroyed. But the impact of these raids was rapidly felt. Shortages in everything from food to dock equipment leapfrogged across the Mediterranean. Hunger, starvation and social unrest followed.
Eventually the Sea peoples reached Egypt. Their attacks beat back the imperial army, which abandoned its frontier forts. For the first time in memory, Egypt's borders were scarcely defended. This turmoil left open a window that any slave group, with the right leader, could slip through.
How do we know that some escapees in this period were ancestors of the historical Hebrews? There is some suggestive evidence; and the Bible itself is a source. The famous story of the escaping Israelites passing through the Red sea is not the only account recorded in the Bible. Hidden away, an earlier, more plausible story exists, long missed in English translations. To find it, you need to know that the Old Testament is written in "ordinary" Hebrew; a few sections, however, are composed in more archaic language. To the trained eye, these sections are as different as Chaucer and Hemingway.
The archaic version says nothing about walls of water. Indeed, it says nothing about crossing a body of water at all. Instead, it suggests a story in which Egyptian soldiers, chasing after escaping slaves, ventured into the water on barges to catch them, and were flipped over in waves, or perhaps found their chariot wheels bogged down in marsh. Such accounts could easily have been distorted by centuries of retelling.
Later translations into Latin and vernacular languages-as with the King James translations of the early 1600s-make these exaggerations yet more extreme, translating the Hebrew yam sûp as "Red sea." The Red sea is a vast body of water, and a long way from the main cities that housed Semitic-speaking slaves. On the other hand, there really were many marshy wetlands and shallow reed-filled lakes nearer these cities, all with their own sudden currents and treacherous mudflats. The Hebrew yam sûp is much more likely to mean simply "sea of reeds."
But even if a handful of slaves did escape, where would they go? Across the Sinai desert rose the forested highlands of Canaan, a perfect refuge from authority (and where some of them had probably originally come from). In this violent period around 1200BC, several hundred new hamlets began to appear in those isolated highlands. Egypt's rulers seem to have been furious about that for, shortly after, imperial scribes recorded on a ten-foot granite slab the exploits of a military mission sent into Canaan. Its task was to attack a new, loose-knit community of peoples that consisted of escaped slaves and farmers fleeing the lowland city states. The hieroglyph used to describe them had never been used before. When sounded it came out as "Is-ra-el."
It's a good story, but one might still ask: So what? Why should any sensible person today wish to follow the tribal laws that a random group from that ancient time might have come up with? This is where the greatest twist begins.
History suggests that almost all slave rebellions break down. The rebellion's leader dies, and either dissension tears the group apart or a new dictator takes over. But in the Canaan highlands something peculiar happened. By the mid 1100s BC, tens of thousands lived there, and they came from utterly diverse backgrounds: the lowland farmers and escaped slaves-a mix of Semitic-speakers and Nubians and Libyans-from Egypt itself. Indeed, it's quite likely that the ten commandments were drafted before the foundation of Judaism, to cover this much broader community, of whom the soon-to-be-Jews were just one component. This makes intuitive sense, given that many of the Old Testament's ethical attitudes apply universally, rather than simply to the Jews themselves-a legacy of the commandments' original function of helping a diverse community treat its members fairly.
The villages created in this new refuge were almost entirely unfortified. Archaeological records show few signs of a protective state, and there are none of the ruined storehouses, stables or palaces abundant elsewhere in the region. This community of exiles left nothing but the remnants of small-scale co-operation, from limestone-lined cisterns for collecting water to agricultural terraces too complex for any one individual family to cultivate on the uneven ground. The new residents were spread out over tens of thousands of acres, yet were cooperating on their own, without coercion. Not only had they escaped tyranny, they had also found a new way of ensuring unprecedented social cohesion and co-operation.
How did they do it? Here's where we can begin to understand the lasting, progressive influence of the commandments. The central clue is hidden in the structure of the commandments themselves. Most people today imagine a physical list written on two joined slabs. But that image originated in 13th-century England, when Jews were forced to wear cloth markers of that design. The Bible does not mention joined slabs; only that they were written on two tablets. For modern archaeologists it's immediately clear what this means. City-states in the no-man's-land between the Egyptians and the Hittites often needed protection, and signed a series of "Hittite suzerainty" treaties to provide it. Dozens survive, and they were always written on two tablets, with the complete text on each, allowing both parties to have a full copy. The tablets were small enough to fit in a potter's cupped hand, keeping the clay warm and malleable during inscription.
Most importantly, they match the ten commandments in structure too. Both have a prologue to show what the dominant power has done to deserve the other party's loyalty. For the Hittites this meant city-state rulers accepting the protection of the Hittite king. For the commandments, it means the prologue "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt." This would have rung especially true for these escaped slaves, for only through what must have seemed an extraordinary sequence of events would most have managed to escape marauding gangs of Sea peoples and make it to their upland safety zone.
The Hittite treaties then list obligations that the receiving party must fulfil-acceptable alliances, taxes to be paid-followed by guarantees that these would be followed. The commandments match this almost exactly. But a couple of twists give the commandments a wholly original character.
The Sea peoples' devastation had destroyed social rules as well as cities and property-and this created a rare opportunity to start afresh. Hence Moses's treaty is not addressed solely to a king; instead, it's spoken to an entire people. This subtlety is masked in the King James translation, which uses archaic "thou shalts." In Hebrew, however, this second-person singular was intimate, like the "tu" of modern French. Such an intimate treaty was unprecedented. Indeed, a list of public laws was itself a novelty. Antiquity's codes and rituals were generally not designed for the public. Imperial religions were like giant machines, cranked by priests and aristocrats for their own advantage. State-ordained rituals helped the cosmos operate, or sustained the king. Temples were closed to the public. Even in early ancient Greece it could be illegal to publicise a city's laws.
Moses's code, then, was radical. In Deuteronomy, he says: "This instruction which I enjoin upon you this day... is not beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, 'Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?' Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, 'Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?' No, the thing is close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it."
Although this account was written several centuries after the Sea people's era, it captures this new attitude towards authority. It was exactly what was needed for survival in a remote highland sanctuary lacking any central political structures.
The commandments also ignore political subservience. There is nothing about grain to deliver, or troops to supply. Rather, at their heart is a series of guidelines for producing a co-operative life. In yet another example of woeful English translation, it turns out that the Bible never even terms them the ten "commandments." Instead they are ten devarim, which would have been understood as the ten utterances. "Commandments" are something imposed. But this list is more like a set of guiding principles.
So why is it that the commandments have proved so controversial? Partly because church authorities over the centuries have used them in ways contrary to their original intentions. Also, the story of the commandments appears close to parts of the Bible-written at very different times-that do reek of fire and brimstone.
But the fact that they were forged in a slave rebellion means the true message of the commandments has spoken to people trying to break free from unjust rule throughout the ages. Even when rulers tried to appropriate them, or hide them away, their true phrasing remained hidden inside Judaism, Christianity and to some extent Islam; carried forward like a recessive gene hitching to the future, lying dormant for whenever the time was right-as it was with Martin Luther King in 1950s and 1960s America.
Some of the commandments, it is true, do still read strangely to the modern eye. There might be something to be said for honouring (even if not loving) parents; about restricting murder, adultery and stealing. And the concept of innocent until proven guilty seems to have arisen from the ninth commandment (warning against bearing "false witness"). The merit of these sensible, indeed more or less universal, rules comes by imagining a society that doesn't support them. But the first three do seem to be a different story; indeed Hitchens insists they "suggest a terrific insecurity on the part of the person... issuing them."
A closer look at them, however, reveals a more interesting history than Hitchens proposes. The first simply says that those joining the compact are to "have no other Gods before me." The point isn't a theological one, for there was little resembling any Jewish religion at this time. Instead, it reflects the insight that the worship of many gods would pull people in different directions. Monotheism didn't have to be intolerant. Muslim armies often tried to stop citizens of their new empire from converting to Islam, partly because such conversions would dilute the tax base (since only non-Muslims paid full tax). Just like the early Hebrews, early Muslims had no problem living amid followers of other beliefs.
The second commandment (about "false idols") follows from the first one. It has nothing to do with insecurity on the part of a harsh, all-commanding deity. On the contrary, it represents a remarkably democratic shift. To see what typical Bronze Age deities were like, one has to look inside ancient Egyptian temples, which were more like today's power stations, keeping the universe operating, than modern churches or synagogues. Priests were technically trained and their temples-closed to the public-were built to sustain an empire's fundamental cosmology. Indeed, ordinary people didn't even have to be cautioned against trying to pray: they were unimportant, and their words weren't going to have any effect. But the Canaan exiles didn't need an empire's cosmological power. They didn't want the sort of idols that would lead some among them to support the pharaohs and kings. Their society was more democratic and access to the divine more open. The God of the ten commandments was the kind that came alive only when the whole population co-operated.
Yet what of the third commandment, the one about not taking the Lord's name in vain? Today, we take this to mean something like "thou shalt not swear when a hammer has whacked thine thumb." But that is a much later Calvinist-style distortion: there's plenty of obscenity and swearing in the Bible. Rather, think back to the highland refugees. Any miscreant who "swore" on the authority of the commandments about something he in fact had no intention of doing-such as helping in the next year's harvest-would undermine the trust everyone depended on. It seems a small matter, but this principle had immense consequences later on. When descendants of the original settlers were taken into captivity in Babylon in the 6th century BC, the habit of co-operation that the third commandment fostered helped to create the meeting house-the blueprint of the later Christian church and Muslim mosque. This was unprecedented. Ordinary people weren't supposed to join together, but the third commandment encouraged people to trust each other enough to do so. It is also about humility, a rejection of the hubris involved in presuming to speak on a god's behalf. In this sense, it has performed a function quite opposite to what Hitchens presumes. Many leaders (including Abraham Lincoln) have used it to block anyone invoking God's name to justify their political proposals-a humility one retiring US president would have been wise to consider.
One can go on, but the point should be clear: the fire and brimstone can be avoided simply by sticking to the commandments themselves. Their consistent message is not one of repression, but of freedom: freedom from fear of your possessions being taken; freedom from relentless work; freedom from chaos. Refugees today would seek little more.
Einstein once said that he felt the truths of the universe were like a series of thick, closed volumes waiting in a dimly-lit library. Very occasionally one of us is allowed to step forward, lift one of the age-old books, and get a glimpse of what was written on just a single page. Very little has crossed the dust of 30 centuries to shape us today. The Ten Commandments have.
People who talk about innovation are usually really bad at it. 'Thinking outside the box', for example, comes from a 1950s American matchbox competition! Consultants who use that phrase are usually demonstrating that they haven't, in fact, done much original thinking outside that box.
It's better - and more fun - to look at real innovation. How at Cambridge, with a politically incorrect approach, a bluff New Zealand lab chief produced more physics Nobel laureates than France and Japan combined.
Look at what made Einstein laugh, what that said about his creativity, and the crucial role of birth order. If we're brave enough we can also take a look inside George Dubya's brain.
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