The Complete Book of Exodus

Were the Israelites Monotheists?
What's really in the Good Book.
June 16 2006 11:20 AM

The Complete Book of Exodus

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Chapter 21, I fear, is where the really fun part of the Bible screeches to a halt, and the Lord gets down to the dreary business of governing. It's like that scene at the end of The Candidate, when Robert Redford, having finally won the election, says, "What do we do now?" Freed after 430 years, the Israelites are having their "What do we do now?" moment. Up to this point, the Bible has been a cracking good adventure story—a Judean Robert Ludlum. Now it turns into a how-to manual. This isn't to say there aren't great tales to come—where's that golden calf?—but I suspect they'll be more sporadic. This also isn't to say that Exodus has suddenly turned boring. It hasn't. But it's a very different kind of reading.

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is Slate's editor at large. He's the author of The Genius Factory and Good Book.

What is happening is law-giving. Lots and lots of law giving. The Ten Commandments were God's Constitution—concise, magnificent, beautifully written, but a bit stronger on the ideals than the practicalities. Now God follows up with the detailed laws and regulations needed to enforce the commandments in daily life. Thou shalt not kill—that's pretty clear. But what happens if someone does kill? What if they kill but it's an accident? What if they kill a cow? Or a fetus? You see how this can get pretty complicated pretty quickly.

So, how does the Lord begin? With slavery, of course—verse after verse about how long a Hebrew slave must serve his master, who owns a slave's wife and children, what happens to a girl whose father sells her into slavery, and so forth. I know, I know: Our modern ideas don't apply—this was an ancient, tribal culture, slavery didn't mean the same thing back then, God's slavery rules are pretty benevolent by the standards of the time, etc., etc. Even so, isn't it disheartening that slavery is so central to God and His people that His laws address it first?

God then turns to more familiar kinds of issues. (Incidentally, as I read it, these laws are the Lord dictating to Moses, who then presumably passes them on to the people.) His punishment for intentional killing: death. Punishment for kidnapping: death. Punishment for striking a parent: death. Punishment for insulting a parent: death. (Hmm. Not sure I agree with that one—though it would cut down on the temper tantrums.)

The Lord addresses lesser offenses involving assault, the death or theft of livestock, arson, loss of property you're keeping for someone else. This litany includes the famous "eye for an eye" prescription, which is more extensive and specific than I realized; it's usually truncated when it's quoted: "The penalty shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise."

The detail in the legal regime God is constructing is extraordinary (if a bit numbing). This is a complete law book, especially when it concerns the particulars of livestock and property. "When a man's ox injures his neighbor's ox and it dies, they shall sell the live ox and divide its price; they shall also divide the dead animal. If, however, it is known that the ox was in the habit of goring, and its owner has failed to guard it, he must restore ox for ox, but shall keep the dead animal."

As a window into the daily lives and concerns of our ancestors, these laws are far more revealing than the more dramatic biblical stories. They depict the Israelites at the time of the Torah as obsessed with property rights and focused on the health of their livestock, on which their economic health depended. The specificity of the rules and the instructions on how they be enforced indicate a very law-abiding, and thus orderly, society—one in which law insulated against arbitrary power.

A curious law: If you seduce a virgin, you have to pay off her family.

The penalty for bestiality? Take a guess! You got it—it's death.

Another capital crime is sacrificing to "a god other than the Lord." This reminds me of something I forgot to mention in my Ten Commandments discussion. This law and the first two commandments appear to acknowledge the existence of other gods. In the commandments, for example: "You shall not bow down to them or serve them."

Which raises questions about the nature of their monotheism. Did the Israelites believe Baal & Co. were genuine supernatural beings but were second-raters and charlatans compared with the Lord? Or did they think these other gods were just figments, delusions imagined by the stupid Philistines and Amalekites? To say it another way: Were the Israelites polytheists who believed their God trumped all the others? Or were they monotheists who thought all the other gods were imaginary? Exodus is not clear on this, but as I read it, it sounds like they were polytheists who thought they had picked the top god.

It opens with probably the best paragraph I've ever read about justice:

You must not carry false rumors; you shall not join hands with the guilty to act as a malicious witness: You shall neither side with the mighty to do wrong—you shall not give perverse testimony in a dispute so as to pervert it in favor of the mighty—nor shall you show deference to a poor man in a dispute.

Judges should sew this passage into their robes.

Later in the chapter, after a bunch of ceremonial laws, comes this: "You shall not boil a kid in its mother's milk." This is the first biblical reference to Judaism's dietary restrictions—the elaborate prohibitions against pork, shellfish, mixing milk and meat, etc. Surely it's not possible that the incredibly involved, complicated kashrut laws—the rules that require rabbis to certify potato-chip factories and kids to time the interval between hamburger and ice cream—are extrapolated from this single sentence. There must be more later, right?

There are too many reasons to count why Arabs and Jews distrust each other, some good, some bad. I am beginning to see some of the biblical roots for the Jewish suspicion. At the end of this chapter, God lays out the borders of the Israelites' territory, stretching all the way east to the Euphrates River. And then he gives them this instruction about how to treat the people who live there now, once the Israelites conquer them. "You will drive them out before you. You shall make no covenant with them and their gods. They shall not remain in your land, lest they cause you to sin against Me."

P.S.: In my last entry I wondered if we could get by with just the final six commandments. Journalist and author Gregg Easterbrook writes to me to note that his 1998 book, Beside Still Waters, "hangs much of its final argument on the Six Commandments concept, which is incredibly overlooked in theology." You also can read Gregg's take on the Six Commandments in this Beliefnet essay from 2000.

Thoughts on Blogging the Bible? Please e-mail David Plotz at plotzd@slate.com . E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)