CONTEXT FOR THE CHRIST EVENT:
The great imperial power structures of the ancient world emerged at the dawn of the third millennium BCE. This was the very time that God began withdrawing from mankind a universal, possessive “god-consciousness” that involved the metaphoric visual and auditory presence of God in the human brain.1 Mankind intended for the emerging power structures to replace this waning god-consciousness with the dominating power of hierarchical kings, priests and other nobility. It was in this context that God called Abraham and his family out of the provincial city of Haran around the time that the Babylonian emperor, Hammurabi, conquered the nearby capital at Mari (1760 BCE). One of God’s fundamental purposes for this call was to liberate his chosen people from possession by and submission to those who claimed divine power for themselves.
In his call to Abraham, God identified himself as El, the Bull god — who was the creator, the most powerful and highest god. On repeated occasions El revealed his presence to Abraham, confirmed his covenantal promise, and assured Abraham that he and his descendants would occupy the Promised Land and that their offspring would be as the stars in the sky (Genesis 12:2ff; 13:14ff; 15:1ff; 17:1ff; 20:15ff).
In those days power was signified by the male phallus. The phallus was variously represented by arrows, spears and swords, as well as by uncarved stone high places and obelisks. The preeminent symbol of El the Bull, therefore, was the phallus — the organ of creation.2 El himself was the only legitimate world power structure. It was in this context that El told Abraham to circumcise himself, his offspring, and all his male servants (Genesis 17:10ff). Circumcision was “a symbolic surrender of human capacity symbolized by the penis, a male human’s preeminent anatomical manifestation of biological virility.”3 Furthermore, the rite of circumcision was an individual, personal surrender — wholly apart from all external power structures. Through the parent it signified the individual person’s unqualified, irrevocable witness to, acceptance of and inclusion in El’s covenant.
Tragically, over the course of subsequent generations, loyalty to El was not believed to exclude the worship of other gods or the formation of other power structures. El therefore allowed his people to go into bondage to the Egyptian power structures. Their enslavement was intended as a pedagogical experience to lead them to rely solely on El as their protective and supportive God.
After generations of submission to Pharaoh, El called Moses (“child of god”) to lead his people out of Egypt. El had already appeared to Moses in the burning bush and declared himself to be YHWH, meaning I will be, I will become, I will effect — to, for and with my people (Exodus 3:14).4 As YHWH, El was symbolically present as the cloud, the fire, the water, the earth (manna) and the Shekinah (Exodus 13:21, 22; 16:14ff; 17:6; 25:21, 22; 40:38; Leviticus 16:2). YHWH’s purpose was to emphatically separate his people from all supposed divinized power structures and to assure his people that he himself was with them — to protect them, to lead them, and to provide all their needs.
In order for his people to acknowledge the covenantal presence of God, YHWH asked for a sign, a token of their witness and acceptance. This took the new form of the Decalogue.
And what was the structure of the Decalogue? Like any treaty of the time, it began with a section identifying the overlord, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” Treaties usually had some history included in them, and this covenant follows suit by referring to the people’s rescue from Egypt. Treaties and covenants were similar to marriage contracts and other legal accords. They were not laws, but voluntary agreements. The most important thing is that the wording in the Decalogue is NOT in the form of commandments, but rather statements. They appear as future tense verbs or as infinitives. . . .
. . . You will have no other gods . . .
. . . You will not make for yourself an idol . . .
. . . You will not make wrongful use of the name of Yahweh your God. . . .
. . . To remember the Sabbath . . .
. . . To honor your father and mother. . . .
. . . You will not kill. . . . [etc.].5
Furthermore, these statements are framed in the second person singular to emphasize that they were designed to represent individual, personal witness, acceptance and fulfillment.6 And because they are written in the future tense, they constitute the individual’s promised witness.7
Over 1,000 years later the promised witness of the individual was fully realized. Jesus of Nazareth was circumcised on the eighth day (Luke 2:21). He too came up out of Egypt (Matthew 2:14, 15). He too rested on the Sabbath — throughout his life and upon his death at Calvary. Jesus Christ, as the human manifestation of YHWH, not only constituted the Covenant; he also was himself the token and sign of, and witness to, the covenant in all its aspects. Most profoundly, Jesus accomplished his entire mission and purpose apart from, and excluded by, all power structures. “And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). Thus, Jesus as God expressed the ultimate power of powerlessness.
- See Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1990). (go back)
- See “TimnaPhallicIdol,” at www.bibleorigins.net/TimnaPhallicIdol.html. (go back)
- Lyle Eslinger, “Circumcision among the Patriarchs,” at www.ucalgary.ca/~eslinger/pub/art/gen17.pdf. (go back)
- See Thorleif Boman, Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1970), pp. 38-51. (go back)
- Judith Quarles, “Decalogue,” at www.uuso.org/sermons/s010404.htm. [Editorial Note: This article, cited in 2005, is no longer available online. For similar material, see www.ministrymagazine.org/archive/2012/06/the-ten-commandments:-a-law-to-be-obeyed-or-promises-to-be-celebrated and www.stateofformation.org/2011/01/five-reasons-why-i-a-christian-oppose-the-public-display-of-the-ten-commandments-part-ii/: “In fact, in the Hebrew, the Ten Commandments are not commandments at all, but statements. They are not in the imperative (‘Do not commit adultery’) but rather in the indicative (‘You will not commit adultery’); as such, they are a vision for an idealized religious community rather than legal restrictions on moral life.”] (go back)
- See George E. Mendenhall, “The Suzerainty Treaty Structure: Thirty Years Later,” in Edwin B. Firmage, Bernard G. Weiss and John W. Welch, eds., Religion and Law: Biblical-Judaic and Islamic Perspectives (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1990), p. 92. (go back)
- Not only the Decalogue, but the entire Torah, was written in the future tense. See Yitzhak K. Hayut-Man and Tirtsah Arzi, “The Book of Genesis as a Redemptive Scenario and Guide for Re-Biography,” at www.thehope.org/toreng0.htm. (go back)