Taken together as a Decalog, what kind of document is this? Is it a religious text? Or a moral code? This question matters, because the anti-establishment clause in the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment has been invoked on both sides of the debate about the appropriateness of displaying the Bible’s 10 Commandments in government spaces and on public property. Even though the Bible is a religious document, proponents of such Decalog monuments in courthouses and schoolrooms argue that the 10 Commandments themselves are not necessarily religious, but represent rather the moral and legal foundations of society and the historical source of present-day law codes. This understanding of the commandments as universally applicable relies on common conceptions about their meaning, transmitted over thousands of years of Jewish and Christian interpretation. But what if, to paraphrase The Princess Bride’s Inigo Montoya, they do not mean what you think they mean? What if we read them as products of an ancient civilization, with a different language, culture, religion and form of government? …
Understanding the genre helps us to contextualize and understand what is usually taken as the first commandment, which, it turns out, contains both a preface and a primary covenant stipulation.
The typical ancient suzerain-vassal treaty begins with an introduction of the suzerain, followed by a historical prologue in which the suzerain reminds the vassal of his beneficence toward them and why they owe him loyalty. This is what we have in the introduction and prologue to “these words” in Exodus 20:(Introduction) I am YHWH, your God,
(Historical Prologue) who brought you out from the land of Egypt, from the house of slaves.
These opening words of the treaty frame this covenant in political terms that indicate that God is the new king, or overlord, for the Israelites. These are followed by the primary stipulation in any suzerain-vassal covenant relationship—exclusive loyalty from the vassal to the suzerain:(Primary Stipulation) There will not be for you other gods before me (lit: “before my face”).A vassal cannot divide his loyalties between overlords but must be faithful to only one. This makes sense in terms of demands of vassalhood, such as sending troops to support the suzerain when he is at war. But in framing the covenant relationship between YHWH and Israel in terms of a suzerain-vassal treaty, exclusive loyalty to the conquering sovereign acquires a further dimension: exclusive worship of one god. In equating Israel’s god with the notion of a suzerain, covenant loyalty sets Israel on a path to monotheism.
In suzerainty treaties, secondary stipulations follow, which typically include the number of supporting troops and taxes that the suzerain expects his subjects to send. In the case of the Decalog, the secondary stipulations contain instead the basic ritual, ethical and communal ideals by which YHWH expects his people to govern themselves under his suzerainty.
The Decalog belongs firmly to the genre of political treaty, a staple text in a world of monarchies and expanding empires. But it is unique among other such ancient treaties, in that the suzerain dictating the terms is divine, and the vassal agreeing to abide by them is the people of Israel. Thus the covenant symbolized by the Decalog is the basis, not for imperial rule, but rather for a theocracy in which a god is conceived as the overlord, and the Israelites his subjects. And so, although moral and religious laws are included in the list, the overall document would have been understood as neither a moral code nor a religious text in the ancient world. Rather, it represented the rules by which a group of people agreed to abide in exchange for the overlordship of the god YHWH.