Monday, May 26, 2008

Rami's Reply to Mike's May 25 Post

While I appreciate the exercise of taking the Torah at face value, your suggestion that it would be “ironic and sad beyond words” if the Hebrews imitated the laws of their oppressors is itself ironic, for that may well be exactly what they did.

The Ten Commandments seem to borrow heavily from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the Papyrus of Ani (written around 1800 BCE), which, in Chapter 125, offers a list of things a person must swear he or she did not do in order to enter the afterlife. The list includes “I did not engage in illicit sex, I did not murder, I did not rob, I did not lie, I did not curse God, I did not bear false witness, and I did not abandon my parents.” Given the centrality of the Book of the Dead in Egyptian culture, and the fact that the Hebrews were enslaved in Egypt for centuries, it is only natural that they would borrow from the Egyptians. The same thing happened with African slaves and Christianity in this country.

Borrowing from the dominant culture isn’t a problem for me, and I can, to stick with your suggestion that we imagine the story as the Torah tells it, imagine God deliberately using the language, concepts, and forms familiar to the Hebrews when giving them the Ten Commandments. Indeed this might be hinted at in the opening word of the Decalogue, Anokhi (I) which is not Hebrew at all, but Egyptian.

The more interesting question for me is this: Even with the borrowing, how do the Ten Commandments distinguish themselves from the Papyrus Ani? Two things come to mind immediately. First the Ten Commandments are said to come from God whereas the Papyrus Ani makes them a human confession before God. Second, the Ten Commandments contain no reference to an afterlife, whereas the Egyptian Book of the Dead is all about the afterlife and Chapter 125 is about how to gain entrance to it.

Despite (or maybe because of) living in a society obsessed with death and the afterlife, the Hebrews create a totally this–worldly religion, offering their Ten Commandments not as a means of gaining entry into heaven, but as a means of creating a just and compassionate society on earth. Compare the private death and secret burial of Moses (Deuteronomy 4:6) with the embalming and entombment of the Pharaohs in the pyramids. This break with the dominant culture of death and afterlife is far more impressive to me than the natural borrowing from the Book of the Dead.

In fact, the more I think about this, the more impressive and important it seems to be. How did these people break free from the Egyptian culture of death? How did it not infect them? How is it that they didn’t introduce a serious afterlife scenario into Judaism until the Babylonian exile in 586 BCE? If we want to point to something of the God who says, “Choose life” (Deuteronomy 30:19) in the Torah and in Judaism, the this-worldly focus of the ancient Hebrews and their Jewish descendents may well be it.

I say this with some hesitation, however, because I find so much of Christianity diverging from Judaism and embracing the Egyptian obsession with death and the afterlife. This, to me is the real irony and the real sadness.

My reading of Jesus is so life affirming and this–worldly: the Kingdom of God is within you [or among you] (Luke 17:20-21), and yet my experience of so many forms of Christianity is all about getting out of this world in into the next. I hope I am missing something here, and would love to get your insight into this.

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