Search the Site


Why the Decalogue Matters

The Decalogue is something radically new in cultural history on its own terms.  We have abundant evidence from the ancient Near East, both of what scholars call theophany, of God’s appearing in nature, and of there being associated transformations of nature, like storms, volcanoes, earthquakes, that kind of thing, which is underlying our account in the Decalogue with the mountain quaking and lightning and smoke. 

What we don’t have any place else in the ancient Near East, is a theophany that has moral content which is the whole point of the Decalogue.  Nor do we ever have a legal collection attributed to God as his personal will and as the essential structure of a nation being brought into relationship with God in what chapter 19 calls a covenant. 

So for the first time here in the Decalogue, we have a concept of divine revelation, where a god reveals himself to an entire nation expressing his will which transforms a misdemeanor, a crime, an ethical wrongdoing from the status of being merely an offense against an individual in a private area or civil wrong doing.  It escalates the stakes by transforming a wrongdoing to a neighbor as also an offense against God.  It transforms a crime into a sin. 


  • Bernard M. Levinson

    Bernard M. Levinson is professor of classical and Near Eastern studies and of law at the University of Minnesota, where he holds the Berman Family Chair in Jewish Studies and Hebrew Bible. His research focuses on biblical and cuneiform law, textual reinterpretation in the Second Temple period, and the relation of the Bible to Western intellectual history. Most recently, he spent the 2012–13 academic year at the Israel Institute for Advanced Studies in Jerusalem, where he codirected an international research team on a project entitled “Convergence and Divergence in Pentateuchal Theory: Bridging the Academic Cultures of Israel, North America, and Europe.”