David Noel FREEDMAN: The Nine Commandments. Uncovering a Hidden Pattern of Crime and Punishment in the Hebrew Bible. Anchor Bible Reference Library. New York: Doubleday, 2000. pp. 217. $16.95 pb. ISBN 0-385-49987-6.
Reviewed by Leo H. MADDEN, Ohio Dominican University, COLUMBUS, OH 43219

The author of this book should not be a stranger to these pages, as Dr. Freedman has been one of the most prolific authors and, in particular, editors in the field of Biblical study in the 20th century. His editorship of the Anchor Bible commentary series (New York: Doubleday, 1956—present) and The Anchor Bible Dictionary (6 volumes; New York: Doubleday, 1992) gave to the English-reading public some of the best resources in the area of Biblical studies still in print. Now in his ninth decade, Dr. Freedman continues to carry on a lively schedule of writing and editing.

This book, The Nine Commandments, is a monograph-length elaboration of an article that Freedman wrote in Bible Review in 1989, “The Nine Commandments: The Secret Progress of Israel’s Sins.” Freedman covered much of the same ground discussed in this book—the discovery of details in the Hebrew Bible that, stitched together, form a literary unity—in the smaller monograph The Unity of the Hebrew Bible (Ann Arbor MI: U of Michigan P, 1991). It appears that Freedman has been fascinated by the challenge of finding and discussing the unifying themes of the Hebrew Bible for some decades.

The thesis of this book is that the narrative account of the history of Ancient Israel from the Sinai Event to the Babylonian Conquest (what he calls the “Primary History,” spanning texts from the book of Exodus to II Kings) can be structured according a strict sequence of violations of the first nine commandments. Why only nine commandments? As Freedman explains at the end of the book, the tenth commandment (“Do not covet”) does not fit the pattern because it deals with attitude and not human action. For his arrangement of the commandments, Freedman follows the pattern of Exodus 20, 2-17, yet for commandments 6, 7 and 8 he follows the order found in Jeremiah 7, 8-11 (see below); he believes that the sequence of commandment violations suggests that the traditions associated with Jeremiah had a hand in the formation of this story. For the sequence of books, Freedman follows the order Exodus — Leviticus — Numbers — Deuteronomy — Joshua — Judges — Samuel — Kings (the book of Ruth properly belongs among the “Writings”).

Hence, starting with the first and second commandments and the book of Exodus, Freedman argues that each successive book of the Hebrew Bible contains a story that perfectly illustrates the violation of each successive commandment, culminating in the Lord allowing the destruction of Judah and Jerusalem as the just punishment for the violation of the commandments.

This argument can best be understood by the following chart:

Commandment  Violation 
1.No other gods Exodus 32,1-8
 2.No idols Exodus 32,1-8 
 3.No lifting up the Name of Yahweh in vain  Leviticus 24,10-17
4.Remember the Sabbath Day  Numbers 15,32-36
5.Honor your father and mother  Deuteronomy 21,18-21
6.You shall not steal  Joshua 6,18-19; 7,11-26
7.You shall not murder  Judges 19-21
8.You shall not commit adultery  2 Samuel 11
9.You shall not bear false witness 1 Kings 21 

In order to more clearly appreciate Freeman’s thesis, it is important to recognize where this thesis should be located in the context of recent scholarly discussion on the literary unity of the Hebrew Bible. Until roughly 1970, it was the consensus of scholarship that the Pentateuch and the subsequent historical books were the end result of many centuries of writing and editing an assortment of documents—the famous “Documentary Hypothesis” formulated by Graf and Wellhausen in the second half of the 19th century. This theory noticed the existence of certain tell-tale indicators of discrete literary documents (such as different names for the deity and for places) and argued that, at its origin, this section of the Hebrew Bible was formed out of a long process of combining and editing these documents, with the documents given titles because of the German origin of the theory (“J”= Jahwist source; “E”= Elohist source; “P”= Priestly source; “D” = Deuteronomist source).

Over the past thirty years, however, the Documentary Hypothesis has come under fire from many directions, such that fewer and fewer scholars of the Hebrew Bible continue to advance the former consensus view (see the determined efforts of Richard E. Friedman to defend it in his books Who Wrote the Bible [Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1987] and The Hidden Book in the Bible [San Francisco: Harper, 1998] and his articles in the Anchor Bible Dictionary). In current scholarly discussion, the existence of a discrete “Priestly” source is still widely held, but the “Elohist” source has almost entirely disappeared from view; the “Yahwist” source seems to be much more a phenomenon of oral tradition than a separate written documement; and the “Deuteronomist” source, previously limited to the Book of Deuteronomy and some glosses in the historical books, has spread its influence earlier in the Pentateuch and more broadly in the history books than previously imagined. In sum, the literary study of the Pentateuch and the Historical books is in a state of flux and no consensus appears on the horizon.

What Freeman has done in his book is to seek out some literary thread that offers a bright path through the darkling forest of texts. He finds that thread in the existence of stories—in some cases, a narrative found within a book dominated by legal texts—that illustrate each one of the first nine commandments given Moses on Sinai. His thesis should not be dismissed out of hand for audacity or lack of evidentiary support because, in the present scholarly climate, any insight that can assist readers to better understand the literary character and theological message of the Hebrew Bible is worth a hearing.

The book would make a fine supplement to a college introductory course in the Hebrew Scriptures or the Pentateuch. It would give the college student an opportunity to follow a thesis and its accompanying evidence advanced by a great and learned scholar, and that experience would be a memorable one. Lest the student get the impression that Freedman’s book functions as the new definitive textbook for the study of the Hebrew Bible, the instructor will have to communicate clearly to the student its setting within the scholarly debate and the desire of the author to contribute to that debate, one that will continue far into the future.


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