Of the Ten Commandments, the First and Second are considered those that are primary. The First is positive and states, “I am the Lord your God who has taken you out of the Land of Egypt from the house of slavery.” Exodus 20:2. The Second is negative and states, “You shall have no other Gods before me.” Exodus 20:3. Immediately after receiving the Ten Commandments, it seems that God is repeating the first two. The Torah says, “And God says to Moshe, Thus you shall say to the Children of Israel, ‘you have seen that I spoken with you from the heavens.’” Exodus 20:19. This is a positive statement of what God did. And it immediately follows with a negative corollary, “do not fashion with me gods of silver and gods of gold, do not make them for yourselves.” Exodus, 20: 20.
What was the need for God to repeat these again? The Rabbis were sensitive to this issue and attempted to explain that it referred either to those who serve God through the worship of the heavenly constellations or these referred to the construction of the cherubs on the aron. “Do not make an image of my servants who serve before me in heaven.” Rashi, Ad Locum.
The plain meaning of the text, however, even with the Rabbinic interpretation, is that this is another prohibition against idolatry, albeit with a broader definition of idolatry.
Why was there a need to repeat these concepts after the Jews just received the revelation at Sinai? The repetition indicates the emphasis placed upon the first two commandments of the Ten Commandments and that the first two are foundational for all the others, and indeed for the Torah itself. It is crucial to understand what is the underlying basis for the relationship between God and Israel.
It seems that when God redeemed Israel from Egypt, he wanted a covenantal relationship between himself and the people of Israel. This is in stark contrast of having a relationship between a master and a slave. In a covenantal relationship, both parties have obligated themselves to be bound by aspects of law. God tells Israel, if you fulfill your obligations and responsibilities, I will be bound to fulfill Mine. See Exodus 19:4-6. The intriguing question, is how could a human being relate in any way to an ineffable God through man’s finite mind?
God is totally aloof from the world and in no way could be knowable. The first two of the Ten Commandments are given to make God accessible to the human mind.
There is a profound need inherent in human consciousness which makes humans strive to understand the God that he worships. Without that ability, who could any covenantal relationship be possible? In order to become more accessible, God abandons His role as the creator of the universe and directly injects Himself into human history. Thus God is to be known by Jews primarily through the act of their redemption rather than the God who created the universe.
In addition, the need to know God and establish a relationship with Him can easily be diverted through the establishment of idolatry. It is far easier to see a physical prototype of the divine, than to keep conceptualizing a being that is invisible and shares no attributes with man. It is thus essential that all facets of idolatry be rooted out of the Jewish mind. For once man enters that empty cavern of thought, all possibilities of the universe could be understood as aspects of the divine. If God is merely understood as simply a superior human being, than he (man) could easily regress and conflate God and man so that any person could declare himself to be god. This was certainly the case when the Jews were slaves in Egypt; a society that understood the Pharaoh to be a divine personage.
The Exodus and the subsequent Revelation at Sinai was a radical statement that no man could be considered divine, even if he was the Pharaoh in Egypt. It is for this reason that the Jewish people could not be assimilated into Egyptian and later into Roman society.
Thus, to establish a proper relationship with the infinite God, both God and man needed a mutual process where both parties were able to establish proper boundaries, but at the same time pursue a common goal. That activity which united the people of Israel with the God of Israel was the sacrificial system. We see that clearly, in the Biblical text. Immediately following God’s commands to Moshe dealing with His revelation from the heavens and the prohibition of any form of idolatry, the text states, “You are to make for Me an altar of earth and sacrifice upon it your burnt offerings, and your peace offerings and your cattle in all the places where I mention my Name, and I will come to you and bless you. And if you shall make an altar of stones, do not build it of hewn stone.” Exodus 20: 21-22.
The sacrificial system is thus described as the primary manner in which man and God participate equally in the most fundamental of their mutual relationship.
The sacrificial system which unites the People of Israel with the God of Israel is based upon a consistent theme. It is God who creates the objects of the sacrifice, but it is the people who are responsible to ensure that the objects are properly offered in recognition of God’s creation. Thus, if the sacrifice is one of animal flesh, it can only be of domestic animals, namely cattle, sheep and goats. Wild game, even kosher ones, such as deer, elk and other variations, cannot be offered upon the altar. Among fowl, only doves were permitted. In the ancient world, doves were also considered domesticated because they always returned to their dovecote. Also, doves relied upon humans for food. Other kosher birds were primarily migratory birds that would fly away for months. Meal offerings could only come from wheat or barley. These were crops that were cultivated and deliberately planted by man. Grains found growing in the wild could not be sacrificial offerings. Sea creatures, even those kosher, could likewise not be offered because fish could not be domesticated.
Only domesticated creatures under the control of man were proper sacrifices. We see here the perfect relationship or partnership between God and man. God is the creator, but man is the developer of that creation. In this sense man fulfills the destiny given to him by God to take charge and guard the world which was given by him by God.
In this manner, man can express and bring to realization his deep longing to participate with God in developing His creation. Jews taught the world that to know God, He does not need to come down to man and be transformed into a human being. Rather, we attempt with great striving to rise in the understanding of divinity. This is the hidden revelation which God revealed at Sinai.