David H. Aaron, Etched in Stone: The Emergence of the Decalogue
(New York/London: T & T Clark, 2006). Pp. xv + 352. Paper. US$39.95. ISBN 0-567-02971-9.
Reviewed by T. R. Hobbs
Hamilton, Ontario

It appears as though the recent public discussions concerning the role of the Decalogue (“Ten Commandments”) in American public life inspired the writing of this volume, although it is perhaps more correct to say that the recent public discussions inspired the publication of the volume. The work itself is a solid, academic study of the date and authorship of the versions of the Decalogue found in the Hebrew Bible. The author’s intention is to “argue that the Decalogue is a late literary creation, written by a group of postexilic authors (i.e., writers working not before the middle of the sixth century B.C.E. and perhaps as late as the fifth century B.C.E.)” (p. 1).

There is little new in this assertion, and it is certainly in keeping with the current trends in biblical studies. Where the author seeks to go beyond these trends is to examine “intertextual links” hitherto unexplored, and to provide students with a methodological blueprint for studying the sequencing of texts in the Hebrew Bible. The main tools in this latter task are not so much the examination of literary sources as a focus on literary and ideological content.

In this endeavour, Aaron offers an Introduction and ten carefully argued, well-written chapters. In the first of these, “Authorship Theories: A Brief Survey”, Aaron opts for what has become academic orthodoxy, namely that older theories of the development of the Pentateuch, including the Decalogue, are inadequate, and that a late, postexilic date, and relatively brief time of composition should be accepted. Although he continues to use classical designations such as D and P, by these terms he does not mean discrete literary sources, but rather “ideological approaches manifest in literature” (p. 35). As an alternative to source analysis, Aaron opts for intertextuality, a notion mediated through Fishbane’s early work on the Biblical text which he labeled “inner Biblical exegesis”, and also the more nuanced ideas of Kristeva. Aaron looks for the transfer of signs, notions, and ideas between texts in a broader cultural context.

Chapter 2, “Prophetic Innovations” is to this reviewer’s mind, the best in the book. It is an excellent analysis of the notion of “prophet” within the Hebrew Bible, and the role of Moses as unique among the prophets. References to the work of Iser and Ricouer on reading and ‘realization” complement the study of the narrative presentation of Moses (the “Moses persona”, p. 66), which now becomes the subject of interpretation by other writers inside and beyond the Pentateuch.

Chapter 3, “Non-Pentateuchal Historical Retrospectives” analyzes several passages and concludes that in their portrayal of the Moses persona, the tablets of the Decalogue are absent. This observation is broadened in the following chapter 4, “A Silence Too Loud”, which looks at the absence of the Sinai/Horeb adventures outside the Pentateuch.

Chapter 5, “The Covenant at Shechem” examines the manner in which Joshua 24 conforms to the themes and notions of the covenants portrayed elsewhere in the Bible. It is extremely difficult to do justice in such a short space to the richness and value of the examination of the “Deuteronomist”, the wilderness motif, the golden Calf episode and the appearance of the second set of tablets that Aaron undertakes in Chapters 6 through 9. The value of these chapters cannot be overstated. The author’s knowledge of and interpretation of the literary and symbolic links are profound and enlightening.

The final chapter on the Decalogues themselves brings together the methodological questions underlying the study. These include the date of the writing of the literature, the nature of the literature written, reconceptualizing motifs and intertextuality, and finally, the purpose of Biblical literature and its relationship to community. Prominent in this discussion is the “stabilization” of memes in writing and the relationship between oral and written. Then follows a detailed analysis and interpretation of Exodus 34, Deuteronomy 5 and Exodus 20, highlighting the literary genius of the first of these and the intent to transform the covenant scene “into a highly charged assertion of Israel’s ethnicity by handing the people commandments that distinguished them from the surrounding peoples” (p. 319). This in contrast to the non-religious, and rather uninspiring vision of Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5.

Criticisms are few. First, the volume suffers from the absence of a subject index, and, given the comprehensive bibliography listed, could have dispensed with the author index.

In dealing with the notions of orality and literacy this reviewer is disappointed not to see a discussion of the research of Jack Goody and his Cambridge colleagues on the topic. Goody’s insights and assertions would prove most valuable when incorporated in such a study.

The brief Epilogue picks up where the Introduction began, namely with reference to the public and legal debates over the display of the Ten Commandments in public spaces. The relationship of the substance of the book to this more general public debate is marginal at best. Aaron admits that his detailed, literary-thematic discussion is “fundamentally irrelevant” (p. 322) to that debate. But this in itself is perhaps an important admission. At a time in American culture and world history when religious commitment, and actions based on that commitment, become the stuff of news headlines, and in which help and guidance are sought to delineate the boundaries or links between faith and culture, religion and politics, belief and morality, some relevance ought to be established between academic Biblical studies and the living of these days.

If one is dealing with the social and cultural role of symbols such as the Decalogue[s] in ancient societies, and offers hints (always unfulfilled) at the importance of the modern cultural context, then a deeper appreciation of the precise role of bonding symbols in groups or societies is needed. A most important place to begin would be the work of the late Mary Douglas, especially in her later work on risk and culture, and the books of the Torah, especially Leviticus. The Israeli sociologist and political scientist, Daniel Bar Tal, has offered an amazingly rich body of work on the political strategies of group leaders to ensure conformity around central beliefs and symbols of the social group. I would also argue that notice of such work might well have helped bridge the gap of “relevance” acknowledged by Aaron.

The book was an enjoyable, and informative read. The style is pleasant, detailed, academically responsible, but never patronizing or overwhelming. Given the innovations offered, and the methodological limitations the author set himself in this study, the book is worth reading.