Jeff Jaffe
Jeff Jaffe

The Ten Commandments and the Noahide Laws

Christians revere the Jewish Bible and refer to it as the Old Testament. Primary reverence is provided to the Ten Commandments – God’s direct revelation to the Jews at Mount Sinai in the book of Exodus. The reverence is so great that many state houses in the US are adorned with the Ten Commandments.

Given the primacy attributed to the Ten Commandments, it might be viewed as an oddity that the Jewish formulation of the seven Noahide laws (discussed in Genesis: A Torah for All Nations) omits some of the Ten Commandments. Aren’t these the most important commandments?

Most of the Ten Commandments are included in some way in the Noahide formulation. Several are direct matches to the Noahide laws – the prohibitions on idolatry, illicit relationships, murder, and theft, for example. Others are not direct matches but are related (the prohibitions on using God’s name in vain, bearing false witness, and coveting).

But there are two that are worthy of further discussion. Here we discuss the fifth commandment – honoring one’s parents. Why is that not included in the Noahide laws? The fourth commandment – to keep the Sabbath day holy – will be discussed in the next post. That topic deserves its own attention since the source for the sanctity of the Sabbath is the creation story.

The omission of honoring one’s parents is hard to understand. Of course people should honor their parents! It is the most natural and intuitive thing. A parent brings a child into the world, nurtures the child, and ultimately brings the child to a level of independence. How can there not be a law to honor one’s parents?

In the inaugural blog post in this series, we already explained why there is no Noahide law per se to honor one’s parents. It is for technical reasons. The seven Noahide mitzvot are prohibitions, whereas the 613 Jewish mitzvot include both prohibitions and positive actions. It’s the same word – mitzvah – but it is used differently in the two different contexts.

But if we can understand that honoring parents is not included as a technicality, we should still understand: Doesn’t God expect that all of humanity respect their parents?

One of the themes of Genesis: A Torah for All Nations is that the messages for humanity found in Genesis are not limited to the seven Noahide laws. The entire first eleven chapters of Genesis provide a rich tapestry of guidance. We use the word “imperative” to refer to a behavior that God expects, without making it into a formal law – Genesis provide vignettes to model proper behavior.

The fact that a particular behavior is not canonized as a Noahide law does not mean that the behavior is not expected by God. It also does not mean that God does not communicate His expectations. Quite the contrary.

In the case of the fifth commandment, this imperative is so central that it would have been impossible to write the first eleven chapters of Genesis without a vignette that makes clear and evident that all people must honor their parents. This is provided in Genesis chapter 9. It’s a short story. Noah gets drunk. His youngest son Cham sees him naked and physically attacks him in some way. Noah’s older two sons – Shem and Yefet – cover their naked father, carefully preserving his dignity by not looking at him in his naked and mutilated form. Noah curses Cham and/or his son Canaan and blesses his other two sons.

What is the simple message? Cham did not respect his father and was cursed. The other two brothers respected their father and were blessed. A very simple story. The generalization is extremely clear. People must respect their parents. This is not a formal Noahide law, so the Torah does not communicate it in the form of a direct statement, such as the fifth commandment. The Torah uses its narrative style to communicate the imperative.
Interestingly, the Talmud attempts to find the world’s best role model for the behavior of honoring one’s parent. It settles on Dama the son of Netinah, who happens not to be Jewish. The Talmud relates that Dama refused to disturb his father’s sleep despite a potentially profitable business deal. The Talmud relates that for this action, God gave a great reward to Dama. Evidently, honoring his parent was an important behavior – even if it was not a formal Noahide law.

The first eleven chapters of Genesis have many such messages for humanity. The stories appear to be a narrative about the ancient history of the world and its first citizens. But for thousands of years, the Jewish Sages interpreted the stories as homiletic metaphors for proper behavior. The story of Noah and his sons is a great example. Was it really important to record in the Torah that Noah once got drunk and was mistreated by his son? Probably not fundamental enough to include the Torah. But as a story-telling technique to communicate the imperative to respect one’s parents, the story is priceless.

About the Author
Jeff Jaffe is the author of "Genesis: A Torah for all Nations", published by Gefen Publishing House. He is also Chief Executive Officer of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) at MIT. Previously he served as IBM's Corporate VP of Technology, President of Research and Advanced Technologies at Bell Labs, and EVP/CTO of Novell. Dr. Jaffe holds a doctorate in computer science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The posts are his opinions only and are not the opinions of W3C or MIT.
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