A Camel Through the Eye of a Needle?

Someone shared this with me today.  It’s basically a story I’ve heard since I was in Sunday School as a small child, and likewise, I was five years old when I first heard this interpretation.  And until I was about 17 or 18, when I learned I had to question these teachings I was being taught, I had no reason to ever question it, but now I'm definitely in questioning mode.

"Did you know the verse 'it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter heaven,' does not mean a sewing needle? In ancient times those gates had two large leaves and a smaller door called the eye of the needle intended only for the passage of pedestrians. When the large gates were closed, getting a camel through the eye of the needle,  it required the camel to shed its load and bend its legs and neck. It was a difficult task that often left scratches. Jesus’ teaching was not impossible for a rich man to get into heaven but a reminder that whether you are rich or poor you must shed your burdens, bend your necks in obedience, kneel before God and acknowledge Him that He is the only way to salvation. And on this journey you will get scratches along the way." (Author unknown)

Unfortunately that interpretation is mainly a mythical one.  Though it goes back many centuries, it doesn't go back anywhere near the First Century A.D.  A gate with the name or nickname "Eye of the Needle" didn’t exist in the Yerushalayim of Yeshua's day.  No such gate existed.  I’ve read some claims of a gate that existed late in the second or third century, in the Pagan Roman city that Rome built on top of Yerushalayim about 50 years after its destruction, but I can’t verify even those claims with complete certainty.

It’s important to recognize not just for pedantic or argumentative reasons, but because the issue is more complicated than that and it obfuscates Yeshua’s actual teaching.  This interpretation that relies on this piece of ersatz history makes it sound as if all a rich man must do is unburden himself... of what, the story is never exactly clear -- problems?  concerns?  wealth?  It's never very clear and varies from telling to telling.  So while the interpretation rightly points out that Yeshua’s point wasn’t just that rich men cannot attain paradise, it wrongly attempts to state that a rich man can attain paradise by dropping his burdens (again, presumably of his wealth).  But Yeshua does not leave us hanging here; he points makes the point much more clear.  As we will come to see, the point was that NOBODY can attain paradise via their own virtue.  Yeshua's tact wasn't merely to exclude the wealthy.  He was making a much greater point that shattered a worldview that was common at the time, even among Yeshua's Talmidim (Disciples).

In First Century Judaism, wealthy people were usually thought to have been blessed with this wealth simply because they were righteous, and this meant that any wealthy person must be righteous or they simply wouldn’t be wealthy.  Similarly, very poor or sick people were considered to be cursed either because of their sins or the sins of their ancestors.  It was a classic "do good, get good; do evil, get evil" formula, and while it wasn't universal, it was a majority opinion that permeated religious dogma of the time.

It's important to recognize that this is NOT so resolutely taught in the Torah or the Tanakh.  Just a look at Sefer Iyob (the Book of Job) demonstrates that.  Instead, it arose out of traditional interpretations extant among many Yahudim (Jews) in the First Century, interpretations of the blessings and curses from Debarim (Deuteronomy), which simply do not work in so generalized a context.

Yeshua was constantly using these claims as a pivot point for his own teaching moments, to challenge the views of the religious hierarchies around him as well as those of his Talmidim (Disciples).  When they heard that a rich man couldn’t enter the Kingdom of Elohim, they were shocked.  "Who then, " they asked in reply, "can be saved?"  Their shock at Yeshua’s statement was due to their association of wealth with blessings and blessings as a reward for righteousness.  If a righteous rich man cannot inherit the Malchut (Kingdom), when what hope would anyone else have?

Yeshua’s answer to their question was pretty clarifying: "With men, this is impossible, but with Elohim, all things are possible."  He’s not saying that only rich men would find it impossible to enter the Kingdom of Elohim; he’s saying it’s impossible for everyone on their own merits.  It requires a relationship with YHWH Elohim, and the atonement provided by Yeshua.

This is very similar to when Yeshua healed a blind man, and his Talmidim asked him whose sin had caused his blindness from birth.  They assumed it had to be someone’s sin.  Yeshua’s answer was that he was born blind not for anyone’s sin, but for this opportunity to show Elohim’s power in him by allowing Yeshua to publicly heal a man blind from birth.  "Your view is WAY too narrow" was Yeshua’s message.

Again, this is really the lesson of Iyob (Job).  The idea that doing rightness always leads to a blessing and doing evil always results in curses is simply incorrect.  It turns Elohim into a set of math and physics formulas instead of a Living Elohim who is not subject to the material world that He created.  Iyob was right that he had not sinned -- YHWH Himself said so at the beginning of the story.  His friends were wrong that Iyob’s current catastrophes had to be due to his sins.

When YHWH confronts him at his request, He goes through a long Speech about just how big the universe is and how He manages all of it, and he repeatedly asks Iyob where he was during all of this complexity.  Iyob should have considered that the universe is much bigger than him and his life.  YHWH is basically saying "Don’t you think that things may be a lot more complicated than you can possibly imagine, and that some decisions I make are just bigger than your ability to understand -- even things about your life?  Don’t you realize that your righteousness and understanding are severely limited."

And that was also His message to Iyob’s friends.  For instance, one of his friends had pointed out this:

"He sends rain on fertile lands, and provides water for the fields.  He gives prosperity for those who lack and he rescues those who suffer.  He blocks the plans of schemers so that their schemes cannot come to fruition." (Iyob / Job 5:10-12)

The metaphor is that one that is very direct -- he provides water to arable lands, to fields for planting, and likewise he will block all troublemakers and sinners while always rescuing their innocent victims.  Once again, it's a reiteration of the formula "do good, get good; do bad, get bad".  Notice the emphasis on arable land, and fields used for crops.  The implication is that it is because the land holders are diligent in taking care of that land that Elohim sends this rain, while the plans of the unrighteous are thwarted.  YHWH in His Speech turns this on its head, replying that He turns arid land arable, sending rain to far off wildernesses, causing grass and food to grow even in the deserts, effectively shattering the moralist metaphor of the friends of Iyob:

"Who channels the torrents of rain, leading the thunderstorms through a path to barren lands, to desert plains where no man lives, to satisfy the wasteland's thirst and cause grass to grow?" (Iyob / Job 38: 25-27)

One of his friends also pointed out that he has only ever observed the righteous being blessed and the wrongdoers punished, and he uses a reference about lions, creatures considered reprehensible in the ancient world, that feed on unwary creatures including other people, and so when they get old they are punished by their teeth breaking out, subsequently starving to death, and having their prides scattered:

"Stop and think about this!  Are the innocent brought wrongfully to death? And when have the upright been destroyed?  I have seen that those who plant trouble and cultivate evil will harvest the same.  At the breathe of Elohim they will die; at the blast of His anger they are wiped out.  The lions roar and growl, but the teeth of younger lions are broken out.  The lion dies out because of a lack of prey, and the cubs of the lioness are driven away." (Iyob / Job 4:7-11)

YHWH answers in his Speech by implication that he feeds these lions:

"Do you stalk the prey of the lioness?  And satisfy the hunger of her cubs, when they crouch in their dens or lie in wait in their thicket?"  (Iyob / Job 38:39-40)

Iyob recognizes the intent behind this lesson and makes teshuva "in dust and ashes".  He hadn’t really seen just how big Elohim was before.  He was shrinking Elohim down to his size while simultaneously self-aggrandizing. Now he knew that Elohim was beyond comprehension.  That’s a facet of this overall point which Yeshua had to make again and again in the Besorah (Gospels), but getting back to the original point, which was the main point Yeshua was driving home in this particular instance, the presence of blessings does not correlate exactly to the presence of righteousness, and the presence of curses does not correlate exactly to the presence of sin.  As Yeshua says elsewhere:

"Elohim causes his sun to rise upon the righteous and the unrighteous, and sends rain to the just and the unust." (Mattityahu / Matthew 5:45)

Now there’s one last caveat that needs to be explored, and it centers around some linguistic discussion about the Aramaic word "gimel".  Yeshua spoke Aramaic, not Greek, and so he would have likely used the word "gimel" for camel, which would later have been translated into Greek in the texts that are most commonly used for study of the Besorah (Gospels).  But that word "gimel" has a double meaning in Aramaic -- it’s also the word for rope.  To me that meaning of the word makes much more sense.  It still presents the challenge, but of a rope going through the eye of a needle rather than a thread.  Still, that meaning is not certain, because there’s some dispute as to when the term "gimel" took on the meaning of "rope" in Aramaic in addition to the meaning it always had as "camel".  Some have pointed out that the earliest examples we have of this usage are far later, and that's a point that an honest man cannot dismiss.  I still think that's the right meaning, but I couldn't argue with someone who thinks it possibly isn't.

In any case, it’s not necessary to debate which meaning Yeshua intended -- both of them work in this context.  Yeshua was referring to the impossibility of a man to enter the Malchut (Kingdom) of Elohim without Elohim Himself being directly involved.  Man cannot put either a camel or a rope through the eye of a needle.  For men, this is impossible.  But Elohim can put both a rope and camel through the eye of a needle at the same time with a galaxy of room to spare… and He can bring any man, rich or poor, into the Kingdom of Elohim.  Man’s righteousness is ALWAYS limited to his very mortal abilities.  YHWH and His Servant are the keys to entering the Kingdom of Elohim.  We obey Elohim because we love him, not because we think we can earn deliverance.  The sure sign of a man or a woman who has been freely delivered is in their ongoing obedience.

Qohelet -- Pessimism or Optimism?

I love some parts of the Tanach (Old Testament) more than others.  I particularly love Sefer Qohelet.  This book is called “Ecclesiastes” in English, which is itself taken from the Greek translated name of the book from the Septuagint, but “Qohelet” is a much more significant name, meaning something like “preacher”, or “agitator”, and that definitely sums up the mood of the author's narrative.

That the author's content is counter-intuitive at times is an understatement.  He goes from recognition of injustice, to despairing at this injustice, to resignation in exhaustion on thinking of it, and then back around again.  In his resignation, he often takes comfort in the realization that someday Elohim will judge the world and that these injustices will thus someday be met with a full redress, yet he then concludes that this too is a useless way of thinking.  Why is that?  I think it's because he recognizes that just shrugging off care about present injustices in the world by relying exclusively on Elohim's future judgement is not only a cop-out, but also in a sense makes one a passive party to the injustices.  It opens that individual up to judgement.  At the same time, the author knows that life was meant to be enjoyed, not constantly lamented... that there has to be time set aside for earnest protest, and yet time set aside to enjoy one's own life and the fruits of his labor, all of which have been literally created for enjoyment.

And that's what I love about this book, that its message is in the form of both an internal and external struggle to balance the need to address the injustice of the world with a desire to live life to the fullest.  In its many sub-conclusions in its seemingly circular reasoning, it both requires us to speak up and out, to ”preach” or “agitate” against injustices in the world, to represent the victims of injustice and misfortune.  And yet, it also allows us not to despair, permitting us to still enjoy life, even while living in an unjust world.  The writer of the scroll lays on us the work of righting wrongs, yet ultimately concludes that we cannot become slaves to that work.  He tasks us with the healing the world, yet he refuses to treat life as one big hospital.

In his ultimate conclusion, the author expresses that obedience to and loving respect of YHWH is the whole “duty of man”, and that in particular is off-putting to many, especially overly critical readers who greatly prefer to see the book as one big existential crisis that eschews hope and embraces existential isolation as an inescapable reality, and/or wish it to be an example of a pre-modern portrayal of atheistic or agnostic thinking.  But the author clearly never intended to leave the book as a meaningless rant about meaninglessness, nor was he teetering towards atheism in any sense.  Rather, he is ultimately attempting to work out the details of how to be free in an unfree world by expressing his anguish in arriving at a balance.  Having said that, he also didn't intend this final exhortation to obey and love YHWH to be one big statement of obligation.  The author isn't looking for another form of slavery to ideas.  In the context of the words of the entire scroll that precedes it, his conclusion is expressed not primarily as a strict obligation, but as the ultimate means of both arresting injustice and attaining satisfaction and happiness at the very core of life.  Connection to Elohim is a source of justice, life, and happiness, not a path to emptiness.  Justice, life and happiness are in fact Elohim's primary values.

I know all too well this inner struggle between the “glass half full” and “glass half empty” sides of a personality.  It is my personal form of mania.  Qohelet is basically a permission slip to care about injustice AND enjoy life at the same time.  It expresses that this doesn’t have to be a struggle as the two concerns are not mutually exclusive.  At the same time, the core of its position is one of an optimism that is uncrushable, even by crushing pessimism.

Shavuot and the Ten Words of Liberty

Earlier this week, those of us who are Torah observant observed one of YHWH's three pilgrimage festivals, namely Chag HaShavuot or simply Shavuot, but it goes by many names.  HaTorah calls this day “Chag HaShavuot”, meaning “Festival of Weeks” presumably to emphasize the seven weeks counted between the Omer offering during Pesach and the day itself.  When Greek speaking converts and disaspora began to use Greek terminology, other terms were brought out.  The Greek version of Sefer HaMaasim (Book of Acts) calls this day “Pentecost” which in Greek means “Count Fifty” for its occurrence on the fiftieth day after counting the forty-nine days during that same seven weeks.

These are all fitting names, because both bring out something in the mitzvah from HaTorah which directs us to count from the Omer offering both the days and the weeks during this period until this special day is reached, but they aren't the only names.  Even HaTorah calls this festival by a different name from time to time, namely "Chag HaBikkurim", meaning the "Festival of Firstfruits", because part of the point of this pilgrimage festival was to bring the firstfruits of the harvest for an offering.

So all of these names are good and valid.  Personally though, I have my own pet name for this day.  I like to call it "Aseret" — because this is the day when YHWH came down on Mt. Sinai and spoke "Aseret HaDevarim", the “Ten Words”, before all of the camp of Yisrael.  This is the day he delivered the foundation of HaTorah from His Own Mouth in an amazing pyrotechnic display and a Voice so powerful that it could be seen.  Later, YHWH Himself cut tablets out of stone and by His Own Finger, wrote these same Ten Words on those tablets, and gave them to Mosheh on Mt. Sinai to take down to the people.

These Ten Words are considered foundational to Judaism and Christianity, yet I think they are misunderstood.  And a big indication of this is around the name they are often given in their legend.  While they are often called "The Ten Commandments" in theological circles, this is not what they were originally called.

The First Word -- Clearly Not a Commandment

Something that is very important to note here but is often glossed over is that our translation of these as “Ten Commandments” into English is not only woefully inadequate, but also ensures that we lose a lot of the context of their content and thus the purpose of their delivery.  The Torah originally called these the Ten Words, or more meaningfully to us as English speakers, the Ten “Sayings”.  It did this because these statements were not about bringing the people into a form of fettered obligation, but about keeping this newly unfettered people from falling again into another form of slavery.  The content of these "Words" that we refer to as "commandments" are actually intended to help their practitioners avoid falling into inescapable servitude.  They are about remaining free, not about a new form of obligation.

These are not laws to earn someone favor with Elohim... they are a gift of wisdom from the Elohim that released them from obligations to oppressive powers.  These are not “laws” to be freed from, as so many Christians erroneously believe, but words of wisdom that will keep one free when practiced.  These are not a crushing moral code to be redeemed from, but an ethical philosophy specifically gifted to the redeemed!

The First Word in the Ten Words isn't even a "do or don't" — instead YHWH sets the tone for the rest of the statements that will follow:

"I am YHWH your Elohim, who brought you out of the Land of Mitsrayim ('Egypt' in English), the House of Slavery ('avadim' in Hebrew)". (Shemot / Exodus 20:2)

The way Christians organize and number the Ten Words, they often do not consider this to be included among the Ten Words at all.  Many plaques of the Ten Words don't keep this text, and even those that do treat it as either only part of the First Word, or as a preamble before the actual "commandments" are given.  None of these practices are, in my opinion, the correct way to view this First Word.  This isn't a part of another subsequent "commandment", even though it doesn't "command" anything in and of itself..  And though it does specifically state the motivation behind the delivery of the remaining nine Words to follow, it isn't merely a preamble.  It is the first of the Ten Words in its entirety, standing alone to foster recognition of human liberty as an important theological concept.

An important thing to note in this verse is the word it uses for "bondage".  That word in Hebrew is "avadim", which is the plural form of the masculine word "avad".  In modern Hebrew, the same root word means "work" in general, both in noun and verb forms.  In ancient Hebrew, it could also mean this, but can and often does signify a more specific form of work.  Strong's Concordance defines the term as follows:

"עבד  → âbad  → aw-bad' → A primitive root; to work (in any sense); by implication to serve, till, (causatively) enslave, etc.  KJV Usage: X be, keep in bondage, be bondmen, bond-service, compel, do, dress, ear, execute, + husbandman, keep, labour (-ing man), bring to pass, (cause to, make to) serve (-ing, self), (be, become) servant (-s), do (use) service, till (-er), transgress [from margin], (set a) work, be wrought, worshipper." (Strong's Hebrew Lexicon Number H5647).

So "avad" is a term that implies more than consensual labor that the modern English term "work" implies; it's a term that referred more or less to work either arising from or leading to a state of indentured servitude or slavery.  It is a term that can mean numerous things in that regard, and it appears THROUGHOUT these "Ten Words".  As Robert D. Miller II of Catholic University of America points out in Lecture 7 of his Great Courses offering "Understanding the Old Testament", when you see the words "slavery" or "servant" or "slave" or "serve" or even "worship" in the Ten Words, that is translated from a Hebrew word built on the same root as "avad" in every single case.  (NOTE: This series of lectures from Dr. Miller has confirmed for me many important nuances over the years which I have run across in my studies and introduced to me many nuances I had not yet considered.  I highly recommend it to everyone.)

I'm going to attempt to take a two-tiered approach to describing what I believe is the intent and purpose behind these Ten Words.  For the first part of my analysis, I want to dwell on how these Ten Words are intended to keep us out of  "avadim", i.e. bondage rather than the often posited notion that these "Ten Commandments" were themselves a form of bondage from which "Christ" has freed us, and so I'm going to concentrate on just those portions first, to illustrate just how prevalent this point is in these Ten Words.  After that analysis, I want to diverge into why Elohim delivered these Ten Words to Yisrael to begin with.  He clearly had a purpose that transcends the similar notion that the Torah itself, for which these Ten Words provided a clear foundation, was delivered for the sake of a new form of contractual bondage from which Christians are supposedly freed at the cross.

The Second Word (Part One) -- No Slavery to Other Elohim

Let's take a look at the first part of the rather lengthy Second Word for instance, and note the use of the same root for "avad":

"You will have no other elohim ('gods') before my face.  You will not make for yourself a chiseled or carved image, nor any kind of likeness of anything that is in the sky above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you will not bow down nor serve them ("ta'ovdem" -- same root as "avad")..." (Shemot / Exodus 20:3-5)

Here the phrase "serve them" is often translated as "worship them", but both meanings are actually similar in this context, and both are built on the same root as the term "avad".  You have to understand why YHWH Elohim is specifically calling this out in this case.  In the ancient religions of the Middle East, both in Mitstrayim (Egypt), in Sumeria, and among the Phoenicians and Canaanites, the primary reason the "gods" created human beings was for those human beings to serve them and their interests.  To "feed" these "gods", human lives were from birth believed to be intended as lives of bondage to the "gods".  Kings and other aristocracy often escaped this fate by claiming some dual lineage between humans and "god", putting them into the position to also be served.

Notice that YHWH chose in this Second Word not to concentrate on service to Him, but instead to concentrate on the maxim of never serving other "gods".  Notice, He doesn't say here in this Word "You will serve me", but rather "Do not serve them", and understanding that choice of perspective is critical to understanding the point of these Ten Words.  As we'll see later on, YHWH isn't seeking this kind of service to him, but something more personal and more intimate.  We'll go into the remaining and more controversial part of this Second Word more deeply later along with an analysis of the Third Word to help establish this point of intimacy, but for now, I want this point made very clearly:  YHWH is explicitly framing relationships of people to other elohim  ("gods") as relationships of slaves to their masters, and by exclusion of calling for a similar arrangement by avoiding commanding a relationship with Him as one of this kind of perpetual indentured servitude, He is implicitly framing a relationship with Him as one different in kind.

The Fourth Word -- A Day of No Service

Skipping ahead to the Fourth Word, we read the following:

"Remember Yom HaShabbat, to 'qadosh' it (Hebrew 'l·qdsh·u', often translated as ' to keep it holy').  For six days, you will labor ("ta'avod" in Hebrew -- another form of "avad") and do all of your work, but the seventh day is a Shabbat to YHWH Your Elohim.  In it, you will do no manner of work: neither you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor the foreigner living inside of your gates (or borders).  For in six days, YHWH made the skies, the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day; therefore, YHWH has blessed Yom HaShabbat and He has 'qadoshed' it (Hebrew 'u·iqdsh·eu', often translated as 'and He sanctified it'." (Shemot / Exodus 20:8-11)

Notice that this Fourth Word about keeping HaShabbat by doing no work on it uses the same root as was used in the First Word to mean slavery or bondage.  That might seem out of place to us, because except in some form of hyperbole, most of us do not consider the work we do on a day to day basis a form of slavery.  But in order to understand why this was so revolutionary at the time, you have to understand that the lives of many traditional working class people at the time was largely filled with never-ending work.  It was unconscionable for most regular working class people to even consider having a day off from work every seven days.  These days, many of us have a weekend off, or at least one or two days off during the week, but in the ancient world, this was not at all the case.  And for working class people to take a day off every seven days from labor would have been seen not only as silly but downright irresponsible by many if not most of the cultures of the time.  Even when other cultures had days off on cycles, they were often built around economic activities (such as Rome's famous "market days"), resulting in a large number of the working class people remaining at work in support of the activities.

Shabbat is here made into an entire day of ceasing from any form of servitude, a day that comes every seventh day, and a day that was for everyone regardless of their social or economic rank -- even non-Israelites in the land, even the animals.  Even male and female servants are to rest.  That English translation to "servant" in this case is somewhat dishonest, because it refers not so much to household servants that have been hired for duties, but mainly to slaves and indentured servants.  An interesting thing to note is that the root term for the Hebrew term that is translated into English as "male servant" is "avdo", which is basically the same root as "avad", and its use here is an insistence that even slaves must be free men on Shabbat. Everyone was to rest from and enjoy the fruits of their labors.

Yom HaShabbat was even for YHWH Himself, and by tying it to His act of making the Earth into a home for life and creating that life upon it, even the Elohim who does not tire nor become weary in our material sense, took time out to enjoy the fruits of His labors.  This is the biggest indication that, unlike the typical Christian narrative in its portrayal of Yom HaShabbat as a burden, that day is never a burden but is intended as a day of freedom.  Remember that for the theogonies and cosmogonies of Yisrael's neighbors on all sides in the Middle East, the purpose of existence was to labor for the elohim ("gods").  YHWH instead frames His labors, in the form of His act of creation, as something to be enjoyed by others, a service He did for all living things.  In a sense, YHWH places boundaries on ALL forms of work and service when he establishes a day of rest every seven days, allowing a free people to exit the rat race completely and fully and simply enjoy life for its own sake.  In a sense, Yom HaShabbat is the most striking example of the real intent of remaining free behind the Ten Words.  It signifies that life is about more than its labors, that living is about more than working.

The Fifth Word -- "Honor" Rather than "Serve"

Let's take a close look now at the Fifth Word, and given what we know about the use of the term "avad" and its forms here, we can also note the choice of alternate terminology Elohim chose to speak here:

"Honor your father and your mother, so that your days will be long upon the land which YHWH Your Elohim is giving you." (Shemot / Exodus 20:12)

The first thing I want to note here is that YHWH goes out of His way to not use a form of the word "avad" that I mentioned before.  No root of "avad" is used here.  We are not told to do "avad" our fathers and mothers, but instead to give them a place of honor and to actually honor them.  I don't think this was an accident.  Choice of terminology in the Torah is often an implicit theological statement in and of itself, and I believe that to be the case here.

The Hebrew verb translated as "honor" is "kevad" Though "kevad" can have many meanings, including "liver" as a noun and "heavy" as an adjective, when used as a verb here, it refers to imparting an intense sense of value to the object of the verb, in this case, parents.  Rather than referring to an obligation to care for them, it instead refers to an intent to treat them as very valuable, as precious, and to keep heavy emotions for their lives and well being.  The intent of this verse, specifically around YHWH's choice of terminology here, is that parents are to be values not burdens, to be treasures not obligations.  And when we treat parents like this, our care for them is not in the role of a "servant", but in a similar role to our caretaking of our own children.

Everyone gets old and no longer able to sustain themselves.  Since we're all eventually to be in the position of being helpless in this sense, it is important that we have a culture of care around our parents in a similar way we do with our children.  It's important to understand a distinction here, because as I point out later, children you invest in while in a proper relationship are a blessing to your life and your house.  Though children created in some circumstances can end up being an obligation without rewards, and thus a form of servitude, outside of situations where you are able to invest more than simply financial means into their rearing, children take on a role in the seat of our emotions.  This doesn't speak to children being a burden, and that is not at all my intent, but rather to the necessity of fostering an environment in which children are not treated as burdens.  And that is what I believe the intent is here -- to foster an environment and attitude in which our parents are never in a position of being a burden but a great care in our lives.

In the West, we often have this attitude with respect to children (even if we are often woefully inadequate at creating that kind of environment or seeing these investments through to completion), but often miss the many ways that aging parents become a blessing to our homes.  So this sense of value we imbue to our parents would render our care for them, especially in their elder years, to be no more of a burden than the care we give to our children.  I think the reason YHWH says that honoring parents keeps the doer living long in the land is because of the culture that such an activity creates — a culture of loving parents as we love our own children creates an environment that simply fosters long life because it helps ensure that elderly people will not be at risk of being subject to the hardships of destitution and servitude in their old age.

The Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, and Ninth Words -- Freedom from Each Other

When we look at some of the remaining Words that I haven't looked at thus far, it's easy to see why so many confuse these Ten Words or Sayings as something more akin to commandments.  Let's take look at these:

"You will not kill.  You will not commit adultery.  You will not steal.  You will not bear false witness against your neighbor." (Shemot / Exodus 20:13-16)

Negative assertions like these make it seem like these are commands to behave yourself, that they are specifically commandments to guard your behavior for the sake of guarding it or else.  However, that view, despite being easy to understand, is very short sighted and once again misses the overall context of these Ten Words.  The real intent behind these is that these maxims of refraining from these actions is that these activities both create servitude in victims and obligations of recompense in the perpetrators of their violation.  They are intended to help us understand that we cannot remain truly free of servitude if we are easily made victims of each other, and they are designed to allow those who live by these words to avoid being on either end of such servitude.  The Ten Words are not only ethical maxims promoting individual freedom from bondage, but also promoting a culture of freedom from bondage.

Going over each of these, this should be rather obvious.  Taking someone's life is a theft of the most precious thing another individual has -- and it thus creates obligations that are not even remotely repayable by the one responsible for taking that life.  More fundamentally, a man whose very life blood is not under his own control cannot be said to have ownership of his own life:  his situation can be understood to be not only similar to but much worse than that of a literal slave whose life blood is spent as property in servitude of others.

Committing theft is a lesser form of this, but it also treats the life and work of another human being as something you can simply claim as your own.  Property, goods, food, and even money result from the work of yourself and others.  Theft of these things resulting from the work of others is effectively equivalent to making these people your servants.  To help rectify this, reparations are often called for to restore property to the affected and prevent them from being relegated to servants in this case.  Basically, theft naturally results in the creation of obligations for recompense, because by taking someone else's property, the fruit of someone else's labors, you are creating an obligation to repay.  You become a debtor, and these are debts you may never be able to repay depending on the target objects of the theft.  Either side of how a theft is treated result in some form of slavery to some other party.

And now we get to the statement directing refrain from providing false testimony or acting as a false witness.  It should be obvious that acting as a lying witness can only lead to a potential robbing of someone of their property, freedom, or even their life -- an injustice in the name of justice. For the perpetrator, the act creates obvious obligations.  The burdens fall on the one lying in this manner to rectify this -- it becomes his obligation, and again, this is possibly an obligation he can never truly repay.  A man who cannot repay his debts is a slave to them.

But obviously it isn’t just about the obligations it creates for the perpetrator, it’s about the liberty it robs from their victims.  Remember what I pointed out earlier: the Ten Words are not only ethical maxims promoting individual freedom from bondage, but also promoting a culture of freedom from bondage, about ensuring that the society that is created isn’t one in which we are victims of our fellows.  A society in which murder and theft become permissible, and in which one cannot achieve accurate justice due to false testimony, is one in which a man’s life and labors can never really be his own, and that is by definition a society of slavery, a society that becomes enslaved to the most dishonest and violent among them.

These activities bring this situation about because the perpetrator is violating the very sense of freedom that his victims have through his malignant actions, and so bringing others into servitude in this manner brings their perpetrators into servitude as well, even if they refuse to acknowledge it.  All of us believe in some system of justice that is intended to identify and press for recompense and other suitable "payments" for these obligations to act as both a deterrent for such violations and as a means for recovery of the losses that result, when possible.  Even anarchists of most sorts believe in some sense of natural grass roots justice that provides recompense and prevents predation.  Hence, it shouldn't be surprising that YHWH, the Judge of all of the Earth, also refuses to let these activities go.  Even if you refuse to acknowledge the obligations that you take on when you do such things, or the damage you have done in acting malignity against the liberties of others, YHWH Elohim will remember them, and He will hold you to them.

So those are clear, but what about the Word against adultery?  On the surface, it seems like marriage is the actual servitude, while escaping marriage is the act of freedom.  Let me be frank here: it only seems that way to us because our culture cynically frames marriage in this way.  What we should acknowledge here is that a marriage relationship is something that should be entered into with the intent of mutual edification and mutual benefit, in good will.  Both sides, when acting in this good will, treat their marriage as an on-going investment that brings constant dividends.  That is how the Torah portrays the marriage covenant.  So, to deceptively break that marriage through an act of adultery destroys an otherwise consensual constructive relationship that is based on mutual benefit rather than obligation.  And like it or not, this creates strange obligations to all parties.  Sex creates bonds, and bonds create hard feelings, even when we do not realize it.  Marriage is a way of making such inevitable bonds a positive thing, but breaking those bonds only fosters a broken relationship in the marriage itself.  At best, adultery fosters ultra weakened relationships with these other partners even when reconciliation and forgiveness have helped repair damage.  At its worst, such divisive relationships external to the marriage bond produce children, which creates obligations regardless of which partners the perpetrator ends up remaining with, or they disrupt relationships with existing children.  Children are supposed to be a blessing, and they are when someone is able to invest time and love and work into them and enjoy them as children should be enjoyed, but a man or woman who creates children with multiple partners outside of that bond creates for himself or herself on-going obligations, most of which are simply financial, and they do not always keep the ability to enjoy the relationship with those children to compensate that expense.  In short, adultery fundamentally changes the relationship between spouses, causing their relationships to go from being mutually beneficial arrangements of affection to become legal arrangements for compensation, and innocent children on either side of the aisle become not only victims of this, parents and children can end up having their strong symbiotic relationships reduced to mere financial ones.

The Tenth Word -- Freedom from Yourself

The last of the Ten Words is one of the more perplexing for most people, but it's also the one that carries my point about the intent of the Ten Words as maxims for individual and cultural liberty most concretely.  It says the following:

"You will not covet your neighbor's house.  You will not covet your neighbor's wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything that is your neighbor's." (Shemot / Exodus 20:17)

If the Ten Words were intended to be a legal code, this would be the closest one to the kind of law that George Orwell's novel “Nineteen Eighty-Four” would rightfully rain against.  When taken as "commandments" or "laws", the other statements at least can make sense in context as enforceable activities, but this one when taken as a "commandment" or a "law" instead creates a situation akin to the criminalization of thoughts, or what Orwell called "thought crime".

But if you've followed along so far, you can probably know that this is likely not the case.  The word for "covet" in Hebrew is "tachmod", which could also be translated into English as "envy", but envy doesn't completely cover it completely.  The reality is that there is no good English word I can think of to convey its meaning as it can range from "envy" to "obsession" to "obsession with intent to act".  The term seems to refer to something stronger -- it isn't mere desire but a desire with intent or more likely, a desire that is fed and fed to be strong enough to fuel a bad action.  For sexual activity, we would call such a thing something between "lust" and "limerance".  For any physical object, we would just think of it as a anything from a desire to a mania.  Simple desires for an item that your neighbor has isn't the same as a fueled desire that is preoccupying you, and avoiding that transition is the point of this Tenth Word.

That kind of desire promotes one of the more oppressive forms of servitude.  It prevents us from having a sense of well-being unless we gain some thing or things that are either unattainable or belong to someone else.  Remember, these are Ten Words or "Sayings".  They are not here called "commandments".  They are intended to prevent you from falling into a form of servitude.  "Keeping up with the Joneses" is a term we use in America to refer to the constant analysis of our own achievements and possessions with those of others, and how this can end up being a form of slavery.  I think it's clear here that YHWH would agree, but it's more than just the desire itself -- acting on the desires can end up creating obligations in the material word, not just in the mind.  Following this Word prevents one from allowing his own desires to become his taskmaster, but not just him — it also prevents him from robbing his fellows of their own liberty by allowing his desires to transition into obsessions or manias and provoke some kind of action against said neighbor for their property.  This Word takes the proactive approach by helping prevent its follower from fueling his own desires as well as preventing him from following up on those desires and violating the liberty of his fellows.

Something to take away from this -- we often hear that freedom is in the mind first, and that a man who is free in his mind is free.  I don't think we need to take an either-or situation here, and I don't think YHWH did this in this case either.  YHWH's speaking of these Ten Words show that slavery can be external and internal.

The Third Word (Part One) -- Using the Name to Seal Oaths

You may have noticed that I skipped one of the Ten Words so far, namely the Third Word.  I did this because I believe this one is by far the most difficult to really understand without some historical context, and as a result this one of the Ten Words that is very often very very misunderstood, or rather at least, only understood partially, by those who promote it the most.  This is traditionally translated into English as follows:

"You will not take the name of YHWH Your Elohim in vain, for I will not hold him guiltless who takes My Name in vain." (Shemot / Exodus 20:7)

The term for "vain" here is in Hebrew "shav".  It doesn't mean "vanity" as one might read this in modern English in the more archaic term "vain", but rather something more like "void" or "nothingness", or even "meaninglessness".  So taking at face value, this states that those who follow the Ten Words will not by any means make Elohim's name (which is actually the name "YHWH") void, that they will not bring it to "nothingness" or "meaninglessness", presumably by its misuse in some sense.  Further, He states that there are inescapable consequences to this attempted nullification of His Name.

The first sense of this actually goes back to the point I've been making all along so far, a point about not creating obligations of servitude.  Among Yisrael's neighbors, the name of an el ("god") was considered to be a powerful implement.  For some of these, it was powerful in the sense that it could be used in magic.  In these theological credos, it was impossible to use the names of these deities, without power, and in the case of misuse, without consequence.  Hence, these names also came to be used as a seal for various covenants and oaths.  Deity names would be used as the basis for vows and oaths to guarantee an obligation.  When someone made an oath or swore on the actual name of a deity, it was considered to be an obligation not only to the person for whose benefit you made the oath, but also to the deity himself.  When one violated an oath made against the name of a deity without consequence, he was voiding the name of that deity.

I won't compare these wayward elohim to YHWH, but this notion would definitely have been understood almost implicitly by any ancient Yisraeli simply via cultural osmosis.  Yisrael was familiar with the deities and myths of their neighbors, and so this concept would have made sense to them.  YHWH is the only Eternal Elohim, the only Creator, and this is in fact two of the meanings behind the name "YHWH" itself.  To Yisrael, His Existence had no beginning and no end, and if other elohim (or "gods") existed, then YHWH must have created them.  So YHWH's Name would especially have to be taken seriously in any usage.  To make an oath on His Name is to create an almost inescapable obligation to yourself -- to avoid "nulling and voiding" that Great Name, the oath would have to be followed through.  And if one is not released by YHWH Himself or the other party and still chooses not see it through, the implication is that YHWH will make sure your oath is kept, and His Name will not be voided by your actions.  So the warning is very clear -- don't make burdensome obligations for yourself by making oaths to His Name.  And this extends not only to oaths but in all uses of the name -- His Name must be carefully handled and treated respectfully at all times.

The Third Word (Part Two) -- An Intimate Relationship is by Name

But I think that notion that the Name of YHWH and its careless usage being able to lead to obligations is only half of the story, at best, and that's because there is a more involved point.  That point is built on not just the philosophical intent behind the substance of the Ten Words themselves, but also the very personal intent that YHWH had in delivering them to Yisrael in the first place.  YHWH is giving these Ten Words to the people that He has now freed because He wants them to be His very own people.  He was proposing to Yisrael to become His people, and asking them to follow these Words to help turn them into individuals and a society as a whole that were suitable to have a special relationship with Him.  And His intent in making such a relationship is that this people would be the cornerstone for His reclamation of the nations which He had previously disinherited.

In proposing these Ten Words, YHWH is trying to enter into a mutually beneficial and consensual relationship with Yisrael as His people.  While He is not trying to impose servitude, He is looking for a covenant.  And His desire is to covenant with a people who are both free and respect freedom in others.  He didn't want it made through a hostile takeover or any other forced business contract.  Instead, He wanted a freely entered into covenant that was more of a relationship.  In the ancient world, a covenant was like a business contract only MUCH more serious.  But YHWH isn't looking for just a business arrangement -- He is instead using the language of a covenant to establish a unique relationship with a people that He can build into His own nation.  That is why we must get more deeply into the WHY of these Ten Words.  We know what they represent now, that they are not called "Commandments" but "Words" or "Wise Sayings".  They are maxims by which a free environment can be made for a free people.  YHWH is not imposing servitude on the people He wants to take as His very own, because He is here seeking something more like a marriage arrangement than a business contract.  He's seeking a partner, not a partnership.  In Hebrew, this type of marriage convenant is called a "ketuvah"; YHWH was proposing a ketuvah with His people.

With that in mind, let's take a look at the Third Word and possibly gain a more in depth meaning than the one that surfaced in the first half of my analysis. The fact is that by missing this deeper significance of the Ten Words and especially of the intent behind them, both Christianity and Judaism have essentially, in their own way, attempted to "void" the great Name of YHWH and have thus attempted to do exactly what this important Third Word warns against.  Christians almost never use the name, preferring instead to translate it as "the LORD", or some other variant such as "the Eternal".  These are not really proper translations of the Name and cannot help but lose meaning in the process of translation.  The sad result is that many Christians don't even know the Name exists.  Judaism on the other hand has decided that the Name is so Qodesh ("holy") that it cannot ever be uttered, except by a Cohen HaGadol ("High Priest") in the context of the Temple once a year.  Hence, while they leave the name in place in the texts of the Torah and Tanach (Old Testament), they never utter it, and always replace it when reading with terms like "Adonai" (which essentially means "Master") or "HaShem" (which simply means "The Name").  Any cursory reading of the text of the Torah or the Tanach in Hebrew shows that such avoidance of the name as the ultimate honorific is completely unnecessary.  Righteous Malachim ("Kings") and Nabiim ("Prophets") and Cohenim ("Priests") and even regular layman citizens of Yisrael regularly and openly called YHWH by His Name, with no attempts at concealment.  Both of these approaches, the one taken by Christianity and the one taken by Judaism, have been themselves vain attempts to take the Name in vain, pun intended.  Both have tried to cover the Name up in a shroud, which in any other circumstance would be recognized clearly as an attempt to void His Great Name.  But Elohim's Name, YHWH, refuses to be covered up, and there are consequences to this -- consequences to your relationship with YHWH Himself.

Remember what I said before, YHWH seeks a relationship with His people.  He seeks something more akin to a marriage, not some business agreement.  YHWH is not merely "the Party of the First Part"... the relationship is intimate.  A man and wife know each other by their names, not by titles.  Even friends know each other by their names.  When you become intimately familiar with someone, you don't just discard their name as an unspeakable honorific, nor do you replace their name with a title and pretend their real name doesn't exist.  You might pick a nickname, but even with that, your goal is never to hide or obscure the actual name of your spouse or your friend.  However, on the other side of that coin, you use the name with some level of respect at all times, never intentionally misusing the name of your spouse or friend.  The name is a sign of familiarity and respect, not a tool for obstruction and misuse.  A husband who loves his wife does not go around to his friends and coworkers and malign her name — and likewise, faithful wives do not do such things to their husbands.  YHWH, I believe, wants something similar to this — He wants a people who will call Him by His Name and yet will never misuse it.  He wants an intimate relationship, not a distant partnership.  When Mosheh asked YHWH for His Name, YHWH told him that this name "YHWH" was His Name for all time, for all eternity.  Using and not misusing His Name is critical in my view to having a relationship with Him, while calling Him by His Name in respect and love only fosters that respect and love more over time, and that is, I believe, the true basis of the Third Word.  It should never be hid nor obscured, yet it should also never be misused nor maligned.  YHWH calls all of His people by name, and He expects for us to know Him by His Name.

The Second Word (Part Two) -- An Impassioned Relationship Requires Passion

To further this point of the intent behind the delivery of the Ten Words, that they are intended to be the foundation of a much more potent relationship than a mere ancient covenant would normally convey, I also need to elaborate on the Second Word more fully.  Earlier, I glossed over the latter more controversial half of the Second Word and its seemingly apparent negativity.  I chose to do that because I wanted first to concentrate on the overall point I was making about the purpose of these "Ten Words" as something other than simply "commandments.”  Now that I’ve done this, and now that I've introduced the intent of the Ten Words as a basis for a relationship He was proposing with a free people, I think I am ready to expound further.

YHWH goes on in this part of the Second Word to say:

"... for I, YHWH, am an impassioned Elohim, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon their children to the third and fourth generations, yet showing mercy to the thousandth generation of those that love Me and keep My mitzvot (i.e. 'commandments')." (Shemot / Exodus 20:5-6)

Now to any English reader, and a great many Hebrew readers as well, this would certainly seem more negative than positive, and maybe even a statement of obligation rather than simply an expounding of ethical wisdom to avoid unnecessary obligations.  In fact, to our modern eyes, it might even seem that there is an implicit threat here.  There are two obvious wording issues, so let's go over each of them.

The first is YHWH's use of the word "mitzvot", which is the plural of the word "mitzvah", a word almost always translated in English Bibles as "commandment".  I feel this word has a much more important sense than simply a "commandment", though that meaning is there as well.  More importantly, I believe the term also takes on the meaning of "good deeds", "good works", or even "blessings", as in something you do that blesses yourself and others.  So once again I argue that YHWH doesn't frame these Ten Words as the basis of a new penal code -- but instead as maxims about doing good deeds that bring about good things, for you and for others, and about creating a society in which a free people can prosper and remain free.  I hope this is clear, and especially hope you can see why I strongly feel this does not detract from my point about the nature of these Ten Words as a code to avoid falling into another form of slavery after having been freed from a rather egregious form of slavery already.

The second more obvious objection is to the word that I chose to translate as "impassioned", and the subsequent text about punishing those who arouse that passion through disobedience.  The word in Hebrew is "kana", and is often translated as "jealous".  While I prefer "impassioned" as a translation, "jealous" is also correct, but because of the negativity usually associated with this term in English, this needs to be explained.  The reason I prefer to translate this as "impassioned" is that "jealous" in English has become something of a negative term that refers to its role as a motivation behind almost exclusively negative acts and deeds, and it has as a result become a very one-sided term representing an irrational emotion motivating the doing of harm to others.

"Jealous" hasn't always been a negatively-weighted term in English, but it has become too negatively weighted over the years to our modern ears and eyes to really convey the intent of the Hebrew term "kana".  "Jealousy" in its more complete and historic sense in English is not just a negative emotion or motivation -- it is an emotion born of love in consensual relationships that are seen as not only financial investments but life investments, and that "jealousy" is the motivation for good works as much as it is an emotion born of irrational feelings which motivates malignant acts.  Perfectly happily married couples are jealous of each other's affections and yet do not create situations in which these natural emotions become destructive.  Of course a healthy relationship is one in which the partners’ mutual trust keeps the negative aspects of their jealousy at bay.  This does not, however, mean that there isn't "jealousy", it just means that the negative aspects of this jealousy are held in check by the partners' trust of each other not to inappropriately share their special, more exclusively shared affection with others.

In that sense, Elohim is seeking a relationship with his people here that is much more like a marriage -- He wants His people to be His partner, a trusted partner, and not to share their affections with other elohim ("gods").  The communication here is that this new covenant, for which the Ten Words forms a "proposal", is not a contract of bondage but one of affection, of love, most similar to a marriage covenant.  He is seeking a life investment here, not a business arrangement.

We don't describe a happily married couple as "slaves" to each other in any literal sense.  Even when spouses go above and beyond for each other, that is an expression of their healthy relationship and acts performed out of mutual affection and mutual benefit.  And that kind of love requires more than selflessness -- it requires a binding up together emotionally, or even a strong passion.  YHWH seeks something more like a “marriage" than like a strictly contractual obligation and that is the reason that YHWH chose to tell Yisrael that He was a "jealous" or "impassioned" Elohim.  He is telling Yisrael that when He loves, He loves passionately.  This is also why YHWH later expresses His feelings to disobedient Yisrael in terms of marriage and accusations of adultery via the nabiim (prophets).  YHWH calls His agreement that is with Yisrael ultimately a "brit" in Hebrew, or "covenant" in English, but the implication is again more than simply a business arrangement -- this is not about "work" or "business", it's about a relationship.  That is the intent of YHWH's statements here.  "Brit" is a term used also for marriage covenants, and He is promising here to to invest all of His love and emotion into the union He is proposing.  He expresses here that His love and His fury are both passionate -- He is an impassioned Elohim and His love for His people is passionate.

I've said many times now that the Ten Words form the basis of a "proposal" for the covenant, a marriage in a sense, between YHWH and His people.  That is essentially what YHWH was doing when He came down upon the mountain and spoke the Ten Words to Yisrael, and then wrote those same Words down in writing.  He had freed Yisrael for free, with no obligations.  But He proposed the covenant at Mt. Sinai to begin a real relationship with them, a relationship He wanted to be freely entered and freely enjoyed both both parties.  The people were so terrified by the awesome display of YHWH coming down upon the mountain, in a storm of fire and smoke, and speaking with an earth-shaking voice like the sound of a shofar, that they begged Mosheh (Moses) to be the mediator between them and YHWH for the covenant, and both YHWH and Mosheh agreed.  Mosheh had essentially taken the role that is often performed by clergy in a wedding ceremony, with YHWH as the Groom and Yisrael as the bride.  Once Mosheh delivered the rest of the Words to the people, they entered into covenant freely with YHWH:

"And Mosheh came down and told the people all of the Words of YHWH and all of his observances, and all the people answered with one voice and said 'All the Words which YHWH has spoken we will do!'" (Shemot / Exodus 24:3)

This was possibly the largest "I Do" in the history of marriage ceremonies.

Babel to Shavuot to Pentecost -- Coming Full Circle

Now that I've covered the Ten Words and their real meaning, as well as the intent of YHWH's dramatic delivery of those Words on Mt. Sinai, I'd like to talk about the event that occurred around 1500 years later, on the Shavuot that took place shortly after HaMashiach Yeshua's death in Yerushalayim.  We read this about this event here:

"And when the Day of Pentecost (i.e. Chag HaShavuot, the Festival of Weeks) had come, they were all with one mind in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from the shamayim, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the House (that house being the Heykal) where they were sitting. And there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and settled on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Ruach HaQodesh and began to speak with other tongues, as the Ruach gave them to speak. 

"Now in Yerushalayim there were dwelling Yahudim (Jews), dedicated men from every nation under the shamayim. And when this sound came to be, the crowd came together, and were confused, because everyone heard them speak in his own language. And they were all amazed and marveled, saying to each other, 'Look, are not all these who speak from Galil (Galileans)? 'And how do we hear, each one in our own language in which we were born? 'Parthians and Medes and Eylamites, and those dwelling in Aram Naharayim, both Yahudah and Kappadokia, Pontos and Asia, both Phrygia and Pamphulia, Mitsrayim and the parts of Libya around Cyrene, visitors from Rome, both Yahudim and converts, Cretans and Arabs, we hear them speaking in our own tongues the great deeds of Elohim.' 

"And they were all amazed, and were puzzled, saying to each other, 'What does this mean?' And others mocking said, 'They have been filled with sweet wine.'" (Ma'aseh / Acts 2:1-13)

At first it might not seem like there is any connection between the event of the Ten Words at Mt. Sinai on Shavuot and the event that took place on Shavuot (or "Pentecost" in Greek) circa 1500 years later.  But there are a few obvious connections here -- the Ruach HaQodesh ("Holy Spirit") is YHWH acting in power on human beings, in a form that is different than His actual form, which we as human beings cannot see or experience (yet).  Just as YHWH descended on Mt. Sinai in fire and smoke and wind, here a wind comes upon their location and tongues of fire descend upon the heads of Yeshua's talmidim ("disciples"), who were gathered together to observe Shavuot in Yerushalayim.  And just as Yisrael was gathered together before Mt. Sinai to meet with YHWH Elohim with YHWH Elohim speaking the Ten Words to them to propose His covenant, the nations of the world were gathered together to observe the remembrance of this event by observing Shavuot and YHWH spoke to them through the mouths of these talmidim in their own languages.  Many were amazed, and some were scoffing and calling them drunks, but Shimon Kepha ("Simon Peter") stood up and declared to them the real purpose of this event:

"Afterwards, Shimon Keefa (Simon Peter) stood up among the eleven Shlichim and lifted up his voice and said to them, 'Men, Yahudim (Jews), and all who dwell in Yerushalayim, let this be known to you, and pay attention to my words.  For it is not as you think, that these men are drunk, for look, it is now only the third hour of the day (about 9 a.m.).  But this is that which was spoken by the navi Yoel.'" (Ma'aseh / Acts 2:14-16)

Shimon then quotes the navi Yoel (Joel), a prophecy about just this kind of revelation.  Let's take a look at the actual prophecy directly from Sefer Yoel:

"And after this it will be that I pour out my Ruach on all flesh.  And your sons and daughters shall nava (prophesy), your old men dream dreams, your young men see visions.  And also on the male servants and on the female servants I will pour out my Ruach in those days.  And I will give signs in HaShamayim, and upon the earth: blood and fire and columns of smoke, the sun turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the coming of the great and awesome day of YHWH.  And it will be that everyone who calls on the Name of YHWH will be saved." (Yoel 3:1-5 / Joel 2:28-32)

So this event connects quite well to Shavuot based on prophecies going way back.  In fact, one of the reasons why Shavuot is also called "Chag HaBikkurim" or "Festival of Firstfruits", is not only because the firstfruits were offered on it by Yisrael on pilgrimage in ancient times.  Rather, it is because Yisrael themselves were seen as firstfruits among the nations -- the beginning of Elohim's Kingdom.  And this event on Shavuot likewise is about firstfruits -- in this case, a new stage in the building of that Kingdom by gathering firstfruits not only from Yisrael but from the nations.

One must understand the context to know the fullness of this connection.  I won't have time to do the subject justice, and maybe another article is called for at some point, but let me attempt to show in context the fullness of the rehearsal that is our yearly observance of Shavuot.  At the Tower of Babel, mankind had essentially decided to cut YHWH Elohim out of the process of forming a civilization.  The event of taking the destiny of mankind into their own hands was an act of excluding YHWH Elohim from their organization.  It was essentially a "Declaration of Independence" against YHWH Elohim.  YHWH's response was to disinherit those nations.

In a very real sense, He chose to honor their request -- they weren't interested in being His people and He wasn't going to force their hand on the matter.  So He did indeed disinherit the nations, scattered them among the Earth, and scattered their language as well.  But He did not intend this disinheritance to be permanent.  As Dr. Michael Heiser notes in his book The Unseen Realm, it is no accident that shortly after this incident, YHWH chooses to ask a man living in the heart of Babel, a man named Abram, to become the basis of a new people, a people that YHWH would raise up for Himself.  That people ultimately was and is Yisrael.  And this event at Mt. Sinai sealed that purpose.

YHWH renamed Abram to Abraham when he willingly took YHWH up on his offer, signifying that he was now the father of YHWH's many nations, and his children of that covenant ultimately all followed suit hundreds of years later.  It was an arrangement entered into freely by a free people.  And YHWH's purpose in this partnership was not just for Yisrael alone, but to use Yisrael as a vehicle to bring the rest of the nations into His Covenant.  So when Sefer Maasim (Book of Acts) in the New Testament shows a similar event that hearkens back to both of these occurances, and that event occurs again on Shavuot ("Pentecost") on the year of Mashiach Yeshua's death and resurrection, and only ten days after his ascension to HaShamayim ("heaven"), the connections are obvious.  YHWH came down on Mt. Sinai circa 1500 years earlier, in fire and smoke and wind, and spoke the Ten Words by His Own Mouth, and now YHWH comes once again down onto the talmidim (Disciples) of Mashiach Yeshua, with wind through the Temple and in fiery "tongues" landing on the heads of each talmid, all speaking His Words as directed by His Ruach HaQodesh ("Holy Spirit").  The parallels are obvious.  And YHWH's performance of this by having the Talmidim speak in the language of everyone present is clearly a sign of the reversal of the "confusion" and the disinheritance of the nations introduced at Babel.  It all came full circle.  That is what THIS day represents.

In my view, whatever you call it -- whether "Shavuot", "Pentecost", "Bikkurim", "Firstfruits", or even "Atzeret", the Festival that the Torah calls Chag HaShavuot is an important and wonderful observance that calls back to the time when, having freed Yisrael from bondage, YHWH taught Yisrael how to continue to be free.  Further, it marks when He began an ongoing relationship with not only Yisrael then but with all people who chose to enter into that same relationship in the future.  As Mosheh stated when He renewed the covenant between YHWH and Yisrael forty years later, before He brought them into the Land of Promise:

"... so that He may establish you as His People, and He may be your Elohim as He swore on  oath to Abraham, Yitshaq (Isaac) and Yaakov (Jacob), I am making this covenant and oath with not only you, but with you who stand before YHWH today, and with those who are not here today..." (Debarim / Deuteronomy 29:13-14)

And as Kepha quoted from Yoel more than a thousand years later:

"Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.  On my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Ruach in those days, and they will prophesy. ...  And everyone who calls on the name of the YHWH will be saved." (Maasim / Acts 2:17-18, 21)

That covenant is and always has been for all of those willing to enter it.  Yeshua HaMashiach came to renew this covenant, and the first fruition of this renewal occurred on this same Shavuot circa 1500 years after the original delivery on Mt. Sinai.  Yeshua’s Talmidim gathered at the Temple on Shavuot, and there YHWH poured His Ruach HaQodesh (“Holy Spirit”) upon them, as reported in Sefer HaMaasim ("Acts").  The disinheritance of the nations had begun, and is still on-going now.  Someday it will come to full fruition, when Yeshua returns under the proclamation that Yeshua's talmid Yochanan ("John") saw:

"The Kingdoms of this world have become the Kingdoms of YHWH and of His Mashiach, and He will reign forever and ever." (HitGalut / Revalation 11:15)

The Ten Words were then and are now intended to keep us out of  "avadim", i.e. bondage rather than the often posited notion that these "Ten Commandments" were themselves a form of bondage from which "Christ" has freed us.  Elohim delivered these Ten Words to Yisrael because He clearly had a purpose that transcends and even contradicts the familiar Christian notion that the Torah itself, for which these Ten Words provided a clear foundation, was delivered for the sake of a new form of contractual bondage from which Christians are supposedly freed at the cross.   YHWH and His Mashiach leads us to these Words of liberty, not away from them.  The door has been opened to this full relationship with YHWH Elohim and to liberty itself, and that is what this day celebrates.

Running To and Fro

One thing I've learned about reading Scripture is that you really need to spend a significant, and I mean SIGNIFICANT, amount of time reading it as literature and not as a set of disconnected proof texts. I think there's this idea that has dominated Christian circles, and often in Jewish ones as well, that when you read a book of the Torah, (like Beresheet  or "Genesis") or a book of the Prophets (like Shoftetim or "Judges"), or even a book of the Besorah ("Gospel", like Yochanan or "John"), that you need to treat it like some kind of Scriptural scavenger hunt, figuring out how to put the small "verses" together from disparate sources.

While there is certainly truth to that, that is mainly true because of literary borrowings between different authors of those scrolls/books.  And frankly, you really can't even get to the point that you can effectively put such references together into a meaningful whole until you are fully familiar with the Scriptures as a set of literary units, read in context of the time, place and culture of its writers, with a mind to mine out the literary styles and tropes from within the more self-contained content of each scroll/book you are reading. That this has been done so often without this breadth of knowledge and study has been a sincere problem with every religious group I've been a part of in the past, and most I've observed from the outside, even the Sabbatarian ones.

The writers/editors of these individual scrolls/books had a picture in mind, and they used their understanding of their own time, place and culture, along with the literary styles of their language, to express an overall meaning. They weren't just reporting history or law or promises -- they were putting that history, that law, those promises, into an intentional context.  How that intentional context-fitting itself fits into Elohim's more masterful plan is important and requires careful analysis across scrolls/books, but you cannot even get to the point where you are capable of doing this if you aren't able to read the book as the individual author(s) intended and to apply discipline in your analysis.  In fact, you are in danger in the absence of such a disciplined approach of taking some verse way out of context and attempting to mismatch it with another statement from another book/scroll which may only seem to be similar but lack a real connection, simply because you didn't understand the intent of one or the other (or frankly, either) verse to begin with.

Taking Scripture out of context in an attempt to do all of your Scriptural study either as some kind of self-centric application to your own life, or as some kind of attempt to proof-text all day long, is possibly the biggest thing that has led Christianity, and to another parallel extent, Judaism, astray.  Imagine finding two pieces of a puzzle in a puzzle box.  They seem to look alike on the surface picture, and though their pieces don't really fit, they can be made to fit with only a little bit of work.  You may get much of the rest of the puzzle put together properly, but there is always something "off" about the "finished" product.  In such a case, you might be tempted to just leave it that way as good enough, with only a few of the more astute among the puzzle builders trying to find out where they went wrong, because for so many, it really is good enough in their own eyes.  Now imagine if this is something you did for MOST of the puzzle.  Imagine if your completed picture of the puzzle was basically way off, but you just told yourself that this is the case because the puzzle maker's intent wasn't to necessarily make sense, or used some trope of your own to justify it, like "the puzzle maker's ways are not my ways, and I'm not meant to understand".

That's how most of Christianity, and to a parallel extent, Judaism, treats Scripture.  They pretend not to understand until they decide it is useful to claim understanding as evidence for a point-of-view they already had before they ever started studying Scripture in the first place.  This is the leaven of proof-texting puffing up any other attempt at proper analysis.  Daniel was told "But you, Daniel, seal up the book until the time of the end. Many will run to and fro, and knowledge will be increased."  But that translation is itself rather unfortunate.  A better translation of this would be something like "But you, Daniel, roll up the scroll and seal up its words until the time of the end.  Many will run around, going  here and there, to increase their knowledge." And he is later told "none of the evildoers will understand, but those who are wise will understand."

Typically, "run to and fro" is taken as a trope about doing research, and so seems to be telling us that by this research, knowledge will be increased.  But there's also a stronger ironic sense in the other translation I listed that the research that is going on is ungoverned, and though it is done in an attempt to increase knowledge, the implication is that this attempt could be in vain because it is too disparate and undisciplined to bring fruitful results.  I think what we're being told here is that many will try to understand the words of the scroll/book, but only the astute, clear-thinking individuals, the "wise", will understand.  And they won't do that by running around from verse to verse without context in an attempt to win arguments with each other.  They can't piece the pieces of the puzzle together without first understanding the context of those pieces, and so the puzzle competition between them leads to a set of resulting pictures they pretend to understand.  They become puffed up in their own handiwork, so that when they see a more properly completed puzzle later with a much clearer picture of the puzzle-maker's intent, they can't see it clearly.

A Pearl of Great Price

To get ready for Sukkoth a few months ago, I decided to read through all four of the Besorot (Gospels) from the Aramaic Peshitta, which I believe is the original of these documents.  At the time I started reading, I was struggling with a personal sin, something that I have a very difficult time with, and something that frankly I've struggled with for decades.  I was very down about this, and was allowing myself to consider that I might never overcome this sin to the degree necessary.  Coming to a conclusion like that can either call you to arms and strengthen your resolve, or it can actually make you consider that maybe the journey just isn't worth the struggle.  Unfortunately, my exhausted and depressed state of mind had me considering the latter more than the former.

So it was fortunate for me that I was in the process of reading the account of the Besorah (Gospel) of Matityahu (Matthew) just at the time these thoughts were becoming more prominent, and came across these verses in particular at just the right moment:
"Again, the Kingdom of HaShamayim (Heaven) is likened to a treasure that is hidden in a field, which when a man finds he hides, and from his joy, he goes and sells everything that he owns and buys that field.  Again, the Kingdom of HaShamayim is likened to a man who is a merchant who was seeking good pearls.  And when he found a certain precious looking pearl, he went and sold everything that he owned and bought it." (Mattityahu / Matthew 13:44-46)
Those verses really sparked a refocusing in me.  What Yeshua is saying here by analogy in these parables is twofold.  First, he is saying that nothing is off the table in terms of the price we have to pay for the Kingdom of Elohim.  And second, he is saying that whatever the price ends up being, it is well worth it.  What could be worth everything we have, you might wonder?  YHWH intends to restore the Kingdom to Yisrael and the Seed of David through His Mashiach, and he intends us to be the inheritors with Yeshua.  This restoration is primarily about the restoration of the scattered and lost people of Yisrael to the Land, but it's so much more.  Rav Shaul (Paul) shows just how much more that is when he wrote the following to his fellow future inheritors in Rome:
"And if we are banim (sons), then we are heirs: heirs of Elohim and joint-heirs of the inheritance of Yeshua HaMashiach; so that if we suffer with him, we will also be esteemed with him.  For I consider well that the sufferings of the present age are not comparable with the esteem which is to be perfected in us.  For the entirety of creation is hoping and waiting for the development of Bnei Elohim (the sons of Elohim).  The creation was subjected to vanity (or futility), not by its own choice, but because of him who subjected it, in the hope that also the creation itself would be emancipated from the bondage of decay into the liberty of the esteem of Bnei Elohim." (Romiyim / Romans 8:17-21)
So we are to be inheritors with Yeshua of all authority and all things, and we are to be instrumental in the restoration and deliverance of not just Yisrael, not just this earth, but of all of creation -- everything that exists.  Yeshua was given that authority, and we will receive that authority with him for the same basic purpose, as he said to his talmidim (disciples) after he was raised from the dead:
"And Yeshua drew near and spoke with them and said to them, 'All authority is given to me in HaShamayim and on Earth.  And as my Father has sent me, I send you.'" (Matityahu / Matthew 28:18)
Our inheritance is not just within Yisrael.  It is not even merely upon this earth.  It is a dominion and ownership over the whole of creation -- the entire Universe and beyond.  As Rav Shaul previously emphasized, given exactly what we have in store for us when YHWH finally restores the Kingdom to Yisrael, restores His scattered people back to His Land, establishes that restored Kingdom over all the earth and ultimately the entire Universe, and gives his faithful a permanent inheritance within it, what in the world would be too high of a price to pay?  What is so difficult or so terrible that it wouldn't be a travail worth experiencing among many others just to have a position at the Right Hand of the Sovereign of that Kingdom?  What property or pleasure wouldn't be worth giving up for a future ownership in everything that exists?

"Selling all you have" seems straightforwardly to indicate that our possessions are on the table if necessary to meet this goal, and it largely does mean this, but it is certainly a call to give up a lot more than mere possessions.  It often means giving up the self, particularly those parts of the self which are in the way of this ultimate goal.  Nonetheless, selling all you have is a lot easier when you realize that "all things", that is, everything that exists, is ultimately the reward and inheritance for this persistence and dedication to YHWH Elohim:
"He who overcomes will inherit all things, and I will be his Elohim, and he will be My ben (son)."  (Hit Galut / Revelation 21:7)
Whatever it is that any of us have a hard time giving up to make ourselves Kodesh to Elohim, and to make our hearts and minds suitable for His future Kingdom, will be worth giving up in the end.  This is something we should repeatedly remind ourselves of as we run into the kind of roadblocks in our journey and the downbeat attitudes we are often faced with during those travels.  The "Pearl of Great Price" really is worth the great price.

Exodus -- A Book of Names

For reasons that are a bit out of scope for the post I am writing today, those of us who observe the calendar as we believe the Torah actually proscribes are having our celebrations one month earlier than the Yahudim (Jews) will.  As a result, I am right now in Yerushalayim (Jerusalem), having just finished observing Chag HaMatzah (The Festival of Unleavened Bread).  We began our celebration of this Chag (Festival) celebration with the Pesach (Passover) meal, which is traditionally called a Seder.  I and a few like-minded believers came together in Yerushalayim at a rooftop balcony apartment that I usually rent for my pilgrimages here, and we observed the Seder by having a meal of lamb, matzah (unleavened bread), maror (bitter herbs), and wine, while going through a Haggadah, which is something of a mutual participatory rehearsal in which we relive and remind each other of the events that this day commemorates.

As per usual, a big part of our Haggadah goes through the scroll of the Torah that most Christians call "Exodus".  That title actually comes from the ancient translation of the Hebrew scriptures into Greek, a work known as the Septuagint.  The names of that translation do not directly correlate with the original Hebrew titles of those scrolls.  The Greek names were likely picked to give some context to Greek speakers who at the time were reading the Torah and the rest of the Tanakh (Old Testament) in a more academic sense, given that the relevance of the original Hebrew names are not so obvious to non-Hebrew speakers.  The traditional naming convention applied to the original Hebrew scrolls of the Torah derived the title of each scroll from either the literal first word or one of the first prominent words of the text. The first and third scrolls are named for the first word, while the second, fourth, and fifth scrolls are named for one of the first prominent words.  Even the traditional Jewish sections of each scroll of the Torah, read by Yahudim (Jews) on each Shabbat (Sabbath) in sequence throughout the year, are generally named in this same way with some variance.  On the surface, this probably seems like a meaningless convention; taking this view would be understandable, but I believe this naming process produces titles which match the content of the text in a more significant way than the Greek titles do.  In fact, it is my opinion that a major and pervasive theme for each of the Torah scrolls seems is well represented by the titles which result from this naming convention.

The first word in "Genesis" is "Beresheet", and that is the actual Hebrew name of the scroll.  This word means "In the beginning" and indicates a storyline consisting of a set of beginnings which we encounter throughout the scroll -- of the shamayim (heavens) and the earth, of mankind, of sin, of murder, of language diversity and human migration, of the covenant between Elohim and His people, and of their sojourn.  Likewise, the next scroll which is commonly called "Leviticus" is actually called "Wayyikra" or "Vayyikra" in Hebrew, and means "And He called", referring to the respective callings that Elohim gave to Mosheh, His people, the Levites, and His Cohenim.  It lists out the details of how to remain within the stipulations of the covenant that all of Yisrael was called to, and in a greater sense, how to fulfill the special calling that each individual group was given.  The scroll we call "Numbers", which is called this due to the census that is taken early on of the Yisraelites by Mosheh, is actually in Hebrew called "Bemidbar", which means "In the Desert" or rather, "In the Wilderness".  And like it's name, it details the sin which caused Elohim to relegate Yisrael to a 40 year period of wandering in the namesake wilderness, and lays out their wanderings which followed, along with other events which occurred in the process, including their eventual allowance by Elohim to take the land He was giving them at the end of the 40 year period, and the attempts of surrounding nations to thwart this.  Finally, the book we call "Deuteronomy", which comes from Greek meaning "Double Law" or "Repeated Law", is in Hebrew called "Debarim", or "Words".  It is the first prominent word in the scroll, which begins in Hebrew with "Elleh Debarim", which in English can mean "These Are the Words".  This title indicates the final words that Mosheh relayed to his people, and to their new leader Yahushua (Joshua), before he ascended the mountain as instructed by Elohim to view the land and pass away.

Like its companion scrolls in the Torah, the scroll we usually call "Exodus" actually has a more fitting name, the name we took from its first prominent word, "Shemot" or "Names".  That's right, the scroll that most of the English-speaking world calls "Exodus" in some form would actually be better called "Names".  Of course, on the surface, "Exodus" seems to be more fitting, because one of the things this scroll is about is the dramatic departure, or "exodus", of B'nei Yisrael (the Children of Israel) from Mitstrayim (Egypt) through the activity of the powerful Hand of the Elohim of their fathers.  But it's also about the covenant that this Elohim made with them while in the wilderness, yet we don't call it "Covenant".  And it's about their sin with the golden calf, yet we don't call it "Idolatry".  And it's about their renewal of the covenant and the subsequent relating of instructions on how to live and govern within the new society that the people are forming, yet we call it neither "Renewal" nor "Laws".  In a sense, to call it "Exodus" is only part of the story because on the surface it is about about all those things I mentioned.  For me personally though, I am attracted to the more subtle focus, and as we will come to see in the next few paragraphs, that focus is actually on names.  My goal is not to uncover every significant aspect of the names, but rather to examine just how names play a prominent role in the text, and to expound upon some interesting things that you might not have noticed before.

"And These Are the Names..."

The very first verses of this scroll set its tone:
"And these are the names of B'nei Yisrael, who came to Mitsrayim with Ya'akov, each one with his household." (Shemot / Exodus 1:1)
The account then goes on to list the tribes of Yisrael, and mentions the total number of people that came with Ya'akov (Jacob).  His sons are all mentioned by name, but their wives and children are not mentioned in this account as they were in chapter 46 of Beresheet (Genesis).  The first name we hear beyond those of Ya'akov and his sons are those of the Hebrew midwives who spare the male children of Yisrael from a death order.  The name we hear directly after them is that of the human hero of the story, a man by the name of Mosheh.  We're given the details of his humble and quite perilous beginnings, and his subsequent adoption by the royal household through the daughter of Pharaoh, his eventual disaffection with his adopted home and its treatment of the people of his birth, and his escape from Mitsrayim through the wilderness, leading to his eventual long-term settlement in exile in the land of Midyan.  So the interesting thing about these early parts of the story is that outside of Ya'akov, his sons, the two Hebrew midwives, and Mosheh, very few of the Yisraelite names are actually mentioned this early in the scroll.

It is only after Elohim appears to Mosheh in the burning bush that we hear of Mosheh's brother Aharon. We heard of Mosheh's mother, father, and sister before, but we didn't actually hear their names, Amram, Yochebed and Miryam, until later in the narrative. In fact, the names and genealogies of the Yisraelites extending beyond the twelve sons of Ya'akov do not get related to us until Mosheh has first visited Pharaoh and been dejected by both him and his own people.  After this, the information begins to flow more freely.  As time goes on in the scroll, names and genealogies of the people of Yisrael become even more important and more prominent.  As the various people and clans are picked for specific jobs, their names and parentage are prominently mentioned.

In short, Elohim is placing importance on their names as He brings the covenant He made with their fathers to remembrance, fathers He also mentions by name: Abraham, Yitshaq (Isaac), and Ya'akov.  In a sense, as He brings the names of B'nei Yisrael to mind in a very intimate way.  The gradual revelation of names demonstrates that Elohim is breathing life and significance into the culture of this new nation, hence a culture long acquainted with death and a harsh collective slavery becomes a culture acquainted with life and freedom.  It appears that part of the process of giving the Yisraelites their freedom is advancing their names, elevating those names beyond the realm of slave lists and into their own prominence as members of a free people.

And These Are the Unnamed...

As we saw, the names of the Yisraelites become more prominent throughout the scroll.  However, another group remains completely obscure throughout the entirety of the scroll.  That group is the Mitstrites (Egyptians).  The people of Mitsrayim (Egypt) are named for their ancestor, i.e. Mitsrayim himself, whose geneology is listed in Beresheet:
"The sons of Ham were Kush, Mitsrayim, Put and Kena‘an... Mitsrayim fathered the Ludim, the ‘Anamim, the L’havim, the Naftuchim, the Patrusim, the Kasluchim (from whom came the P’lishtim) and the Kaftorim." (Beresheet / Genesis 10:6, 13-14)
So we can see that their ancestor's name appears to identify the country, but outside of that name, no other names are actually mentioned for the entire nation of what we call Egypt today.  Many titles of various people are mentioned from that nation: Pharoah, the magicians, the taskmasters, "the servant girl who sits behind the handmill", etc., but none of these individuals are actually named.  Even Yoseph's wife and father-in-law, respectively Asenath and Potiphera, who were mentioned more prominently in Beresheet (Genesis), are not actually mentioned in Shemot.

This absence might be glossed over by the casual reader, but given how the names of the individual Yisraelites and their geneologies becomes so important as Sefer Shemot progresses, the absence of the names of individual Mitstrites (Egyptians) is too ironic to go unnoticed to someone seeking the deeper significance of the text, especially for a text that bears the title this one does.

And note that this does not occur in the case of Mitsrayim only, but also other enemies of Yisrael.  For instance, after B'nei Yisrael have left Mitsrayim and have crossed the parted Yum Suf (Red Sea) into the wilderness of Sinai, they are eventually attacked by the armies of Amalek.  This is a group name, perhaps from an ancestor or perhaps from an area they inhabited as a people; however, none of these individual Amalekites who joined in or directed the attack against the people of Yisrael as they traveled through the wilderness are named in the account.  In fact, Elohim's judgement against Amalek was so fierce, that He stated that He would obliterate Amalek's name from under the earth:
"And YHWH said to Mosheh, 'Write this for a remembrance in the scroll and recite it in the hearing of Yahushua (Joshua), that I shall completely blot out the name of Amalek from under the shamayim.'" (Shemot / Exodus 17:14)
When it comes to Yisrael's interactions with individuals from foreign nations in the account in Sefer Shemot, the only ones named are those friendly folks from Midyan, the ones that originally took Mosheh into their household, and into whose family Mosheh married: his father-in-law Yithro (Jethro), his other name "Reu'el" (meaning "friend of El"), and his wife Tsipporah.  It really does seem as if Elohim is de-emphasizing the enemies of Yisrael by disregarding their names as He simultaneously gives prominence to Yisrael and its allies by regarding their names, and this de-emphasis of Yisrael's enemies is most obvious in the case of Mistrayim.

Even the elohim (gods) of Mitsrayim are not excluded from this namewise anonymity in the account.  Elohim specifically states that the signs, plagues, and wonders he performs in Mitsrayim, which serve to free his people from slavery, are specifically acts that judge the elohim (gods) of Mitsrayim, especially the plague which kills the firstborn.
"And I shall pass through the land of Mitsrayim on that night, and shall smite all the first-born in the land of Mitsraym, both man and beast.  And I shall execute judgement on all the elohim of Mitsrayim.  I am YHWH." (Shemot / Exodus 12:12)
Yet despite this singling out of the false elohim of Mitsrayim through the power of the miracles the One True Elohim performs, none of those false elohim are mentioned by name.  We can interpolate which plagues targeted which of Mitsrayim's elohim based on the nature of the plague, but we don't hear any of them mentioned by name to provide that extra degree of certainty.  Mitsrayim seems to have been purposefully shrouded in anonymity, and again, that's extremely ironic in a sefer (scroll or book) that has "Shemot" (or "Names") as its title.  That irony, I believe, is intended to emphasize how much Elohim regards Yisrael in this account over Mitsrayim in the text.

"This Is My Name Forever..."

Most English-speaking Christians have a tradition to call Elohim by the title "Lord".  Their non-Anglophile counterparts have terms with similar meanings substituted.  The Spanish-speakers use "Señor", the French use "L'Eternel", and the Germans use "Herr", for instance.  Their translations have also used these terms, and have tried to emphasize the importance of them by capitalizing them in some cases.  This is why many English Bibles have "LORD" in all capitals when referring to Elohim, and German Bibles have "HERR".

It surprises some to realize that none of these words are actually present in the original Hebrew, at least in this context.  What these words are doing is substituting a name, specifically the most common and most important name of Elohim in all the Scriptures, a name that appears in the text of the Tanakh (Old Testament) nearly 7000 times to identify the Elohim of Yisarel.  That name is in Hebrew characters as follows:

These Hebrew characters would correspond in terms of sound to the English (or rather, Latin) letters "YHWH".  Because the Yahudim also lost the pronounciation of this name, due to their later belief that any uttering of the name can be blasphemous and their resulting substitution of the name with terms like "HaShem" (meaning "The Name" in Hebrew), or Adonai (meaning "Master" in Hebrew), the real historic pronunciation of this name has been lost.  Various sources and versions of the pronunciation of the name are "Yahweh", "Yehowah", "Yahuwah", and the list goes on.

However, more important than how this name is pronounced is what it means.  We get a hint of its meaning when YHWH first reveals His name to Mosheh at the burning bush:
"And Elohim said to Mosheh, 'Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh.' And He said, 'Thus you shall say to the children of Yisrael, "I AM has sent me to you."' And Elohim said further to Mosheh, 'Thus you are to say to the children of Yisrael, "YHWH Elohim of your fathers, the Elohim of Abraham, the Elohim of Yitshaq, and the Elohim of Ya'aqob, has sent me to you. This is My name forever, and this is My remembrance to all generations."'" (Shemot / Exodus 3:14-15)
So Elohim describes Himself in three ways.  The first, he states "Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh", which translates into three possible phrases, and possibly means all three at once:  "I Was Who I Was", "I Am Who I Am", and "I Will Be Who I Will Be".  These are all first-person statements, but then He identifies Himself by the name we listed above, which is essentially a third person variant of a similar phrase.  The name YHWH can mean "He Is", or "He Causes To Be".  I usually write this name with the Latin letters in all capitals, without vowels, to indicate the name without imposing on it my own preferred pronounciation.  So in other words, I usually write this as "YHWH", and I will continue to do this for the rest of the post.  After this, He identifies Himself in the context of history by showing Himself to be the Elohim of Mosheh's ancestors: Abraham, Yitshaq (Isaac), and Yaakov (Jacob).  It's clear that He wants both Mosheh and B'nei Yisrael to know Him by His name.  He emphasizes it, and commands Mosheh to reveal it to the people of Yisrael.

But it isn't just Yisrael that He is revealing Himself to by name in this situation.  Nor is it just to Mitsrayim (Egypt) that He is revealing Himself by name.  He intends to broadcast and advertise His name throughout the entire Earth, and He is using both Yisrael (by establishing them) and Mitsrayim (by going to war with them) to accomplish this very purpose, as He goes on to tell Pharaoh emphatically through the mouths of Moshe and Aharon:
"For at this time I am sending all My plagues unto your heart, and on your servants and on your people, so that you know that there is no one like Me in all the earth. Now if I had stretched out My hand and struck you and your people with pestilence, then you would have been cut off from the earth. And for this reason I have raised you up, in order to show you My power, and in order to declare My name in all the earth." (Shemot / Exodus 9:14-16)
Given this, you would expect that the name of Elohim would be emphasized by those who claim to serve Him, yet as I mentioned before, the trend among both Christians and Jews is to ignore the importance of the name, both in its use, and in the reverence we pay to It.  Christians do this by refusing to use it at all, and in practice pretending it doesn't exist.  Jews do it by treating the name as so untouchable, that they cannot use it under any circumstances in a modern context.  In both cases, they essentially nullify the Name.  Yet this is precisely the opposite of what Elohim intended.

After the Exodus was completed, YHWH went on to reaffirm the importance of His name and Its use when He appeared to B'nei Yisrael on Mount Sinai and uttered what we now know as the Ten Commandments from His own Mouth.  In the third of these Mitzvot (Commandments), He thunders in a loud voice exactly how He wants His name to be regarded and treated in what we now call the Third Mitzvah (or the Third Commandment).  Unfortunately,  both Christians and Jews have attempted to alter the meaning of this very simple Commandment.  Jews do this by interpreting it to refer only to a prohibition against swearing false oaths in His name.  That is an incomplete view of the requirement, because though avoiding swearing falsely by His name is part of it, it only scratches the surface of what YHWH wants us to do in regards to that name.  Christians do this by making it sound as if using the substitutes themselves, such as "Lord" in a "vain" way is the issue, which they indicate by translating the verse as "You will not use the name of the LORD Your God in vain...".  The problem with both of these is that they miss the deeper point of its use.  YHWH wants His name to be used reverentially, not ignored and not dropped from use out of fear.  The term that Christians usually translate as "vain" is a Hebrew term that is pronounced like "shav".  This means more properly "naught" or even "nothingness".  So a better translation of this Mitzvah (Commandment) would be as follows:
"You do not bring the name of YHWH your Elohim to nothingness, for YHWH does not leave the one unpunished who brings His name to nothingness." (Exodus / Shemot 20:7)
Surely it should be obvious to most here that removing the name from our vocabulary using either the Christian or Jewish justifications is unacceptable to Elohim.  The proper use of His name is so important to Him, that He commanded it by His Own Voice directly to the people of Yisrael.  So Sefer Shemot, the "Scroll of Names", is an important vehicle through which Elohim allows us to know Him by name.  And we would be foolish indeed to ignore that opportunity and that obligation.

A Scroll of Names Within the Scroll of Names

There is one more point to make about Sefer Shemot that really does establish it as a "Book of Names", and that is the mention of a dynamic book of names that YHWH Elohim keeps for Himself.  We hear about this book as Mosheh attempts to mediate atonement for a great sin which Yisrael committed at the very start of their existence as the covenant people.

As Mosheh was finalizing the covenant between Elohim and Yisrael, and receiving the stone tablets that contained the Ten Commandments written into the stone by the finger of Elohim Himself, B'nei Yisrael sinned against YHWH by creating and worshiping a golden calf.  This was a grievous sin, an act of defiant idolatry.   In terms of the covenant an act on par with a new wife committing adultery on her wedding night.  So egregious was this sin, that Elohim considered destroying all of Yisrael and starting new with Mosheh and his descendents.  Mosheh however, pleaded for mercy and offered to have his name wiped out from this book instead of the names of B'nei Yisrael.
"And Mosheh returned to YHWH and said, 'Oh, these people have sinned a great sin, and have made for themselves a mighty one of gold!  And now, if You would, lift their sin, but if not, please blot me out of Your scroll which You have written.'" (Shemot / Exodus 32:32)
What we are reading here is that YHWH keeps a scroll, a scroll of remembrance, in which He accounts for the names of those He regards, and again, it seems no coincidence to me that we first hear of this "scroll of names" in Sefer Shemot, the "Scroll of Names".  We go on to read YHWH's response to Mosheh's offer:
"And YHWH said to Mosheh, 'Whoever has sinned against Me, I blot him out of My scroll.'" (Shemot / Exodus 32:33)
YHWH rejects Mosheh's offer, and states that He will remove the names of those who sinned against Him from the scroll.  So we see that this scroll is a scroll which contains the names of those that YHWH regards, the righteous.  It is a scroll of those who choose life by choosing to obey YHWH, and the consequence of rebellion against YHWH through sin is to have your name removed from that scroll.

For readers of the Ketuvim Netzarim (New Testament), there is another scroll of scripture that is described as just such a ledger of names, though in this case, it is called the "Scroll of Life":
"And I saw the dead, small and great, standing before the throne, and scrolls were opened.  And another Scroll was opened, which is Life.   And the dead were judged from what was written in the scrolls, according to their works... And if anyone was not found written in the Scroll of Life, he was thrown into the lake of fire." (Hit Galut / Revelation 20:12, 15)
From the description of this second scroll, it seems rather obvious that it is not distinct from the first scroll, but rather that the two scrolls are one and the same.  So another function of Sefer Shemot, i.e. the Book of Exodus, is to allow us to see an early view of YHWH's judgement process, and to understand how we can ensure that our names are kept in His qodesh scroll of life.  Or, conversely, to see the consequence of rebelling against him by willingly participating in sinful acts, a consequence that fell upon those Yisraelites that worshipped the calf, and a consequence that will fall upon all those who one day find themselves unlisted at the time of the judgement.

In this way, the second Torah scroll shows us a path to life and redemption, one in which our names can be written in YHWH's scroll of life.  It demonstrates through its recount of the history of the Yisraelites in the wilderness that by entering into this covenant with YHWH and being obedient to His Mitzvot (Commandments), our names can be recorded before Him forever, and by rebelling against Him, they can be removed from that same scroll.

Not Only About the Exodus 

Sefer Shemot is the Torah Scroll we have historically called "Exodus" in English, but which we now know would better be translated "Names".  What that scroll tells is not strictly the story of an Exodus, but the story of an Elohim: an Elohim who wants to be known by His Own name, an Elohim who broadcasts that name throughout the Earth through incredible signs and wonders, and an Elohim who knows all of His own people individually by their own names.  Sefer Shemot shows us how we can also be part of that multitude; it assists us in making our own "exodus" from the nameless world of sin and death into the registry of life by giving us the details of the Covenant, a Covenant that YHWH makes with each of us by name.  It shows us how we can know and regard the name of our Elohim, and how we can ensure that He knows and regards ours.