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The Ten Commandments

A Lecture By
Rudolf Steiner
Berlin, November 16, 1908
GA 107

The Ten Commandments, a lecture, was given in Berlin, November 16, 1908. It is included in Geisteswissenschaftliche Menschenkunde (#107 in the Bibliographic Survey, 1961), and was translated from the German by Frieda Solomon and Mel Belenson.

Copyright © 1978
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Continuing the study of man's various illnesses and health that we made a week ago, in the course of this winter we will take up in more and more detail those things with which they are connected. Our studies will then culminate in a generally more exact recognition of human nature than has previously been possible through anthroposophy. Today, because we will need it later, we will have to include a discussion of the nature and meaning of the Ten Commandments of Moses. Then we will have to say something about the deep significance of such concepts as original sin, redemption and so on, and we will see how these concepts gain new meaning in the light of our latest achievements, including those of science. To that end we must first examine more closely the fundamental nature of this remarkable document, which, projecting from out [of] the prehistory of the Israelites, appears to us as one of the most important stones in the building of the temple that was erected as a kind of anteroom of Christianity.

It can become increasingly evident in such a document as the Ten Commandments how little the form in which men know the Bible today corresponds to this document itself. From the details given in the last two lectures on “The Bible and Wisdom,” you will have felt how wrong it would be to say that we are simply finding fault with details in the translation and that there is no need to be so exact. It would be superficial to treat these things in such a way. Recall that we pointed out how the correct translation of the fourth verse of the second chapter of Genesis should actually read, “The following will recount the generations, or what proceeds from heaven and earth,” and that in Genesis the same word is used for “the descendants of heaven and earth” as later on where it reads, “This is the book of the generations — or descendants — of Adam.” The same word is used in both instances. It is of great significance that in the description of man's proceeding out of heaven and earth the same word is used as later where the descendants of Adam are spoken of. Such things are not merely pedantic quibbling that would put right the translation, but rather they touch the nerve not only of the translation but of the understanding of this early document of man as well. We actually speak out of the living sources of our anthroposophic world view when we say that to restore the Bible to man in a true form is one of the most important tasks of this world view, indeed, of anthroposophy itself. Above all, we are here interested in what is generally said regarding the Ten Commandments.

The Ten Commandments are interpreted by the great majority of men today as if they were legal ordinances, that is, like the laws of any modern state. It is conceded, of course, that the laws of the Ten Commandments are more extensive and general, and have a validity independent of their time and place. They are thus held to be more universal, but men are still conscious of them as having the same effect or objective as any modern legislation. So seen, however, they do not contain the actual vital nerve that lives in them. This is borne out by the fact that all translations presently available have unconsciously incorporated an essentially superficial explanation that is not at all in the spirit of their original meaning. When we enter into this spirit, you will see how the interpretation of them forms part of the studies we have just begun, even though it may appear that in discussing them we are creating an inappropriate diversion.

By way of introduction, let us make at least an approximate attempt to render the Ten Commandments into our language, and then try to approach the subject more closely. It will be found that many things in this translation — if we want to call it such — will have to be elaborated, but as we shall soon see, we want above all to touch the vital nerve, the real sense, of them in the idiom of our language. If one translates according to the sense of the text without referring to the dictionary word for word — in such a translation only the worst can result, naturally, for it is the word and soul value that the whole thing had in its own time that is important — if the sense is captured, then these Ten Commandments would run as follows.

First Commandment. I am the eternal divine Whom you experience in yourself. I led you out of the land of Egypt where you could not follow Me in you. Henceforth, you shall not put other gods above Me. You shall not recognize as higher gods those who show you an image of anything that appears above in the heavens, nor that works out of the earth, nor between heaven and earth. You shall not worship anything that is below the divine in yourself, for I am the eternal in you that works into your body and hence affects the coming generations. I am of divine nature working forth. If you do not recognize Me in you, I shall pass away as your divine nature in your children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, and their bodies will become waste. If you recognize Me in you, I shall live on as you to the thousandth generation, and the bodies of your people will prosper.

Second Commandment. You shall not speak in error of Me in you, for everything false about the “I” in you will corrupt your body.

Third Commandment. You shall distinguish work day from Sabbath in order that your existence may become an image of My existence. For what lives in you as “I” created the world in six days and lived within Himself on the seventh day. Thus shall your doing and your son's doing and your daughter's doing and your servants' doing and your beasts' doing and the doing of whatever else is with you be turned for only six days toward the outer; on the seventh day, however, shall your gaze seek Me in you.

Fourth Commandment. Continue to work in the ways of your Father and mother so that the possessions they have earned by the power I have developed in them will remain with you as your property.

Fifth Commandment. Do not slay.

Sixth Commandment. Do not commit adultery.

Seventh Commandment. Do not steal.

Eighth Commandment. Do not disparage the worth of your fellowman by speaking false of him.

Ninth Commandment. Do not look begrudgingly upon what your fellowman holds as possessions.

Tenth Commandment. Do not look begrudgingly upon the wife of your fellowman, nor upon his servants, nor upon the other creatures by which he prospers.

Now let us ask ourselves what these Ten Commandments really show us and we shall see that, not only in the first part but in a seemingly hidden way also in the last part, they show us that the Jewish people were told through Moses that the force that had proclaimed itself in the burning bush to Moses, using the words, “I am the I AM!” — Ehjeh asher Ehjeh — as its name, was to be henceforth with the Jewish people. What is referred to is the fact that the other peoples in the evolution of our earth were not able to recognize the “I am,” the actual original ground of the fourth part of man's being, so intensively and dearly as the Jewish people. The God Who poured a drop of His Being into man so that his fourth member became the bearer of this drop — the ego bearer — this God became known to His people for the first time through Moses.

Therefore we can interpret the Ten Commandments as follows. The Jehovah God had indeed worked in mankind's evolution until that time, but the effect of the work of spiritual beings can only become manifest after it has taken place. Though there was much that was working into the ancient peoples, it was through Moses that it came into being as concept, as idea, and as actual soul force. It was essential that he should make clear to his people how their egohood was going to effect their lives. With these people Jehovah is to be seen as a kind of transition being who pours the drop into the individuality of man but who is at the same time a national God. The individual Jew still felt with a part of himself a connection with the ego of Abraham's incarnation that streamed through the entire Jewish race. This was to change only with the advent of Christianity. But what was to occur on earth through Christ was foretold in the Old Testament — especially through what Moses had to say to his people.

So we see the full power of ego recognition slowly permeating the Jewish people in the account of the Old Testament. The Jewish people were to be made fully conscious of the effect it would have upon man, to feel the ego within himself, to experience God's Name, “I am the I AM!” and its effect upon his innermost soul.

These things are experienced abstractly today. The ego and what is connected with it are spoken of and they remain just words. But when the ego was first given to the Jewish people in the form of the old Jehovah God it was experienced as a new force that entered man and completely changed the structure of his astral, etheric and physical bodies. His people had to be told that the conditions of their lives, of health and sickness, were different before they had an ego that they were aware of than they would be henceforth. That is why it became necessary to tell them that they were no longer to look up merely to heaven or down merely to the earth when they spoke of the gods, but into their own souls. Looking into one's soul with devotion to the truth brings right living — right down into one's health. This consciousness is at the basis of the Ten Commandments — whereas a wrong conception of what entered the human soul as ego causes man to wither in body and soul, destroys him. One need only be objective to observe how these Ten Commandments are not meant to be merely external laws, how they are actually meant to be just what has been discussed, that is, something that is of utmost significance for the health and well-being of the astral, etheric and physical bodies. But where does one read books correctly and accurately these days? One needs only turn a few more pages to find, in a further discussion of the Ten Commandments, what the Jewish people are told about their effect upon the whole person. There it says, “I remove every sickness from out your midst; there will be no miscarriage nor barrenness in your land, and I will let the number of your days become full.”

That means that when the ego has become permeated with the essence of the Ten Commandments, one of the results will be that you cannot die in the prime of life, but rather, through the properly understood ego, something can stream into the three bodies, the astral, etheric and physical, that will cause the number of your days to become full, that allows you to live in good health until old age. This is clearly stated. But it is necessary to penetrate quite deeply into these things, and modern theologians cannot, of course, do this so easily. A popular little book, of a most irritating sort, especially because it can be had for a few pennies, includes in its remarks about the Ten Commandments the sentence, “One can readily see that in the Ten Commandments the basic laws for humanity are laid down. The one half is the Commandments that have to do with God and the other half the Commandments in regard to people.” Not wanting to be too far off the mark, the author adds that the fourth Commandment must still be included with the first half, which concerns God. How he manages to attribute four to one half, and six to the other half is just a small example of how people go about their work these days. Everything else in this book is commensurate with the interesting equation: four equals six.

We are concerning ourselves here with the explanation given to the Jewish people of how the ego must properly indwell the three bodies of man. It is important, above all, that it be said — and we encounter this in the very first Commandment: When you become aware of this ego as a spark of the divine, then you must feel that within your ego there is a spark, an emission of the highest, the most exhalted divinity who is involved with the creation of the earth!

Let us recall what we have been able to say about the history of man's evolution. His physical body was developed on ancient Saturn; gods then worked upon it. Then his ether body was joined with it on the sun. How both bodies were developed further is again the work of divine spiritual beings. Then on the moon the astral body was incorporated — all the work of divine spiritual beings. What made man into man as we now know him was the incorporation on earth of his ego. The highest divinity took part in this. As long as man was unable to be fully conscious of this fourth member of his being, he could have no notion of the highest divinity who helped create him and lives within him. Man must say to himself, “Divine beings have worked upon my physical body, but they are less exhalted than the Divinity who has now bestowed my ego upon me.” The same is true of the etheric and the astral bodies. Thus, the Jewish people, to whom the ego was first prophesied, had to be told, “Make yourselves aware that all about you are peoples who worship gods who, in their present stage of development, can be effective in their astral, etheric and physical bodies, but they cannot function in the ego. This God who works in the ego was indeed always there. He proclaimed his presence through his working and creating, but his name he proclaims to you now.”

Through his acceptance of the other gods man is not a free being, but rather a being that worships the gods of his lower members. When, however, he consciously recognizes the god, a part of whom he carries within his ego, then he is a free being — one who confronts his fellowmen as a free being. Today, man does not stand in the same relation to his astral, etheric and physical bodies as he does to his ego. He is within his ego. He is immediately connected with it. He will only experience his astral body in this way when he has changed it into manas or life spirit, and his ether body when he has transformed it to buddhi or spirit self, when by means of his ego, he has evolved it to a divine being. Though the ego was the last to emerge, it is still that within which man lives. When he has a conscious awareness of his egohood, he is aware of that in which he is directly confronted with the divine, whereas the form of his astral, etheric and physical bodies that he currently possesses, were created by gods who came before.

The nations surrounding the Israelites worshiped those divinities who worked upon the lower members of man's being. When they made an image of those lower divinities, it had the form of something that was on the earth, in heaven or between heaven and earth, because everything that man has within himself is to be found in all the rest of nature. If he makes images out of the mineral kingdom, they can only represent for him the gods who worked on the physical body. If he makes images from the plant kingdom, they can represent only the divinities that worked on his ether body because man has his ether body in common with the plant world. Images from the animal world can symbolize for him only those divinities who worked on his astral body. But man is made the crown of earth's creation by what he perceives in his ego. No external image can express it. So it had to be clearly and strongly emphasized to the Jewish nation, “You bear within you what flows into you from the now highest of Gods. It cannot be symbolized with an image from the mineral, plant or animal kingdom, were it ever so sublime; all gods who are served by this means are lower gods than the God who lives in your ego. If you would worship this God in you the others must withdraw; then you have the true, healthy strength of your ego within you.” Thus what we are told right at the start, in the first of the Ten Commandments, is connected with the deepest mysteries of the development of man, “I am the eternal divine Whom you experience in yourself. The power that I put into your ego became the impulse, the force that enabled you to flee from the land of Egypt where you could not follow Me in you.”

Moses, on the instruction of Jehovah, led his people out of Egypt. In order to make this quite clear to us it is especially indicated that Jehovah wanted to make his people a nation of priests. The peoples of the other nations had the free priest-wisemen among them who were apart from themselves. They were the free ones who knew about the great mystery of the ego, who also knew the ego-god of whom there was no image. Thus there were in these lands the few ego conscious priest-wisemen on the one side, and on the other, the great unfree masses who could only listen to what they, under the strictest authority, let flow to them from the mysteries. It was not the single individual who had this direct relationship, but the priest-wiseman, who mediated for him. Therefore, the health and prosperity of the people depended upon these priest-wisemen; their health and prosperity depended on how they organized things and established institutions.

I would have to tell you a great deal to portray for you the deeper meaning of the Egyptian temple sleep and how it affected the health of the people, if I were to describe what emanated from such a cult — the Apis cult, for example — in the way of popular medicines for their general well-being. The direction and guidance of the people depended upon the initiates in these cult centers to provide the elixirs of health. But now that was to change. The Jews were to become a nation of priests. Everyone should feel a spark of the Jehovah God within himself, should have a direct relationship to Him. No longer was the priest to be the sole mediator. That is why the people had to be so instructed. They had to be made aware that the false images, the lowlier images of the highest god are also destructive to health.

Now we arrive at something that will not come easily to the consciousness of present-day man. Quite terrible wrongs are being committed in this connection. Only those who can penetrate into spiritual science know the subtle ways in which health and sickness develop. If you go through the streets of a big city and take into your soul the ugly things that are on display in windows and signs, it has a devastating effect. Materialistic science has no conception of the extent to which the seeds of illness lie in this kind of hideousness. They seek the causes of illness in bacilli, and do not realize in what a round about way illness has its origin in the soul. Only people familiar with spiritual science will know what it means to take various images into himself.

Above all, the first Commandment says that man must henceforth be able to imagine that beyond all that can be spiritually expressed by means of an image there can be an impulse that cannot be made into an image; this connects the ego to the super-sensible.

“Feel this ego strongly within yourself, feel it so that through this ego there weaves and flows a divine essence that is more exhalted than anything that you can portray through an image. Then you will have in such feeling a healthy force that will make your physical body, your ether body and your astral body healthy.”

A strong ego impulse that creates good health was to be given the Jewish nation. If this ego was properly recognized, the astral, etheric and physical bodies would be well-formed and would produce a strong life force in each individual, and this, in turn, would permeate the entire folk.

Since a folk was reckoned as having a thousand generations, the Jehovah God spoke the word saying, “Through a proper inculcating of the ego, man will of himself become a source of radiating health, so that the whole nation will become a healthy people ‘unto the thousandth generation’.” If, however, the ego is not understood in the right way, the body withers, becomes weak and sickly. If the father does not place the ego into his soul in the right way, his body becomes weak and sickly, the ego slowly withdraws itself, the son becomes sicklier, the grandson more sickly and finally there is nothing more than a shell from which the Jehovah God has retreated. That which does not permit the ego to thrive causes the body to gradually wither right up to its fourth member.

So we see that it is the proper functioning of the ego that is set before the people of Moses in the first of the Commandments.

“I am the eternal divine Whom you experience in yourself. I led you out of the land of Egypt where you could not experience Me in you. Henceforth, you shall not put other gods above Me. You shall not recognize as higher gods those who present to you an image of anything that appears above in the heavens, or that works out of the earth, or between heaven and earth. You shall not worship anything that is below the divine in yourself, for I am the eternal in you that works into your body and thus affects the coming generations. I am of divine nature working forth — not ‘I am a zealous God!’; that says nothing here. If you do not recognize Me as your God, I shall pass away as your ego in your children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, and their bodies will become waste. If you recognize Me in you, I shall live on as you unto the thousandth generation, and the bodies of your people will prosper.”

We see that what is meant is not merely an abstraction, but something living and vital that is to work into the very health of the people. The external character of health is traced back to the spiritual, which is at its source, and which is made known to the people, step by step. This is particularly expressed in the second Commandment that says, “You shall not create any false impressions of my name, of what lives in you as ego, for a true impression makes you healthy and strong, whereby you will prosper, whereas a false impression will cause your body to become wasted!” Thus it was inculcated into every member of the Mosaic nation that whenever he uttered the name of God he should let it be as a warning to himself: “I shall acknowledge the name of what has entered into me, as it lives in me, in that it fosters good health.”

“You shall not speak in error of Me in you, for everything false about the ‘I’ in you will corrupt your body.”

Then in the third Commandment there is the strong and specific reference to how man, when he is a working and creating ego, is a true microcosm, just as the Jehovah God created for six days and rested on the seventh, and man in his creating should follow. In the third Commandment it is expressly indicated: “You, man, in that you are a true ego, shall also be an image of your highest God, and in your deeds work as would your God.” It is an admonition to become more and more like the God who revealed himself to Moses in the burning bush.

“You shall distinguish work day from Sabbath in order that your existence may become an image of My existence. For what lives in you as ‘I’ created the world in six days and lived within Himself on the seventh day. Thus shall your doing and your son's doing and your daughters doing and your servants' doing and your beasts' doing and the doing of whatever else is with you be turned for only six days toward the outer; on the seventh day, however, shall your gaze seek Me in you.”

Now the Ten Commandments go more and more into detail. But always in the background is the thought that the evolutionary force is at work as Jehovah. In the fourth Commandment man is led from the super-sensible to the outwardly sensible. Something important is referred to in the fourth Commandment that must be understood. When man emerges as one conscious of his ego, he requires certain outer means to foster his existence. He develops what we refer to as personal property and possessions. If we were to go back to ancient Egypt, we would not yet find this individual property among the masses. We would find that those who presided over property were also the priest-initiates. But now as each individual ego develops, it becomes necessary for man to take hold of what is outside and around him, and provide a proper setting for himself. For that reason it is stated in the fourth Commandment that he who lets the individual ego work in himself acquires possessions, that these possessions remain bound to the power of the ego that lives in the Jewish nation from father to son to grandson, and that the father's property would not have the security of the strong ego power if the son did not continue his father's work with the strength received from his father. It is therefore said: “Let the ego become so strong in you that it continues on, and that the son can inherit, along with his father's property, the means with which to become integrated into the external environment.” That is how consciously the spirit of the conservation of property was inculcated into Moses's people, and it is strongly emphasized in all the following laws that occult powers stand behind everything that happens in the world. While the right of inheritance is received today externally and abstractly, those who have understood the fourth Commandment have been aware that spiritual forces extend themselves through property from generation to generation, live from one generation to the next, that they heighten the ego power, and that the ego force of the single individual thereby derives something that is brought to it from the ego force of the father.

The fourth Commandment is usually translated in the most grotesque possible manner, but its true meaning is as follows. “The strong ego force is to be developed in you that lives beyond you, and this shall be passed on to your son so that what will live on in him through the property of his ancestors will accrue to his ego force.

“Continue to work in the ways of your father and mother so that the possessions they have earned by the power I have developed in them will remain with you as your property.” In addition, it lies at the basis of all the other laws that man's ego power is heightened by the proper application of the ego impulse but that it is destroyed by its improper use.

The fifth Commandment says something that is to be understood in its correct sense only by means of spiritual science. Everything connected with killing, with the extermination of another's life, weakens the self-conscious ego power in man. One can heighten thereby the powers of black magic in man but it is then only the astral forces that are heightened while the ego power is by-passed. What is divine in man is annihilated through every killing. Therefore, this law alludes not only to something abstract, but also to something by which occult power streams to man's ego impulse when he fosters life, making it flourish when he does not destroy life. This is presented as an ideal for the strengthening of the individual ego power.

The same is given in the sixth and seventh Commandments, with somewhat less emphasis, regarding other aspects of life. Through marriage a center for ego strength is created. Whoever destroys marriage thus weakens the strength that should flow into his ego. Likewise does he, who takes something away from another's ego, thereby seeking to increase his own possessions by stealing, etc., weaken his own ego power. Here, too, the guiding thought throughout is that the ego shall not be weakened.

Now it is even indicated in the last three Commandments how man weakens his ego through the false direction of his desires. The life of desire has great significance for ego power. Love heightens the power of the ego; envy and hate cause it to wither. If a man hates his fellowman, if he disparages his worth by speaking falsely of him, he weakens thereby his ego power; he diminishes all that surrounds him of health and vitality. The same is true when he envies another's possessions. The desire for someone else's goods makes his ego power weak. It is the same in the tenth Commandment should a man look with envy at the manner in which another tries to increase his fortune rather than striving after love for the other, whereby he can expand his soul and allow his ego strength to flourish. Only when we have understood the special power of the Jehovah God and hold before us the manner of His revelation to Moses will we comprehend the special nature of the consciousness that should flow into the people. Underlying everything is the fact that it is not abstract laws but healthy and, in the widest sense, healing precepts for body, soul and spirit that are given. He who holds to these Commandments not in an abstract, but in a living way, affects the overall welfare and the entire progress of life. It was not possible at that time to present this without including regulations as to how the Commandments were to be followed. Since the other nations lived in an entirely different way from the Jewish people they did not require such laws with their special significance.

When our scholars today take the Ten Commandments, translate them by dictionary and compare them with the other laws, with the law of Hammurabi, for instance, it signifies that they have no comprehension of the impulse behind the Commandments. It is not the “Do not steal” or “Keep holy this or that holiday” that is important. What is important is the spirit that is streaming through these Ten Commandments and the way in which this spirit is connected with the spirit of this nation out of which Christianity was created. Thus, if one is to understand the Ten Commandments, one would have to feel and experience along with each individual in this nation what he felt as he attained independence. Today is hardly the time in which to feel so concretely what the people of that nation were able to experience. That is why everything in the dictionary is currently being used in translations of them except what the spirit calls for. One can, of course, always read that the people of Moses came from a Bedouin race, and that consequently they could not be given the same laws as a people engaged in agriculture. That is why — so conclude the scholars — the Ten Commandments had to be given later and were then antedated. If the Ten Commandments were what these gentlemen conclude them to be they would be right, but they happen not to understand them. Certainly, the Jews were a kind of Bedouin people, but these Commandments were given them so that they should become capable with their ego strength of moving toward a whole new age. That nations are built out of the spirit is best proved by this. There is hardly a stronger prejudice than that expressed by saying that during Moses's time the Jewish people were still a wandering Bedouin people, but what sense would it have made to give them the Ten Commandments? It made sense to give the Jewish people these laws so that the ego impulse could be impressed into them with the greatest might. They received them because by means of these Commandments their external life was to take on an entirely new form, because an entirely new life was being created, originating in the spirit.

The Ten Commandments have continued to have this effect, and those who understood them in early Christian times spoke of the Laws of Moses in this way. Therefore they came to know that through the Mystery of Golgotha the ego impulse became something different from what it was during the time of Moses. They told themselves that the ego impulse had become infused with the Ten Commandments, and that people became strong by following the Ten Commandments. Now something else is there. Now the form is there that is at the basis of the Mystery of Golgotha. Now the ego can gaze upon what lay hidden through the ages. It can see the greatest that it is capable of attaining — that that makes it powerful and strong through the example of Him who suffered at Golgotha, Who is the greatest archetype of developing man in the future. In this way the Christ took the place, for those who truly understood Christianity, of the impulses that served as a preparation in the Old Testament.

Thus we see that there is, in fact, a deeper interpretation of the Ten Commandments.




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