What comes to mind when we think of Moses? Apart from Charlton Heston, an abandoned child in a basket, the Ten Plagues, the parting of the sea, his most important legacy has been undoubtedly the apparition of the fundamentally influential Ten Commandments.
It is astonishing how important Law with a Capital L has been – and how necessary. Moses was gone just for a short while, and when he came back he could not believe his eyes – the people he had liberated were involved in an orgy, drinking and adoring a giant golden calf. These guys absolutely need some guidance, he must have thought. And in his fury he actually broke the tablet of commandments given to him by God Himself.
The Ten Commandments have always struck me as authoritarian. Rules one has to obey and if not, the wrath of the jealous God, so feared and so abundant during the Old Testament, would come down on each and every one up to the third and fourth generation. They resemble a father who tells his child how to behave, but gives no underlying reason for it (which is in modern terms not the best kind of parenthood ... yet Jesus would later have a different approach on the whole issue.)
Let me give examples. Thou shalt not kill. Nothing more true than that, at least from our modern perspective. We have gone through centuries and centuries of ethical and moral analysis and development, and the individual life, including human rights, has come to be valued.
Back in those times the perspective was essentially different, and not until the Renaissance and afterwards did the concept of individuality actually exist. The reason people did not kill each other was not because they valued the other's existential rights; it was because they were aware of the consequences.
If I kill so-and-so, this clan, tribe, family will get upset and will in turn demand either my life or seek to do harm to somebody from my group to get even. It is the old adage of “eye for an eye.” Yet as Mahatma Gandhi states wonderfully that with this method the whole world could go blind, killing each other would eventually lead to the destruction of humankind.
Hobbes claimed that humans are essentially brutes who look for their own advantage and that if left without government, or laws, then looting, murder, and a state of constant chaos would exist. But with laws and punitive consequences for one's actions, the citizens will be forced to obey the law, which was intended for the common good.
Now in the case of the Commandments, they may not have offered reasons why killing someone or coveting the neighbor's wife and possessions are bad simply because people in those times may not have had the faculties to understand the underlying reasons. What worked best for them there and then were strict rules that ought to be followed. No questions asked. End of discussion.
And if one did not obey, one would draw the wrath of God and perhaps even spend a whole eternity of suffering in burning hell. Now that's a high price to pay for not obeying.