The Ten Commandments

This post is in response to a post by Jeremy. I would have commented inline, but my comments are simply too long. Ah, well. Feel free to skip this post if you think it is not worth the length. Here goes:

In my opinion, much of your post suffers from a misunderstanding of the role and purpose of the Ten Commandments. This misunderstanding is pretty commonplace, even among Christians, unfortunately. That misunderstanding is treating the Decalogue as a “moral” law above and beyond the rest of the law. This doesn’t add up, nor was the Decalogue intended to be a “moral” law. The Decalogue are the principles that undergird the civil law, the remainder of which fleshes out God’s intentions and expectations in relation to these principles. Though being apodictic in nature, this does not require or mean that they are a “moral” law, rather merely that they are the core principles upon which God is going to base the covenant with the nation that is agreeing to make him their king.

Now, to be specific, your indication of a striking difference between the statement of the law in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 is simply not supported by the text. Verse 8 of Exodus 20 and Verse 14 (as you mentioned) of Deuteronomy are the only major difference. And even there, the expression of the command is not changed, only the stated reason. And the two listed reasons are not in disagreement. Rather, they emphasize the matter for groups separated by a lifetime. To those who had been newly freed from the Egypt, God reiterates his creative work, which should remind them of the miracles he has just performed to bring them out of Egypt as a people uniquely created by him. To a people about to enter the promised-land, God reminds them of what he has done to take them from slaves to free men. Certainly, the actual command does not change, just an emphasis of presentation. The remainder of the reading of the law is nearly word for word the same. What we have is the exact same covenant principles, with interspersed commentary directed at varying audiences.

As for Exodus 34, even a cursory reading should be enough to dissuade someone from describing it as a restatement of the Decalogue. Though God refers Moses back to the commands originally given, he does not restate them.

I agree with No. 5 to a degree, unless the said father and mother are reprehensible, abusive people, and I also agree with Nos. 6, 8 and 9. That’s admirable, but misses the point. Number 5, honoring father and mother, is commonly misrepresented as obeying and respecting parents. Although this is certainly included, the covenant principle goes much deeper, speaking to how aging members of society would be treated. God indicates that children are responsible for their parents. Seems to me that your re-working of the law neglects the problems of inter-generational issues. Shouldn’t we expect that we might be more inclined to deal with this issue, since we tend to live so much longer? God certainly thought it worth considering. Our narcissistic and youth-focused culture seems out of touch with reality.

And even an abusive parent can be respected and honored. It is not easy, for sure. I know that is not valued often, but respect is something that our culture needs to learn and develop. (Think, “You lie…”, from recent politics) The respect shown by David to Saul is exemplary for us, in any event. Even when harassed by death threats (and attempts), David offered respect as if he was giving it to God, whether or not the other party deserved it. I grew up in high school with the idea of ROSR, Real Or Simulated Respect. My feelings of whether someone deserves a certain type of treatment have little to do with whether I am obligated or should give such treatment.

6, 8 and 9 go further to show us that this is not a “moral” law, but a practical law, a civil law. These are not moral statements: “Do not kill, Do not deprive another of what is theirs, Do not lie.” Instead, these are aimed at civil and social obligations: “Don’t murder, Don’t Steal, Don’t commit perjury.”. We often read them as moral laws, but they are aimed at civil justice and social rights and expectations. They are very similar to other codes of the time period, all social contracts between a sovereign and the people who are pledging their allegiance to him.

I would say your characterization of 1-3 is not proper. These laws indicate to the people that they owe allegiance to their sovereign, and are similar in form to those found in other legal charters of the time period. They are not just, “God attempting to retain hold of power.” Indeed, it is the Israelites who have agreed to follow God, and he is now giving them the terms under which he will be their king.

Nowhere does Christ disavow #4, the Sabbath. Rather, he challenges the use and application, the extension of the law, by the Pharisees and other religious leaders of his time. Jesus reaffirms the law repeatedly, and abides by its terms. However, he recognizes that man has gotten God’s intentions wrong – and points this out in regard to the Sabbath specifically. People were using Sabbath as an excuse to be unmerciful, to point out their own “righteousness” and strict adherence to the legal code that was built up after the fall of the temple. Traditional observation had crowded out mercy and love to fellow human beings.

As for #7, adultery, I only have to ask why you believe that you have the right to decide when the terms of marriage can be disavowed. I made no statement at my wedding that if an extended period of sex-less-ness or absence occurred, I was allowed to go have sex with another. I made a covenant before God to be faithful to my wife, till one or the both of us died. That I will maintain, Lord willing, even if it is contrary to my physical will and urges. I recognize that the marriage covenant has been cheapened, and that these vows are entered into haphazardly nowadays. But that is not an excuse, nor valid moral judgment.

Additionally, your comments about not deserving hellfire are misplaced. These are the terms of a civil covenant. It is a misreading to say that the punishment is hell for this. Rather, this civil law is meant to create a people unique from the surrounding nations, one that displayed God’s blessing on a life lived according to his principles. Rather than looking for ways to justify our self-will, I think we would do well to seek ways to be faithful and show how God will respond. The heart condition that is self-involved and leads into sexual sin leads to eternal punishment. The law points out God’s intent and hopes for his people.

I see few places where ambition derived from what other’s have attained is truly noble. Rather, while ambition is used as an excuse for advancing technology and wisdom, it often results in destroyed families and personal lives. A heavy price to pay. It does not as a matter of course lead to happiness or pleasure. Often, ambition is destructive. Certainly the ambition that is driven from what others possess is to be avoided. Ambition based on trying to make the most of our potential and background, in essence returning to God what he has given, is nowhere condemned in the Decalogue (or the entire law, for that matter). So I can agree that ambition is ok, and nowhere is God saying that people cannot be ambitious.

As for rape and slavery, I will avoid the subject of slavery as that would take me off topic. Rape can be variously described as coveting, theft and/or adultery, and thus additional legislation within the law concerning rape comes from this standpoint. Our understanding of property rights is quite different from theirs. And I’ll leave it at that.

As for restating the commands or principles, I will put myself to Jesus’ statement, which reduced it to 2: Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:37-40). I find that to be a much more demanding moral law than what you have provided. Under your terms, I am only suggested to “treat all human beings as equals” and not harm them. I don’t actually have to love them, show compassion to them, do good to them. There is no requirement or expectation for me to go out of my way for others. So much less than God’s idea about what is “moral.” Under Jesus’ terms, we are to love, to do to them as we would have done to ourselves. Every good thing we would do for ourselves we are to extend to others, loathed and liked.

Your suggestions forget God, and the unique relationship he wants between us (understandably so, if you do not give his presence credence). On the other hand, what reason have I to believe your contention that every person is worthy of equality, respect, and “right” treatment apart from some authority? Certainly your constant return to modernist philosophy ignores how its overt appeals to reason and authority have been decimated by post-modernism, and found wanting. As far as I can see, we have no reason to speak of an absolute morality apart from God as the giver. None, anyways, that can be described as objective, unchanging and able to judge the behavior of all people over all time. We have only our false sense of moral superiority, and no one to judge between our competing self-interests.

As a final comment, when Jesus summarizes the law, he does not use the Decalogue. This should be instructive on the role of the Decalogue.


About George

I'm interested in theology, languages, translation and various sorts of fermentation.
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One Response to The Ten Commandments

  1. Jeremy says:

    As I write a good deal about politics, I was actually approaching this topic, though I don’t think I made it clear, from the standpoint that these commandments, perhaps, should not be plastered all over our schools and courthouses in the country. By my word, “heralded,” I was making that case implicitly, but I never got around to literally fleshing that out. lol. Maybe that’s a full-fledged topic for another time.

    Regardless, I was taught in my youth to abide by these rules. If the Decalogue is merely a list of civil laws for the Israelites at the time, what do they matter to us, as so many claim they do? The “misunderstanding” argument can be posited for many passages in the Bible, and one of my ultimate complaints is this: if, as you say, we are misunderstanding the 10 Commandments (and other parts, no doubt), why do we have work so darn hard, even some Christians, as you say, to understand? Because the Holy Spirit helps some understand more fully and not others? Is he selective? How can even Christians misunderstand God’s word if they supposedly have the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. If this is a misunderstanding on my part and others, then most every pastor that I’ve ever heard on the subject seems to misunderstand.

    I don’t believe I indicated there was a “striking” difference, but the two verses do differ, and there’s no getting around it. This, from the Torah supposedly authored by the same person. Though it seems odd, maybe Moses felt it prudent to offer different reasons. Both texts are prefaced with either “… these words, saying, …” (Exodus) or “He said …” as if they were direct quotes like in a newspaper article.

    No, Exodus 34 is not a collection of the same commandments (though at least two repeat), but perhaps worse, it claims to be the same: “I R1084 will write on the tablets the words that were on the former tablets which you shattered,” and Exodus 34:28 is actually the only verse to identify any list specifically as the 10 Commandments: “And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments.” The other two passages just say “My commandments.” So is it these in Chapter 34, the Ritual Decalogue, that we should understand to be the true ones? If so, they are even stranger than the accepted 10.

    Again, this deeper understanding regarding verse 5 is lost on many, if not most, Christians. I understand that the commandment is given insofar as it benefits Israel’s claim to the Promised Land. If you are to take “father” to mean “father” in a general, ancestral sense, like Abraham, are we to assume the same meaning for “mother.” I suppose we can do that, but again, if we do, we read a different understanding than many in the Christian community, one that the Holy Spirit may have enlightened some with and not others. Should the other commandments be understood using this inter-generational reading? It’s an interesting idea, regardless.

    I thought often as a believer that if I would only read more or study more or pray more, I would finally understand. If I had the Holy Spirit, why would some of these issues not be made clearer to me, I would think, and indeed, hoped they would be made clearer. Do I have to obtain a doctorate in theology and/or learn a couple dead languages? Why do we have to perform such rhetorical acrobatics to make it all come about right? I mean, I’m certainly not professor material, but I don’t think I’m not dullest chip in the shed either.

    This is all I can get to at the moment. I will consider some of your other comments later today. Thanks for the interesting conversation.

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