Without fail, the first thing I think of when I hear the Ten Commandments is not, in fact, God. It is, rather, Charlton Heston. Which then makes me think both of the NRA and the local community theater in my hometown, which had a plaque donated by Mr. Heston out front.
Eventually I do wander back to religion, but it takes a while. Oh, Hollywood-based culture, look what thou hath wrought.
Anyway. There they are at Mt. Sinai with a dire warning not to touch the mountain, which begins to smoke and shake violently. Y’know, I’m not really sure I’d need a warning; if the mountain is shaking and smoking, I really would not try to touch it. More likely, I’d be running the opposite direction as fast as I possibly could.
So Moses goes up the mountain. Moses is very brave, apparently, and very obedient. Then he gets the ten commandments, probably never suspecting that many thousands of years later we would all be arguing over whether or no a pluralistic society should display them in a court of law.
So, the commandments. We’re all pretty familiar. Most are straightforward: I don’t generally have a problem not stealing or murdering. Committing adultery, again, not really an issue. Not bearing false witness or misusing God’s name may be a tad more difficult, but still fairly straightforward.
Then we get to some others. You shall have no other gods before me. Okay, well first of all, let’s note that this assumes the existence of other deities. But then — does that mean no other gods at all? Or does it simply mean that this God, Yaweh, takes precedence over the rest of the pantheon? No making idols seems fairly straight forward, but can be seen many ways. Does it mean not to have objects that center? Or does it mean not to see them as deities? And what does it mean to worship — arguably we make plenty of non-religious based idols in today’s society. The Sabbath day is also an interesting one — no work. Which is not a bad goal and one I think we could all do well to pick up again, but then I ask, what is work? Things that the Bible would have defined as work are, often, now defined as leisure. (Which is probably a subject for it’s own post somewhere, so I’ll just stop before I go down that path.)
Honor your father and your mother. This is interesting. Most often I see this held up as a path to obedience. But what does honor mean? What about families that are dysfunctional. Can you honor a parent while still protecting your own boundaries and mental health? What does honor mean in a modern context? We don’t have the same social networks and ties, nor sense of obligation, it seems.
Oh, and my favorite. No coveting your neighbor’s wife or things. So this one — really? How do you stop desire which is so often involuntary? I’m not arguing that you can’t control acting on desire, because you most certainly can. But how do you control that impulse?
Then we get into lists of things to do or not do. Oddly, I find this all incredibly fascinating. A few things stand out to me here: there are of course laws regarding slavery Which, again, to modern eyes reads as atrocious, and it’s hard to remember that these would have been acceptable practices in the ancient world, even kind given the instructions laid out.
It also reminds me that this is one of the key reasons I don’t think the Bible can be taken as-is without any regard to interpretation, context, history or cultural change. Slavery was a widespread and acceptable practice in the ancient world. It looked very different than how we may perceive slavery, but it was still a practice that involved the ownership of one human by another. We recognize now that this is wrong, this is outdated thinking that was appropriate in the time it was written but is not now, and should not be used to prop up an unjust system. Yet other portions of the Bible are held up as unchanging in light of cultural change and new knowledge and insight.
Moving away from that hot-button topic, it’s also interesting that there is an undercurrent of almost fairness in these things. An eye for an eye, which is on the one hand a rather grotesque concept if taken literally, but also a very fair one. For the record, I don’t think retaliatory justice is the way to go, but it certainly hold a small amount of appeal in a world where ti seems plea bargains and slaps on the wrist are doled out to the worst offenders in our society as they set about defrauding the country…
But I’m getting political now, so time to wrap this up and mull over these laws more in future posts.