Tuesday, July 25, 2006

He commanded you to perform even ten commandments (Exod 20:12-17)

In the transition between commandments about God and commandments about interpersonal relationships, we find the fifth commandment:
Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.
This is an interesting commandment for numerous reasons. First of all, its place within the list is interesting. Many have suggested that the commandments are in order of importance, and in the case of the last five, most likely even atheists would agree. However, even if you accept something important about God that trumps other issues here in the material world, one may well wonder why honoring your parents is considered more important than even avoiding killing. It's been said that there exists an issue here that parents, while not God, are representing a God-like authority over their own children. Very often the New Testament writers use the relationship between a child and parent as a model of the relationship between a believer and God.

As the Bible comments on itself in Ephesians 6:2, this is the first commandment that comes with a promise attached to it. It may be that the promise is a special supernatural blessing given by God, but on the other hand, there may be a perfectly natural explanation for this promise that parallels the explanation I gave for the curses mentioned elsewhere. Reject authority, and you and your children will have trouble as a natural consequence. Obey authority, and things will go well.

Now, the SAB has two comments on this verse, one that's vital, and the other that's, well, just sort of odd. How should parents be treated? The answer is pretty obvious; one should honor one's parents. The difficulty comes in the interpretation of the verses that seem to suggest otherwise. The two verses that have the infamous quote by Jesus of "Who is my mother?" is a toughie, really a matter of personal interpretation. Jesus spent a large portion of his ministry working on identifying himself with the people he was ministering to, and to God the Father. I tend to think that those verses are his way of saying that his family is bigger than just his blood relatives. The "Let the dead bury their dead" quote is one often misunderstood. The man Jesus was talking to did not have presently dead parents, but was saying essentially, "I'd like to follow you, but I think I'll wait until my parents have passed away, is that okay?" The answer was, "No, not really." Of course, as misunderstanding goes, few verses are as often misunderstood (and with good reason) as the "...hate not his father, and mother..." verse. The standard explanation, which is definitely true in part at least, is that one's love for Jesus should be so strong that all other relationships should seem like hateful ones in comparison. I think it's possible that there may be more to it than that, however, to be generous to the skeptic who can't quite buy this explanation. The Bible has a confusing way of describing the life of the Christian in terms of a series of love/hate relationships. We're told that we can't love the world, but we're told that God loved the world; what gives? The fact is, there are people in the world who are loved by God, and should be loved by you, but at the same time, they do things that are not lovely. If the people you love are keeping you from realizing your full potential, then you'd be better off hating them than loving them. This even goes for your parents.

Is it OK to call your father (or anyone else) father? Wow, what a question! The fact is, I have actually met a guy who took Matthew 23:9 fully literally and did not call his biological father "father". I don't think there is a call to take it that way, though. The point of the passage in Matthew is not that titles are somehow inherently evil, but that people shouldn't be looking to show off with fancy titles. Does anyone really think that Jesus is advocating referring to your biological father as "dear old Mom's sperm donor" or some such nonsense? I'll admit, this is a confusing issue, but I don't think it's meant to imply something absurd.
Thou shalt not kill.
This one seems very straightforward. But of course, it's not. The SAB points out numerous verses that seem to place a stamp of approval on killing. The first thing to note is that it appears that the SAB has avoided one of the usual pitfalls in misunderstanding this verse. It's my understanding that in the Hebrew, the word for "kill" is clearer, and means something more akin to "murder"; the implication is that this commandment doesn't apply to things like killing animals for meat, killing attackers in self-defense, or killing enemy combatants in war. Instead of dragging out no doubt hundreds of verses that would deal with those issues, the SAB brings up a handful of very pertinent ones that are likely among the most troubling.

The Exodus 32:27 passage is troubling because these are Israelites killing fellow Israelites, at a point in time just a little over a month after our current moment we're studying in chapter 20. In Numbers 15:35, just a short time later, we see another instance of Israelites killing Israelites. In both instances, there was no act of aggression on the part of the person(s) attacked, and the attackers were ordered by God Himself to do the attacking. (The third verse cited on that page could conceivably fall under the heading of war, but I'll address it further when I get to it, as there are special circumstances there.) There's no getting around it that this is more than a bit disturbing. I used to know a guy who, when cornered on a debate concerning the Bible would often retreat to: "Do you think it's right to stone a man FOR GATHERING STICKS?!?!" It was seldom apropos, but a good question nonetheless. The fact that both of these things happened in the very early days of Israel being established as a nation seems significant to me. I think that this was a time when God was in the process of teaching the nation as a whole that He was serious about His devotion to them, and He wanted them to be serious in their devotion to Him. So, He made examples of a few key people at this early time; it's the only way it makes sense to me. These people seem to have just heard the Ten Commandments spoken to them by God Himself, and yet there they are, breaking most if not all of them just a few days later.
Thou shalt not commit adultery.
It's interesting to me that the SAB gives this one the thumbs up. A lot (well, some, at least; I don't know what portion) of atheists are against the idea of sexuality between consenting adults being considered wrong. Attitudes towards sexuality are hardly universal among either atheists or Christians. "Is it wrong to commit adultery?" the SAB asks. The answer is a very clear "Yes," although admittedly, the term "adultery" is never very clearly defined, and must be gathered from contexts. The verses cited by the SAB are really stretching. Numbers 31:18, while sounding rather offensive to the much more feminist culture we live in, is not adultery. It's fair to assume that if they were going to sleep with these women, they would be married to them. As for the verses from Hosea, the prophet Hosea was ordered by God to marry a woman who was an adulteress. This is not the same as ordering him to commit adultery at all. (Why was he ordered to do so? Like a number of the prophets, he was made to live out an allegory in his life. Check out the book, it's one of the easier prophets to read.)
Thou shalt not steal.
Is it wrong to steal? Once again, I think this one is clear. The verses brought up by the SAB to suggest the Bible supports stealing are all matters of people taking back what rightly belongs to them. I discussed this some back in a previous post.
Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.
This tends to be interpreted as "Don't lie." If you read it carefully, it's not so broadly about lying so much as it is about slander. Still, it's reasonable to treat it as though it were about lying in general. The SAB asks Is it OK to lie? As I said way back at the beginning of the book when this question first surfaced, lying is wrong in general, but there are cases in which lying may be justified, such as in order to save a life.
Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour'swife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour's.
Last one! Coveting is a bit set aside from the other ones in that rather than an action, it's about the way a person thinks. If you're breaking this commandment, nobody but God will know. Why is it included at all? And why are there passages that seem to command coveting? Well, most obviously, one can look at what is being coveted and realize a fundamental difference. Coveting somebody else's stuff vs. coveting to be a better Christian? There's a clear difference there. The command talks about coveting things that do not belong to you, whereas Paul is talking about things that do belong to the Christian. He's saying, "This really is rightfully yours, so be excited about God giving it to you!" On a less obvious note, the Greek word that is rendered "covet" here is never rendered "covet" in any other passage. Generally, it refers to being zealous about something, and in fact, is the root word for zealous; in both places the Greek is zeloute.

Oh, and slavery is a side-issue that I have already discussed (and discuss again in a later post in greater detail.)

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