Monday, July 24, 2006

The ten commandments, which the LORD spake (Exod 20:1-11)

So God speaks, and tells them the Ten Commandments. (I'll refrain from using quotes now, as I will mean Exodus 20:2-17 by the phrase from now on unless I need to return in the future to the discussion of my last post.)

The first phrase in verse two is debated most often as to whether or not it is one of the commandments, perhaps by itself or part of the first commandment.
I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.
Well, grammatically, it's not a command, is it? As a child, it occurred to me that while it isn't grammatically in the form of a command, it does imply something of a command, that being that God is demanding recognition as God. For this reason, some people like to group it as part of the first commandment, which seems to be on this subject. (Actually the first three or four commandments are largely about God and who He is and what sort of respect He demands from His people.) My personal take is that this verse serves the same sort of purpose as the Preamble of the U.S. Constitution. God starts out the list of commandments by stating who He is and what He has done for this nation of people. This is to make sure we remember why these commandments hold force. Some people don't find it a convincing argument, but in a sense it's true: God makes the rules because He is God. In the specific case of the Israelites, He has not only created them, but He has worked a series of miracles to redeem them from their state of slavery. So because of who God is and what God has's a list of important rules, starting with
Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
Not as straightforward as one might hope. Sure, it's a simple statement, but when you unpack it, the inevitable question arises: "Other" gods? How many gods are there? Well, in the most important sense, there is only one, but there are other ways to approach the question that I have already addressed. So what else?
Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.
This is a big one, and once again, we are presented with many issues. Some people take this in a fully literal sense, that you can't make images of any kind whatsoever. The SAB points out that if this verse is meant in that way, God is contradicting Himself. I suspect that what's really going on here is a grammatical construct that doesn't translate well into English, like a double negative (completely acceptable in many other languages). The issue here is not the images themselves (although admittedly the Hebrew word here is never used in a positive manner in the Bible) but the way in which they are responded to. One has to always remember that God is our creator and our redeemer, and never mistake a hunk of metal for Him.

Idolatry is a topic that has many layers to it, and causes a number of people to get squeamish about certain things. A Jewish friend of mine once remarked that He didn't understand why Christians worshipped the cross, and to him, it looked like idolatry. I pointed out to him that as a child being raised in a synagogue, it often seemed to me that if someone from the outside were to watch us as we worshipped, they might get the mistaken impression that we worshipped the Torah, which is kept in a fancy box in the front of the congregation, taken out and paraded around, people don't touch it with their bare hands, but occasionally kiss its cover. This is the fine line between worshipping and revering. There is nothing wrong with having respect for things that we know are important to God. Among some sects of Christianity, this comes up in discussions of the distinction between idolatry and .

What about that last bit concerning God punishing children for the sins of their fathers? Does God really do that? Well, I discussed it some back here, but there is more to be said, I think. It really is an issue that has to do with the whole of the first three commandments, and the statement that God is "jealous". Is it okay for God to be jealous? I'm a bit surprised that it hasn't come up yet, nor is it commented on here, but many people have a big problem with God's "attitude", if you will. Why does God care so much about whether or not people worship Him? Well, it's because, for whatever deeper theological reasons that I won't go into here, since it could be a post unto itself (and maybe will be some time), following God is the right thing to do. Not following God and listening to His commandments is a recipe for disaster. God is jealous not in the sense that he feels put down by people who don't worship Him, but that He knows what's best, and He is sad for us when we make poor decisions, including not following Him. So back to what I had said before about punishing children for their parents' mistakes and tying it in here, not only will people who do not follow God find troubles in their life (and afterlife) as a result, but they will lead their children in their ways. Children of abusive parents tend to grow up to be abusive parents themselves. Children of alcoholics tend to become alcoholics. And here, I think the implication is that children of idolaters will tend to be idolaters.
Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.
Hmm, no comment from the SAB, so perhaps it's taken as clear? This is a deeper one than most realize, though. It's not about swearing per se. It's about using God's name in any way that is short of the full respect God demands. As I said before, a "name" is often synonymous with a reputation. If you use God's name as a curse word, then you are equating God with something base, which is wrong. But you are also in trouble if you go around telling people that God has said things He has not, and you misrepresent God in any way. The full implications of this commandment are tough to fully fathom, I think.
Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.
The SAB has quite an interesting bit to say on this commandment. As for whether the Sabbath must be kept, I point back to a previous post, but as for the question of interpretation of "days" and the scientific implication thereof, I plead artistic license. While I argued throughout the early chapters of Genesis that I don't think it entirely logically inconsistent to assume six literal 24-hour days, I also don't think that this passage demands that interpretation.

There is a passage in the New Testament in which Jesus refers to the prophet Jonah being swallowed by a whale (fish?), and I have heard pastors point to this and say, "See? Jesus is saying that Jonah was a real person, and really was swallowed by a whale!" I don't buy it. If you're going to assume that every time Jesus (or somebody else of authority in the Bible) mentions a person or thing, that implies an endorsement of that thing as being real, then we're back to the problem of the first commandment, in which God mentioning "other gods" would therefore be confirming the truth of polytheism. Just as I could refer to myself cutting down a tree "with the might of Paul Bunyan", so could Jesus refer to a well-known myth of Jonah, and God could refer to the allegory of a six-day creation. It's all in the matter of making a point, not necessarily driving home a tangential factoid.

These four commandments are the ones dealing with our relationship with God. Tomorrow, I will hopefully get through the ones dealing with interpersonal relationships.

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