Several years ago comedian Stephen Colbert was interviewing a US congressman in what Colbert said was the 24th in his 434 part series of looking at each of the congressional districts, and representatives, in the country. At the end of this conversation Colbert noted that the congressman had co-sponsored a bill to have the Ten Commandments displayed in the House of Representatives and the Senate. After the congressman described why he thought the Ten Commandments are an important, essential, moral compass for the nation, Colbert asked him: “What are the Ten Commandments?” Congressman: “What are all of them? You want me to name them all?” Colbert, nodding: “Yes, please,” holding up all ten of his fingers to start checking them off. Congressman, turning slightly red: “Mmmm. Don’t murder. Don’t lie. Don’t steal. Ummmm. I can’t name them all.” Colbert, after several seconds of pausing for effect, then reaching out to shake his hand: “Congressman, thanks for taking time away from keeping the Sabbath day holy to talk to me.” Apparently the interview was happening on a Sunday.
It is funny and painful to watch, a combination that very few do better than Stephen Colbert. It also illustrates something about general attitudes toward the Ten Commandments. We have a broad sense that these are an important set of moral statements, but much less clarity on what they actually mean, or, perhaps, what they actually are. Even something as straightforward as one of the statements the congressman could remember is less than perfectly clear. “Don’t murder.” The King James Version has classically translated this “Thou shalt not kill.” As much as peace minded folks would like to use this as an injunction against all killing, including capital punishment and warfare, the Hebrews had a number of words for killing, and this one seems to refer just to the shedding of innocent blood, with a different word being used for the killing of warfare. One could always argue that we must expand “innocent blood” to include everyone created in the image of God, in all circumstances, but that only emphasizes that the command itself needs further interpretation.
To complicate matters, surprisingly, there is not even agreement on what the Ten Commandments are. Jews, Roman Catholics, and those of the Reformed traditions each have their own different ways of numbering the commandments. For example, the Reformed count “You shall have no other gods before me” and “You shall not make for yourself an idol” as two separate commandments, while Catholics, Lutherans, and Jews count them as one. To make up for this, Catholics and Lutherans split up the commandment to not covet into two separate commandments about different things not to covet. Jews keep the “Do not covet” statements as a single commandment, but include another to get ten, a point that we’ll get back to in a bit and helps shape what this is all about.
What is agreed upon is that there are ten of these things. After the incident with the golden calf in which Moses becomes the first person to literally break the law, by throwing down and shattering the stone tablets in disgust, Deuteronomy 10:4 states: “Then God wrote on the tablets the same words as before, the ten commandments that the Lord had spoken to you on the mountain out of the fire on the day of the assembly.” So there you go. There’s ten. But, to add one more twist in our perception of what these things are, the three times this phrase is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, “the ten commandments,” the actual word used is not “commandments,” but “words” The Ten Words that the Lord has spoken. This points back to that Hebrew understanding of the word of God that was at the forefront last week in Genesis 1, the Divine creative utterance which forms reality. Each of the Ten Words is itself a series of words that does just this. By voicing these Ten Words to the people of Israel, God is creating a new human community, speaking it into being.
When Keith compiled and gave me this list of the CMF 12 Scriptures that were discerned during the Sunday school hour I was curious about some of the discussion that happened and why certain scriptures were chosen. One of Keith’s observations was that the choice of the Ten Commandments was a popular one among the children who participated. It does not necessarily represent an adult choice of a scripture that falls into the top 12, but, if we include children, it qualifies as one of the finalists. Keith also commented, and I had to agree, that he thought this was kind of cool, that the younger ones among us have their voices register in the outcome of the process. And, they do have a point on this one. The Ten Commandments are one of the few passages in the Hebrew Scriptures that appear twice, once in Exodus, chapter 20, and again in Deuteronomy, chapter five. Apparently the younger people learned something from their parents and their teachers, that when something gets repeated, it means you’re supposed to pay attention.
This choice by young people also brings up another point. We tend of think of this as legal material, embedded in the Torah with its various laws and regulations, commandments, decrees, and sets of social guidelines for the people of Israel. Biblical scholar Dennis Olson puts a different spin on this. In a book about Deuteronomy, he suggests that the Ten Commandments, introduced toward the beginning, in chapter five, provide an outline for the following chapters 6-28. In other words, the following chapters of Deuteronomy serve as commentary and expansions of each of the Ten Commandments, in the order they are given, such that the Ten Commandments serve somewhat as chapter titles for the material that follows. And Olson makes this observation: “These expansions and interpretations…suggest that Deuteronomy understands the law and commandments primarily in the context not of a courtroom but of a classroom…Deuteronomy is more a catechetical book than a law book. Elders, teachers, and parents are to use the book more than lawyers and judges. Deuteronomy is primarily aimed at a new generation in need of growth and maturity.” (Deuteronomy and the Death of Moses, p. 44)
I find this to be a refreshing way of thinking about the Ten Commandments and it seems to say that our kids get this intuitively, and that a few of our congressman don’t quite get it. It is How to Be Human 101. Like other lists and collections in the Bible – the Beattitudes of Jesus in Matthew, the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians, the armor of God in Ephesians – these are meant to be basic teaching tools for spiritual and character formation about what it means to be a human being.
Abbie and I have just come back from a week at the Abbey of Gethsemani, where the monks have committed to a life of stability, work, and contemplation. This is the same place where I began my Sabbatical last summer and I remember sharing with you after returning from there that my first few days that I was there I found myself feeling sorry for these monks. Here I was, able to read and sleep – and leave – at my leisure, choosing to join or not join the monks during any of their seven daily prayer times. But they were trapped. They had surrendered their freedoms through their monastic vows. It took me a couple days to accept the potential freedom of their calling that they could experience at Gethsemani, perfectly captured in those words of the young Thomas Merton as he was first entering the order, calling the place “the four walls of my new freedom.”
This brings us back to the Jewish understanding of these Ten Words, that elusive tenth commandment, which for them is the first on the list. Exodus 20 begins this way: “God spoke all these words, saying: I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage: You shall have no other gods before me.” In the Jewish mind, two of the ten words have already been given at this point. The first Word, which we typically don’t include, because it’s not a commandment at all is this: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage.”
The first Word is a statement of freedom and grace. Of deliverance from bondage. Recalling an act of God which brought an enslaved people out of slavery, to form a completely new community, based not on Pharoah’s economy of domination, but based on an economy of generosity, abundance, and the gift of enough. Framed in this way, the other nine words offer graceful insights into how to be free.
What the ten commandments offer, as an invitation and as a warning, is a way to remain free from the slaveries of our own choosing. “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” The whole point, is radical freedom. And yet, there is an awareness here, that after having been delivered from Egypt, from whatever bondage we have been a part of, we easily enter back into voluntary bondage. We can become enslaved by allowing something like money or status to control our lives – you shall have no other gods, but God. We can become enslaved to busyness and productivity and quantifiable measurable results. Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. Cease from work and allow all those around you even your animals, to cease from work. Because in Egypt, you had no rest, but you’re not in Egypt anymore.
Do not commit adultery. This is a bit of an aside, but connected with the temptations of status – not the evils of status, but the temptations of status. Something I just learned recently is that when your status goes up in society – you get a promotion, you get elected to office, you get placed in a position that is seen as having a higher status than the one you were in before – the testosterone level in your body literally increases. This is a hormone connected with sex drive for men and for women. And tests are showing that status promotion elevates testosterone levels, apparently pretty much across the board for men, and for about 50% of women. This is a biological fact that we are inheriting from the evolutionary past and, whatever good it may have served us back in the day, it can be a cause of struggle now. This is not something they tell you when they shake your hand for the promotion. Well done, and by the way, for a while you’re going to be thinking about sex more often and you may find it more challenging to stay within your commitments to your spouse. Congratulations.
With the first commandment, the first Word, as an invitation to freedom, the following nine commandments are illustrations of the contours of that freedom, reminders that freedom always occurs within the bonds of community, within a network of relationships. And so these obligations and commandments teach us how to be free within these relationships. Freedom that only serves the small self, the personal ego, rather than the larger self – the community and the planetary network of life – can end up being a return to slavery: The taking of innocent life – do not murder. Taking what does not belong to us: Do not steal. Even being overly consumed with desire for what does not belong to us: Do not covet.
It’s been said that you can’t break the commandments. You can only be broken over them. To break a commandment is to become less free. The commandments have no punishments listed after them and in a sense carry their own natural consequences. Because we are relational beings, the path to freedom goes through the commandments, which have to do with right relationship. And, if we become broken over one of the commandments, the process of reconciliation and forgiveness is what helps restore us back to right relationship, which becomes such a major theme of the biblical story and the teachings of Jesus. They are bookended with grace – at the beginning, and what comes after.
As most parents discover rather quickly, a list of “Thou shalt nots” is not all that effective or inspiring for children. Rather than giving our children a moral code with strict punishments, we seek to help guide them on a path that will enable them to obtain the fullness of their unique personhood. We want them to be free. And we ourselves, beloved children of God every one, are learning what it means to be free, to come into the fullness of our humanity, to be in loving relationship with others in a way that allows all of us to flourish. Because we have been delivered from Egypt, we have tasted the sweetness of the promised land, and it is good.