Saturday, July 24, 2004

Exodus 20. The Ten Commandments.

No mere blog entry could do credit to the Ten Commandments. However the reader should consult Rabbi Joseph Telushkin's "Biblical Literacy," which brings out the meaning of the Commandments more clearly than other source of my ken. (Note: Catholics parse the Commandments differently than Protestants, dividing the coveting of the neighbor's wife from the coveting of his goods and combining the two first commandments. Telushkin follows the Protestant formula).

1.  I am the Lord your God... who brought you out of Egypt.  Telushkin points out that this is not a commandment in the sense of being a directive.  Maimonides sees it as the first Commandment, with the implicit directive to the Israelites to believe in Jehovah.  The philosophers Hasdai ibn Crescas and Don Isaac Abravanel, however, point out that in Hebrew, these are the Aseret ha-Dibrot, meaning the Ten Statements: one statement and 9 commandments. 
2.  You shall have no other gods before me.  Telushkin points to nationalism as a particularly dangerous idol.  Money is the idol Jesus pointed to as the most dangerous one.

3.  You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God....  Telushkin emphasizes that this is not simply using the Lord's name as a curse.  Rather, when the name of God is used to promote injustice or wrongdoing, this alienates others from God.  This commandment therefore carries the threat of punishment. 

4.  Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy....  For people who had been slaves, this represented a clear break from their past and-- because it also protected foreigners and slaves they held-- a promise not to become oppressors like Pharaoh. 

5.  Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long....  This commandment carries with it a reward, rather than a punishment.

6.  You shall not murder.  Telushkin points out that this is not a universal proscription against killing.  It is a prohibition against the unlawful taking of life. However, Telushkin misses a vital point in failing to recognize that in most situations of the lawful taking of life, there is some uncertainty.  While this has emerged as a powerful issue in challenging the death penalty, similar uncertainties apply to other cases in which we take life, particularly war.

7.  You shall not commit adultery.  In the original context, Telushkin says, this applied only to married women and their lovers.  A married man was free to play the field.

8.  You shall not steal. 

9.  You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.  Telushkin focuses narrowly on the issue of testimony in court, saying that other verses of the Torah advise against dishonesty and pointing to the fact that God ordered Samuel to lie (1 Sam. 16:1-3).  But for the Christian, this cannot be acceptable.  Not only is the example (1 Sam. 16:1-3) pathetically weak as a defense of lying, the gospels instruct us that Satan is the father of lies.  From a Christian standpoint, uttering any falsehood, or even an accusation which one is not certain is true-- even if done for what one believes to be God's purposes-- amounts to treason. 

10.  You shall not covet....  "The greed of the eye," as it has been termed, is one of the most widespread of sins.  For example, as we age, we covet youth. The happy man or woman covets nothing and accepts what s/he has as everything that is desirable. 


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