The Ten Commandments are widely regarded as the foundation of Western jurisprudence. But they are also regarded as hopelessly archaic and old-fashioned. Some of them (Don’t murder. Don’t steal.) seem like common sense rules for people living in any kind of community. Others (Don’t commit adultery. Don’t desire what belongs to your neighbor.) seem to run counter to modern sensibilities. Still others (Don’t misuse God’s name. Don’t work on the Sabbath.) just seem pointless now. I propose taking a look at the Ten Commandments structured as a top-ten list, which allows me to start with number 10 and end with number 1.
The Ten Commandments are sometimes called the Decalogue, literally ten words. They were originally given to people who were mostly shepherds and nomads, without much use for the sort of tomes that get passed into law by Congress nowadays. They had to be succinct and clear. Most of them can be thought of as a two-word prohibition. Here they are rendered as briefly as I can:
- No other gods
- No images
- No misusing God’s name
- No work on Sabbath
- Honor parents
- No murder
- No adultery
- No stealing
- No lying
- No coveting
Of course, there’s a good deal more to the Law than this. There are regulations for all kinds of things, some with no discernible relation to these ten. (What possible reason could God have for prohibiting wearing clothes made from two different materials? Lev 19:19). Yet a good deal of the Law seems to be exposition of these ten. You can almost here the objections people have: “Is it murder if I accidentally kill someone in a fight when I was only trying to seriously injure him?” “Is it stealing to take something I find abandoned in a field, even if it’s not mine?” As soon as someone makes a law, someone else will be right there trying to find a loophole, and the law will get a little longer and a little harder to understand but hopefully more just. There will be judges whose job it is to interpret the law and determine whether a particular loophole is in keeping with the intent of the law. And the judges decisions will become precedents and affect how the law is interpreted going forward.
In fact, it was just this sort of process that culminated in a law so fraught with traditions and human interpretations that it was no longer recognizable, and Jesus rejected it and sought to cut through the layers of interpretation to the spirit of the Law. So he tells his followers that hatred is the equivalent of murder, that looking at a woman with lust is the equivalent of adultery, that the Sabbath was made for man not man for the Sabbath. Again and again he confronts the religious leaders who were condemning the poor while excusing their own violations of the law on technicalities. So I’m not much interested in the traditional interpretations of the commandments. I would like to get at the spirit behind them.
Next time, I’ll start with number 10: No coveting.