Monday, June 11, 2018

#readwomen: Taking the Challenge

Last month, InterVarsity Press launched a new campaign that piqued my interest: #readwomen.

IVP (and its parent organization, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship) has long been a champion of women authors. So why did this campaign grab my attention?

Two reasons:

(1) Because I was about to submit a book proposal to IVP. Here was a publisher that not only seemed interested in my work, but was making a concerted effort to market books by women authors.

(2) Because I know from experience that books by women in the areas of Bible and Theology are few and far between. Don't believe me?

My Personal Biblical Studies Library. Books with their spines showing
were written (all or in part) by women. (Photo: C Imes)
Here is a photo of my personal library in Biblical Studies and Theology. After I heard about #readwomen I wanted a visual illustration of how few women publish books on the Bible and Christian Theology. I turned backwards every book written by men so that only the spines of those written by women are showing.

During my doctoral studies at Wheaton College, we were required to read and write reviews on 35 key books in the field of Old Testament. None of these were written by women. We were also to become familiar with the contents of another 193 books in preparation for our comprehensive exam. Only 9 were written, co-written, or edited by women. I did the math for you. That's under 4%.

My dissertation is published by Eisenbrauns in the Bulletin for Biblical Research Supplement Series. Though it is the 19th volume in the series, mine is the first written by a woman. That's 5%.

My (mostly) New Testament shelves
with books by women showing.
(Photo: C Imes)
After a tour of my office, a colleague asked why I think so few books in Bible and Theology have been written by women. The answer is undoubtedly complex, but I suspect that the primary reason is the decades-long prohibition in many denominations of the ordination of women. Ministry roles open to women have not typically required seminary education, so women have often not been encouraged to pursue learning. This has resulted in very few female role models for women who feel drawn to biblical and theological studies. Without the training to write academic works, these women have invested their many talents elsewhere. 

It should be clear from this photo that I owe most of what I know about the Bible to men. I am immensely grateful for all the men who have trained me through their writings. I do not for a moment wish that these men would stop writing. Keep on, brothers!

Nor do I wish for any of these books by men to disappear. Now that I've taken photos for you, all the books by men are turned back in their rightful direction, where I can continue to refer to them often. Still, I'm thankful for the #readwomen campaign because if we only read books by men, we're not getting the full picture of what there is to know. If we only read books by white authors, or by North Americans, our view of things is still partial.

According to PhD research by IVP senior editor Al Hsu, "women read fairly evenly between male and female authors (54% / 46%), but . . . men read 90% male authors and only 10% female authors. That’s why the #ReadWomen campaign is needed, to highlight how we all benefit from reading women’s voices and hearing perspectives from the whole body of Christ."

Men and women are different. God made us different. And for that reason, we need to listen to one another. We bring unique perspectives and life experiences to the table.

Two summers ago I wrote about my compulsion to write (it's okay to laugh at the redundancy). Every one of us has something we must do. Something without which we feel out of sorts. Writing is one of those things for me. Seeing my bookshelves with so few spines showing was a powerful motivation to get busy. I've had a sign on my office door since school got out: 

Summer Schedule
WRITING LOCKDOWN
UNTIL NOON
Please email with anything urgent.

It's working.
Every day, writing comes first.

And I have good news -- 

InterVarsity Press has just offered me a contract for my new book!

This one will unpack the research from my MA thesis and PhD dissertation for a wider audience. I discovered so many things that every Christian should know, but at the moment all that learning is hiding behind a lot of academic jargon and other languages. Most people would find it a frustrating read. In the words of my grandma, who kindly bought a copy of my published dissertation and attempted to read it, "It's not just the Hebrew that's a problem. I can't even understand the English." In contrast, my new book is written like a series of blog posts in plain English so anyone can read it.

Meanwhile, what's on your summer reading list?
Here are a few of my absolute favorite books by women:

Ruth Haley Barton, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership
and Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation
Sandra Richter, The Epic of Eden: A Christian Entry into the Old Testament
Karen H. Jobes, Letters to the Church: A Survey of Hebrews and the Catholic Epistles
Carolyn Custis James, Half the Church: Recovering God's Global Vision for Women
Lynn Cohick (co-author), The New Testament in Antiquity
And if you haven't read the Sensible Shoes series yet by Sharon Garlough Brown, don't waste another minute. Brown blends fiction and Christian formation in a captivating way!

Will you take the challenge? Which one will you read?

Or maybe, like me, you'll take up the challenge to write a book this summer. 
What have you learned that others could benefit from hearing?

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Racial Injustice Today? (Part Five)

Bryan Stevenson is a modern day hero. As a young lawyer, he devoted his life to the cause of justice. His work on death row uncovered the sobering realities of systemic racial injustice today in our prison system. In my most recent post on Racial Injustice, I cited a number of statistics pointing to injustice in the American court system. African Americans living in the US today are much more likely to be given the death penalty than white Americans accused of the same crime. Decades of injustice in our court system have resulted in a largely disproportionate number of black inmates on death row, many of whom were not given a fair trial.

One of these was Walter McMillian, an upstanding business owner who was put on death row before he even faced trial for a 1986 murder he could not possibly have committed. Innocent until proven guilty? Apparently not if you're black in America. McMillian's only "criminal history" was a consensual affair with a white woman. McMillian was at home with his family at the time of the murder. Dozens of people could vouch for that, as there was a fish fry fundraiser for church members going on in his front yard all that day. His arrest satisfied a white community bent on finding the perpetrator of the crime. He was framed by a white social outcast with criminal background whose outlandish accusations against McMillian were a ploy to gain attention and a more lenient sentence. The accuser was known as an unreliable witness with a colorful history of criminal activity. The concocted story was corroborated by a black prisoner in exchange for payment and for his own release from prison.

When the key witness later recanted his testimony, investigators didn't take him seriously. The trial was moved to a neighboring county, where the black population was low so a nearly all-white jury could be guaranteed. McMillian was found guilty and sentenced to death. Appeal after appeal, met with miscarriage of justice until 60 Minutes made the story national news. After 6 agonizing years on death row, further investigation revealed conclusively that McMillian was innocent.

Stevenson "founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice dedicated to defending the poor, the wrongly condemned, and those trapped in the furthest reaches of our criminal justice system" (from the back cover of his book, Just Mercy). He has courageously entered some of the darkest and most dehumanizing spaces of our nation in an effort to restore dignity and beat the drum for justice. He tells his gripping story in Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, a New York Times Bestseller readily found in your local library. Just Mercy is undoubtedly the most important book I've read on my quest to understand racial inequality in the United States. Stevenson's decades of work as a lawyer has taken him behind bars and into courtrooms and archives where you and I will never go. He brings dark stories out into the light, where they can awaken us from our ignorance and indifference.

McMillian's is only one of the many stories Stevenson tells -- stories that began in the 80s and 90s or more recently that are only now seeing the light of justice.

I invite you to listen to Stevenson himself as he describes another problem in the US criminal justice system, the sentencing of minors to life in prison without parole. He writes about a boy named Charlie who watched his mother's live-in boyfriend (a police officer) slug her in an alcoholic rage. She fell to the floor. Blood poured from her head, but the boyfriend had gone into the bedroom, leaving her unconscious in the arms of her son. This was the fourth time the man had beat her to the point of needing medical attention. Fourteen-year-old Charlie unsuccessfully tried to stop the bleeding. Finally, he went to the bedroom to call 911 for help, but found the abusive boyfriend there sound asleep. Before calling for an ambulance, Charlie found the abusive man's gun and shot him to protect himself and his mother, who he thought might already be dead. Charlie was sentenced as an adult for killing a police officer and sent to an adult prison. There he was repeatedly and brutally assaulted and raped by other prisoners (116-126). Stories like Charlie's should leave no doubt about the brokenness of our criminal justice system.

Because of the tireless work of the Equal Justice Initiative, it is now "constitutionally impermissible" to sentence children who are not guilty of homicide to life imprisonment. In cases of homicide it is no longer mandatory to sentence children to life without parole (295). This will help young people like Charlie who act in self-defense. Over 100 prisoners have been released from death row. But the work of restoring dignity and working for a more just society is just beginning.

In April 2018, a new museum was opened in Montgomery, Alabama. It unveils the sordid story of America's recent past in order to open the way for a more hopeful future. Rates of arrest, conviction, and incarceration still make it more dangerous to be black and innocent than to be white and guilty. This should not be. In his late 20s, Stevenson himself was confronted by police without cause, who illegally searched him and his car while parked outside his own apartment, quietly listening to a song on the radio. He knows firsthand how dehumanizing the wrongful assumption of guilt can be. That evening, his only guilt was being black in America.

The roots of racial prejudice still run deep. Although the US federal prohibition on inter-racial marriage was abolished in 1967 (Loving v. Virginia), by 2011 46% of Mississippi Republicans still supported a ban (29). As long as we see those with different skin color than our own as anything other than fellow humans made as God's image, we perpetuate an injustice that looks at a human and sees something less. I fear that as white Americans slowly leave behind prejudice against those of African descent, it will merely be replaced with a new "Other" -- immigrants from the Middle East or Latin America, or Asia.

Bryan Stevenson's book is no easy read. It will wreck your day, as this blog post has wrecked mine. But the longer we hide from reality, the longer injustice prevails. Let's work for a better future -- for everybody. Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight. Human. What will it take to live like we believe this is true?

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Shattered: Top Ten Myths about the Ten Commandments (Part 3)

In the first two posts of this series, I identified 9 myths about the Ten Commandments that are pervasive today. You can read those posts here and here. But I've saved the best for last. Today I'm tackling the myth that sent me on a 5-year quest for answers, resulting in a PhD and a published book. I've been waiting 7 years to share this with you!

Myth #10. The Ten Commandments prohibit the use of Yahweh's name as a swear word or in false oaths.

Exodus 20:7 reads: "You shall not take the name of the LORD, your God, in vain, for the LORD will not hold guiltless one who takes his name in vain."

I've asked a lot of people what they think this verse means (we'll call it the "Name Command"). Most people assume that the Name Command teaches that we're not supposed to use God's name as a swear word (as in the flippant, "Oh, my God!" or the harsher "God dammit"). Instead, we should use it reverently. I agree that we should honor God's name by using it reverently, but I do not think swear words are the problem that the Name Command seeks to address. 


Photo: Banner of Truth Trust
Others suggest that the Name Command prohibits false oaths. This interpretation has a very long history. To cite just one example, consider Question and Answer 93 from the Heidelberg Catechism:
Q. What is the aim of the third commandment? 
A. That we neither blaspheme nor misuse the name of God by cursing, perjury, or unnecessary oaths, nor share in such horrible sins by being silent bystanders. In summary, we should use the holy name of God only with reverence and awe, so that we may properly confess God, pray to God, and glorify God in all our words and works.
However, the Name Command says nothing about oaths or cursing. In fact, there are no speech-related words at all. Translated simply, it says, "You shall not bear the name of Yahweh, your God, in vain." Perhaps this is why I've been able to count 23 distinctly different interpretations of the Name Command. It seems like an odd statement -- how does one "bear" God's name? It's no wonder that interpreters have often gone to other passages (either inside or outside of the Bible) hoping for clarification.  Most assume that "bear the name" is short-hand for something like "bear the name on your lips," which would be to say the name, or "lift your hand to the name," which would mean to swear an oath.

But there's a much simpler explanation. We miss it because it involves a metaphor that's unfamiliar to us. Shortly after the giving of the Ten Commandments at Sinai, God gave instructions to Moses regarding the construction of the tabernacle, which will house the two stone tablets, and the official vestments of the high priest, who will officiate. The article of clothing that is of central importance to Aaron's position as high priest is a cloth chest apron studded with 12 precious stones. These stones are to be inscribed, each with the name of one of the 12 tribes of Israel. Yahweh instructs Aaron to "bear the names of the sons of Israel" whenever he enters the sacred tent (Exodus 28:12, 29). Aaron literally bears their names. He carries them on his person as he goes about his official duties. He serves as the people's authorized representative before God. He also bears Yahweh's name on his forehead, setting him apart as God's representative to the people.

As special as he is, Aaron is a visual model of what the entire covenant community is called to be and do. At Sinai, Yahweh selected Israel as his treasured possession, kingdom of priests, and holy nation (Exodus 19:5-6). All three titles designate Israel as Yahweh's official representative, set apart to mediate his blessing to all nations. By selecting the Israelites, Yahweh has claimed them as his own, in effect, branding them with his name as a claim of ownership. Because they bear his name, they are charged to represent him well. That is, they must not bear that name in vain. This goes far beyond oaths or pronunciation of God's name. It extends to their behavior in every area of life. In everything, they represent him. They are his public relations department. The nations are watching the Israelites to find out what Yahweh is like.

Not convinced yet? Look at Aaron's blessing in Numbers 6:24-27. After Aaron's ordination  as high priest (where he was clothed with the special garments) and the consecration of the tabernacle and people, his first official act was to pronounce this blessing over the people (see Leviticus 9:22). It's very likely that you've heard the blessing before. It's often used in churches and synagogues:
"May Yahweh bless you and keep you;
May Yahweh smile on you and be gracious to you; 
May Yahweh show you his favor and give you peace." 
But have you ever read the following verse? "So they will put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them."

You see? It's quite explicit. God put his name on the Israelites as a claim of ownership. They wore an invisible tattoo. They were not to bear it in vain.

Prairie College, Three Hills, AB (Photo: C Imes)
Perhaps an illustration will help. Imagine a group of students from Prairie College (the Bible college where I teach) who drive to Calgary on a Friday night wearing their Prairie College swag. They go to a bar, get totally hammered, and begin to pick fights with the other customers. Soon, they are kicked out and stagger off to their cars to drive home. On the way home, their car swerves over the center line and crashes head on into oncoming traffic, killing both drivers instantly and injuring several others. When this story hits the news, what sort of impression will it leave about Prairie College? These students may not think of themselves as representatives of the college, but by enrolling as students and wearing the name, they identify with the school. Like it or not, people's impressions of Prairie are largely formed by the behavior of its students.

So, too, with the people of God. Drawn into a covenant with Yahweh at Sinai, like it or not, they have become his representatives. At the top of the list of covenant stipulations inscribed on the stone tablets are two commands that set the stage for all the others: Worship only Yahweh, and don't bear his name in vain. These two echo the covenant formula repeated throughout the Old Testament: "I will be your God, and you will be my people." The rest of the 613 commands in the Torah flesh these out in more detail.

And that is what I think the Name Command is all about.

-----

Much more could be said, but this is a blog post, not a book. If you have more questions, you'll find a 186-page justification for this interpretation in my book, Bearing YHWH's Name at Sinai: A Reexamination of the Name Command of the Decalogue. After a brief introductory chapter, chapter 2 engages with other interpretations throughout history, chapter 3 provides extensive word studies of each of the key words in the Name Command, chapter 4 explores the literary context, and chapter 5 delves into conceptual metaphor theory, connecting the Name Command with the high priest and the wider biblical theme of "bearing Yahweh's name."

In the meantime, watch for the biblical theme of "bearing Yahweh's name" as you read the Bible. It's all over the place, once you have eyes to see! You can start with 2 Chronicles 7:14 or Ezekiel 36:20-21 in the Old Testament, and 1 Peter 4:16 or Revelation 14:1 in the New Testament.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Why Andy Stanley is Wrong about the Old Testament . . .


Andy Stanley rocked the internet this week by saying that Christians ought to “unhitch” their faith from the Old Testament. No doubt a great many who heard this were relieved. There’s a lot of gnarly stuff in the Old Testament that people struggle with (I should know. I’m an Old Testament professor. With students lined up to see me during office hours.) Stanley’s pastoral motivation for making the statement is commendable. He has watched countless people leave the faith because they could not swallow the Old Testament or its God. His hope was to win them back by focusing on the resurrection of Jesus. It’s just that he’s going about it all wrong.

Stanley is not the first person to think of this. Not long after the resurrection a leader arose in the early church who felt the same way. His name was Marcion. Marcion saw a strong distinction between the God of the Old Testament and the Jesus of the New Testament. He rejected the Old Testament and even those New Testament books that he thought were “too Jewish.”

And he was rightly condemned as a heretic early in the 3rd century.

But why?

What’s so important about the Old Testament?

Stanley concedes that it is inspired, and that it gives us the “backstory” so that we can understand the New Testament. That in itself should be enough to motivate us to keep reading it. The New Testament makes little sense without it. But the relevance of the Old Testament goes deeper than that.


New Testament authors consistently use the Old Testament as their primary source for ethical reflection. In fact, they appeal to the Old Testament far more often than they appeal to things Jesus said while he was on earth, not just for the backstory, but to guide their behavior.  In other words, they are not just reminiscing about the “bad ole’ days” when they cite the Old Testament. It remains their authority. It tells them how to live after the resurrection.

Stanley reportedly made his appeal for Christians to “unhitch” from the Old Testament while preaching on Acts 15. This is a grand irony. Acts 15 narrates the proceedings from the first church “council” meeting. Leaders have gathered to figure out what to do now that there are Gentiles who want to become disciples. Do they have to convert to Judaism first? Or can they follow Jesus as Gentiles? Conversion requires circumcision, but these folks have already received an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, which complicates matters. The Spirit is a sign of covenant membership, but these are not Jews, at least not yet. What to do?

James stands up in the meeting and delivers the clincher. He quotes Amos 9 (which is, if you don’t know, in the Old Testament). It’s a mic drop moment -- not because he has just undermined the Old Testament Law, but because he demonstrated from the Old Testament itself that Gentiles can be considered covenant members without first converting to Judaism. The council is unanimous – no circumcision necessary for Gentiles. Still, they issue 4 directives for Gentile Christians – no eating food sacrificed to idols, blood, meat of strangled animals, and no sexual immorality – each of which is associated with pagan worship practices. The reason given for these directives is the law of Moses (Acts 15:21). Did you catch that? The book of Acts demonstrates precisely the point that Stanley seems to want to avoid, namely, the law of Moses retains relevance for both Jewish and Gentile believers.

Reading it well can be tricky. Each cultural situation requires us to re-engage with it, asking new questions as we seek to be faithful to the covenant. But what we cannot do is relegate it to the archives as something of merely antiquarian interest.

So before you head out and buy your copy of the new “Perforated Bible” (which allows you to remove the parts you don’t need), wait first and read the New Testament. You’ll discover that the Old Testament cannot be so easily dismissed.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Staying Grounded at the Academic Conference

Next week I'm heading to the regional meeting for the Society of Biblical Literature. This time it's being held at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington. I'll be presenting a paper, responding to a colleague's paper, and chairing a session. I've written before about the value of these conferences. They are worth every penny.

This week InterVarsity released a piece I wrote about the spiritual side of conference attendance. What are the dangers of conference attendance? How can I avoid them? And most importantly, how can I participate in the work God is doing in the academy?

----------

I’ll never forget the euphoria of my first several academic conferences. I marked those long days in dozens — attending dozens of papers, meeting dozens of scholars, and buying dozens of books — until my brain was as distended as my suitcase. Walking between sessions, my eyes flitted from face to name tag and back again, registering surprise as bibliography entries took on flesh and passed me in the halls. In those years I “collected” sightings and handshakes, listing them in my journal on the way home. I was conscious of the danger of idolatry, but it was hard not to be giddy. The stories I brought home made me feel important-by-association.

August Konkel, Daniel Block, Jennifer Jones, Carmen Imes,
and Richard Hess at the IBR Annual Meeting, 2017
Things are different now, but equally dangerous. I know these scholars well enough now to see them as human. The seduction of the personality cult has been eclipsed by another phenomenon: they know me. Now the temptation is to “collect” stories of those who called out to say hello, sought me out during a reception, complimented my paper. In the early years it was a big deal to see Dr. So-and-So give a paper, and a bigger deal to ask a question afterward. Now Dr. So-and-So is taking me out to breakfast, asking about my work, and recommending me for committees and other projects.

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You can read the rest of my post over at The Well

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Shattered: Top Ten Myths about the Ten Commandments (Part 2)

In my previous post, I addressed 5 myths people commonly believe about the Ten Commandments. Now we're ready to tackle the next 4 myths.


Three Primary Ways the Decalogue Has Been Numbered,
from Jason S. DeRouchie, "Counting the Ten: An
Investigation into the Numbering of the Decalogue,"
in For Our Good Always: Studies on the Message and
Influence of Deuteronomy in Honor of Daniel I. Block 

(Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbruans, 2013), page 102.
Myth #6. The Ten Commandments are easy to count. Counting the Ten is not as straightforward as you might think. We know there are ten because Exodus 34:28 and Deuteronomy 4:13 both say so. The cantillation marks on the Hebrew text preserve two possible ways of counting them. The history of interpretation has introduced still others. Differences in how to count them revolve around how to handle the first several and the last two verses. Among Christians today there are two main approaches: the Reformed and the Catholic/Lutheran. For the Reformed view, "No other gods" and "No idols" are the first two commands, whereas Catholics and Lutherans take these together as the first command. They still end up with ten commands because "Do not covet" is split in two (note the two verbs). Jewish interpreters often consider the Preamble (Exodus 20:2) as the first "Word" (the Bible never refers to these as "Ten Commandments," but rather "Ten Words," so this is plausible).


Chiasm in the First Command of the Decalogue (Deut 5).
From Carmen Joy Imes, Bearing YHWH's Name at Sinai,
(Eisenbrauns, 2018), page 133. 
Mainly to be difficult, I advocate for a modified Catholic/Lutheran view in my book, taking the Preamble as part of the first command. I see a chiasm (or literary "sandwich" pattern) in Exodus 20:2-6 (or Deuteronomy 5:6-10, pictured left) that reinforces it. If this passage is split into two commands, the phrase "serve them" in Deuteronomy 5:9a has no suitable plural antecedent ("carved-image" is singular). For ancient Israelites, worshipping other gods would necessarily include images of those gods. The prohibition of images is a way of underscoring the seriousness of the command to worship only Yahweh. Whether you agree with my numbering or not, the main point here is that counting the ten is rather complicated.

Myth #7. The Ten Commandments teach that there is only one God. On the contrary, the Ten Commandments make no effort to convince the Israelites that Yahweh is the only God. Instead, they call Israel to worship only Yahweh. In a sea of options, Yahweh is the only legitimate deity deserving of worship. Rather than monotheism (the existence of one God), the Ten Commandments teach monolatry (the worship of one God). This is not to say that there are other gods, but the Israelites  and their neighbors would have assumed so. The uniqueness of Yahweh is that he calls for exclusive worship.

Myth #8. The Sabbath Command is the one command Christians no longer have to keep. This myth is very unfortunate. It results (I think) from the notion that whichever commands are not explicitly repeated in the New Testament do not apply to Christians. However, Jesus made no effort to set aside this command. True, he was not in favor of legalism. He went about doing good on the Sabbath, even when that activity came close to what some defined as "work." But he was clearly a Torah-observant Jew and did not discourage obedience to Jewish law. 

It's worth noting that Sabbath observance begins before Sinai and is not specifically connected to temple worship. Even before any commands are given, God trains his people to adopt this day of rest by providing twice as much manna on the sixth day of each week. The Sabbath is Israel's way of declaring that they trust God to provide for their needs. God's people need not scramble to provide for themselves; they can rest in God's gracious provision. For a people freed from slavery in Egypt, the Sabbath was good news indeed. Yahweh is, in effect, telling them that they no longer need to live as slaves, toiling 24-7 to build someone else's empire. Now that they belong to Yahweh, they can enjoy a healthier rhythm of work and rest. The entire household gets a day off every week.

No, the Sabbath command is not one we have to keep, it's one we are blessed to enjoy. Why would we want to do away with such a gracious gift? We have not outgrown the need to rest and trust God.


Myth #9. The Ten Commandments prohibit lying. The specific prohibition in Exodus 20:16 is "false testimony against your neighbor." One would not be hard pressed to think of occasions in which lying would have nothing to do with one's neighbor's reputation, or in which the neighbor actually benefits. Would it be appropriate to lie to Nazi soldiers about hiding Jews? To lie to your child about the cake in the refrigerator in order to preserve a birthday surprise? 

What this command actually concerns is slander -- harming someone else's reputation by saying untrue things about them. To do so would unravel the network of trust necessary for the flourishing of the covenant community.

It may seem like a slippery slope to allow for any dishonesty. How can we determine whether a given lie is appropriate? Does the end justify the means? Matthew Newkirk's 2015 book, Just Deceivers, is helpful. He examines 28 examples of deception from the David narratives. In the foreward, Daniel Block summarizes the book's conclusion: "deception was evaluated negatively [by the narrator] when the goal of the deceit was to cause unjust harm or death to someone else, or when deceivers were only looking out for their own interest. By contrast, when the intent of the deception was to prevent unjust harm or death, and when the deception was intended to benefit someone else, it was assessed positively" (page x). Another helpful plumb line is to consider whether our words reflect the character of God. Lie to your teacher about the reason your classmate is absent? Ultimately, this is neither helpful to your teacher or to the student in question, and since God "does not leave the guilty unpunished," it is a rebellious delay of inevitable consequences.

I'm saving the tenth myth for a separate post because it deserves longer justification. You can read it here.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Shattered: Top Ten Myths about the Ten Commandments (Part 1)

"The Ten Commandments" are among the most well-known passages of the Old Testament. Even those who do not attend church have at least a vague idea of what they contain. However, the most familiar passages are often encrusted with the thickest layers of distortion because of their long interpretive history. This is certainly the case with the Ten Commandments. How many of these myths have you believed?

Myth #1. The Ten Commandments embody a timeless, universal ethic. People often assume that because the Ten Commandments were written in stone, they apply to everyone throughout history, unlike the myriad of other specific laws in the Torah, which were intended for ancient Israel. But this line of thinking doesn't work. The Ten Commandments are prefaced with a clear statement of their specific audience: "I am the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slaves" (Exodus 20:2). The commands contain language very specific to that ancient culture ("Do not covet your neighbor's ox"). And they are never communicated to Israel's neighbors. When the prophets pronounce judgment on Israel's neighbors, they are not measured against the Ten Commandments. Instead, they are measured against a standard of basic human decency. Are they arrogant jerks? Have they taken advantage of other nations' misfortune or been unduly violent? None of these assessments clearly arises from the Ten Commandments. To me the most striking example of the specific audience of the Ten Commandments is the "Name Command" (Exodus 20:7). See Myth #10, in part 2 of this series.

Myth #2. The Ten Commandments were Israel's way of earning salvation. No, no, no! I have often heard this mis-characterization of Old Testament law: "The Israelites had to earn their salvation, but we have grace because of Jesus." This could not be farther from the truth. God did not send Moses to Egypt to tell the people, "Hey, I can get you all out of here, I just need you to sign on the dotted line saying that you agree to keep all these commandments." No, the commandments were given after they were already rescued, showing them how to live in freedom. They are the conditions of ongoing freedom. "Do you want to remain free? Here's a recipe for success." They are also a gracious gift from a God who makes himself accessible and calls Israel his "treasured possession" (Exodus 19:5-6). The Israelites did not have a different means of salvation in the Old Testament. Reconciliation with God has always been available to those who respond to his grace by trusting his promise and accepting his means of forgiveness for sin. 

Myth #3. The Ten Commandments are a summary of Israel's laws. It would be more accurate to say that they are the seed or source of Israel's laws. Other instructions flesh out specific ways of living faithfully to what God commands, but they also contain other domains of instruction that do not relate directly to any of the Ten Commandments, such as agricultural laws, injunctions to care for widows and orphans, or instructions for Israel's future king.

Two Stone Tablets (Photo: C Imes)
Myth #4. The Ten Commandments are divided into two groups: laws that pertain to God and laws that pertain to others. This unfortunate misunderstanding goes back many centuries and is deeply entrenched. To cite just one example, the Heidelberg Catechism states:
Q. How are these commandments divided? 
A. Into two tables. The first has four commandments, teaching us how we ought to live in relation to God. The second has six commandments, teaching us what we owe our neighbor. (Q&A 93)
But this approach betrays an inadequate view of how covenants work. These "Ten Words" are the stipulations of the covenant God made with the Israelites at Sinai (see Myth #5). In the covenant community, all of life is an expression of worship and loyalty to the God who has committed himself to these people. After David sins by lusting after his neighbor's wife, committing adultery with her, and then murdering her husband, he responds to the prophet Nathan's confrontation by saying, "I have sinned against the LORD." Later he prays to the LORD, "Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight" (Psalm 51:4a). Conversely, if just one Israelite rebels against the LORD, it puts the entire community at risk of God's judgment. An obvious example is Achan, who kept some of the plunder of Jericho in spite of God's clear instruction not to do so, resulting in Israel's defeat at Ai (Joshua 7). All ten of these commandments reflect a proper disposition toward God, and all ten affect the entire covenant community. By keeping them, the Israelites not only honored God, but also ensured that the community of faith could flourish. 


Detail of Painting by Javi G
(Photo: C Imes)
Myth #5. The Ten Commandments did not all fit on one stone tablet. This may be the most popular misconception of all. The vast majority of artistic representations of Moses and the two tablets presume that he's holding "volume 1" and "volume 2." However, we know from the biblical text that the commands were written on both sides of the tablets: 

         “And Moses turned and he went down from the mountain, and the two tablets of the [covenant] document (עֵדוּת) [were] in his hand, tablets inscribed on both sides, inscribed on front and back.” (Exodus 32:15)
The words could easily fit on two sides of a single stone tablet, even if that tablet was not much larger than Moses' hand. So why make two? For the answer we must turn to other ancient Near Eastern treaty documents. What we find is that it was standard practice to make duplicate copies of a treaty document, etched in stone. One copy belonged to each party. Each copy was customarily placed in that community's most important temple, so that their respective gods could see the terms of the treaty and watch to ensure that they remained faithful. Here's a Hittite example from a treaty between Suppiluliuma and Shattiwaza:

“A duplicate of this tablet has been deposited before the sun-goddess of Arinna, because the sun-goddess of Arinna regulates kingship and queenship. In Mitanni land [a duplicate] has been deposited before Teshub, the lord of the [sanctuary] of Kahat. At regular [intervals] shall they read it in the presence of the king of the Mitanni land and in the presence of the sons of the Hurri country.” (Kitchen and Lawrence, Treaty, Law and Covenant in the Ancient Near East, No. 56A)
In the case of Yahweh's covenant with Israel, there was only one temple (or tabernacle), and therefore Yahweh was the only deity who could ensure Israel's covenant faithfulness. Because there is no higher power who can hold Yahweh accountable, he ensured his own faithfulness as well.




I'll address 5 more myths about the Ten Commandments in my next two posts (part 2 and part 3). In the meantime, if you're looking for a more in-depth discussion of these matters, you can read more in chapter 4 of my book, Bearing YHWH's Name at Sinai: A Reexamination of the Name Command of the Decalogue (Eisenbrauns, 2018).