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). 

Saturday, April 14, 2018

David's Epic Fail

Prairie Chapel (Photo: Crystal Gillespie)
It's a story we've all heard before: David's notorious rendezvous with Bathsheba. But how well do we actually understand the dynamics of the narrative?

I was asked to preach on 2 Samuel 11-12 in chapel at Prairie College, and I soon found that my questions far outnumbered the answers.

  • Why is David not with his men in battle?
  • Why is he getting up in the evening?
  • Why can David see Bathsheba bathing?
  • Does Bathsheba want to be seen bathing?
  • Is it normal to bathe outside?
  • Is there indoor plumbing in Jerusalem during David's reign?
  • Is Bathsheba bathing at home or in a public pool?
  • How is a ritual bath different than a regular one?
  • Is her bath 7 days after the beginning of her period? or 7 days after it ended? (This determines whether she could have conceived during a one-night stand. See Leviticus 15:19 and 18:19)
  • How could David not know Bathsheba? She's married to one of his 30 mighty men, and the daughter of another mighty man.
  • How does she feel when David summons her?
  • Is David's primary motivation sexual or political?
  • When she sends words to David that she is pregnant, what does she hope David will do?
  • Does Uriah know what has taken place?
  • Is David trying to cover his guilt? or save face?
  • Why does David send Uriah a gift? Is this his way of buying Uriah's silence?
  • Is David trying to catch Uriah in a ritual infraction? Normally, David's men are prohibited from sexual intimacy during a military campaign (1 Sam 21:4-5; Deut 23:9-11).
  • Does David think that Uriah knows his wife his pregnant? or that he doesn't know?
  • Does Uriah guess the contents of the letter he brings to Joab?
However we answer these questions, what becomes crystal clear is that David thinks he has all the power. He is like a master chess player, shrewdly planning his moves so that his opponents are left with no way out. And who is his opponent? A member of his own team. It reminds me of another king of Israel who spent all his royal energy chasing a successful commander from his own army all through the wilderness. Doesn’t it? What has happened to David that he should become so much like Saul? Perhaps he feels Uriah is a threat. We’re not told. At the very least, Uriah stands in the way of what David wants. And David has come to believe that because he has power, he can have whatever he wants, when he wants it. Is David feeling like ‘less of a man’ because he’s not on the front lines fighting? Does this conquest of his neighbor’s wife and life restore his sense of power? If so, it shows us how twisted David’s thinking has become.

Let’s be clear: This is not about David’s sexual needs. He has 7 wives and multiple concubines by this point in the story. If he was “in the mood,” he had plenty of honorable options. David is living in a dream world of his own making, a world where he’s above the law and can have whatever he wants. To make matters worse, his men are on the front lines, far from the comforts of home and wife, fighting his battles. 

The hinge of the narrative is when God takes a page from David's playbook by sending Nathan to him. Nathan is shrewd enough to know that he must awaken David’s conscience before his rebuke will hit home. How does he awaken a king whose conscience has been lulled into delusional thinking? He tells a story. It works. In response, David unwittingly pronounces his own sentence. And Nathan goes for the jugular: “YOU are the man.”

David has a lot to say in the Psalms about those who accuse him falsely. But this time the accusation is painfully true. David has failed abysmally. David knows he is in the wrong. This is where his story becomes an example for us to follow. His response is just two words in Hebrew, “I have sinned against YHWH.” He offers no defense. No equivocation. He’s been caught in the act.

I can imagine the responses he might have given: But she shouldn’t have been naked where I could see her! But Uriah should have gone home to his wife and I wouldn’t have had to have him killed! But the Ammonites killed him, not me! David offers none of these excuses. He simply takes responsibility.

With every failure we stand at a crossroads. We can hedge and whine and deflect and give excuses, shifting the blame, or we can take responsibility, repent, and become reconciled to God.

David’s more lengthy confession is found in Psalm 51. This psalm is his cry for mercy. With no small irony, David asks God to bathe him: “Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin! . . . Cleanse me with hyssop and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.” 

May each of us have the courage to face our failures, own our sin, and receive God's mercy.

You can listen to my entire message here.