Few Christians realize that the ten commandments stridently address some pressing problems of our generation: massive inequality of wealth, growing refugee populations, rampant consumerism and more. In their original context the ten commandments were a platform for justice, and they are a platform for justice today. For our generation, recovering the ten commandments will equip the church to live gratefully, generously and prophetically.
The ten commandments have been cherished in every ear of the church. John Calvin said that the ten commandments are ten point summary of God’s moral law. As an old man Martin Luther said: I recite the ten commandments daily, word for word, like a child. But for many of us today, the ten commandments can seem fairly irrelevant. We read: ‘You shall not murder’ and think: ‘I haven’t murdered!’ Or, ‘You shall not steal’ – ‘I haven’t stolen! And I haven’t committed adultery! It can seem like the ten commandments are for people who are really wicked. Further the ten commandments are typically read individualistically and moralistically: they are about me, as an individual Christian, and my morality, so it is thought. However the ten commandments aren’t only about individual morality (though they do include that), rather, in their original context, the ten commandments give a pattern for life, for society, in which every person, especially vulnerable people, can thrive.
To understand the ten commandments properly we have to remember that these commandments were received by Israel only three months after crossing the red sea from slavery in Egypt. The Israelites arrived at Mt Sinai to receive these ten words with wounds on their back from the Egyptian whip.
Consider what life had been like for the Israelites in Egypt before God delivered them. The Hebrews labored in the brick factories of Pharaoh. Under the whip, they built store cities for Pharaoh: Pithom and Raamses. When brick quotas weren’t met, foremen were beaten, sometimes doubtless to death. Do you remember when Moses intervened as a Hebrew slave was beaten? That’s no children’s story.
You remember too that Male babies were systematically destroyed to reduce any threat – a practice amounting to genocide.
Exodus Chapter five narratives the chilling story of Israelite foreman requesting of Pharaoh a reduction in brick quotas. Pharaoh calls the Israelites lazy and demands that they make the same quote of bricks but with the additional burden of supplying straw themselves. This demand is impossible to meet – it is clear to the foreman that Pharaoh intends to work their people to death:
The foremen of the people of Israel saw that they were in trouble when they said, “You shall by no means reduce your number of bricks, your daily task each day.” (Ex 5:19)
Now God strategically places one Hebrew, Moses, in the courts of the empire. And one day by a burning bush God says to Moses:
“I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Ex 3:7-9)
There is a wonderful deliverance and God brings the Israelites to Mt Sinai to meet with Him. As we come to study the ten commandments now, we realize that with these laws, God is creating a new community that operates how He wants communities to operate: a place where every person can thrive. From a society of whips and slaughter to a society of mutual care.
I add at this point that the ten commandments can be roughly divided into two halves. Broadly speaking the first five commandments (the first stone tablet) are concerned with worship. The second five (the second tablet) are concerned with relating to others.
The Fourth Commandment: Sabbath Rest.
In Egypt, Israelites never had a Sabbath rest. By analogy we could reflect that no one in North Korean prison camps ever have a Sabbath rest. The sixth commandments speaks into Israel’s life of hard labor:
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. (Ex 10:8-11)
A weekly day of rest proclaimed for a nation of slaves! What a relief for these suffering people! For if a person is to thrive, life must consist of more than work: we need space for rest and play. And from today in Israel, no one, not even the animals, are to be deprived of this rhythm of work and rest, work and rest, work and rest. This rhythm is part of the created order; The world works best this way, as the command says: ‘For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. (vs 11)’ So God in a sense is returning Israel to the blessing of the garden of Eden, or perhaps taking them forward to the rhythm of the new creation, of work and rest.
For ourselves in 2012, the Sabbath command injects a life-giving pause in the endless cycle of production and insists that we don’t live in a way that deprives others people of rest. Perhaps the greatest interruption of ‘rest’ facing humanity today is global warming. In the Pacific Island of Kiribati for example, rising sea levels are already forcing people off their land, depriving them of true ‘rest’. UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon visited Kiribati recently and spoke of high tides inundating villages and roads. Recently the Presidents of both Kiribati the Maldives have pleaded with the international community to address carbon emissions for the sake of their nations and at the UN, the President of the Maldives labelled himself an ‘endangered species’. The Sabbath command injects a life-giving pause in the endless cycle of production and demands that the people of Kiribati can rest on their own land.
The Sixth Commandment: You Shall Not Murder
I will skip over to the sixth commandment, ‘You will not murder’. Traditionally this has been applied individualistically: murder is a crime. In so far as it has been applied to western states, it is usually in regards to ethical questions surrounding just war or the right of states to apply capital punishment. These questions are important. Yet the laws of the Pentateuch clarify for us that the words ‘you shall not murder’ are spoken mostly to restrain the excesses of powerful people, like Pharaoh. The original context is slavery in Egypt. What beautiful words for this nation of bereaved families and endangered brick workers! Human life is valued! In Egypt economic productivity was valued higher than human life: slaves were beaten and a generation of male babies executed to keep the labor force in subjugation. Unlike Egypt, Israel is not to be economy of production at any cost, but of neighborly well-being.
Israel’s law is radical here: in most societies economic productivity is subtly valued higher than human life. In England 200 years ago for example a person was hanged if they stole a sheep – valuing economic production higher than human life. This commandment prompts us to consider in what ways our own culture might subtly value economic productivity above human life. Today many western countries charge a tariff charge on goods imported from majority world nations that makes these products more expensive to purchase. And these tariffs are sometimes higher than tariffs charged on imported goods from counties with a high GDP. Do not such trade policies subtly value economic productivity over human life?
The Eighth Commandment: ‘You Shall Not Steal’
This command used to bring to my mind an image of a thief in a black mask – maybe wearing a black and white striped shirt, like the Hamburgler from MacDonalds. I suppose I was imagining someone who was poor, stealing from someone who was rich. But from the rest of the law of the Pentateuch, we know that actually the opposite is referred to. The command ‘thou shalt not steal’, was made to restrain the rich.
Let me explain: the main protection against poverty in Israel was Israel’s land laws. Every Israelite family was to own land, suitable for agriculture and grazing. You might remember from the book of Joshua that the land was divided up among the Israelites so that every family had the means to produce wealth. And this land ownership according to Israelite law, was inalienable – it couldn’t be taken away:
The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you are but aliens and my tenants. (Leviticus 25:23)
God owns the land and he has given everybody some of it. What a remarkable economic arrangement! How life-giving! Wealth producing capital is in the hands of every Israelite – not in the hands of a privileged few! This means that no Israelite family can permanently fall into poverty. And no one person or family can accumulate excessively. So the command ‘you will not steal’, among other things, secures God’s gift of land to each family and it restrains excessive accumulation on the part of one person at the expense of the others. We could summarize the spirit of the eighth command with the words of Craig Blomberg: ‘God owns it all, and wants everybody to enjoy some of it.’
This principle, that God’s generous gifts are for all to share, should prompt westerners to seriously consider domestic poverty. Poverty in our cities is cruel. Jagrup Brar, MLA (member of Parliament) for Surrey, B.C. Canada, volunteered to live on B.C.’s lowest welfare rate: $610 a month. Brar’s experience displays the suffering of thousands in our wealthy cities. Brar lived in downtown Vancouver, first in illegal housing and then in a residence for single men. $425 was the cheapest accommodation available, leaving him with less than $200 to live on for the month. After two weeks Brar had $25 left. He became dependent on free meals. He lost weight. Brar’s office said that texts from his cell phone became less coherent as the month progressed. You might like to read my summary of Brar’s experience here.
The Ninth Commandment: ‘You Shall Not Bear False Witness Against Your Neighbor.’
This commandment has to do with the law courts. In practical terms it means that in Israel, as disputes are judged at the city gates, the powerful may not bribe witnesses or sweeten judges, depriving the vulnerable of their land, their family or their life. This command, in the context of the Pentateuch, focuses its gaze not only on individuals, but also on legal arrangements, insisting that legal systems have integrity and compassion.
Here is a story of how this command might apply in western contexts: I used to pastor a wonderful church in a government housing area in Western Sydney, Australia. Government housing in this area is notorious for unexpected electrical fires. A house around the corner from ours burned to the ground due to an electrical fault. The father who lived there was 20 years old. He knocked on my door and told me that his three-year old daughter had been burned badly by the fire. He had asked the department to fix the electrical fault a number of times. On the day his house burned down, the housing commission promised him that they would, I quote, ‘look after him’ and provide him with another house, so long as he stayed quiet. The command, ‘You shall not bear false witness’, insists that vulnerable people are given a voice and, once heard, are treated justly.
The Tenth Commandment: ‘You shall not covert’
Looking at the tenth commandment might help us clear up one of the biggest misunderstandings that Christians have about the Old Testament. People often think that the Old Testament is all about rules. Online pastor Brett for example calls the Old Testament laws the ‘boring passages’. But pastor Brett is wrong: notice the change of heart that God desires from his people:
You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.(Ex 20:17)
This isn’t rules, this is heart stuff. This command is intended to foster a desire that our fellow human beings would thrive. To covet is to want something, even if it disadvantages another person, and that path is forbidden in Israel. In practical terms, this is what it might have looked like in ancient Israel: say my neighbor has fallen into hard times and say he wants to sell me his ox, his only ox, so that he can buy some grain. The point of the tenth commandment is: I don’t suck him for all he’s worth. I don’t covet his ox and I don’t covet his money, rather, I trade in a way that is helpful to him and generous towards him. And if he doesn’t have an ox to sell, maybe I will give him some of my grain anyway. This command calls Israelites to something higher than just rules. It calls them out of an attitude of acquisition (the attitude of Pharaoh) to a spirit of mutual care.
This spirit of mutual care is expressed beautifully in Deuteronomy 15:4, There shall be no poor among you. These words foster an attitude that seeks the thriving of every person. The same spirit of generosity is displayed in the New Testament church; in Acts 4:34 we witness a similar ethic of mutuality, for the benefit of all: ‘there were no needy persons among them’.
Today, recovering the ten commandments will equip the church to live gratefully, generously and prophetically. We live amidst ideologies of national interest, border protection and the right to accumulate wealth. The ten commandments call us to strive for communities where every person can thrive. And as Christians live distinctively, striving for this kind of world; we call attention to the grace and power of the Kingship of Christ. I am convinced that no matter what insults are hurled at Christians, if the church has the attitude described in the ten commandments, we will be worthy of respect, and our words about Jesus will receive people’s attention.
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