Thursday, October 5, 2023

The Ten Suggestions...Really


The Ten Suggestions…Really


Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20
20:1 Then God spoke all these words:

20:2 I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery;

20:3 you shall have no other gods before me.

20:4 You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.

20:7 You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

20:8 Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.

20:9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work.

20:12 Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.

20:13 You shall not murder.

20:14 You shall not commit adultery.

20:15 You shall not steal.

20:16 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

20:17 You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

20:18 When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance,

20:19 and said to Moses, "You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die."

20:20 Moses said to the people, "Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin."



We know them as the “Ten Commandments.” God allegedly “handed” them to Moses, and Moses passed them on to the Israelites. “These are the things God commanded.” Really? 


All that “Thou shalt not” language sure makes them sound serious, doesn’t it? Why would God want this “top ten list” to be preeminent among all of the other things the prophets would “receive” from God, in terms of what was “kosher” behavior? What would be the punishment, if any of these ten were violated? Would any punitive measures on the part of God be visited upon the community as a whole? Or just upon the one caught violating? 


The ”decalogue,” as it is known, has been largely affirmed by about every religious group in existence. Oh, they may change “Yahweh” to “Allah,” and rearrange the wording a bit, but I think you will find that these “thou shalt nots” are pretty universal, among those who believe in divine commandment giving. Even among Buddhists, who tend to state stuff in “positives,” rather than “thou shalt nots,” you will find the “spirit” of these ten alive in their rhetoric and practice.


Atheists and agnostics have their versions, as well. “Knowledge,” “truth,” or “integrity” may be substituted for the God language in the first four, but there really is a universality about what Moses brought down from the mountain.


Why, then, might I call them “suggestions”? I’ll try to unpack that here. Ultimately, it is the individual who must decide to either obey or disobey such societal (or in this case, divine?) rules. The society—or God—may determine corrective actions or punishment for the violators, but only the violator—or in some cases, the violators—may decide to follow the rules. Hence, at this level, laws or rules are actually just “suggestions.” (I include “violators,” plural, as some of the Ten Commandments are clearly aimed at Israel’s community-at-large, namely the ones “protecting” the sanctity and practice of faith in Yahweh [commandments one through four]). Unless some authoritarian rule eliminates any possibility of disobedience by removing freedoms and erecting barriers, obedience is a matter of choice. 


God might well have told Moses, “These ten suggested rules will make your relationship with me and each other much more sustainable and joyous. I commend them to your community, that we may all live in peace.” Let’s review the “suggestions.”


Israel was, at that point in history, a wandering people. They were coping with both the realities of nomadic life AND life together, drawn together by common experience, family, and faith. Either of these would be hard to sustain, separately, but when experienced together, it made for much grumbling, and competition for scarce and inconsistent resources. On the surface, commandments one through four can be seen as a “jealous” God demanding exclusive attention and unwavering respect. Isn’t this the way we were largely taught about them, even in our Christian faith context? Instead, think about a loving God who has an undying, parental love for God’s people. The God of Israel realizes that it is their common FAITH in Yahweh that binds Israel together. Without this common faith, their human fighting over resources and quest for power would tear them apart, and probably very quickly. God’s “demands” in the first four commandments may just have been God’s attempt to keep this saving focus, especially knowing that Israel’s nomadic life in the wilderness would expose them to other peoples and their “variety” of gods and idols. Commandments one through four were kind of like the “family values” taught and upheld in many modern households. (These, too, are merely “suggestions,” as each family member must decide whether to uphold these values, and for how long.) This view, which some might see as more sociological than theological, points to a loving, protecting deity, as opposed to one that just desires and demands “worship.” It was this former view of God that was espoused by Jesus Christ.


I’m sure you have heard a thousand sermons on “sabbath,” so I’ll just repeat what Jesus said: “Humans were not made for the sabbath, but the sabbath was made for humans.” Taking a weekly sabbath lets both God AND us have a day of “rest”! 


Commandment—or suggestion—number five is the fulcrum of the decalogue. How do we “raise” our children to espouse both the values of family AND society? “Honor your parents” can be unpacked in a variety of ways, but “honoring” clearly carries much more weight than just “obeying.” “Because I said so” is not the same as “If you love your family and me, do this for us.” Honoring parents means upholding the values they teach BECAUSE you respect both. The commandment promises that this kind of “honoring” may well lead to a longer life, and aside from the joke that this is so because our parents could “take us out” if we disobey. Creating and sustaining a kind of loving, voluntarily perpetuated family “system” would lower the stress level in ANY family, and would most likely filter out as better attitudes, behavior, and quality of contribution a given family may take to the community at large. The “days may be long”—and BETTER—for the whole of Israel, if each family brought positive values to the “stone soup” of society. This “honoring” also would lead to some system of caring for the community’s elderly, be it the “extended family” making provision for aging parents, or the REALLY extended family—affirmed government programs like Social Security and Medicare—that helps take care of them and provides for a modicum of “abundance” in their senior years. I can say, quite honestly, that as a retired pastor, who tried to make adequate provision for my “third phase” of life, I would be “dead in the water” without Social Security and Medicare being afforded to me as part of this plan. Every time I read a story about how, without some “saving” action by Congress, these programs will begin to wind down within 7 to 10 years, I get more than a little anxious. And what about folk who have to rely exclusivelyon these programs? I can only imagine their fears.


The final four “suggestions” are pretty much the ones that gave rise to cultural laws enforced by the courts, universally. As I mentioned earlier, every religion has its own “list” or compendium of “commandments,” but these last four are found in all societies I can think of that ever inhabited Planet Earth. Not only is “community” unsustainable, if these “laws” are regularly violated, but humanity itself may be in peril. As we have seen, however, obedience to them—regardless of how stringently a given society codifies and enforces them—is voluntary and in the hands of the individual. We could argue over each of them—is killing in wartime, “murder”?, or is voluntary polyamory, “adultery”?—but fact is, maintaining some order in these “basic” rules concerning sustaining life, family, and financial security, is vital for any society. Still, obedience is largely voluntary, and even the “laws” themselves are, at this point, not much more than “suggestions.”


The progression of the decalogue is interesting, if you follow my ideas of the “why” of it: 


A.   Belief in a caring deity provides focus and a common desire to “please” the source of our existence;


B.    Honoring loving parents helps teach and sustain “family values” that then filter in to the community at large;


C.    Basic laws that protect both the “rights” of community members and their existence, as well, are better voluntarily obeyed by people who share a common faith, and who were trained in the family “unit” to believe they are important.


There is an unseen, yet essential principle behind all of this: It is TRUST. The “Ten Suggestions” are BASED on trust, both individual and mutual, will help build and grow trust, and will provide a system for sustaining it in the society. 


The family in which I was raised was a church-going one, was “supervised” by a pair of legitimately caring parents who saw us children as “charges,” for which they had been granted a temporary “stewardship” of by God, and a family with few “absolutes” or crippling rules. We had just enough “do’s” and “don’t’s” to keep the peace in the household, and even these may be open to negotiation, especially if circumstances of the family or the family member unexpectedly changed. (This happened a lot for my parents, as my mother was pretty much an “itinerant” registered nurse whose employment and hours changed a lot, and my father—a financial manager—whose employers kept getting “bought out” by larger companies and moved operations to a different city.) One thing we had in spades in our family was TRUST. We children (three boys) never had reason to doubt the altruism in our parents’ values and rules, and if we chose not to break the trust our parents gifted to us, our personal freedoms were guaranteed, and in some cases, even extended. As a highschooler, I was allowed to use a family vehicle anytime it was available, and as long as I obeyed the “rules of the road” and got home on time, I was trusted to be on my best behavior. My parents trusted my choice of friends, as well, and offered me many more freedoms than most of my friends enjoyed. All this because they trusted ME and I trusted THEM, and their consistent views. Believe me, I NEVER wanted to “blow” this freeing trust! I would never have thought of betraying it, because “honoring” it certainly made my life not only easier, but SO MUCH more fun!


This is how I see the “Ten Suggestions” working, in the mind of God. They set up a people and a society based on a “freeing trust.” Voluntary acceptance and “obedience” to the decalogue would make for a nation of trust and true freedom—a place where the “days may be long—and good—for all.” 


If you take this “template” and superimpose it upon the teachings of Jesus, I believe you will see it fits quite well. Amen!

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