Saturday, July 14, 2007

The problem with the Ten Commandments

A profound insight into scripture, courtesy of Walter Brueggemann:
What I want you to notice about the Ten Commandments is that it's not very clear what they might mean. If you're a judge in Alabama you like to think you know exactly what they mean. But just think of, for example, the commandment, Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy. What does that mean? Well you know Orthodox Jews think it means you can't turn a light on. Etc., etc., etc.

Or Thou shalt not kill. Well of course we all agree on that. Well except maybe capital punishment … maybe war … maybe, maybe, maybe, maybe. Which led very early to the awareness that the Ten Commandments have to be interpreted and therein lies all the problem. …

The Torah commandments invite interpretation that is disputatious and that ends in pluralism. They didn't all think the same.

Let me give you that specifically. If you read the book of Leviticus (a lot of you have read the book of Leviticus lately? Hello?).

The book of Leviticus has, as its theme in Leviticus 19:2, You shall be holy as I am holy. Holiness, purity, order — these are rough synonyms — serenity …. It's all about right worship. If you read the book of Leviticus it's all about how to have holy priests and holy sacrifices and holy offerings and holy shrines and holy bread and holy festivals and holy everything.

Uncontaminated. This yields a kind of a static notion of worship which arises from Mt. Sinai by people [of sincere faith].

Now if you read the book of Deuteronomy, it has a little bit of this, but not much. Deuteronomy is really about civic justice.

The particular text that I want to refer you to is Deuteronomy 24:17ff. It says that when you harvest the grapes of your vineyard, you're going to miss some — don't go back and pick them up. Leave them for the widow, the orphan, and the illegal immigrant. (A translation of "alien" — those people that didn't belong there.)

[The text says the same thing about harvesting olives and grain.]

Scholars say that this provision is the first social welfare program in the history of the world:  that society is obligated to make provision for people who do not have economic means.

Extraordinary! What an incredible moment of interpretation that is all derivative of the Ten Commandments. I suppose that all comes out of, Thou shalt not covet. If you covet, you're taking stuff when you go back that ought to belong to your neighbors.

Now what I want you to observe about this is the way the Pentateuch works. Sinai interpretation goes in two directions:  holiness and justice.

I have no idea where your congregation is about the gay and lesbian thing in the Church and I don't really want to get into that. Except to observe that Leviticus 18 and Leviticus 20 are the two texts about homosexuality in the Old Testament. In between, in Leviticus 19, it says (the verse that Jesus quotes), You shall love your neighbour as yourself.

In the current practice of the Church, the holiness tradition is what we have come to call "conservatism". Deuteronomy is into justice; that's sort of what we've come to call "liberalism".

I'm wanting you to see that the Sinai obedience and hope is open to huge interpretive possibility. So what do you hope for? Well I hope for a society that is pure — not all this goofiness.

What do you hope for? I hope for a society in which the poor get their share. …

Scripture is complex and plural and they didn't agree from day one. The extraordinary thing about the Old Testament is that the holiness people were not able to vote the justice people into silence, and the justice people were not able to vote the holiness people into silence. So some committee (some General Assembly) in ancient Israel said, We're going to put all of this in.

What that means is, our deepest obedience cannot be an absolute norm because it must make room for other serious covenant members who are practising a different obedience. …

This part of the Bible does not finally permit us to get it right. It invites us to do an interpretation for now, knowing that we're going to have to go back to Sinai and do it over again and again and again.

Indeed, I think that figuring out obedience is like having a teenager in the house. Having a teenager means, nothing stays settled. You've got to do it all over again. I'm sure that Moses thought he was leading a bunch of teenagers.

The quote is from Brueggeman's lectures on the Old Testament:  specifically, on Exodus (beginning at 12 minutes 30 seconds) and Leviticus (ending at 9 minutes 40 seconds). I have tidied up the language at various points because speech always has patterns that seem odd when reduced to text.

Note that both Leviticus and Deuteronomy include both holiness and justice elements. That's the point Brueggemann is making when he quotes Leviticus 19:18, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. Sandwiched between two "holiness" texts (which would rid the community of homosexual practices) is this core "justice" text.

Brueggemann reveals his perspective on scripture when he comments, "Some General Assembly in ancient Israel said, We're going to put all of this in." In Brueggemann's view, the texts kept evolving long after the death of the original author. (This is a consensus opinion among scholars.1) Brueggemann's point is, the text evolved in this dual direction:  each school of thought made sure its interpretation was represented in successive drafts of the text.

Finally, I should perhaps apologize for the title of this post, which refers to the "problem" with the Ten Commandments. It isn't really a problem except for those who can't cope with the resultant tension.

The tension is permanent and inescapable; God's people must learn to live there, uncomfortable though it may sometimes be. As Brueggemann says, our deepest obedience cannot finally be reduced to an absolute norm; it must make room for other sincere believers who are practising a different obedience.

(Cross-posted on Outside the Box)


1For example,scholars maintain that there are three "Isaiahs" represented in the Old Testament book as now stands. Similar arguments are made for certain New Testament passages:  e.g., some scholars (even some evangelical scholars) regard 1Co. 14:33b-36 as an interpolation.

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