Exploring Our Matrix
The Blog of Dr. James F. McGrath, Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University, Indianapolis
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I often discuss the unenforceability of the tenth commandment (comparing it to the signs one used to see around New York, which say “Don’t even THINK of parking here.” Now, via Joel Watts, I have this cartoon to offer as an illustration.
Maybe I’m wrong, but I always understood the 10 commandments to be guidelines for living. Not enforceable laws. In their statement, there is no punishment mentioned, i.e. “if you covet, you will be arrested”. Of course, others added punishments later. But if it was an enforceable law, I would think the punishment would be listed along with the law. That’s the basis for my opinion that the 10 commandments are directed at common behavior of humans, not the 1% deviant behavior of true criminals. Pretty much all humans have violated all of the 10 commandments at one time or the other (either in action or thought – Jimmy Carter comes to mind for some reason – who I think is obviously a good man). Of course, that is also why I feel “Thou shall not murder” is actually “Thou shall not kill”, per the book by Wilma Ann Bailey. Thus enforcement is irrelevant. Maybe that’s your point.
My take, and I’m certainly no expert, is that the ten commandments were intended as a summary of the high points of the law. Later rabbis, including Jesus, whittled it down to two: love God, and love your neighbor. Jesus also expanded “neighbor” to include everyone.
The law itself does specify penalties, at least in most cases. Death was only one of them; fines were also specified, “such as the judges determine,” and horsewhipping was alluded to without clearly stating which crimes were punishable by horsewhipping.
The law also contained unenforceable provisions. The one about coveting is a no-brainer: anyone with a poker face is going to get away with coveting. Similarly, the commandment to love your neighbor is there in Deuteronomy, but clearly unenforceable.
As for “thou shalt not murder,” the law itself provided for capital punishment, so it seems most consistent to conclude that it wasn’t intended to forbid all killing absolutely. The context of the wandering, during which soldiers were counted and battles were fought, suggests that wartime killing was also not intended.
Speaking personally, and not as an expert, I find this aspect of the law helpful: my reading of the Sermon on the Mount is that we’re told to “resist not evil,” but Deuteronomy authorizes lethal force against a burglar (and by implication, against other potentially deadly threats). I reconcile the two by concluding that Jesus’ “pacifism” consists not in condemning self-defense in principle, but in calling us to a higher principle whereby we waive our right to self-defense. Similarly, stealing your jacket is still a crime, but Jesus calls you to non-attachment by telling you, instead of calling in the cops, to hand over your shirt as well. This changes pacifism from a moral law, condoning theft and outlawing self-defense, into a choice that we make to reach for something even higher.
Hey, now that you brought it up, somewhere I heard said that the 10 commandments were (like many mitzvah) really only rules for how Jews were to treat Jews — not how Jews were to treat unbelievers. Is there anything to that. (crossing my fingers that I can cancel following after the first 50 e-mails.
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