Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Commandment Confusion

When I think of The Ten Commandments, I tend to think of Mariska. Mariska was a girl in the small inter-denominational cell group I had in college and calling her a tad legalistic would be an understatement. I remember this one moment specifically, I wanted to arrange to do something on a Sunday and she didn’t want to because that would be “breaking the Sabbath” which compelled me to point out that the Sabbath was on Saturday, not Sunday. I forget all the other details but the one thing that will always remain with me is the look of sheer panic and fear on her face when it dawned on her that she had been breaking one of The Ten Commandments for virtually her whole life.

From this I learned two very important facts about Christians – first, The Ten Commandments is a matter of unbelievable importance and secondly, they don’t really know much about it. Now as Stephen Colbert demonstrates, this can be hilarious at times:

For the full interview go here  Copyright © 1995-2009 Comedy Partners. All rights Reserved

See people in this category seem to be very passionate about their idea of The Ten Commandments more than about the actual Ten Commandments from the Bible. This is the group that really wants The Ten Commandments posted everywhere and who sometimes write letters to the editor suggesting that we should throw out the constitution and just have The Ten Commandments. Now they may not all be as loveably clueless as the good congressman there, they may have actually read The Ten Commandments a couple of times. Yet they always give me the idea that on some level they think The Ten Commandments say a lot more than they actually do. They talk as if it represents the law in its most perfect form, even though it contains a couple of important omissions like, oh I don’t know, maybe laws against rape and child molesting. Sometimes they talk as if all their personal opinions on matters from homosexuality and immigration to taxes, politics and education are somehow fully addressed and endorsed therein.  As if the solution to every moral and legal dilemma and the answer to every issue out there is simply adding The Ten Commandments. But this group doesn’t concern me much. I save my ire for another group.

These guys!!

The guys over at Way of the Master have decided to weaponize The Ten Commandments in order to use it for evangelism. Screw that whole bit about preaching Jesus, forget about letting the Holy Spirit convict people of sin and righteousness (because as we all know, Scripture is wide open for interpretation when you don’t need it to be literal in order for you to make your point), you don’t need any of that when you can use The Ten Commandments as a tool for breaking people down and make sure they know how undeserving of love they really are before you offer to build them back up by offering some conditional love. I mean sure it’s what cults do too but when you really think about it, it’s only a bad thing when cults do it. When you do it with good motives then that is totally awesome!

You can find plenty of videos of them practicing this technique (See how the Moral Law (Ten Commandments) humbles a young man as Ray shares with him at Seal Beach in Southern California.) and if you have flash enabled you can have some fun getting evangelized right where you are sitting!! Otherwise here it is in a nutshell: First ask someone if they think they are a good person and if they think they will go to heaven when they die. Most people will say yes at this point (unless they are atheists in which case sit back and watch the train of thought go off the mental rails). Then you go, “Oh, so you think you are good eh? Well let’s just see about that!” Then you whip out The Ten Commandments and remind everyone that these right here are the ten absolute rules by which God judges who gets in and who doesn’t – only if you can pass these can you fact be good enough. Then proceed to ratchet up and restate each of the commandments to make sure no one can answer yes even once. Feel free to frequently use obscene hyperbole as much as possible, for instance “Have you ever in your live ever ever stolen anything, even the smallest thing? Yes? Well you know what that makes you? A THIEF!!!” (Sure, by that logic if you have ever been late for anything ever you are TARDY!!! and if you have ever given any money to any needy person you are A PHILANTHROPIST!!! but this is no time to let logic get in your way!) Now if you done your job right you would have convinced the victim target person you are evangelizing that he/she is the kind of person God could never love because they totally peed all over His list of Ten Absolute Rules for getting into Heaven. At this point they should be totally ready for some Jesus or suicide. Try to get them to choose Jesus.

With all due respect to the scholarly minds over at Way of the Master (and I swear one of these days I will be able to say that with a straight face) there are a few teensy problems with that approach.

A) There aren’t Ten Commandments

I don't know about you but there is this one thing about The Ten Commandments that pastors (for they are the chief perpetrators of this howler) often say that that peeves me to no end. In a misguided attempt to make the audience go “Gee, God is so awesome but people are sooo dumb!” they make a statement along the lines of “You know how many rules God gave us? Ten! You know how many rules men made? Hundreds!!” Yes, they say this without seemingly realising they are in fact talking about the rest of the BIBLE – not sure if yon pastors ever thought this through... How do they think that went exactly? Do they picture God giving Moses the Commandments and Moses then thinking to himself on the way down from the mountain “Hmm, you know I’m writing these 5 books and all I have are a lot of genealogies and these 10 rules. You know what, I will just make up some more stuff to fill some space!! Sweet!” Sorry, but you can’t have your Torah and eat it too. You can’t claim that God gave only a ten point checklist for getting into heaven when there are clearly more than ten items on the list!! In fact, Judaism counts 613 commandments, the first being found not in Exodus 20:2 but in Genesis 1:28 namely “be fruitful and multiply”. Add to that the fact that those are just the 613 commandments God gave in the Old Testament – I’m not even sure how many the New Testament would add – I think it’s pretty clear that we are dealing with waaaaaaay more than 10 here! In fact, my learned brethren at Way of the Master may be surprised to learn that in Judaic teaching there is no such thing as THE Ten Commandments since that would imply that the other 603 Commandments given by God were somehow not important. Instead the Hebrew name for what we call The Ten Commandments, Aseret ha-Dibrot translates more to the Ten Sayings, the Ten Statements, the Ten Declarations, the Ten Words or even the Ten Things and are considered not as individual mitzvot (commandments); rather, they are categories or classifications of mitzvot.* Of course this is probably irrelevant to our intrepid evangelists because as any good Evangelical will tell you, the Jews really don’t understand their religion or their own Book (The Old Testament).  Duh! Only western people who may or may not have actually read bits of it in English understand what God really meant by it. Surely God understands that when you are explaining to people why they deserve to go to Hell there is a need to be able to be snappy about it! The whole 613 (plus New Testament) thing is probably just out of context or something.

and lets make it snappy ok?

B) There aren’t ten Commandments
Ok, just to clarify by saying they aren’t commandments I mean they aren’t the Ten Most Absolute Immutable Rules God Judges everyone by they are made out to be here. See you can run into some pretty sticky moral dilemmas if you treat them like that. This was beautifully demonstrated when the friendly fundie folks over at Answers in Genesis pointed out that since The Ten Commandments says “don’t lie” and that’s an absolute rule you should never ever break, if you happened to be a Christian during World War 2 and you were hiding some Jews from the Nazis and a Nazi asked you if you were hiding any Jews then – even though that would condemn the Jews to certain death – you were supposed to tell the truth and point out to the nice Nazi officer where you were hiding them. Whatever happens to the Jews were between them and God, your job was to not break one of the Ten Most Absolute Immutable Rules God Judges everyone by! Yes, these are the same people who will without a blush of irony tell you that they are “pro-life”... This is a whole lot different from the way Judaism sees the commandments of God. To them – you know, the them who received the Law and have been living it and studying it for millenniapreserving a life is worth far more than keeping rules. The Jewish Mitzvah of Pikuach Nefesh or The Daily Responsibility to Safeguard Human Life states:
Jews are commanded to pray and to participate in Judaism, but above all, to honor, respect and when necessary, defend the safety of a human life.
In fact such was the emphasis on preserving life that, as the noted scholar Dr BH Young** points out, that according to the Oral Law, all the commandments in the Bible could be suspended if it meant saving a life – with the only exceptions being idolatry, incest and murder.  Now our intrepid evangelists on the other hand understand that this is just not how it works!  You start treating even one commandment in the Bible as not totally absolute and before you know it you have descended into moral relativism and then the liberal gay Muslim Satanist Atheist Commies take over and cats and dogs start living together!!!!  The moral fabric of the universe will be torn asunder!  Civilization as we know it will collapse!  Why can’t anyone see this?! But let’s not get all bent out of shape here.  So maybe they believe in more than 10 Commandments and so maybe they don’t think they are all totally absolute, but since they aren’t Christians they probably just don’t get it.  However if you do ask them to just state God’s basic requirements for Heaven they are all going to say “The Ten Commandments” right?  Surely they have learned at least that much from all their fancy booklearning and millennia of painstaking Scripture study? Right?  Let’s see:

“Maintain justice and do what is right” Prophet Yesha’yahu (Isa 56:1)

“And what does the LORD require of you?  To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Prophet Mikhah (Mic 6:8)

“Whatever is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.  This is the whole Torah and the rest is commentary”  Rabbi Hillel the Elder

“ Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.  Rabbi Yeshua of Nazareth (Matt 22:37-40)

“It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things.” Official ruling from the 1st council at Jerusalem (Acts 15:28-29)

“Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.”  Rabbi Sha’ul of Tarsus (Rom 13:10)

Wow, it’s almost as if they don’t want you to threaten hellfire and damnation!  What is up with all this love and do right stuff?  It sounds suspiciously like things those heretical liberal preachers like Rob Bell would go on about!  How is any of this useful for scaring people into accepting God?? Seriously!

C) Those aren’t the Ten Commandments
OK so nothing I say can convince you otherwise.  In order for life and faith to make sense, in order to freedom to ring and for truth, justice and the Christian way to prevail there need to be Commandments and there need to be Ten of them and you don’t care what anyone else says – scholar or otherwise – you know that’s how God wants it.  Very well then.  But if you're going to insist then at the very least use the actual Ten Commandments.  Remember there were 3 sets of Commandments.  The first time Moses came down from Mount Sinai with commandments, he merely recited a list (Exodus 20:2-17), which is what most people call The Ten Commandments although they were not engraved on stone tablets and not called The Ten Commandments.”.  The first set of stone tablets was given to Moses at a subsequent trip up the mountain (Exodus 31:18) but Moses destroyed those tablets when he saw the people worshipping the golden calf (Exodus 32:19).  So he went back for a replacement. God told Moses: “Hew thee two tables of stone like unto the first: and I will write upon these tables the words that were in the first tables, which thou brakest. (Exodus 34:1).  Therefore Exodus 34:14-26 contains the only list the Bible actually calls The Ten Commandments:
“And he wrote upon the tables the words of the covenant, the ten commandments. (Exodus 34:28) So if you can find the Ark of the Covenant (and it doesn’t melt your face off) then these are the ones you will find, no other.  So here then are the actual Ten Commandments as they are listed in the Lord’s own Bible, the King James Version:

1) Thou shalt worship no other God.
2) Thou shalt make thee no molten gods.
3) The feast of unleavened bread shalt thou keep.
4) Six days thou shalt work, but on the seventh day thou shalt rest.
5) Thou shalt observe the feast of weeks.
6) Thrice in the year shall all your menchildren appear before the Lord God.
7) Thou shalt not offer the blood of my sacrifice with leaven.
8) Neither shall the sacrifice of the feast of the passover be left until the morning. 
9) The first of the firstfruits of thy land shalt thou bring unto the house of the Lord thy God.
10) Thou shalt not seethe a kid in his mother's milk.

Got it?  OK, ready, set, evangelize!!

* Source: Judaism 101: Aseret ha-Dibrot.
** Source: Jesus the Jewish Theologian by Brad H. Young, page 107


Plucky said...

All these years and I had never noticed that in Exodus 38. Interesting!

On a funny note, this reminds me of Mel Brooks History of the World where he plays Moses. He comes off Mt. Sinai with three tablets and announces, "God has given us these fifteen . . ." he then drops one and it breaks so he continues, " . . . ten . . . these ten commandments!"

Eugene said...

That is the one Mel Brooks movie I still need to watch!!