My idiosyncratic Bible study program–“Read at least one chapter a night, and keep going till I fall asleep”–has led me to Exodus. A few nights ago I hit the Ten Commandments.
Now growing up, I remember thinking that God had some weird priorities. I mean, everybody knows that the worst thing you can possibly do is murder somebody, right? And yet that silly deity had put that offense halfway down the list. You can sort of understand Him putting the stuff about God at the top–sort of for the sake of tidiness–but c’mon, putting respect for your parents above murder?! That is inconceivable.
Anyway, upon this last reading, the list made a lot more sense to me. Yes, it’s undeniable that my further progression (or retrogression, according to most of you who post in the comments on Sunday) into born-again Christianity is partly responsible. But I also think it’s my greater experience with humans, and understanding what motivates them. Take a look at this list (Ex 20:1-17):
20 And God spoke all these words, saying:
2 “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.
3 “You shall have no other gods before Me.
4 “You shall not make for yourself a carved image—any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; 5 you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, 6 but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.
7 “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain.
8 “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates. 11 For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.
12 “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the Lord your God is giving you.
13 “You shall not murder.
14 “You shall not commit adultery.
15 “You shall not steal.
16 “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
17 “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor’s.”
The numbering schemes are a little bit different, as Wikipedia the theologian explains, so I’m not going to refer to “#8” etc. But from murder on down, the list makes perfect sense, right? The only possible question would be over adultery, but I think a libertarian agnostic who flips out over this one, is actually being inconsistent. Especially back in those days, marriage was a serious contractual relationship. So if you slept with somebody else’s spouse, it was like you were bearing false witness and stealing all wrapped up into one. (And yes, at the time it was patriarchal and treated women like the property of their husbands, but even in a more liberated time like ours, I think there is a sense in which someone “cheating on his or her spouse” is breaking one of the most solemn contractual and societal pledges possible. It’s certainly a lot more serious than shoplifting.)
Like I said earlier, not only does the placement of adultery make sense to me now (whereas I probably would have thought it should be #9 when I was in 8th grade), but so do the others. I think the point of the ordering is to show what one’s one priorities in life should be.
The point isn’t to say, “Oh, a guy who murders his neighbors but calls his mom every Saturday is better than the guy who refrains from murder but tells his mom she turned him into a pansy.” No, every thing on that list is forbidden; you are a “bad guy” if you do any of that stuff.
But the point is (I think), someone who is raised in a culture that orders the list of offenses in that way, and genuinely believes it, is a lot more likely to end up being what we think of as a “good person” than if you changed the order.
People don’t wake up one day and say, “You know, it hasn’t been inculcated in me that it’s wrong to go kill someone in cold blood, so I think I’ll eat some Cheerios and go murder me somebody.” No, the person who ends up murdering does it for a variety of other reasons, and the person only ended up in those situations because he didn’t honor the Lord above all else, keep holy the Sabbath, respect his parents, etc. etc.