Welcome the Wilderness

When the Israelites leave Egypt, they take the long route to Canaan for some very good reasons.

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Former monk cells carved into the volcanic rock of the Cappadocian wilderness of Turkey.

Exodus 13:17-18 tells us that when Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, God did not permit them to take the shortest route to Canaan. That way would have been the road that followed the Mediterranean coast into the Gaza region of Canaan. The trip would have taken only weeks.

Exodus anachronistically calls this road the way of the Philistines. It was the historic route that travelers, merchants, and armies followed in making the trek from Egypt to Syria and beyond. It was therefore heavily guarded by Egyptian garrisons.

Exodus tells us that God was afraid the newly freed Israelites would come into conflict with one of these armed camps and lose heart. They might just then return to Egypt. Instead God directs them into a more roundabout route through the heart of the Sinai wilderness. The journey to Canaan ends up taking 40 years.

I think, however, the Biblical text gives only one part of God’s rationale in making this change of course. There is much more going on in those 40 years than just avoiding skirmishes with Egyptian troops.

The Wilderness as a Place of Testing

For one, the Israelites have just been freed from slavery in Egypt. They have experienced a totally unexpected liberation, thanks to an unbelievable act of God’s grace. But now who is this God who has set them free? What is his character? Can he be trusted always to be for them?

The Israelites need time and experience to come to know this God who has called them. So the years of wandering in the wilderness become a time of testing, as Israel tests God to see if God will provide for them and guide them. There will be much wavering along the way. It takes time, truly a lot of time, to come to have a deep trust in this God.

In a similar way, God does not fully know who this people are whom he has just liberated from Egypt. Will they trust him? Will they follow his guidance? Or will they fight him and vex him?

Over the 40 years God will learn much about this people. He will learn that they are a mixed bag of faith and fear. One day they will covenant with God and promise to have no other god before them. The next day they will give way to anxiety and grumble about God and Moses. On occasion they will even break their promises and flirt with other gods.

In the first years of any marriage, a husband and wife are engaged in a process of coming to know each other more deeply. Will this deeper knowledge lead to greater commitment or to new alienation? Will they be able to love each other despite the flaws and failures they find in each other?

In a comparable way God and Israel are coming to know each other during those long 40 years in the desert. This process of coming to know each other takes on more intimacy because in the desert the people are deprived of the many distractions that go with urban life in a city or with rural life in a settled agricultural community. In an environment of deprivation, the partners must deal directly with each other.

Understanding this about the 40 years of wilderness wandering gives insight into the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ temptation after his baptism (Matthew 4:1-11, Mark 1:12-13, Luke 4:1-13). The texts say this time of temptation was 40 days long. It took place in the wilderness.

The gospel writers are clearly looking backwards at the exodus story. Just as Israel faced a time of testing in the desert, so must Jesus as he makes an exodus journey in his own life. Can God count on Jesus or not? Can Jesus count on his heavenly Father? Only a time of testing will demonstrate.

The Wilderness as the Place of Nation-Building

There is, I believe, a second important reason why Israel must spend 40 years in the wilderness.

When the Israelites fled Egypt, they experienced the giddy exuberance of a long-desired freedom from oppression. You hear their giddiness in the joyful song that Moses and the Israelites sing in Exodus 15.

But this mass of freed slaves is still just a disorganized rabble. The Israelites need a national structure that will give them an identity and a stability that will enable the work of national development to proceed. Without some organizing focus, this rabble will fly in all directions and dissipate as a people.

God clearly understands this need. He sets out to give Israel this organizing focus through the covenant established at Mount Sinai. In its wake come two important gifts. The gift of torah law will give structure to Israel’s corporate life. The gift of the tabernacle and priesthood will give it a focus for its worship.

With these gifts God begins the hard work of replacing a slave’s mindset with the mindset of a people who can confidently take responsibility for their life under God’s rule. In short, this is the task of nation building, a necessary task after any revolution.

As we Americans should especially know, nation building is not a quick and easy task. It takes time and constant vigilance. It is especially challenging to change a people’s mindset. But without that change, the risk of the people surrendering their freedom and returning to the patterns of Egyptian oppression is very high.

With freedom also comes anxiety. Too many people find the pain of anxiety so high that they will willingly surrender that freedom to someone who will relieve them of that pain.  Israel will prove just as vulnerable to that temptation as have been many peoples in history since.

The 40 years Israel spends in the wilderness constitute a noble effort to accomplish this important change of mindset. In the terms of Christian spirituality, we call that change conversion.

The result is decidedly mixed. When Israel finally enters Canaan, it will fall prey over and over again to the appeal of an Egyptian pattern of living. Yet Israel will never completely forget its calling. Its prophets will repeatedly remind the Israelites of what a converted life looks like. And Israel will seek to reform over and over again.

The Wilderness as Model for Our Spiritual Journey

Here is the power of the exodus story as a model of the spiritual journey for anyone who sincerely seeks to engage in that journey. The journey may begin with baptism or an emotional altar call response or simply a serious though rational decision for God. But however the journey begins, the start is just that, a start. The spiritual journey of conversion always remains a journey. And for all of us it takes a lifetime and then beyond to complete.

If we are serious about this journey, the exodus story tells us that periods of living in the desert are necessary stages on that journey. Those experiences deprive us of the distractions of ordinary, daily life. We can then concentrate our attention on the Lord and our life with him. In the process we hope to experience that deeper conversion of life to which the Lord calls us.

This is why the early monastic movement began in the Egyptian, Syrian, and Anatolian wilderness. The first monks fled the Greco-Roman cities for the desert exactly to escape the distractions of city life so they could concentrate their energies on their spiritual growth and maturation. In their desert cells and communities, the monks sought to become deeply converted men and women. Once that conversion was advanced, some might safely return to life in the city, there to live and serve without succumbing to a Egyptian mindset.

Though many people may not explicitly realize it, it is why spiritual retreats hold such appeal. When we go on retreat, we are returning in a sense to the desert to refocus our lives free of the distractions of our daily living. Most retreats are short in duration and so may not lead to any deep conversion. But they still give us a taste of the blessing of detachment.

This is also I believe the appeal of contemplative prayer for many people today. As we enter into the silence of contemplative prayer, we too experience a kind of return to the desert, a spiritual desert where we seek to be free of our distracting thoughts, emotions, and verbosity so we can simply be with the Lord and come to know him as he knows us.

So let us welcome the wilderness experiences in our lives. They bring their own special blessings.

 

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Who Is the Exodus Generation?

The Old Testament gives a surprising answer.

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The Israelites crossing the Red Sea. A fresco found in the ruins of the Jewish synagogue of Dura Europos, 3rd century C.E.

The Book of Exodus reports that when the Israelites left Egypt, they numbered about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children (Exodus 12:37). This figure is repeated in Numbers 11:21 and Numbers 26:51. When you count in those uncounted women and children, scholars conservatively estimate that the total figure was somewhere in the range of 2 million.

This is an enormous figure. Exodus scholar Nahum Sarna says that a safe estimate of the population of ancient Egypt would come in at around four or five million.* So the Exodus migration would have represented a catastrophic loss of population for ancient Egypt.

This has led most Biblical scholars to discount the Biblical figure given. Clearly it is an exaggeration. If the authors have fabricated this figure, they argue, what other aspects of the Exodus story have they also fabricated? This argument figures in many scholars denying the Exodus ever happened.

So how do we account for this hyperbole in the Exodus account?

Sarna offers an intriguing answer to this puzzle. He says that the figure of 2 million represents the approximate population of the kingdom of Israel at the time of Kings David and Solomon. So the author/editor is counting the whole population of Israel at this time among those who escaped into freedom under Moses.

How could the author or editors of the Biblical text take such a viewpoint? Sarna suggests that they do because they do not see the Exodus era as ending with Israel’s crossing the Jordan River and occupying the land of Canaan under Joshua.

Instead they view the Exodus migration ending only when David captures the city of Jerusalem and Solomon builds a stationary temple to replace the portable tabernacle. The building of that temple is in fact the culmination of God’s act of redemption begun under Moses.**

Says Sarna, “It is as though all those living at the time of the building of the Temple themselves experienced the events of the Exodus.”***

I find that fascinating. It is saying that the Exodus generation is not just the immediate generation of those who left Egypt under Moses’ leadership. The Exodus generation includes all subsequent generations following the 40 years of wilderness wanderings, plus the nearly two centuries of Israelite settlement during the period of the judges and the early reigns of Saul and David.

The Biblical Mindset Takes an Unexpected Turn

This leads me to think that there may be an even more astonishing conception going on in the Biblical mindset. In Deuteronomy 6:20-25, we find guidance on how parents are to instruct their children in the Torah. The text begins, When your children ask you in time to come, ‘What is the meaning of the decrees and the statutes and the ordinances that the Lord our God has commanded you?…. This wording is clearly addressing the situation of generations beyond those who wandered in the wilderness under Moses.

And how does the text instruct parents to answer? …then you shall say to your children, ‘We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand….’ Note carefully the wording. The parents are not instructed to say, Our ancestors were Pharaoh’s slaves, but the Lord brought THEM out of Egypt with a mighty hand. Instead they are to say,WE were Pharaoh’s slaves, but the Lord brought US out of Egypt with a mighty hand.****

 The viewpoint here is that all Israelites for generations to come participated in the Exodus. They were all a part of the Lord’s mighty redemption. So in an amazing way all generations of Jews constitute a portion of the Exodus generation.

What this conception does is make the Passover feast more than just a historical commemoration. It makes the annual celebration of Passover an experience in which each new generation of Jews participate in the Exodus. The Exodus continues as more than a repeated event. It becomes an ever present experience for faithful Jews throughout their lives.

A Parallel in the Christian Tradition

Now how might this have significance for Christians? It is the historic Christian tradition that the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus enact a new Exodus-like redemption. Easter becomes the Christian Passover. This tradition is embedded in New Testament in the conception that Christ’s death is the sacrifice of our paschal lamb (1 Corinthians 5:7). It is also embedded in the ancient name for Easter, Pascha, which is the Greek transliteration for the Hebrew word for Passover.

Christians likewise celebrate their redemption with a celebratory feast, the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper. The Lord’s Supper looks back to that final meal that Jesus had with his disciples on the night before his betrayal and death.

When Christians participate in the Eucharist, we are invited to do more than just remember the Last Supper. We are invited to join Jesus’ original disciples at that same table as Jesus the host distributes the bread and the wine. In a sense the table of the Lord expands from its original 12 guests to include all the millions of other invited guests that have joined in in the generations since.

All this excites me because it suggests that the great acts of God’s redemption on our part, whether in the Exodus or in the events of Holy Week, do not remain events in the past. They continue to be events in the present for faithful believers. Time past and time future merge into an eternal present.

Now that blows my mind. Does it yours?

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* Nahum Sarna, Exploring Exodus: The Origins of Biblical Israel. New York: Schocken Books, 1996. Page 97.

** That viewpoint seems in fact to be presaged in one of the oldest bits of poetry in the Old Testament, the Song of the Moses in Exodus 15:1-18. This song celebrates the destruction of Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea. In the narrative the song is sung at the beginning of Israel’s wilderness wanderings, yet it ends on a puzzling note. It looks into the future, when the Lord will plant his sanctuary on the mountain which God will choose. The editors who put the Torah together may also have seen the establishment of the Jerusalem temple as the fulfillment of this enigmatic hope.

*** Sarna, page 101.

**** We find this same use of the first person plural in the famous Israelite creed recorded in Deuteronomy 26:5-9. It, too, describes the Exodus event as something that WE experienced, not just our ancestors.

The Three Stages of the Spiritual Journey

The canonical order of the Hebrew Bible mirrors it.

Anyone who reads my blog regularly will know that I believe the Christian life is a journey. It may start with a conversion experience, but it moves to its goal of spiritual maturity progressively, not instantaneously. This is not a new insight on my part. Here I follow in the broad tradition of Christian spiritual writing through the ages.

Two who believe this journey moves through three stages are Richard Rohr, a popular Franciscan writer on the contemplative tradition, and Walter Brueggeman, a Protestant scholar of Scripture. They label those three stages as order➔disorder➔re-order.

Brueggeman sees this progression mirrored in the canonical order of the Jewish Bible. Rohr released a short blog posting today sharing this insight. It’s titled Human Development in Scripture. I call your attention to it as worth your reading if you want to discern the wisdom of the wider structure of the Bible.

Why Does the Torah End with Deuteronomy?

Shouldn’t the book of Joshua be included?

A Torah scroll in the old Glockengasse Synagogue of Koln, Germany. Photo by Willy Horsch. Used under Creative Commons license.

Many peoples of the world have what scholars call a foundation myth. This is the story which recounts their origins as a distinct ethnic/cultural group. It may also express what they view as their purpose and destiny.

A sophisticated example is Virgil’s epic The Aeneid. In this monumental poem Virgil narrates the origins of the Romans as refugees from a burning Troy. It also foresees their destiny to rule the world.

On a first read, one might be inclined to see the Torah as Israel’s foundation myth. The Torah (I am using its most limited meaning) is the name given to the first five books of the Hebrew Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. They are also known as the Books of Moses or as the Pentateuch.

The Torah is a mixture of both narrative and legal material. In its narrative sections, it tells the story of Israel’s origins, beginning with Abraham’s journeys and culminating in the great national journey of the Exodus.

In the Torah’s telling of that Exodus journey, Israel as a people leave their bondage in Egypt under Moses’ leadership and wander through the Sinai desert for 40 years. As a narrative it can hold its own with Aeneas’ wanderings from Troy to Italy in terms of its engaging story telling.

The Torah, however, is more than a narrative. It also prescribes the laws and worship practices that will give Israel its distinctive identity and will regulate its communal and worship life. In that respect, it’s like a constitution for the nation of Israel. Because of its story and its laws, the Torah has always been central to Jewish life. It holds a pre-eminent place in the Hebrew Bible.

The Torah breaks with the mold

But there is one odd feature about the Torah as a foundation myth. As a collection, it ends with the book of Deuteronomy. At the end of Deuteronomy, Israel stands poised to cross over the Jordan River and take possession of the land of Canaan. This is the land God had promised to Abraham and his descendants in the book of Genesis. But–­and this is the surprising but­–Israel has not yet done so. Torah ends on a note of incompletion.

I say it’s odd because the fuller Exodus narrative does have a completion. Israel does cross over the Jordan and takes up possession of Canaan under the leadership of Joshua. That is the story recounted in the Book of Joshua.

But the odd thing is that the compilers who put together the canon of the Hebrew Bible excluded the Book of Joshua from the Torah proper. We don’t expect that in a normal foundation myth, where the completion of the journey of origin and the possession of a land identified with the story’s particular ethnic group is an essential part of the myth. The story gives the rationale for why a particular people occupies the land they do.

So why does Israel’s foundation story not conform to the pattern? That’s the question I find myself asking. Why did the editors of the Torah decide to end Torah with Deuteronomy instead of Joshua?

I find the most illuminating answer to that question in a book I read many years ago. It is James A. Sanders’ Torah and Canon. In it he discusses the development of the canon of the Hebrew Bible. He points out that the canon as it came finally and definitively to be set includes this odd fact that the Torah ends with Deuteronomy.

He finds scattered evidence in the Old Testament that that may not have been the case in earlier eras of Israel’s history. Before the Babylonian exile, early versions of the Torah seem to have included the Book of Joshua. Other early versions may also have posited that the Exodus journey did not really end until David captured the city of Jerusalem and Solomon built the temple. Either ending would have given the Exodus story its triumphant ending.

But the canon of the Hebrew Bible rejects such a triumphalist conclusion. It ends the Torah with Deuteronomy. In the last chapters of Deuteronomy Israel is poised to complete its journey but has actually not yet done so.

Sanders believes the canonical version of the Torah received its final formation during the Babylonian exile or in the years afterwards. One decisive thing had changed in that period of Israel’s life. Israel had been dispossessed of its land, its capital, and its temple. Jews were living in a dispersion around the Near East and in the Mediterranean. The diaspora had begun. It has largely continued to be the reality of Jewish life from that point on, although the founding of the state of Israel in 1948 has launched a major reversal of that reality.

Establishing the perennial relevance of the Torah

 How could the foundation myth of Israel that ended with the conquest of the land speak to Jews in diaspora? Had it not been discredited by the facts of history? Could not therefore its laws also be discarded as irrelevant to the life that Jews lived in diaspora? That seems the logical conclusion.

But what if the Torah ends with Deuteronomy? In a case, Torah ends with Israel still outside its land, still on its journey. The laws and the stories of the Torah still apply to a people who have not yet arrived at their destination.

They are something that a people in diaspora can relate to. The provisions of the Torah are then not historically limited. They gain a perennial relevance to generations upon generations of Israelites into the future.* Says Sanders: Through the Torah, Israel passed from a nation in destitution to a religious community in dispersion that could never be destroyed.**

Through the constitution of the Torah, the stories and the laws of ancient Israel continue to shape the identity of Jews and govern their behavior. Continues Sanders commenting on Ezekiel 33:10:

In Babylonia after the news had arrived in 587 B.C. that Jerusalem had fallen and the Temple been destroyed, some elders came to the prophet Ezekiel and asked him the pertinent question: “ ‘ Ek nihyeh?’ How shall we live?” In now what does our existence obtain? What now is our identity?

 The answer finally came in the form of the Pentateuch and the laws which JEDP had inserted within it. And that was when we knew that our true identity, the Torah par excellence, included the conquest neither of Canaan (Joshua) nor of Jerusalem (David) but that Sinai, which we never possessed, was that which we would never lose.***

The Christian inheritance from the Jewish Torah

This understanding of the boundaries of Torah is part of the heritage that Christians have inherited from our Jewish origins. For this understanding of Jewish life as an uncompleted pilgrimage is transformed by Christian spiritual writers into an understanding of the Christian life as an uncompleted pilgrimage in this life. This is one of the themes of the book of 1 Peter in the New Testament.

The Christian journey does not end until we too pass over the spiritual Jordan of death to enter into the true promised land, the Kingdom of God that lies in the future. And so, gathered as a people around the Bible, our Christian Torah book, we sing:

Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah,

Pilgrim through the barren land;

I am weak, but Thou are mighty;

Hold me with Thy powerful hand;

Bread of heaven, bread of heaven,

Feed me till I want no more,

Feed me till I want no more.****

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* They do, however, need to be adapted to the changing circumstances of Jewish life. That is the task of the oral Torah that culminates in the Talmud.

** James A. Sanders, Torah and Canon. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972. Page 51.

*** Sanders, Page 53.

**** Welsh revival hymn by William Williams, 1745

The Riskiest Strategy for Living

Playing it safe may be exactly the wrong way to live.

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A woodcut illustration of the parable of the talents, 1712.

When I’m listening to a familiar passage of Scripture read out in church, I find it easy to gloss over details that I’ve heard many times before. Then one day one of those details jumps out at me and grabs my attention like a serpent who leaps out of nowhere and bites its victim.

That happened recently when the gospel reading in church was Matthew 25:14-30. This is the familiar parable of the talents. Jesus tells it as part of his instruction on how his disciples are to live as they await the coming of God’s kingdom in its fullness.

The parable tells of a rich man deciding to go on a long journey. Before he leaves, he summons three slaves and entrusts each of them with differing amounts of money to manage while he is gone. One receives 10 talents, one five talents, and the last one one talent.

The rich man must have been the equivalent of a billionaire today. In the ancient world, one talent represented 6,000 denarii. One denarius was typically a day’s wage. So one talent would equal a day laborer’s earnings for 16 years.  The slave receiving five talents was receiving 80 years’ worth of normal wages. That would represent several million dollars today.

The rich man must have had great confidence in these three slaves to entrust such enormous sums to them. He gives them no instructions on what they are to do with the money.

Two of them invest the money in trading ventures, with spectacular results.  When the master returns and demands an accounting of the money, the slave with five talents reports that he has earned five more. The one receiving two talents reports earning another two. In both cases that represents a 100% return. Spectacular investing by any standard!

The last slave, however, buries his talent. When his master returns, he digs it up and returns it. He must have thought he had done well. He was returning the money safe and sound, without loss.

The first two slaves receive lavish commendations from their master. But the third slave receives a ferocious denunciation. The slave is deprived of his money and cast out into the outer darkness. His strategy of keeping the money safe backfires badly.

A fatal misperception

What grabbed my attention when I heard this parable read in church was the motivation this poor slave gives for his action. He tells his master he knew that he was a demanding master. So he says he was afraid. That’s why he hid the money rather than using it.

“I was afraid.” That’s what drove the slave. He was so afraid of losing what he had that he would not take any risk to do anything with it. He would play it safe. So he hid his talent. But in the end this proves the riskiest strategy of all that he could have adopted.

What feeds his fear? It is a flawed understanding of his master’s character. He knows his master is exacting. From that awareness he draws the mistaken conclusion that his master hates losers. He will punish losers regardless of whether their loss came from well-intentioned efforts or from laziness and squander. He will make no distinctions. In drawing that conclusion about his master, the slave makes a fatal misperception of his master.

I have often wondered as I’ve read this parable what would in fact have been the master’s reaction if the slave had made a whole-hearted effort to invest his one talent and then through mistakes or through bad luck had lost the whole amount. The parable suggests that the master would not have cast the slave into outer darkness.

My speculation is that the master’s reaction might have resembled that of a business executive I once heard of who summoned a young employee to his office to account for an astounding loss the young man had sustained through a business transaction that went wrong.

The young man entered with fear and trepidation. He was prepared to submit his resignation. He was convinced that that was what the executive would demand. He so expressed himself to his boss. The executive, however, responded, “Why would we want to fire you? We have just spent thousands of dollars on your education. You’ve learned a hard lesson, so get back to work.”

Surprising guidance from Jesus

Jesus tells his parable to guide his disciples on how they are to live in the time of delay before the arrival of the Kingdom is its fullness. Jesus seems to be saying that we should not be afraid to take chances in investing our talents.

The traditional interpretation of those talents in the parable is that they stand for our abilities and skills that are given us by God. In fact, the modern English word for talent comes from this parable. We are to invest those skills and abilities in service to others,* taking appropriate risks as situations call for them.

But I recently heard an alternate interpretation of those talents. The talents represent the gift that is Jesus Christ himself. We are then called upon to bring Christ to a hurting world in creative ways, ways that may involve great risk of failure.

However, we understand the symbolism of the talents, Jesus seems to be suggesting that we not live and invest ourselves in life in constant fear of divine reprimand and punishment. It is not our mistakes that anger God. It is our efforts to play it safe at life, to live life complacently.**

I do not hear this parable as a call to live life imprudently. That would go against the whole wisdom tradition of the Bible. But as disciples of Christ, we are not to live life timidly. Imitate Christ. Live and serve our God boldly.

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* I say “in service to others” because of the parable of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25:31-46) that follows immediately in context. There the issue at stake in the trial before Son of Man is whether individuals (or nations) have acted compassionately towards those in need.

** Interestingly, when Revelation 21:8 lists those who will be excluded from the heavenly city of New Jerusalem, the cowardly lead the parade of those marching into the lake of fire.

 

A Christmas Option for the Arm-Chair Bible Reader

My study guide on Galatians is all about making the apostle Paul accessible to the lay reader.

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You are a reader of my blog. That tells me you have an interest in the Bible. And you may have friends who share that interest.

Maybe yours is a strong interest; maybe just curiosity. But if you would like to explore one book of the Bible in depth, may I suggest you consider my new book as a Christmas gift option.

The book is titled: Charter of Christian Freedom: A Layperson’s Study Guide to Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. It seeks to open up what has been one of the most influential theological writings ever written in the history of Christianity.

In addressing a crisis in a group of churches in what is today central Turkey, the apostle articulated a vision of the Christian life that has inspired theologians and ordinary Christians ever since. It helped spark the Reformation.  It even started a revolution in my own spiritual life years ago when I first read it.

Yet Paul’s thought can appear dense to people who do not understand the sometimes specialized vocabulary he uses. I try to translate that vocabulary for laypeople today. In this way I hope to make Paul’s thought accessible to people with no or a limited theological background. Periodically in the book I also take pauses to reflect on how I hear Paul’s thought addressing important theological issues today.

While not trying to dumb down Paul, I like to write in an informal, non-academic way that I think will communicate well to my readers. (It’s the same style I aim for in my blog.) From feedback I’ve received, it appears I succeed. One reader told me, “I expected your book to be a dry, scholarly tome. But it wasn’t. It’s really good.”

Copies may be ordered from Amazon or from the website of the publisher Wipf and Stock. If you decide to buy and read it, I would love to hear your feedback afterwards.

 

 

The Ugly Duckling Commandment

One of the Ten Commandments breaks the mold of the other nine.

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A stained glass image of the Ten Commandments from a Jewish synagogue preserved in the Alsatian Museum of Strasbourg.

The Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17, Deuteronomy 5:6-21) are like the Lord’s Prayer. We recite them so often that we become numb to the words. We mouth them thoughtlessly.

So it is helpful now and then to slow down our recitation and pay attention to the words. When we do, we find something unexpected in the Ten Commandments.

The first nine commandments prescribe actions that God’s people are to do or not to do. For example: You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. You shall not kill. You shall not steal.

Even the first commandment–You shall have no other gods before me–implies action. You shall not honor, reverence, or worship any other god before the Lord.

Then we come to the tenth commandment–You shall not covet.* The sentence structure mirrors that of the previous commandments. But the prohibition is not against an action, but an emotion.

The emotion of coveting usually leads to some kind of action, such as an act to deceive and seize another person’s property. The commandment, however, focuses on the motivating emotion that precedes the action, not the action itself.

In this respect, although the tenth commandment parallels the structure of the others, it is a commandment of a totally different kind. That’s why I call it the ugly duckling commandment. It may walk in line with the other ducklings, but it is not a duck.

Why the Difference?

That fact raises a question in my mind. Why is it included in the ten commandments? It makes sense to command actions. We take it for granted that we–to a large degree at least–can control our actions. Our laws presume that fact. Otherwise all our legislation makes no sense.

But can we presume that for our feelings? I have come to believe that we cannot. I don’t think we can compel people–or even ourselves–to feel in a certain way.

Our feelings come and go, without any input from our decision-making will. Sometimes we wonder where those feelings come from. We may not want to feel them. We do our best to suppress them. Yet feelings have an uncanny way of making themselves present in our psyche whether we want to feel them or not.

So it seems odd to me that God is here commanding an emotion, not an action. Sure, coveting is a terribly destructive emotion. It has caused untold injustice and suffering in the world. We badly need to limit it. And, sure, God is God. His wisdom sometimes exceeds our comprehension.

But how can God command something that goes against the very dynamics of human nature? How can God command what we should feel? That’s the nagging question the tenth commandment raises for me.

The Driver of Human Behavior

Where that question leads me is the many places in the Bible where the heart is seen as the locus of our motivation. In the Biblical viewpoint, what ultimately drives our behavior is not rational reflections, but the motivating desires of our inner being.

Yes, rational considerations often drive our decisions and the actions that grow out of them. But if rational considerations come into conflict with our desires, desire is likely to win out. For in the Biblical viewpoint the core of the human problem is not our ignorance, but our disordered hearts. Time after time our desires drive us into destructive behavior in spite of our knowing that the course of action we choose to follow is wrong.

This fundamental insight first came to me with my study of the apostle Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. In chapter five of that letter, Paul talks about the battle that is going on constantly between the desires of the flesh and the desires of the Spirit.

The good qualities of character that we so admire–love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control–are not products of our will-power, but gifts given to us as we deeply root our lives in the Holy Spirit. They grow as the mature fruit out of a heart transformed by the Spirit.**

When we stop to think more reflectively about it, we realize that behind all the commandments of God concerning our behavior lies the more central issue of the desires of our heart. Our wrong actions grow out of our disordered motivations. And if we would change those actions, then we must ultimately deal with the disordered feelings that lie behind those motivations.

The Viewpoint of Jesus

I think that is the great insight of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. He takes the commandments—like the commandment You shall not kill—and realizes that we have not solved the spiritual problem of our behavior until we deal with the feelings that lie behind it. So he directs our attention to the feeling of anger that drives murder.

Likewise when he comes to the proverbial commandment You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy, he directs our attention to that deadly binary cast in our feelings that causes so much civic, ethnic, and international strife and violence. We must deal, Jesus says, with our emotional cast of mind that divides people into friends and enemies. We must grow beyond that dualism if we are to resemble God our Father.

All this then gives deeper meaning to Jesus’ remark to Nicodemus, You must be born anew (or from above). The experience of being born anew is not primarily some insurance policy against going to eternal damnation. It is an experience of being remade in our inner being, of having our hearts transformed. Instead of the language of born again, the apostle Paul will use the language of new creation (see 2 Corinthians 5:17). And that is the great hope that drives the spiritual journey for Christians.

So the tenth commandment has a reason for being the ugly duckling in the list of the Ten Commandments. It cautions us against any spiritual complacency, the assumption that we can fulfill God’s expectations by simple obedient action to the law. What is required to fulfill those expectations is something much deeper and more radical than we customarily assume.

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* In calling it the tenth commandment, I follow the ordering of the ten commandments in the Reformed (Presbyterian) tradition, the religious tradition in which I live. Although all Jewish and Christian traditions keep to a consistent ten commandments, some number them differently than others. Roman Catholics and Lutherans, for example, split the commandment on coveting into two commandments while merging the first two commandments into one. What I have to say about the commandment on coveting remains true whether we regard it as one or two commandments.

WS_5.5x8.5_template** I reflect on this insight of Paul at length in my recent book Charter of Christian Freedom. It is a study guide to the Letter to the Galatians written especially for people with no or a limited theological education. It can be ordered from the website of the publisher Wipf and Stock or from Amazon.