There’s an old saying that “the devil is in the details”. I would return instead to the saying that preceded it: “God is in the detail.” I read an article by Rabbi Jonathon Sacks, a very highly respected Jewish clergyman and teacher, who talks about the particularity of God. That while the world wants to move away from the particular to the universal, God moves the other direction – from the universal to the particular. The stories of the Bible begin with a universal story – the creation of all that is and of a generic human being. By the end of the two creation stories that generic human being has become two human beings who have names, Adam and Eve, who then name their children – and each child becomes the ancestor of a tribe, then a nation. When human beings get carried away and start reaching for a kind of universal knowledge and power, God separates them, gives them distinct languages and cultures. From there we have the covenant with Noah and with all creatures – that God will never again destroy all life by flood. Still pretty universal. But then all of a sudden we’re at the very particular – a man named Abraham who will be a blessing to all nations – and then along comes one nation that carries a particular responsibility and a particular blessing: the descendants of Jacob, named Israel. (http://rabbisacks.org/faith-lectures-jewish-identity-the-concept-of-a-chosen-people)
Rabbi Sacks says God is concerned, not with general principles, but with particular people in particular circumstances. It is to the particular people that God chose, the Israelites, that the ten commandments are given. These are not commandments for the whole world, but for this particular people. And the unique details that fill out these 10 commandments – the 613 laws that accompany them – are only meant, Rabbi Sachs says, for Jews. Thanks to Christian colonization, much of the rest of the world has adopted the Ten Commandments as the basis for our legal codes – but no-one else obeys all those other laws. In fact, only a fraction of Jews are able to stay faithful to them all, and some of them contravene modern understandings of human rights and justice, and would not be followed even by the most faithful Jew!
That raised a question for me as to whether we as contemporary Christians are people of the particular, or people of the universal. I think among us we have those who lean both ways. If you’ll remember our exploration of the theological buffet over the month of August, there are among us United Church folk those who lean towards the universal: who speak of the Cosmic Christ, the Spirit that undergirds all being, the unity of all that is – language that could be shared by many other faith traditions and the SBNR community as well. There are also those for whom the particular historical revelation of God in Jesus of Nazareth is hugely important – it is the rock on which faith is built, and without Jesus there would be no redemption, no transformation of human lives or of creation itself. We find ourselves somewhere along that spectrum.
So I wondered about these 10 Commandments, and how we might respond to them along the spectrum from the universal to the particular.
There are some for whom these are absolute, and apply to everyone without exception:
For example, Christians have insisted there ARE no other gods – all other gods are false. Even representations of saints or statues of Mary were smashed at one point in history by severe Protestants who felt that any representations of any religious figure detracted from the worship of the one God and amounted to idols. Similarly, they would not bow down to a ruler, a bishop or a military commander, because to do so was to compromise their unbending loyalty to God.
Many still stand firm against any form of military service, and refuse to pay taxes that might go to military spending – because “you shall not kill” is not situational, it’s absolute.. I don’t know anyone who takes the commandment not to kill as far as the Jains of India who will not even swat a mosquito, but there may be Christians who do.
We know that for centuries divorce was not allowed among Christian couples because it was seen as a violation of the commandment against adultery. If one did divorce, one was to remain celibate the rest of one’s life so as not to disobey the commandment – the reasoning being that in the eyes of God, the marriage is still in place.
We can probably think of other examples where these commandments are interpreted as applying directly and absolutely to our lives, without nuance or quibble.
But then Jesus says in our alternate reading that the whole of the Law is found in the command to love God, and in the second commandment to love Neighbour. Many of us have been taught that Jesus came to abolish the law – that the new life he gave to us is a life free from obligation to the old covenants – including, logically, the 10 Commandments (though elsewhere he says he comes to fulfill the Law). And yet for generations these commandments have been painted on church walls, graven on bronze plaques, repeated in Sunday School classes and preached on in Sunday services. So it seems we have a bit of ambivalence about them.
If Rabbi Sachs is right, even these 10 commandments were meant for this particular, Hebrew people at that particular time in history – not for everyone else. And most scholars agree that these rules were to be applied WITHIN the community. In fact, we have some sad evidence of that when just a few chapters later we witness the Israelites engaging in all out war against the Canaanite tribes who were already in the land the Israelites felt was promised to them – a war in which no-one was spared.
[I’m going to take a little sidebar here, and say that there is absolutely no archaeological evidence that such terrible widespread acts were actually committed; the evidence actually suggests that the Hebrew tribes entered the land, engaged in a few battles with local tribes, but more often than not made alliances, intermarried, and settled down in the land to live – much as the Canaanites had before them when THEY first entered the land. The narrative found in Scripture is based on a later viewpoint coming out of the Babylonian exile, when the exiled Hebrews looked back on their people’s history and emphasized the importance of a promised homeland – which makes total sense from the perspective of a people in exile, much as a promised homeland became more and more important to the Jewish people of the last several centuries who suffered so much at the hands of their neighbours.
To get back to the ten commandments then, Rabbi Sachs actually sees these commandments as applying to inter-Jewish relationships alone – whereas in his view the seven laws that the Jewish people understand as part of God’s covenant with Noah – apply to all. They are rather similar to the Ten Commandments:
1. Not to worship idols.
2. Not to curse God.
3. To establish courts of justice.
4. Not to commit murder.
5. Not to commit adultery, bestiality, or sexual immorality.
6. Not to steal.
7. Not to eat flesh torn from a living animal.
Apart from the last one, which sounds like rather a “Well, duh!” commandment to our place and time, this pretty much covers it. According to the Jewish Talmud, these laws apply universally to humanity. The non-Jew who follows these laws is deemed righteous. All the other stuff in the Hebrew books of the law does not apply to us.
So we’re back to universality – that there are some laws that apply to everyone, because they make for a happier, safer, more peaceful shared life together. In the days these laws were promoted, the penalty for transgressing them would be severe – often the death penalty (though again, in practice that sentence was rarely carried out).
Today, we live in a society shaped by some near-universally accepted laws – I can’t say universally, because worshipping idols, cursing God or taking God’s name in vain as well as covetousness are all common practice in today’s world – but the basics – fidelity in marriage, no stealing, having a just legal system, not committing murder are generally agreed upon as worth upholding. But as a society whose principles are shaped not just by ancient Hebrew Law but by Christian compassion and forgiveness, we are increasingly exploring ways to deal with infractions in any of these areas that lead to reconciliation and healing rather than punishment or vengeance. In these situations, the details matter. What are the facts of the case or the situation? Who was involved? What was their motivation? Were there extenuating circumstances? Is there bias, prejudice, cultural misunderstanding, unfair judgement involved? Are mental illness and addiction a factor? All of these questions come into play.
So for example, I remember a case from when I was a young adult. A few years after we all graduated from high school, a young woman I’d gone to school with was convicted of murdering her husband. It had been a very abusive marriage, and one day she struck back: she stabbed her husband in his sleep. That case was dealt with very differently than a case in which two men got in a fight outside a bar, one of them drew a knife, stabbed the other, and the second ended up dead. Both the woman I went to school with and the man outside the bar took another human life – but the reasons and circumstances were vastly different. In taking into account those differences, we move again from the universal to the particular – and compassion, which comes from the heart of God – affects the outcome.
As Christian people when we look at what is needed for a just society, we need to look at the universal. We have to have agreed-upon principles that are basic to the way we live and interact with one another. Together with that though, we remember the commandments to love God and to love our neighbours – even our neighbours who may find themselves on the wrong side of the commandments, or on the wrong side of the law. To love our neighbours is to seek to understand and empathize with them, to hope for something better for them, to trust that God still can work in their lives, to construct our society in such a way that people can be reconciled to themselves, to God, to those whom they have harmed, and to society at large.
The particular is far more demanding of our discernment, our time, our energy than the universal – but the divine is in the details. We are people of the commandments, yes, AND we are people of compassion. What can you and I do to see that both commandments and compassion rule our common life? Something to think about in the week ahead. Amen.