Deuteronomy 5:6-5:22 Decalogical

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Questions: How do the Ten Commandments stack up as a universal standard of morality? Click “Read More” to pursue answers.

Deuteronomy 5:6-5:22

Today we’re doing something a little different. Since we’re following a chronological path through the Bible, we’ve jumped ahead from Exodus to the Deuteronomy account of the Ten Commandments. We’ll pick up our usual in-context devotional tomorrow, but today I wanted to consider the decalogue simply as a generic system of morality. Thus, it will be much more “study” and less “bible”, so those looking for basic spiritual bread might want to just skip ahead.

There’s several reasons for today’s focus. One, the Ten Commandments are a hot political topic these days. Two, our Nurture Group was just studying the Greatest Commandment last night. Three, I admire brief statements of principle, having generated my own for war and marketing.

But more importantly — and perhaps encompassing all of these — I’ve always been fascinated by the question of summum bonum: what is the greatest good? This led me to a tripartite formulation of morality I’ve dubbed GROCS, the Ground Rules of Civil Society:

Chi

: The best human act is the conscious moral choice to use my resources to create value for others

Rho

: The next best act is to reward others as they create value for me

Nu

: Relative value is best determined by honest collaborative inquiry into competing alternatives

The labels refer to my belief that value needs to created (chi), recognized (rho), and normalized (nu); they can loosely be translated as love, justify, and humility, respectively. Further, my formulation purports to unify the three different aspects of morality:
* personal utility (happy)
* social harmony (healthy)
* theological duty (holy)

This connection is made more explicit in my apothegm for happiness, which incorporates chi and rho:

The happiest people in the world are those who can enjoy doing good for those they love and are appreciated for it

Today I intend to compare the Ten Commandments with a) GROCS, b) the Greatest Commandments:

I. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind

II. Love your neighbor as yourself

as well as c) the Golden Rule, often elaborated as Kant’s categorical imperative:

Do to others what you would have them do to you

One might also consider d) the negative form of (c), sometimes called the Silver Rule: “Do not do to others what you would not have them do to you.”

In fact, at least superficially the Ten Commandments most resemble the Silver Rule, in that their primary emphasis is on what not to do. This is especially true of the last five (using the Protestant enumeration):

6. Thou shalt not kill.

7. Neither shalt thou commit adultery.

8. Neither shalt thou steal.

9. Neither shalt thou bear false witness against thy neighbour.

10. Neither shalt thou desire thy neighbour’s wife, neither shalt thou covet thy neighbour’s house, his field, or his manservant, or his maidservant, his ox, or his ass, or any [thing] that [is] thy neighbour’s.

These all seem obvious applications of the Silver Rule, and thus also the Golden Rule, which is pretty much equivalent to (II), the Second-Greatest Commandment. #10 is somewhat unusual in forbidding an attitude more than an action, and thus perhaps also incorporates (I), the Greatest Commandment to love God with our whole heart.

How does GROCS handle these? Let’s start from the end, as that’s simplest. #10 (coveting, ‘avah) can be interpreted as a command to focus on one’s own resources (i.e., Chi), which would also encompass #8 (theft, ganab) and #7 (adultery, na’aph). In particular, #7 implies that sexuality is intended to create value for others in the context of begetting a family (emotionally and spiritually, as well as physically). #9 (false witness, shav’ `ed ) seems to speak primarily to Nu, the ability of a community to collaboratively adjudicate value.

Which from our first set leaves #6 (killing, ratsach), where it is useful to distinguish two cases: murder and vengeance. Certainly simple murder runs afoul of Rho (as does #8, theft) in terms of being unjust. But what about vengeance? In fact Rho is often used implicitly as justification for assassination, and even genocide. This commandment arguably denies individuals that right, though in context it appears more to transfer that right to the State/Church rather than prohibit it completely. If so, then that makes it more a matter of Nu (humility) — which fits in with the idea that one of the primary purposes of governance is to socialize justice.

Let’s keep working backwards:

#5. Honour thy father and thy mother, as the LORD thy God hath commanded thee; that thy days may be prolonged, and that it may go well with thee, in the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.

This seems primarily Rho — rewarding our parents for all they’ve done for us, though it also implies making good use of the resource we have in our parents (Chi), as well as the humility (Nu) to learn from their instruction. It also reflects the Golden Rule, assuming that we’d want our children to honor us!

#4. Keep the sabbath day to sanctify it, as the LORD thy God hath commanded thee.

This is a very different sort of commandment, as we’re moving upward into more theological statements along the lines of (I), Loving God. Certainly there is a strong element of Rho, recognizing God for what He’s done:

And remember that thou wast a servant in the land of Egypt, and [that] the LORD thy God brought thee out thence through a mighty hand and by a stretched out arm: therefore the LORD thy God commanded thee to keep the sabbath day.

Yet, I suspect there’s an interesting Chi perspective behind this, which seems to imply that resting in God is actually a more effective way to create value than merely relying on human resources:

Six days thou shalt labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day [is] the sabbath of the LORD thy God: [in it] thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, nor thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thine ox, nor thine ass, nor any of thy cattle, nor thy stranger that [is] within thy gates; that thy manservant and thy maidservant may rest as well as thou.

At the very least, it requires the humility (Nu) to trust God rather than our own efforts (m@la’kah) — or those of our subordinates — to provide for us.

#3. Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain: for the LORD will not hold [him] guiltless that taketh his name in vain.

This manifestation of the Greatest Commandment (I) seems very Rho (honoring God for who He is and what He’s done), and perhaps also the Golden Rule in that we’d want people to honor our name (shem)!

Let’s take the last (first) two together (as Catholics do):

#1. Thou shalt have none other gods before me.

#2. Thou shalt not make thee [any] graven image, [or] any likeness [of any thing] that [is] in heaven above, or that [is] in the earth beneath, or that [is] in the waters beneath the earth:

These can be considered a prohibition against idolatry: worshipping (shachah) anything other than God:

Thou shalt not bow down thyself unto them, nor serve them:

The rationale given is particularly interesting:

for I the LORD thy God [am] a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth [generation] of them that hate me, And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me and keep my commandments.

Certainly there’s both a carrot and a stick (very Rho) here, as well as in the preceding verse:

I [am] the LORD thy God, which brought thee out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage.

However, the bottom line (well, top line) really seems to be (I): Loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength.

That’s arguably the key lesson: GROCS does a credible job of capturing — and even explaining — (II): Loving our neighbors. However, Loving God (I) appears to be an even more primal command, which in some ways reflects but in other ways transcends the human-centric morality of GROCS (or, for that matter, the Gold and Silver rules).

Prayer

Lord, as helpful as it may be to think about morality, that’s still no substitute for practicing it. Train me to observe all your commands, especially the greatest one: to place you first, and love you with my heart (intentions), soul (emotions), mind (reasons), and strength (actions). However, I thank you that ultimately my righteousness comes not from the Law, but the Blood of Your Son, in whose name I pray. Amen.

About the Title:

Today’s title is a contraction of Decalogue and logical, as well as perhaps chronological.

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