Deuteronomy 5:1-21 - The Ten Commandments

When you hear the words ‘The Ten Commandments’, what images spring to mind?

Charlton Heston maybe in the Cecil B. Demille classic? Or Harrison Ford, in Raiders of the Lost Ark? Unfortunately I couldn’t get permission to show either of these films today, so let’s imagine a more traditional image instead.

The 10 commandments are often depicted as two stone tablets –with the first having 5 rules on how to deal with God, and the second 5 tips on how to cope with being in lockdown with others. The tablets were carried in the Ark of the Covenant through the desert, and were later placed in the Holy of Holies in Solomon’s Temple. The ten commandments themselves were recited daily in the second Temple service.

These words are clearly some of the most important in the Bible. They laid out how God wanted us to create a moral community. This was a startling, innovation in Judaism. Up until then, gods were mostly concerned with what people did to appease them, and pretty much let humans deal with others as they wished. But the Jewish God is different and is deeply concerned with how we treat each other.

The commands were worded as imperatives. Other ancient texts were conditional i.e. “if you do this, then X happens”. Instead the decalogue phrases them as universal absolutes; wrong actions that are unacceptable to God, as in “you must never…”.

And by using the singular tense; the precepts are directed to each individual. We all have a duty to do them. The decalogue is the original 10-step programme to redemption!

But the precepts are not as straightforward as they seem.

There is even controversy over what is a commandment. The first sentence is “I the Eternal am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage.” Some think this is a commandment to believe in God. But it is an introduction, rather than a command, as there is no imperative verb. In any case God cannot command us to believe that God exists, since if we already believe, there is no point to the command and if we don’t believe in God, then who is doing the commanding?!

But even if it’s not a command, it’s an important preamble. The reference to ‘bringing the Israelites out of Egypt’ is spiritual rather than geographical; it represents the journey from mental slavery (or ‘from narrowness’ the literal translation of Mitzrayim) to freedom. Israel didn’t have the ability to free itself; it had to wait for an ‘act of God’.

Let’s have a quick run through of the actual commandments. And you might want to tally how many you actually keep.

Have no other gods

Banning the worship of all but one deity, was the radical contribution Judaism made to religious thought.

Don’t make idols

Idols are another way of describing false gods. I can assure you that there are no skeletons or golden calves in my attic so my score so far is 2 out of 2

Not taking God’s name in vain

This means having awe and respect for God. I am far too old to even attempt to get away with saying “OMG” so that’s another tick

Observe Shabbat

This means changing one’s lifestyle on a sacred day to foster contact with the divine. This is tricky, as it’s a positive command. How much observance of shabbat is enough? Well I do try to make the day different, so I’m going to give myself the benefit of the doubt.

Honouring parents

The Rabbis said this meant we can’t hit, insult or behave disrespectfully, which I’m fine with. But honouring parents is another positive command and so it also means caring for them. And what does that practically mean with the current rules on physical isolation?

No murder

This refers to the illicit killing of humans, both intentional and accidental. This is easy. No sleepless nights for me here.

No adultery

Strictly speaking this only applies to women, as originally it was a way to be certain of the paternity of children. However, being ever such a modern male, I think this applies to me too, and it’s another confident tick.

No stealing

On the surface, this commandment prohibits all forms of theft, but luckily the Talmud limited it to kidnapping. I am not usually a fan of the Talmud, but on this occasion I am firmly going to agree with it and again give myself full marks

Don’t make false testimony

This covers both false accusation and false evidence in a legal court and I’m on course for a perfect 10.

Only one more to go, which I don’t know if you heard, has recently been updated. It now reads: “You shall not COVID your neighbour's wife.”!

But sticking with the traditional text, ‘covet’ means improperly wanting something that belongs to others. Coveting is linked with greed, envy, jealousy. Oh dear, this is a toughie. I think I might have failed at the final hurdle.

But hang on, all the other commandments involve speech or action. Coveting is an emotion and surely we can’t really control our feelings? It only makes sense to have laws that are within our power to do. That’s what Pope Pius V thought, and in 1567 he ruled that for Catholics only concrete actions were actual sins; the covetous thoughts on their own didn’t count. But unfortunately for Jews, the Yom Kippur Al Chet makes it clear that we can commit sins through secret thoughts.

And what we feel does affect how we act. Narcissists, for instance, are quick to take offence when they think other people are disrespecting them. Their belief may well be false, but that does not stop them feeling resentful. Covetousness led Cain to murder Abel, Jacob to steal his brother’s blessing and Jacob’s sons to sell Joseph. The prophet Jeremiah said:

For from the least of them even to the greatest of them,

Everyone is greedy for gain,

And from the prophet even to the priest

Everyone deals falsely.

To covet, is to focus our needs on something we do not, probably can’t, have; the fleeting pleasures, the “vanity of vanities”. It means our desires take over our thoughts. It leads us to wrongly think another person’s love or having more possessions is all that separates us from happiness.

Judging ourselves in relation to others leads to competition, strife and envy, and from there to the breakdown of trust that holds society together. The central words of the Torah - “Love your neighbour as yourself” - never made it into the big 10. But this is the positive side to not coveting. If I treat others how I want to be treated myself, then I won’t be jealous of their lifestyle or want to put them down.

The antidote to envy is gratitude and controlling one’s impulses; having realistic expectations, and spending more time appreciating what I have, rather than desiring more.

This is all especially pertinent in these difficult times. Going back to the introduction to the 10 commandments, living in ‘lock-down’ is like living in the narrowness of Egypt. We can’t control when ‘acts of God’ - or the vaccine makers - will release us from this restricted life. I cannot control my own destiny. There are some things I just have to put up with.

But there is an upside; lock-down has forced me into a different, simpler, less frenetic, less covetous lifestyle. The temptations to buy or show off are much reduced. When the restrictions do lift, I could go back to normal, or I could decide to change. Consciously controlling my covetousness will be challenging, but would be a great way to turn a difficult situation into a positive. Normally I would be very happy with a score of 9 out of 10, but when it comes to the ten commandments, it isn’t really good enough - is it?

1 August 2020