(07) The Gift of the Law—Exodus 20

Ted Grimsrud

Exodus 15 celebrates God’s deliverance of the people of the promise from slavery in Egypt.  “In your steadfast love you led the people whom you redeemed” (Ex. 15:13).  This deliverance kept the promise alive, the hope of God’s calling these people to know God’s mercy and to bless all the families of the earth with that mercy.  God initiated this act of mercy simply out of God’s commitment to the promise.  Only after God’s life-giving initiative does the story turn to the giving of the Law.

Shortly after passing through the parted waters, the people continue their journey heading for the promise land with the hope of settling down and embodying the mercy of God.  They head to Mt. Zion in the wilderness on their way to Canaan.  At the Mount, they are told that they were to be “a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:6).  That is, as a “priestly kingdom,” they are being established in order to mediate God’s word to others – a “holy nation” meant to a conduit for the blessing God promises for all the families of the earth.

After this affirmation of Israel’s vocation as the mediator of God’s word, the next step is the revelation of the commandments that comes in Exodus 20.  Christianity has profoundly misunderstood the dynamics that underlay the giving of the commandments.  The context is God’s gift of salvation from slavery and God’s calling of the Hebrews to manifest the mercy of God in their common life – ultimately in continuity with the promise that they will bless all the families of the earth.

The Law provided social and political structure for the delivered slaves so that the effects of that deliverance could be sustained.  God gave them the promise land so these people could settle down and establish an on-going society that would live out the fruit of the exodus liberation.  The goal of all this was for these people to be a light to the other nations and thereby to be a channel for God’s shalom, God’s peace, to spread to these nations.

Throughout the Law codes in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy we see echoes of the contrast between life under Torah and life under Egypt’s enslavement.  The Law is self-consciously established to provide structure for social life in which the well-being and wholeness of all the people in the community is understood as the highest priority.  The exploitation of the many for the aggrandizement of the few is rejected out of hand – and when in later times the Hebrews evolve toward such exploitation, the original intention of the Law is invoked as a basis for critique.

We Christians today should to look at the law sympathetically – as it was intended and originally expressed.  The law was a means of structuring life so that God’s merciful deliverance from no-life in Egypt to new life could be sustained in a communal way of life.  Properly understood and seen in the historical and social context out of which it emerged, the law provided for a relatively just, healthy, and admirable way of life (and continues to in much of Judaism to this day).  Understood and followed in the right spirit, in the spirit in which it was intended, the law has provided a genuine blessing for Israel and the nations. 

Nonetheless, when we read the law, even the Ten Commandments, we read them as Gentile Christians, far, far removed from any close existence with these laws as an integral part of our lives.  They are strangers to us, to a greater or lesser extent. 

I would like to focus my further reflections on the sixth commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” as a way to consider the meaning for Christian pacifism of the Ten Commandments.  As we reflect on the law, especially on the Ten Commandments, and even more especially on the sixth commandment, to a large degree, we can’t help but experience it as a stranger.  We likely are not real sure how to relate to the Ten Commandments.  As Christian pacifists, we are not real sure how to relate to the notion of achieving peace through a rule that outlaws violence.

Now, if we were to be honest, we likely would admit some attraction to establishing such a rule – and maybe the sixth commandment would work.  Maybe we can conceive of God and of God’s ways with human such that God would give this clear command – “Thou shalt not kill” and all people ultimately would be compelled to obey it.  Then we would have peace on earth.

Of course, many people have had such a dream – even if not always clearly expressed.  For some people it has taken the form of a quest for a powerful system of international law.  Maybe these laws would be enforced by an all-powerful United Nations police force that would be able to keep us from killing.  Or maybe, its more an internal-kind of compulsion, our human consciousness reaching the point where the natural law forbidding killing dominates all people so much that killing stops.

Another form of this rule by law takes can be seen on a more intellectual level, in the construction of air-tight arguments that prove that killing is wrong, killing is against reason, killing is simply stupid.  It’s a quest for arguments so powerful that the other person simply has to accept them or be obliterated; maybe their brains will start vibrating and threaten to explode of they don’t give in to the argument.  The idea, possibly, is that if we destroy all those who don’t believe killing is wrong, at least destroy them intellectually, then we might achieve peace.

For some people, the sixth commandment seems to serve as this kind of rule by law, a basis for a hope of achieving peace by legislation.

However, I have problems with this hope, as much as I desire peace and would like all people to be pacifists. How do we interpret the sixth commandment?  Can it serve such a purpose, of outlawing violence?

Many commentators explain this commandment away as having very limited significance.  They argue that it specifically means “thou shalt not murder” and hence has little or no relevance for issues of warfare and capital punishment.  To their thinking, it is not in fact a rule outlawing violence at all.  It actually implicitly supports certain kinds of violence.  It provides a rationale for capital punishment and “just wars.”  Those who break this law not to murder deserve death, and it is up to those representing God to see that they get it.  At times, God’s representatives who have dealt out death have been religious leaders – more often, they are agents of the state, sanctioned by religious leaders as God’s representatives in wielding the “sword of retributive justice.” 

In response to this kind of thinking – and the actions carried out because of it – we are left mostly to ask “why do we kill people to show that killing people is wrong?”  And we are also left with a notion of God that God, in effect, is bound by the rule of an eye-for-an-eye, that God is forced to respond to violence with a new act of violence. 

This notion of God needs to be challenged.  I believe even in the early stories such as Noah and the flood and Abraham and Sodom and Gomorrah, we see clear hints of a God who is free from these kinds of requirements.  We see clear hints of a God whose mercy does not need to be earned but in fact is given to those who could even be seen as God’s enemies.

Because the Old Testament God is fundamentally a merciful God, I don’t read this commandment as an implicit endorsement of capital punishment or just wars.  But, I also find it difficult to read the sixth commandment as legislation for pacifism.

And I actually have no desire to attempt to read it as such.  I am not at all comfortable with the idea of legislating pacifism.  I have heard people use the sixth commandment as a basis for a legalistic kind of pacifism.  This type of focus has been common among certain conscientious objectors over the years.  “Why can’t I go to war?  Because the commandment says ‘thou shalt not kill’.”  I highly value these pacifists’ willingness to suffer for their convictions and their refusal to add to the war-spirit.  Still, I am uncomfortable with what seems to me to be legalism.

More common is a kind of “Jesus-legalism” basis for pacifism.  “I’m against war because Jesus commands us not to fight.  He commands us to love our enemies.  He commands Peter to put away his sword.  He commands us to turn the other cheek.  He commands us to resist not evil.”

I certainly have quoted many of these verses myself.  More and more, though, I see this now as an attempt to legislate morality, to take the easy way of finding an absolute principle that everyone must adhere to – or else their brains will explode.

I can argue intellectually now why this legalistic approach is ultimately unhelpful – something along the lines of a belief that pacifism cannot live creatively if it is founded on a sense of obligation.  Pacifism has to do with freely choosing to love someone else – not on being forced in whatever way (by external rules or internal compulsion) to follow abstract principles; not on a sense of duty not to kill; not on fear of what happens if we break the rules; not on a sense of piety that we’re trying to earn some kind of brownie points by our good works.  Pacifism only genuinely works when it is free, creative, a true expression of love.

Is it helpful to think we are commanded to be peacemakers?  Is it helpful to our morality to read these words – a quote directly from God – telling us “Thou shalt not kill?”

Rather than focusing on what this command orders us to do, I would rather consider what it tells us about God.  Initially, and foundationally, the prologue to the Ten Commandments makes a crucial assertion about God that greatly colors everything that follows.  The first words are “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2).  This prologue emphasizes in the strongest terms that God is a God of mercy.  This mercy that calls together the people out of love lays behind all of what follows.  Hence, the point of the commandments is not absolute impersonal, even coercive, rules that must never be violated.  The point rather is that a loving God desires on-going relationships of care and respect with these people God delivered out of suffering and oppression.

The sixth commandment, then, “thou shalt not kill,” essentially tells us that life is God’s.  This loving, delivering God is the giver of life and the ultimate determiner of the outcome of life.  It is not for human beings to usurp God’s dominion over life.  It is not for human beings to name the time and season for life or death.

The general implications of this affirmation evolve along with one’s understanding of the character of God.  When God is seen as more vindictive, more retributive, then this commandment was not inconsistent with appropriately enforced capital punishment and holy war and other types of judgment.  This would be parallel with the ideas in the judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah.  In that ancient story, God listens to Abraham but still punishes those evil cities.

However, by the time of the prophets – especially Hosea and then the writer of the second half of Isaiah – God is seen in different terms.  Rather than continuing the cycle of violence, God finds other ways of responding to evil, responding more through suffering, ever-enduring love than retaliation.  This perspective of course reaches its culmination in Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, the prince of peace.  God finds a way to respond to violence without adding to violence; a way to break the cycle and establish true justice–not based on an-eye-for-an-eye until every eye is blind but based on genuine healing and reconciliation.

So, in the light of this trajectory, “do not kill” has an increasingly broad application, culminating in a notion of a God who acts lovingly (rather than vindictively) toward God’s enemies.  “Do not kill” is not an external rule to follow by force of will.  It is a call to discover God’s mercy for oneself and let that mercy so shape our awareness that we see that all life does belong to God, a God who desires only the best for every being.

Paul’s interpretation of the law in Romans 13 makes very clear the deepest meaning of the law not as rule-following but as being open to God’s love and finding ways to express that love toward others: “The commandments …are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Rom. 13: 9).

The dangers with the law are present from the beginning.  One of the dangers, as I have alluded to above, is the tendency to forget its foundations in God’s mercy, to see it more as a list of prerequisites for a harmonious relationship with God than as guidance for how a people might live in light of God’s establishment of the relationship through acts of mercy. 

When the Commandments are seen more as prerequisites, they lend themselves to being tools of dominance for people in power rather than, as they were intended, to be protection for the welfare of the weak and vulnerable in the community.  Instead of being a check on the death-dealing power of the state, the sixth commandment in many cases has been used as a basis for death-dealing punishment (capital punishment – which almost always has fallen much heavier on poor and vulnerable people than on the wealthy and powerful – and even war – which, of course, always has resulted in much more death for poor people pressed into military service and for vulnerable victims of “collateral damage”).

Jesus bumped up against the tendency to use the commands as a basis for sustaining thick boundary lines between the inner circle of “worthy believers” and those outside the boundary lines, the “unworthy.”  Jesus insisted that the true meaning of Torah was best understood in terms of the love command, and that from the beginning Torah was meant to support inclusion of vulnerable people (as stated in Leviticus 19, widows, orphans, and aliens).

Jesus summed up his approach when he stated, “the Sabbath is made for human beings, not human beings for the Sabbath.”  He stated this perspective in face of criticism that he was too lax in allowing his followers to gather food on the Sabbath when they were hungry – thus being guilty of disregard for the Law.  Jesus turned that criticism on its head.  In fact, it is in fulfillment of the Law that people in need were treated with generosity.  In showing such generosity, the people of God are showing the world how they understand the character of God – the One who showed their ancestors such generosity in freeing them from slavery in Egypt.

When we read the Ted Commandments and the rest of Torah in light of Jesus’ perspective, we see that he was not rejecting Torah at all in his ministry.  Jesus was engaged in a debate over the best interpretation of the Law.  He argued as one committed to Torah, but with a different reading of it than his opponents.

The bases for Jesus’ interpretation of Torah are present in the story itself.  This interpretation starts with God’s mercy, God’s love that liberated slaves from their bondage in Egypt.  This liberation followed from the promise God had made the Abraham that his descendents would bless all the families of the earth.  With the promise and the liberation as the context, Torah then is best seen as serving the furthering of the calling to bless all the earth.

Torah was a gift.  It provided guidance for living in light of the liberating mercy of God, and for serving as a “light to the nations.”  

1 thought on “(07) The Gift of the Law—Exodus 20

  1. Pingback: Just War vs. Pacifism. What is the Christian Position? – Christian Talour

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