The Ten Commandments, the levitical laws, and sins
Summary of the story:
When God brought the people of Israel out of Egypt, He told them many things through Moses. He had already told them the name of their God --"I AM." And Moses had told them that although I AM was the creator of all people, I AM had a special relationship with Israel. Because of this special loving relationship, God's people would have to be holier than all other nations. Now Moses would tell the people what I AM required. The most famous of these requirements --and the most universal-- are the Ten Commandments.
Moses led the newly freed people to the holy mountain where I AM (God) spoke to them. This would turn out to be the only time that God spoke directly to the nation. After the people heard His voice and saw the thunder and the lightning, they were so terrified they told Moses "Let not God talk to us." Why?
God's voice --as the prophets tell us-- is like the voice of many thunders or roaring waves. But even more the fire and the thunderous voice, the supernatural holiness of the situation would be quite awesome to experience. The people would understand in a profound way that they were mere created beings with no claims to their bodies, minds or spirits. Even more terrifying, they would realize that their holiness was not on a par with God's. What could be more terrifying than a situation in which the God of all the universe is giving every individual in a nation a long list of personal "Do's and Don'ts" in their every day lives?
"I am the Lord thy God, who brought thee out of the house of bondage.
The most interesting thing about the Commandments is how I AM begins his announcement of the Commandments. He doesn't say, for instance, that He is Creator. Now does He say He is powerful or some other introduction one might expect a God to say. Instead, I AM tells the people this piece of information: He is the Lord, their God, the One Who brought them out of slavery in Egypt. This certainly is an interesting way to introduce one's self. An interesting God indeed to form a relationship by telling a nation that He has freed them. Not only does this mean that their obedience to His laws should start with gratitude at their new-found freedom. But this introduction also shows that I AM "remembered" the relationship He had with their ancestors. This is typical of the Scriptures: Memory and Gratitude to God is the basis of religious obedience.
I AM gives the people commandments that can be divided into 1) sins against God, 2) sins against parents, 3) sins against spouses and lastly 4) sins against people in general.
Thou shalt have no other gods but me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven images or any likeness of anything in the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself unto them or serve them. Because I am a jealous God."
The first thing He requires is the He be their only God. These people have left Egypt with its many Gods. But now they should have only one God, I AM alone. I quoted the King James Version because I want you to notice all those thous, thees, and thys. I AM uses the familiar version of the pronoun You. (When you reach the New Testament, you will notice that Jesus also uses the familiar form in the Our Father.) Thee, Thy, Thou, Thine are words used only between close intimate friends or by a person in a superior position. The average English-speaker doesn't use thee, thy, thou or thine anymore. Nowadays there is no way to differentiate between "You" spoken to a friend, family member, servant and the "You" spoken to a superior or a stranger. I'll give you some examples. Southerners in the United States might say "You" when talking to (or about) one person and "You all" when they mean "Everyone" or "All of you." Everyone who has seen their share of gangster movies will understand the difference between "yous guys" and you. And Jamaicans understand that the word "unu" means "all of you." But for the most part, these words don't go as far as thee, thine, thou, and thy in showing how intimate the speaker and the hearer are. Throughout the Bible, I AM speaks intimately to His people. Many of His people, in turn, also speak intimately to Him.
The prohibition against making engravings of animals, humans, plants, any likeness of anything in heaven, earth, or under the earth is important because --like religious rituals, special clothing, religious diets-- idols often make people feel closer to their god. The scriptures always show us that I AM wants a religion that is hidden in the temple of the human heart. This will be tough for I AM to attain because humans like religion that can be seen. They are used to visualizing gods. They are used to assigning spiritual power to inanimate things. I AM does not want to be compared to snakes, dragons, elephants, or oxen. He doesn't even want to be compared to Electricity. ("God is a force.") Comparisons lesson the creator of all things by comparing Him to something created. And I AM is greater than anything the human mind can compare Him to. Once an image has been made, a comparison has been "written in stone" and I AM's powers, personality and character become severely limited in the believer's mind. There is also the issue of the demonic. Moses and the prophets often tell us that the demons of the earth love being worshiped.
Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord in vain. The Lord will not hold a person guiltless who takes His name in vain.
"I AM" tells the people that anyone who uses His name lightly or in an unholy manner will not be guiltless. I have no problems with this commandment. Many people, however, ask why such a loving God would be so insistent about the honor due His name, so insistent about it in fact that He actually retains a sinner's guilt because of it. I could try to tackle this question by discussing the disrespect shown by the snake and Adam and Eve in the garden, the first time in Scripture when God was "dissed." I could also say that certainly, I AM --like anyone else-- has a right to protect the honor of His name. But maybe it'll be easier to understand if we look at this in another way. Any being who truly loves and respects another being -- god or man-- usually doesn't go around dishonoring the other person's name. How can anyone bad-mouth someone he or she truly loves?
In the remaining portions of the Bible, we know that God will have to contend with whining people who complain about His incompetence and harshness at every turn. They will argue about their rights, blaspheme as Lamech did, by hypocritically using God's name to excuse their sins. Miriam herself would use God's name lightly to excuse her racism, her pride, and racial arrogance. This commandment was of course destined to be broken. And is always being disobeyed by religious and non-religious people alike.
Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. In it, you, your servants and your animals will do no work
One wonders what people would do without an official day devoted to God and rest. I imagine some people would work non-stop. Others would remember God only when they chose to remember. Here, however, I AM creates a day of rest. Most nations had their holy days, of course. But those were few and far between. And they had little to do with resting. Here we have a god creating holiness on a weekly basis. The seventh day will be called holy because God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh day. The seventh day (or Sabbath day) is a celebration of God as creator, a day in which people were to imitate I AM and rest as He did.
In those days, the Seventh wasn't a particular day. It wasn't the day but the sequence that was important: if six days came and passed, the seventh day is automatically holy. In his letter to the Colossians, Paul told the Church at Colossae that some people consider one particular day holy and others consider all days equal. For Paul, the day didn't matter as long as a believer was fully convinced in his own mind about his own religious scruples. We are told "not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together." But we are not told that the coming together to worship is supposed to be weekly. Jesus also told His disciples that "People aren't made for the Sabbath. The Sabbath was made for people." The Sabbath is a sumbol of the rest we have been given through the work of our savior, Jesus Christ. The Bible constantly speaks of the notion of "Rest." We read that one day we will enter into the fullness of rest. Or that God's people must "rest in the Lord." We are also warned that certain people will not enter into God's rest.
Honor your father and your mother that your days may be long.
The commandment to honor one's parents is common to most societies. "Honor" implies honesty, respect and truth. To honor an elder is to be gratefully aware of their wisdom and their kindness. The commandment is connected to ancestor worship, the honoring of tradition, and respect for old age and the wisdom that age brings. In these days of parental-blaming, it's hard for some people to take this commandment seriously. Some people have had troubled ( or just plain mean) parents. Many modern Bible readers see this verse and ask themselves how they can honor parents who are insane, sinful or unloving. St Paul calls it "a commandment with a promise." But the promise of a long life is a good hook. Moses' generation --and ours--needed to know that certain actions can bring about good reactions in the universe. Instead of spells and curses, here is something they had power over. Imagine? The power of life and death in a simple act of parental kindness.
After these first commandments, God gets down to some seriously moral requirements. The people are not to lie, not to murder, not to commit adultery and not to covet. It's interesting that many of the commandments are about coveting. The people would have to be taught all the subtleties of the inner workings of the law. The law is external. A person who deceives himself and others without uttering a "real lie" would fulfill the law...in his own mind. A person who gossips against his fellow man, destroying another's reputation and life and causing grief and hatred to tag along at a neighbor's heel, would not consider herself a murderer. But in God's eyes, that person is guilty of a great sins of the flesh..malice, resentment, etc.
The law of adultery is a tough one. In this generation, it is one of those sins that we most people are all guilty of. I suspect that adultery is more prevalent in our media-driven society because we always have the television defining our happiness for us. Just as it shows us beautiful things we do not have and makes us resent our lowly home....or ungrateful for what we have, it also shows us beautiful women and men who make our spouses look like nothing. St Paul warns us that Adultery is idolatry. We look at the person we have and somehow they don't seem perfect. St Paul warns us against emulations, adulations, and fleshly mental sins of that ilk. But Christian Americans often have an idealism that is rooted in the world's idealism. Paradoxically, American Christians are so "idealistic" in a worldly way that they are often quite likely to divorce their wives and husbands to find true love because of their "idealism". They say they have found the perfect spouse. But what they feel is lust. But true love is no excuse for adultery. Jesus made this clear when He said that if someone divorces someone and marries another, that person has committed adultery. Many folks have done this. They divorce a spouse and marry their adulterous partner and use the act of matrimony in a truly blasphemous way to erase the fact that the marriage began in adultery. But Christians are so "romantic" about love that they are always searching for "true love." A christian will not disobey God because of lust. For Christians, the idealistic idolatrous notion of True and real Love is the greater temptation.
The last commandments are about covetousness. Imagine a bunch of people who have been enslaved all their lives. They are now free. What do you suppose they will be like? Slavery does not make people good or pure. Pain and bitterness and a hard life does not make people holy. Sickness and suffering doesn't make people kind. Interestingly, a bad life --lived without God's constant uplifting strength-- will make people rather nasty and horrible and covetous. They covet the "good life" of others. They resent the beauty and the popularity of others. They resent the ease and happiness of others. Sorrow and hurt will bring sorrow and hurt. Covetousness is wanting something that is not --or never has been --ours. But it is much more.
Covetousness is judging God, and judging others...for our life. C.S. Lewis once said, "the devil of resentment is that it is justified." Some of the greatest covetors have been the kindest, most sorrow-filled people. Covetousness leads us to the concepts of envy and to sin in general. In the book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon says: "the race is not to the swift nor bread to the wise." People often say this as if they are the swift and the wise and life is treating them harshly. But as for me, Thank God, the bread doesn't always go to the wise! Thank God that most of us don't get what we deserve! I have gotten myself some great jobs, a wonderful husband, some wonderful blessings. God has helped the weak and poor and sent away the strong and rich.
I am also reminded of St Paul's injunction that we rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. We are not to be unhappy when good happens to bad people. We hare not to be happy when bad things happen to bad people. We are not to be unhappy when good things happen to good people whom we don't like. After all...if we resent God blessing someone who doesn't deserve it....how can we ask God to bless us in our work? After all, we don't deserve it either.
Blessing and Curses and Laws concerning spiritual, sexual and dietary purity and memory
God had chosen Israel to be a holy nation who would show the Gentiles His truth and glory. Therefore they had to keep themselves pure.
As you read the books of Moses, you will notice that many of the laws are communal and nationalistic. They are made for a nation instead of for one person. The Eye for an Eye Law, for instance, is a communal law based on restoration rather than on punishment and imprisonment. The guilty must restore the property of the offended party. In the case of murder, the ultimate offense, the guilty person must lose his life. If he doesn't the entire community is tainted because of his sin.
God also went further. He had made degrees of holiness within the nation. The tribe of Levi was singled out as a holy tribe. The book of Leviticus is full of levitical laws. These laws were meant for the entire nation. But some laws applied specifically to the priestly tribe of Levi.
The aim of these laws was simple: external adherence to spiritual, sexual, hygienic and dietary purity. There were laws against touching the dead, against mildew, molds, rashes. Certain foods could and could not be eaten. Certain people could not be touched. As I have said in the chapter on Biblical interpretation, an inability to tell the difference between a metaphor and a literal statement can affect Bible interpretation. Ignorance of other disciplines, such as nutrition, and history for instance, can also affect Bible interpretation. And so can spiritualizing everything.
Many of the hygienic requirements that Moses included in the law would seem basic or even minimal by today's standards. The periodic ritual cleanings, the bathing requirement after the birth of a child or after a menstrual cycle might, the cleaning after sexual intercourse or the prohibition against touching a dead body might all seem pretty basic to our overly sanitized culture. But the early Hebrews were a nomadic desert culture, and water was rare --there were always fights over wells and watering-ground-- and baths were often omitted.
The Law also deals with other kinds of contamination. These include sexual transgressions and trespasses caused by sexual intercourse with forbidden individuals. It also includes the prohibition against visiting people who were mediums or who dabbled in spiritualism. In our culture, we take it for granted that sex between siblings or near relations has always been universally repellent. But this is not the case. As for the spiritual contamination brought on by mediums, the Bible tells us over and over that these are deceiving spirits who can lead the hearer into self-deception at best and lat worst, a loss of faith.
Feasts, Fasts and the power of memory
In our modern times, we equate unbelief with "knowledge". People say they do not believe in God because science hasn't proved Him to their knowledge. But the Bible sees things differently. In the Bible, unbelief is equated with forgetfulness; people stop believing in God because they have forgotten how He helped them in needs great and small.
The Law also gives us a long list of non-nos and prohibitions. In order to let you understand these laws, I'll have to break down the prohibitions into different categories of sins.
The concept of a trespass involves the idea of place and a person's right to be in a particular place. Trespasses are like seeds sown. They involve spiritual reaping and retribution for misdeeds. In "The Lord's Prayer," there is a petition to God which goes, "forgive our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." Elsewhere in the Bible we read that people are lost in trespasses and sins. So what exactly is a trespass?
We can get some idea of the meaning of trespass if we think about those "do not trespass" signs we often see on someone else's property. "Trespassing" means entering into a place which one has no right to enter. It is a word that deals with place and rights. The concept of trespass is common in many cultures. For instance, the Greek word "Moira" means "one's alloted place." In Greek literature and myth, people were always getting out of their Moira. Sometimes they trespassed accidentally. Sometimes they trespassed out of "hubris" Hubris is a word that means "great pride." Purposeful trespasses occur when people have such high opinion of themselves that they don't care whose space they are violating. Accidental trespasses such as Oedipus inadvertently marrying his mother are still sins. Whether done accidentally or on purpose, trespasses bring about retribution for the trespasser. Oedipus was not in the right place. It is not a son's place to sleep with his mother. He had accidentally trespassed onto a place that was not his. But both he and his children suffered anyway.
Trespasses which occur purposely are called sins of presumption. These sins occur regular in the Bible. Saul trespassed when he made the sacrifice instead of waiting for Samuel. Abraham trespassed with Hagar. Jacob trespassed by stealing his brother's birthright. Other nations presume against Israel's God. Evil people presume to challenge God. Good people presume on God's love. Jude warns us against trespassing and turning the grace of God into lasciviousness.
In the Bible, trespasses abound. The Law of Moses tells what trespasses should be avoided, forbids incest and homosexuality as confusion and abomination, forbids certain ethnic groups from ever becoming a part of the nation of Israel (Moabites are forbidden to forever be Israelities and yet Ruth ends up being an ancestor of David and Jesus. God works graciously even within his laws.)
Moses laws also tells the consequences of these trespasses. For instance, the commandment against using God's name in vain states that the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who takes His name in vain. The commandment to obey one's parents contains the promise of a long life. Other trespasses, such as the sins of murder and adultery, also bring about consequences.
The Law of Moses also discusses accidental trespasses and the state and time when guilt for accidental trespasses should be assigned. Trespasses also affect future generation. This leads to the idea of generational curses. Just as someone might benefit from the actions of a good ancestor, someone else might benefit from the actions of an evil ancestor. Consider, for instance, the idea of dysfunctional families or families with particular genetic traits. The same can be said of families with spiritual traits. Often, these effects or consequences go down to the third and fourth generation. Trespasses are often compared to seeds that are sown. These seeds will grow into strong plants. The sinner/trespasser will then reap her reward. One Biblical prophet declares, "You have sown the wind and you will reap the whirlwind." The book of Galations declares, "Be not deceived. God is not mocked. Whatsoever a man sows, that will he also reap. The concept of divine retribution is what is behind the saying, "What goes around, comes around."
In the Bible, not only do human beings trespass but nations and demons also against God. The angels who left their first "estate" trespassed by "going after "strange flesh." Trespasses are generally rebuked by prophets, priests, and angels. This rebuke often is in the form of someone reminding the trespasser that retribution for the sin will surely come. In the Christian world-view, all people continually trespass against God in many ways.
Another word you will see in Scripture and in the Law is the word "iniquity." "Iniquity" unequalness and implies an unequal way of thinking. The Bible says in the book of Jeremiah, "Children of Israel, aren't my ways equal? Aren't your ways unequal?" The prophet Malachi rebuked the people because they offered the best offerings to the governor but offered polluted and damaged goods to God. Jesus gave the world a humorous symbol of iniquity when he spoke of people who want to take a speck out of someone else's eye but who care little for the log in their own eye. Iniquity is therefore about manipulating the scales of justice. By adding rationalizations and excuses, we make the sides of the scale unequal. They tip to our own advantage and our personal interests. I have found, for instance, that I am more likely to be compassionate towards a woman who cheats on her husband than I am towards a man who cheats on his wife. I forgive certain things if my friends do it. But if my enemy does it, I get very annoyed and impatient. Some people will have compassion on poor or rich people of their race, religious or ethnic group, but turn off the heart of compassion to those sufferers of another race, religion or ethnic group. This is sin. When the prophet, Nathan, rebuked David for the murder of Uriah and the adultery with Bathsheba, he used a metaphor of a rich man stealing a poor man's only sheep. David showed that he knew right from wrong and said the rich man had many sheep: he was wrong to take the poor man's sheep. He understood that he had trespassed Uriah's property because he understood property issues. If Nathan had spoken directly about the sin with Bathsheba, David might have rationalized his way out of it. Christians read the story of Joseph and sympathize with Joseph's plight in being thought of as a mere sexual object by Potiphar's wife. But when faced with the story of Hagar --who was also a slave and whose body was used by her rich owners-- Christians judge differently. Why?
The is another word for sin. It is used mostly in the New Testament but the concept is also found in the old testament. This is the word "hamartia." Hamartia is an archery term which means " to miss the mark." It means that an archer has aimed at a bull's eye and missed it. This is a word often used for general wrong-doing. The good intention of the archer is there...but because of human frailty and weakness, a perfect mark is impossible. This word "hamartia" covers many of the so-called victimless sins such as the sin of gluttony. While the sin is not death-worthy, the fact that someone indulges in a particular sin shows that the person is not sticking to the right spiritual path. In the case of gluttony and sex sins, the implication is one of imbalance and bondage: people are missing the mark and becoming enslaved to food and sex for whatever reasons.
The Ten Commandments are divided into sins against God, sins against family and sins against humanity at large. Most of the ten commandments share one major prohibition: you should not covet. Covetousness is simply wanting something that someone else has. In effect, it is judging God or another person for having what we do not have. The Bible calls covetousness a kind of idolatry. Envy, self-righteousness and judgment are all about keeping our eyes on worldly matters and comparing. This is closely connected to the sins of carnal concupiscence. Concupisence means longing. But it is not a spiritual longing for spiritual glory. It is inordinate affection, adulation, emulation and desire for something that is not ours.
The Laws of Moses are generally about external behavior. The act of worshiping God, for instance, is equal to the act of loving God. The "act" of being an illegitimate child is seen as evil. The "act" of being a member of the holy tribe of Levites is a sign of holiness. The Laws of Moses go hand-in-hand with stories of faith and scruples but they deal primarily with external holiness.
There are many interesting themes in Numbers, Leviticus and Deuteronomy, and I want you to explore these chapters. However I feel compelled to mention some of the strange interpretations that have surrounded some laws and prohibitions, primarily the dietary laws. Many of the dietary laws in Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, have spiritual applications as well as literal dietary ones. First, we should remember that many cultures have dietary laws. Moses wrote that anyone who eats the flesh of certain animals would be forever cut off spiritually and culturally from God's people. There is a spiritual consequence to disobeying these food laws. In the United States, the Food Pyramid tells us what to eat and how much. The United Nations also has a food pyramid which is far different from the American suggestion. (The United Nations contends that the American food pyramid is inefficient and somewhat racist because milk and dairy products are such a large portion of the recommended diet and many Asians and African-Americans are lactose-intolerant and cannot digest milk properly.) However imperfect these food pyramids might be, we do not risk spiritual ostracism or stoning if we do not follow these recommendations o the letter. Nor would we be considered spiritually unclean. True, we risk developing diseases and cutting our lives short if we live on fat alone and disregard vegetables, but we do not have to rush to a priest to be made ritually pure if we eat pork hot dogs with cheese on any particular day.
The dietary laws of Israel show a knowledge of food and diet that humanity is only now beginning to appreciate. Looking over the list of forbidden foods, we notice that creatures with imperfect digestive systems are called uncleaned. In addition, shellfish --lobsters, clams, shrimps for instance--creatures with imperfect filtering systems are forbidden. To put it bluntly, they are the cockroaches of the ocean, cleaning up after sea animals and scouring the ocean floor for carrion. Lacking complex kidneys and livers, they lack good purification systems and retain many of the toxins they take in. Even worse, many people are highly allergic to them.
This leads to many errors which people define their inner holiness by what they eat. But there is another error. As I have said, I have tried to write a Bible book without sprinkling it here and there with verses and chapters because I truly believe we must read our Bibles from cover to cover. However, having said this, I would like us to explore Deuteronomy 22, verse 9. This is the verse that goes as follows: "You will not sow your field with divers seed." Taken literally, the verse is telling the Israelites (and future converts) to avoid using hybrid seeds when they plant. Planting hybrid seeds would lead to eating hybrid foods and this was to be avoided. This verse has led to one of the great interpretation errors in history.
Racist ministers often use Biblical admonitions against planting with hybrid seeds to mean that God is against interracial or "mixed" marriages. As I've said, ignorance of Proper Reading Skills and ignorance of one's own language can affect Bible Interpretation. The word "divers" means hybrid and that is all it means. But racist Christians often use the phrase: "Don't sow thy field with mingled seed" as a way of saying that God is against interracial marriages. What they are doing is spiritualizing a verse and twisting God's words for their own agenda. The verse concerns agriculture. But a spiritual application can be found in this verse if one were to search it out. The spiritual interpretation of any verse can often be found because as I have said before, The Bible interprets itself.
In the Bible, the word "seed" is often used to mean a spiritual act or word. Seeds --actions or words-- are sown and planted. There are good seeds and bad seeds. There are seeds of wheat and seeds of tares, or wheat. The spiritual application of the verse simply means: "don't be imbalanced in your words or actions. Don't teach things that are true and untrue at the same time." Can bitter water and sweet water come out of the same well? Can hate and love come out of the same mouth? Spiritually speaking, the verse warns us that it does no one any good if we are trying to do two conflicting things at the same time.
The habit of "planting two different kinds of seeds at the same time" is seen in the preaching of many American ministers. Sometimes these preachers teeter on the verge of blasphemy. In the past, Christians used the Islamic concept of Jihad (a concept totally unknown in Biblical Christianity which means a holy war fought for God) to force Christianity upon other nations. In the past centuries, American pastors preached God's love to the slaves while saying God was a racist who had created slavery. Even now, many racist ministers mix their gospel with racism and sexist ministers mix their gospel with sexism. Whether a minister whose political views are from the extreme left or a minister whose views are from the extreme right, he need for discernment in our day is necessary. There are many sowers, many seeds and many fields.
Seared consciences: This occurs when our conscience has become less self-judgmental than it should be. This occurs for many reasons. Sometimes we are bitter and simply don't care. Sometimes culture has affected our outlook so much we don't realize how worldly we are. For instance, the Bible tells us that who ever hates his brother without a cause does not have eternal life in him. We are so used to having prejudiced Christians around that we gloss this phrase over. This is a case of seared consciences.
Presumptuous sins: These are sins done by people who understand God's love and grace all too well. Paul commented on these people who said, "more sin, more grace." He warns that this is foolishness and dangerous, a slippery slope to "backsliding." They have forgotten how awful sin really is.
These are a few of the different kinds of sins found in Moses' law and the Bible. Readers of these legalistic passages might be tempted to dismiss these passages or to dismiss grace or to dismiss their sins. The important thing is that Jesus saves from sin, no matter how powerful those sins may be. And God is gracious and works daily to purify his people.
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