Who’s the “you” in the Ten Commandments?

Who’s the “you” in the Ten Commandments?

Or, another way to put it: Who are the commandments for? Who is being expected to obey these commandments?

For most Christians, the assumption is that these are universal moral laws: they are for everyone. The “you” in the Ten Commandments is “every person.”

This can make a lot of sense—with some of these commands. We read, “You shall not murder,” or “You shall not commit adultery,” or “You shall not steal,” and it can make perfect sense to hear these as “You—every person—must not do these things.”

But other commandments complicate this assumption.

Take the commandment to keep the Sabbath: “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns” (Exod 20:8-10).

Who’s the “you” in this commandment? If you still think it’s “every person,” go back and read that last bit again.

Or, take the commandment not to covet: “You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour” (Exod 20:17).

Who’s the “you” in this commandment? Or, more appropriately, who’s the “neighbour”?

The “you,” and the “neighbour,” in these commandments is not “every person.” It’s not a universal “you.” The “you” does not include wives, sons or daughters, male or female slaves, or resident foreigners. The “you” here has a wife, sons and daughters, and male and female slaves.

The “you” in these commandments is a man, not a woman or a child. The “you” is a free man, not a slave. The “you” is a property-owning free man, a free man with a “household,” not someone landless and without wealth.

I’ve pointed this out in different teaching contexts, and responses range from bemusement to confusion to shock to denial. Even with the text staring them in the face, some insist that the “you” in the Ten Commandments must be “every person.”

“That’s your interpretation,” they say.

“Read it again,” I say. “That’s the text.”

Now, my point in raising this in teaching contexts is not to deny that the Ten Commandments have any ongoing moral relevance. I believe they do.

Rather, my point is that there is no straight line between the text of Scripture and what it means for us today. We do need to interpret the text—we all do anyway, actually, whether we realize it or not—and if we want to interpret the text well we must grapple with the reality of Scripture’s ancient cultural contexts.

And a big part of this is grappling with the various forms of patriarchy that underlie every single book in our Bibles.

This is disconcerting for us, even disturbing. And it should be.

The Ten Commandments assume—and even support—a patriarchy centred on free men with households, including wives, children, slaves, and other property. This is a slaveholding society, a society which allowed not only bonded servitude to pay a debt but also chattel slavery of conquered foreigners (Exod 21:2-11; Lev 25:44-46). It’s a society in which women are, at least in some sense, the “property” of a man: their father, then their husband (Exod 20:17; Numbers 30; Deut 22:13-21).

This should be disturbing for us.

And it’s not just the Ten Commandments, or even just the Old Testament. The New Testament assumes—and often supports—a similar form of patriarchy centred on free men with households, including subject wives and owned slaves. “Wives, accept the authority of your husbands, like Sarah obeyed Abraham and called him ‘lord’” (1 Pet 3:1-6). “Slaves, obey your masters in everything” (Col 3:22).

This should be disturbing for us.

But running right through the Bible, from Moses through the Prophets through to Jesus, there is a parallel thread highlighting God’s concern for the vulnerable, the marginalized, and the oppressed. Actually, it’s even stronger than that: there is a thread running through the Bible that emphasizes God’s solidarity with the vulnerable, the marginalized, and the oppressed.

Even the Ten Commandments, which assume and support a slave-owning, patriarchal society, open with these words: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.” The God of Israel is the God of the vulnerable, the marginalized, and the oppressed. Any other “god” is not the true and living God, the Creator-of-All, the Redeemer-from-Slavery, the Sustainer-of-the-Oppressed.

Here’s a good way to see this biblical thread represented in a single passage. According to Luke’s Gospel, these are the words of Jesus in his hometown synagogue of Nazareth:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.

I say these are the words of Jesus through the Evangelist Luke (Luke 4:18-19), but this is Jesus quoting from the Prophet Isaiah (Isa 61:1-2), and referencing the Year of Jubilee in the Law of Moses (Lev 25). From Moses through the Prophets through to Jesus, there is a thread through the Bible that highlights God’s concern for, even God’s solidarity with, the vulnerable, the marginalized, and the oppressed.

The poor in a world of shocking economic disparity. The incarcerated in a world of authoritarian violence against minorities. The disabled in an ableist world. The indigenous in a colonized world. The queer in a heteronormative world.

And women in a patriarchal world.

The “you” in the Ten Commandments is not “every person”; it is people with power, especially men with power, people who need a law to restrain the abuse of their power.

But God is decidedly on the side of the powerless. The God who is enthroned in the heavens comes down to the lowest of the lowly, and dwells with them, and takes up their cause, and overthrows the powerful who violate the powerless.

This is how God is revealed in the Law and the Prophets. And this is how God is revealed in Jesus.

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to use to his advantage,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death
—even execution on a cross. (Phil 2:5-8)

The Bible is clear: God endorses slavery.

There are at least seven passages in the Bible where God is depicted as directly permitting or endorsing slavery. Two of these are in the Law of Moses: God permitted the Israelites to take slaves from conquered peoples permanently, and the Israelites could sell themselves into slavery temporarily to pay off debts (Exod 21:2-11; Lev 25:44-46). The other five passages are in the New Testament, where slavery as a social institution is endorsed and slaves are called to obey their masters “in everything” (Eph 6:5-9; Col 3:22-4:1; 1 Tim 6:1-2; Tit 2:9-10; 1 Pet 2:18-20).

But slavery is viewed positively in Scripture well beyond these commands. Owning slaves was seen as a sign of God’s blessing (Gen 12:16; 24:35; Isa 14:1-2), and there are literally dozens of passages in the Bible that speak of slavery in passing, without comment. Slavery was simply part of life, and most people saw it as just the way things always were, even the divinely ordained order of things.

slaveAnd yes, in case there is any doubt, this was real slavery: “the slave is the owner’s property” (Exod 21:21). Both Old and New Testaments called for better treatment of slaves than many of the peoples around them, and the Law of Moses in particular called for better treatment of fellow Israelites as slaves. But slaves could be beaten (Exod 21:20-21; 1 Pet 2:18-20), and slaves could be taken as concubines (Gen 16:3-4; Exod 21:8-11) or even raped without serious consequence (Lev 19:20-22).

These passages are all pretty straightforward. One could even say that the Bible is clear on this: the institution of slavery is permitted by God, endorsed by God, and owning slaves can even be a sign of God’s blessing. This has in fact been the Christian view through history: it’s only in the last 150-200 years that the tide of Christian opinion has shifted on slavery.

So why do Christians today believe slavery is wrong? Why don’t we believe “slavery is permitted by God, endorsed by God, and owning slaves can even be a sign of God’s blessing,” even though the Bible is pretty clear on this?

Well, there are two main reasons, it seems to me.

The first reason is simply that our society has shifted on this. The reasons for this are complex, but in basic terms this shift has happened because 1) a vocal minority first called for the abolition of slavery, which 2) eventually prompted governments to enact legislation abolishing slavery, and 3) the simple passage of time has normalized this disapproval of slavery among us as a western society.*

It is instructive to read arguments back and forth between Christians on African slavery during the 19th century. Christians in support of slavery—mostly powerful white landowners—pointed to all the biblical texts I’ve outlined above, along with things they saw in the Bible that supported the inferiority of Africans in particular.

But a segment of Christians—former slaves and white activists—joined others in opposing slavery. These Christians emphasized biblical teachings like “love of neighbour” and the Golden Rule and all people created in God’s image and “there is no longer slave or free in Christ.” It took decades of arguing their case, often being shamed and vilified by opposing Christians—the dispute even touched off a bloody civil war—but eventually their view won out.

The passage of laws legalized their view, and the passage of time has normalized their view. We no longer worry about the social instability that abolishing slavery might cause, nor are we concerned that somehow we’re being unfaithful to God by not following the biblical teachings on slavery.

This points to the second main reason Christians today believe slavery is wrong in spite of the clear biblical passages that permit or endorse slavery: we have developed a different hermeneutic, a different way of reading the biblical texts on slavery.

The early Christian abolitionists paved the way. Rather than emphasizing the specific Bible passages that directly approve of slavery, they looked at other biblical texts and themes that they saw as more big-picture, more transcultural and timeless: the creation of humanity in the “image of God,” the “liberation” and “redemption” themes of the Exodus, the love teachings of Jesus, and the salvation vision of Paul. That is, they set the stage for a way of reading the Bible that was not grounded in specific texts of Scripture, but in a trajectory of “Exodus to New Exodus centred on Christ,” or “Creation to New Creation centred on Christ”—a larger biblical narrative with Jesus at its heart.

And so when Christians today read the slavery passages in the Bible, this is what we do. “Sure,” we’ll say, “the Bible says this here—but we know from Genesis 1 that all people are created in God’s image, and we know from Galatians 3 that there is no longer slave or free in Christ, and don’t forget about God redeeming Israel from slavery and Jesus’ teaching to love our neighbour as ourselves.”

In other words, we no longer take the slavery-approval passages as direct and straightforward teaching for all times and places. Rather we take these as instances of the way things were done in the past but not the way God really wants things to be. They are descriptive of what once was; they are not prescriptive of what is to be.

So the next time we hear someone talk about the “clear teaching of Scripture” on women’s roles, or saying that “the Bible is clear” on homosexuality, or whatever the topic might be, think about this: the Bible is at least as clear on slavery, yet thank God we no longer believe that slavery is God’s will. We’ve read the Bible, and we’re following Jesus.

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* I’m well aware that slavery still exists in the world, but I don’t know of any Christians who approve of it. Maybe that’s just because I don’t hang out with those Christians. I’m also well aware that the abolition of slavery has not brought about full freedom and equality and justice for people of African descent in the western world. My focus here is on the institution of slavery itself, but that’s just one side of the coin: racism, both personal and institutional, is the other, and is still ongoing. See also my comments below, in particular on whether recent western slavery was radically different in kind than ancient Greco-Roman slavery.