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)

Faithful Disciples

From December 2017 through February 2018, I wrote a series of short articles for MennoMedia’s Adult Bible Study Online. Over the past three weeks I have reproduced those here in my blog. Here is the article for February 18, 2018, based on Acts 9:36-43.

“There was a disciple” who “was always doing good and helping the poor.”

If you only heard that description, you could be forgiven for assuming the biblical author was talking about a man. It is true, after all, that nearly all the New Testament descriptions of a “disciple” are referring to a man—nearly all, but not quite all. This is, in fact, the only clear reference to an individual woman as a “disciple,” the disciple Tabitha, or Dorcas.

This reflects Luke’s special emphasis on the universal impact of the gospel and the democratizing work of the Spirit. The gospel is for all people, the Spirit comes on all believers, regardless of their social status, their ethnic or religious background, their age, or their gender. For many of us today this might seem commonplace. In the first century world, this was radical.

Luke narrates the birth story of Jesus from Mary’s perspective, not Joseph’s (Luke 1-2). He tells not just of Simeon but also the prophetess Anna at Jesus’ purification in the temple (2:36-38). Luke, alone of all the Gospel authors, mentions by name the women who supported Jesus’ ministry (8:1-3). He alone tells of Mary of Bethany’s instruction at the feet of Jesus—the word “disciple” is not used of Mary, but Luke depicts her in the classic posture of a devoted disciple (10:38-42). Luke describes the women at the cross, at the empty tomb, and in the upper room. In Acts he mentions the four prophetess daughters of Philip (21:8-9), and he makes sure to highlight Priscilla’s role in instructing Apollos alongside her husband Aquila (18:24-26).

All this is right in line with Luke’s conviction that the Spirit of God has indeed been “poured out on all flesh,” both “sons and daughters,” both “men and women” (Acts 2:17-18).

I said above that for many of us today this egalitarianism might seem commonplace. But recent events in North American society have exposed how far we really are from seeing the full equality of women promised by Pentecost. Women are paid much less than men for the same work, even with the same expertise and experience. Women experience sexual harassment and violence at rates far higher than men. While there are encouraging steps forward in addressing these and other inequities, there are also discouraging steps back.

As Christians, proclaimers of the universal gospel, empowered by the democratizing Spirit, we should be leading the way in advocating for the full equality of women in every respect. And we can start by recognizing, listening to, and learning from Jesus’ women disciples—both past and present.

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.

————————————-

* 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.

Mary on the Margins

Yesterday I preached on John 20:1-18, focusing on Jesus’ encounter with Mary Magdalene. We don’t know much about the historical Mary Magdalene, but the little we get from the Gospels indicates she was a significant person in Jesus’ life and ministry.

You’d be hard pressed to find an early Christian with as impressive a résumé as she had. Consider this:

  • Mary was with Jesus throughout his ministry after being healed of demon possession, traveling with Jesus and the Twelve disciples, one of a group of women who supported them out of their own pockets (Luke 8:1-3).
  • Mary witnessed the three central gospel events: Jesus’ death, his burial, and his resurrection (Matt 27:55-56, 61; 28:1-10).
  • Mary was the first person commissioned by the risen Jesus to bear witness to his resurrection (John 20:17-18; Mark 16:9-11).
Mary Magdalene Announces

Mary Preaching to the Apostles

As I noted in my sermon, Mary thus fit the criteria for being an apostle: she had been with Jesus through his ministry, and she was the star witness to his resurrection (see Acts 1:21-22). It is not surprising, then, that she has been called “Apostle to the Apostles” in the Western Church, and “Equal to the Apostles” in the East.

However, through much of Church history Mary has been pushed to the margins.

From early on she was ignored. In the New Testament she disappears after the Gospels, and she’s left off the “official apostolic list” of resurrection witnesses in 1 Corinthians 15.

And then she was maligned. As the centuries passed she was identified with the unnamed woman who anointed Jesus’ feet, who, in Luke’s Gospel, is identified only as a “sinner.” In the medieval imagination this morphed into Mary being a prostitute, and a particularly lascivious one at that. Paintings of a later era often show her in a provocative pose even in penitence, taunting the viewer with her brazen sexuality.

None of this, however, is even hinted at in the Gospels. Mary Magdalene is never identified as the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet. She is never described as a “sinner,” let alone as a prostitute or adulteress. She was as I described her above: healed of demon possession, and then a faithful disciple of Jesus, an important person in Jesus’ life and ministry, and a crucial witness to Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection.

Mary Magdalene, faithful disciple and first witness of the crucified and resurrected Jesus, was first ignored, and then maligned. Mary was shoved to the margins—all because she was a woman.

Yet this was not Jesus’ perspective on women. Of course, Jesus was no modern feminist. He chose twelve men to be his first apostles, after all, a nod to the patriarchy of his ancient Jewish world: the Twelve represent the twelve tribes of Israel, the sons of Jacob, as Jesus is re-making the people of God.

Yet along the way Jesus undermined that patriarchal mindset. He is remembered across the Gospels as sticking a burr under the saddle of patriarchy, a barb here, a bristle there, until the male-dominated world gets mighty uncomfortable. Consider this:

  • Jesus talks to women as equals, not as inferiors—like the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1-42).
  • Jesus even accepts a rebuke by a woman, and commends her for it—the Gentile woman from the region of Tyre and Sidon (Matt 15:21-28).
  • Jesus frequently praises women for their faith and piety—the poor widow with her meagre offering (Luke 21:1-4), the bleeding woman who touched his garment in the crowd (Mark 5:25-34), the ten virgins waiting faithfully for the bridegroom to come (Matt 25:1-13), and more.
  • Jesus heals women in ways that show concern for their unique difficulties in society, or that elevate them to places of honour—raising the widow of Nain’s only son so that she would be cared for (Luke 7:11-17), or healing the woman bent double and calling her a “daughter of Abraham” (Luke 13:10-17, the only place that phrase is used in the New Testament).
  • Jesus speaks of women as his “disciples,” his true “mothers” and “sisters” who do God’s will—unusual if not unprecedented for a Rabbi of the day (Matt 12:46-50).
  • Jesus even highlights another Mary, Martha and Lazarus’ sister, as the ideal disciple learning from her Rabbi (Luke 10:38-42).

And when the resurrected Jesus appears, he appears first to the faithful one on the margins, the one whose testimony would be suspect simply because she was a woman: Mary Magdalene. Jesus doesn’t marginalize Mary—he brings her right into the centre of God’s work in the world, first witness to the dawn of a new creation.

How well are we following Jesus in this way? Are we men following Jesus in drawing women into the centre of God’s work in the world, deliberately creating space for women among us to use their gifts and share their voice, allowing them to create this space for themselves, sharing this co-created space as full equals?

And what about others on the margins? What about those who have God-given gifts to share, God-given voices to use, but whom we hold at arm’s length, keeping them on the sidelines, in the shadows?

Jesus looks to the last in the world, the least in society, those who have lost their way. He sees them. He sees their gifts, he hears their voice. He seeks them, he finds them. He draws them in, and lifts them up, and empowers them to use their God-given gifts, to speak with their God-given voice.

May we who claim to follow Jesus do the same.


In a moment of inspiration last week I wrote a poem (it is still National Poetry Month, after all). It’s a poem about Mary Magdalene, Mary on the margins, Mary brought into the centre of God’s work in the world. It is simply called, “With.”

With

I stand among them,
yet not with them.
Their number is fixed:
signs of the heavens,
tribes of the father
—no girls allowed.

I learn among them,
yet not with them.
Hearing good news,
kingdom come
and will be done
—first for the Jew.

I walk among them,
yet not with them.
Preaching good news,
feeding poor mouths,
healing disease
—cast out with the demons.

Where have they gone?
Why have they fled?
The cross before me,
the tomb behind me,
the garden around me:
he is with me
—and I am with him.

Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.