In my previous post, I suggested that instead of treating the Bible as an ethical or moral GPS that gives us specific directions to our contemporary ethical questions – either corporate or personal questions – we need to treat the Bible more a map. A map that paints for us the moral landscape, giving us a big picture view of where our ethical true north should be, where some ethical boundaries are, where the moral pitfalls are that we should avoid, the dead end streets that does not help us. And we still need to exercise our own discernment and thinking to figure out our moral navigation given our specific contemporary situations and questions. In this post, I want to follow up by considering the Ten Commandments.
If there are any parts of the Bible that seems like moral GPS directives for us, the Ten Commandment’s “thou shalt nots” would be it. For example: “You shall not murder. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” Sound like pretty straightforward commands for us that are universal, valid for all time, places and situations, right? All we are responsible for is to choose to obey or not. Just like the GPS in our car, right? “The Bible says it. I believe it. That’s the end of it.” So goes the saying.
Wrong. For starters, the very fact that Christians have debated over the centuries the application of the sixth commandment for murder, especially in relation to capital punishment, to war, and to self-defence, shows that it is not simple or straightforward. Secondly, the Ten Commandments were actually in the original Hebrew simply termed the “Ten Words” (hence, the “Decalogue”). This difference stems to some degree from the ancient Hebrews understanding of the concept of “law”. The Hebrew word for “law”, torah, has its roots more in guidance and instruction. Hence, the Ten Words are more the basis of instruction for ancient Israel than the foundation of legal obedience. Of course, obedience is implied but the emphasis differs from that of adherence to a set of rules. This may explain why the Ten Commandments do not have any punishments or penalties listed for breaking them. They are not simply rules to limit your behaviour. They are more like instructions to point you towards maintaining and flourishing your relationship with God.
Thirdly, these “commandments” are presented in the biblical story in the context of God’s covenantal relationship with ancient Israel after its liberation from Egyptian slavery and their birth as an independent nation at Mount Sinai, poised to conquer the Promised Land. It, therefore, needs to be understood as part of the shaping of Israel’s communal identity and communitarian ethic over against those of Imperial Egypt. As Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann points out:
“The commands stand negatively as a resistance against every totalitarianism that would replicate pharaoh and positively as a radical invitation to reorganize public life around the mystery of God that deabsolutizes human control and fosters neighbourly entitlement. Unfortunately many interpretations have removed the commands from a proper covenantal context, and as a result they are understood as rules without reference to relationship, which Sinai never intended. A sorry example of this distorted understanding is evident in current attempts to retain or restore the Decalogue to the walls of U.S. courtrooms.” (Reverberations of Faith: A Theological Handbook of Old Testament Themes, Westminister John Knox Press, 2002, p. 51)
Allow me two more points: Even though the command forbidding murder is listed in Deuteronomy 5:17, capital punishment (Deut. 17:2-7, 19:12) and war (chapters 20-21) are not forbidden. It seems that the later passages act as commentary or application or amplification of the sixth commandment to specific situations. Or to use my analogy, if the sixth commandment is a map which lays out true north, the later commands were ancient Israel’s ethical navigations based on that moral map. As you read through Deuteronomy, you will find similar elaborations or “navigations” of the other commandments.
Finally, the story of Rahab (Joshua 2) shows how the messiness of life sometimes requires us to make our own navigational choices between moral options. Rahab the prostitute chose to lie to her own people in order to protect the Israelite spies under her roof. She made her decision to align herself with the God of the Israelites, who are essentially the enemies of Jericho. Many will argue her betrayal as clearly immoral. In any case, it is not even clear if she has broken the ninth commandment (“you shall not bear false witness against your neighbor”) or not. For one, is the ninth commandment’s legal formulation restricted only to legal slander or libel in the courtroom, so to speak? Even if we grant its application to a wider context, who, in this instance, is Rahab’s neighbor? Are her neighbors the Jericho guards sent to search and kill the spies? If so, then Rahab is guilty of bearing false witness against them – and consequentially, to all her Jericho neighbors, who died from the ensuing onslaught. Or are her neighbors the Israelite spies, in which case, she is upholding the ninth commandment not to bear false witness AGAINST them, but making lies to protect their lives. What about the argument that Rahab’s lie may have contributed to the deaths of her Jericho citizens, making her perhaps also guilty of breaking the sixth commandment? Does the fact that the biblical narrative count Rahab as a heroine of faith (Hebrews 11:31; Matthew 1:5) makes our interpretation any easier?
The ethical dilemmas that confront us in our daily lives can (though not always) be very messy and complicated, requiring us to make difficult but responsible choices, that are not as simple and straightforward as blindly obeying GPS-like ethical commands. It would require us to have studied the ethical map, have knowledge of where the true ethical north is, and navigate our moral routes as best as we can. Consequently, it means humility in all our ethical choices.
Do you see any contemporary ethical issues among Christians that can benefit from this insight of Bible as GPS vs. Map?