Read or listen to the Blogcast
Many modern-day readers of the Bible tend to look for a system of rules. I suppose this is because we are raised to look for guideposts and follow the rules to stay in line. It starts in the home with chore charts and rules about bedtime and brushing our teeth. Then, it is reinforced at school with classroom rules for order, playground rules, and line rules, etc. It’s unsurprising that when a person seeks to incorporate religion into their lives, they first look for the rules.
I heard a story many years ago from a friend’s mom. When she first started to attend a Christian church as a young adult, she was handed a small piece of paper with a list of all the things she shouldn’t do as a Christian. Among them were to avoid smoking, drinking, and swearing. While avoiding these things may be a good idea, and definitely, indulgence in these things may lead to other destructive consequences, let me be clear that these rules do not originate from the Bible. The Bible is not a rule book.
I realize that your first thought has to do with the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments are not actually referred to as commandments in the biblical text. That is a chapter heading added much later by English translators of the Bible. The Bible refers to this particular text as “all these sayings.” Scholars sometimes call them the Decalogue (a fancy way of saying “ten words/sayings”) because there are essentially tenish concepts in Exodus 20 and in Deuteronomy 5, which retells the Exodus story for Israelite descendants.
What is the Point of the Ten Commandments?
The Decalogue is an important instructive text. It lays out guidelines that, when followed, ensure a healthy and sustainable community. This was especially important to the Israelites following Moses since they left a thriving Egyptian society to build their own in a foreign land. The Decalogue provides instructions about how they should relate to God and how they should relate to one another. In the same way, we may consider the Decalogue’s instruction to be a useful guide for how to live in today’s world:
- In relationship to God: Do not act wrongfully against your God. Make no images that would remove the mystery and complexity of the truth of God. Honor God’s way of doing things by incorporating rest for yourself and those who work for you.
- In relationship to others in the community with you: Honor elders who have walked the path you are walking. Don’t kill senselessly or act out in sexual violence that offends the commitment others have made. Don’t take things that don’t belong to you, and don’t lie to ruin the people in your community. Don’t let want for something eat you up. It’ll ruin you and your relationships.
Jesus Had Something to Say about the Ten Commandments
Jesus summarised the Decalogue by saying that what is most important is that people love God and love people (Matthew 22.36-40). In a way, this feels like an oversimplification, but it captures the sentiment of the concepts in Exodus completely. In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5.21-30), Jesus explains some of the Decalogue in a way that emphasizes the intention of a person’s heart. He said it’s not enough to avoid the act of murder or adultery, but a person shouldn’t even go so far as to desire someone sexually without full consent, nor even wish someone were dead. Just before this, Jesus explained that if someone breaks one or more of these teachings and thereby leads others also to break them, they will be the least in the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5.19). These are not rules that justify condemnation or punishment the way we think about rules, but they are guidelines to help people attain and maintain respectable status in their community and also in the kingdom of heaven.
Another type of legal text in the Bible falls into a category we call Deuteronomic Law because it is a legal code found in the book of Deuteronomy and in other parts of the Hebrew Bible thought to have been written in the same way, at the same time, and/or by the same authors. The Decalogue is one example of the kind of legal code found in Deuteronomic Law. Another kind of legal code is based on an ancient Near Eastern contract model called a suzerain treaty. This treaty is a contract agreement between two parties for protection in exchange for loyalty. Deuteronomy uses language that suggests the writers knew of this kind of treaty and applied it to their relationship with God and the Land.
Leviticus is a book of moral and legal codes that also gets cited often by people looking for explicit moral guidelines in the biblical text. Leviticus is considered by most scholars to be a priestly text. It outlines rites of purity and what it takes for a person to engage in ritual cleansing. Modern audiences tend to mistake the concept of being impure for active sin. In ancient religions, impurity was a state of being. Sometimes people become impure because they engage wilfully in some act or another, like doing something that harms the community. Sometimes people are impure because of something that naturally occurs, like menstruation, or is part of life, like dealing with animal carcasses or dead bodies. These activities were thought of by ancients to put people in a state of impurity, and thus they required religious cleansing before they could engage in some religious ceremony or be in the right state of being in their community life. Purity and Danger, by Mary Douglas, is an interesting book from a cultural anthropological perspective. You can also check out my short series on reading Leviticus.
As for the rest of the Bible, it is difficult to find a clear-cut list of “do this, not that.” Religions that are born from biblical texts have lots of rules. Some more than others. The Bible itself is more complex by nature since it is a spiritual text from a particular place and time. The Bible includes lots of different genres: ancestral narratives, poetry, allegory, parables, moral codes, and legal codes. The Bible features instructional texts and explanations of nature and humankind. Biblical literature also describes spiritual and otherwordly realms. The Bible is complex and should be received as a complex text with humility and sincerity and not reduced to a simple set of rules.