The problem with the Ten Commandments

A profound insight into scripture, courtesy of Walter Brueggemann (a highly regarded Old Testament scholar):

What I want you to notice about the Ten Commandments is that it’s not very clear what they might mean. If you’re a judge in Alabama you like to think you know exactly what they mean. But just think of, for example, the commandment, Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy. What does that mean? Well you know Orthodox Jews think it means you can’t turn a light on. Etc., etc., etc.

Or Thou shalt not kill. Well of course we all agree on that. Well except maybe capital punishment … maybe war … maybe, maybe, maybe, maybe. Which led very early to the awareness that the Ten Commandments have to be interpreted and therein lies all the problem. …

The Torah commandments invite interpretation that is disputatious and that ends in pluralism. They didn’t all think the same.

Let me give you that specifically. If you read the book of Leviticus (a lot of you have read the book of Leviticus lately? Hello?).

The book of Leviticus has, as its theme in Leviticus 19:2, You shall be holy as I am holy. Holiness, purity, order — these are rough synonyms — serenity …. It’s all about right worship. If you read the book of Leviticus it’s all about how to have holy priests and holy sacrifices and holy offerings and holy shrines and holy bread and holy festivals and holy everything.

Uncontaminated. This yields a kind of a static notion of worship which arises from Mt. Sinai by people [of sincere faith].

Now if you read the book of Deuteronomy, it has a little bit of this, but not much. Deuteronomy is really about civic justice.

The particular text that I want to refer you to is Deuteronomy 24:17ff. It says that when you harvest the grapes of your vineyard, you’re going to miss some — don’t go back and pick them up. Leave them for the widow, the orphan, and the illegal immigrant. (A translation of “alien” — those people that didn’t belong there.)

[The text says the same thing about harvesting olives and grain.]

Scholars say that this provision is the first social welfare program in the history of the world:  that society is obligated to make provision for people who do not have economic means.

Extraordinary! What an incredible moment of interpretation that is all derivative of the Ten Commandments. I suppose that all comes out of, Thou shalt not covet. If you covet, you’re taking stuff when you go back that ought to belong to your neighbors.

Now what I want you to observe about this is the way the Pentateuch works. Sinai interpretation goes in two directions:  holiness and justice.

I have no idea where your congregation is about the gay and lesbian thing in the Church and I don’t really want to get into that. Except to observe that Leviticus 18 and Leviticus 20 are the two texts about homosexuality in the Old Testament. In between, in Leviticus 19, it says (the verse that Jesus quotes), You shall love your neighbour as yourself.

In the current practice of the Church, the holiness tradition is what we have come to call “conservatism”. Deuteronomy is into justice; that’s sort of what we’ve come to call “liberalism”.

I’m wanting you to see that the Sinai obedience and hope is open to huge interpretive possibility. So what do you hope for? Well I hope for a society that is pure — not all this goofiness.

What do you hope for? I hope for a society in which the poor get their share. …

Scripture is complex and plural and they didn’t agree from day one. The extraordinary thing about the Old Testament is that the holiness people were not able to vote the justice people into silence, and the justice people were not able to vote the holiness people into silence. So some committee (some General Assembly) in ancient Israel said, We’re going to put all of this in.

What that means is, our deepest obedience cannot be an absolute norm because it must make room for other serious covenant members who are practising a different obedience. …

This part of the Bible does not finally permit us to get it right. It invites us to do an interpretation for now, knowing that we’re going to have to go back to Sinai and do it over again and again and again.

Indeed, I think that figuring out obedience is like having a teenager in the house. Having a teenager means, nothing stays settled. You’ve got to do it all over again. I’m sure that Moses thought he was leading a bunch of teenagers.

The quote is from Brueggeman’s lectures on the Old Testament:  specifically, on Exodus (beginning at 12 minutes 30 seconds) and Leviticus (ending at 9 minutes 40 seconds). I have tidied up the language at various points because speech always has patterns that seem odd when reduced to text.

Note that both Leviticus and Deuteronomy include both holiness and justice elements. That’s the point Brueggemann is making when he quotes Leviticus 19:18, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. Sandwiched between two “holiness” texts (which would rid the community of homosexual practices) is this core “justice” text.

Finally, I should perhaps apologize for the title of this post, which refers to the “problem” with the Ten Commandments. It isn’t really a problem except for those who can’t cope with the resultant tension.

The tension is permanent and inescapable; God’s people must learn to live there, uncomfortable though it may sometimes be. As Brueggemann says, our deepest obedience cannot finally be reduced to an absolute norm; it must make room for other sincere believers who are practising a different obedience.


11 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. tomachfive
    Jul 14, 2007 @ 07:31:08

    A new ethics must always be written and reviewed for every age.


  2. jamiekiley
    Jul 14, 2007 @ 09:34:46

    Except to observe that Leviticus 18 and Leviticus 20 are the two texts about homosexuality in the Old Testament. In between, in Leviticus 19, it says (the verse that Jesus quotes), You shall love your neighbour as yourself.

    I’m not sure what argument Brueggeman is trying to make here. If he is trying to say that there are two OT approaches to homosexuality–one being to condemn the lifestyle and the other being to “love homosexuals”–then I don’t think his dichotomy is accurate or his interpretation fair.

    If, on the other hand, he is trying to say that the OT condemnation of homosexuality was tempered by the attitude that you should love people and not persecute the ones who have lifestyles different from yours, that seems a bit more justifiable.

    As Brueggemann says, our deepest obedience cannot finally be reduced to an absolute norm; it must make room for other sincere believers who are practising a different obedience.

    I kind of doubt that either you or Brueggeman really meant this, but both of you seem to imply that justice and holiness lead two different directions, necessitating tolerance between the two groups who follow the two different directions. I doubt that’s what Leviticus and Deuteronomy were intended to convey (after all, as Brueggeman points out, there are some elements of justice and holiness in both books, suggesting that the two values belong together).

    So I don’t like the implication that there is a split between the two and that we should be ok with other people who choose the other side of the split than we do. Theoretically (and I know it’s harder to achieve this in practice than in theory), there shouldn’t be a split. The community of God should be both holy and just.


  3. Knotwurth Mentioning
    Jul 14, 2007 @ 15:52:56


    Stole the words right out of my mouth! I don’t agree that there had to be some sort of tension there between the two. Working in harmony can happen, and if we draw upon that particular text I don’t think we can really find evidence of some sort of great tension between two factors.

    Similarly, from the “Holy” ten commandments comes the social decision to provide welfare. Why is that causing tension? Obviously different people/groups are going to practice the two different factors in varying degrees, but the fact is that they co-exist and don’t have to be the source of angst for believers!

    When Brueggeman lays out his argument that there is two different choices for what we want in society — purity or justice — I think he’s missing that the two can be present at the same time. Unless you want to elaborate more on that to give further evidence of this tension, I don’t quite see where this argument even gained ground…


  4. dan
    Jul 15, 2007 @ 03:36:57

    Good stuff. Brueggemann was the first to pound into my head the realisation that there are genuine tensions in Scripture, and so we must be cautious about resolving what Scripture leaves unresolved.

    Of course, what Jesus shows us about these two traditions is that it is justice that makes holiness contagious — and this occurs precisely in the reveresal of the “holiness tradition” which thought that it was impurity that was contagious (cf. Contagious Holiness by Blomberg, and Jesus and Judaism by Sanders; both develop the this thought in different ways). So we migh conclude that true holiness is established when justice conquers the “holiness tradition”!

    By the way, Brueggemann has more to say about the justice and holiness traditions as they relate to homosexuality and marriage in his monumental Theology of the Old Testament (pp193-96).

    Grace and peace (and a holy kiss?).


  5. Stephen
    Jul 15, 2007 @ 07:58:24

    • Tomachfive:
    That’s precisely the way scholars view scripture: that there has been a lengthy editorial procress wherein successive generations have recalibrated the earlier message to fit it to new circumstances. Scholars would say it is not only legitimate for us to do that, but the same process is embedded in the biblical text itself.

    • Jamie and Knotwurth:
    I’m open to your perspective; I wonder whether you’re open to mine?

    First, Brueggemann would emphatically agree with Jamie’s comment, The community of God should be both holy and just. Amen, amen!

    The problem is, that formula doesn’t take us very far. What does a holy community look like? What does a just community look like? How do we move forward when one believer argues in support of same sex marriage on “justice” grounds while another believer argues against it on “holiness” grounds?

    Second, I think we can disagree on how to characterize these two thrusts of scripture. Do they constitute a “tension” in scripture (ultimately reconcilable, at least in the mind of God) or a “contradiction” in scripture (ultimately irreconcilable)? I come down on one side of that debate; you two come down on the other side of it.

    The same question arises in the New Testament: e.g. between Paul (saved by faith apart from works of the law) and James (faith must be completed by works). Tension or contradiction? Sincere believers may come to different conclusions.

    (To Knotwurth: you don’t even concede that there’s tension between the two interpretive emphases Brueggemann identifies. I hope the above two examples convince you otherwise. As Brueggemann pointed out, these are the biblical roots of the liberal / conservative schism.)

    We can disagree on whether scripture is inerrant. That isn’t the point of this post. Brueggemann’s argument is, even when we agree in principle (Thou shalt not kill) we disagree in application (capital punishment, yes or no?).

    Therefore the Church must learn to live in this place of inescapable tension, instead of trying to enforce uniformity.

    • Dan:
    I’m only just discovering Brueggemann. I’m currently working my way through the volume you mention, Old Testament Theology, and loving it!

    I’ve been convinced for years that there are tensions (even contradictions) in scripture. That knowledge has left me spinning my wheels ineffectually — that may be an exaggeration, but it has certainly hobbled me. Brueggemann excites me because he seems to point a way forward.

    At the very least, he’s a better fit for my own understanding of scripture than any other scholar I’ve ever come across.


  6. dan
    Jul 15, 2007 @ 08:31:02


    I remember when I first stumbled into Brueggemann — his writings struck me the same way rain strikes the land after a long drought; they made me come alive. Brueggemann has done for my understanding of the OT what I feel Wright has done for my understanding of the NT.

    Anyway, I’ve noticed that you have, on more than one recent occasion, been thinking about the contrast that you see between Paul (“saved by faith apart from works of the law”) and James (“faith must be completed by works”). Now, I’m not sure if you are familiar with the way in which the so-called “New Perspective on Paul” re-examines what Paul is talking about when he says “works of the law.” James Dunn and N. T. Wright are probably the most well known advocates of the NPP position that, premised upon Sanders’ notion of “covenantal nomism,” redefines “works of the law” as “badges of membership” rather than “moral works” or “good deeds” or whatever. If they are correct in reading Paul this way (and I think that they are) then there may actually be a lot more coherence between Paul and James than many of us first imagined.

    I mention this not to suggest that there are no (irresolveable) tensions in Scripture, but simply because you may find this to be an interesting avenue for further exploration.

    Grace and peace.


  7. Stephen
    Jul 15, 2007 @ 10:23:04

    Thanks, Dan.

    I’m better acquainted with Dunn than with Wright. Reading Brueggemann (with his narrative orientation) reminds me that I need to revisit Wright, too. But I’m delightedly exploring the Old Testament at the moment.

    Dunn’s collection of essays, “Jesus, Paul, and the Law” was a seminal influence on me. In particular, his discussion of the “Antioch incident” revolutionized my understanding of early Church history and the contingent nature of New Testament theology.

    Ultimately, I’m not persuaded by the “new perspective” on Paul. The old perspective regarded circumcision, Sabbath, and food laws as a means of salvation; the new perspective regards those same “works of the law” as a badge that one belongs to the covenant community. I’m aware that this has exploded into a major dispute that’s roiling the academic community, but to me there’s a mere hairs-breadth’s width of difference between the respective positions.

    I think it’s constructive for rapprochement between Jews and Christians, but I think its significance for New Testament theology has been overblown.

    I haven’t been musing on Paul and James recently. It’s just that this is a significant point of reference for me — the clearest example of a crucial theological issue “spun” in two different ways within the New Testament.

    Perhaps it’s merely a point of tension, rather than contradiction, as I said to Jamie and Knotwurth. But even so, the practical consequence is a fork in the road. The Ebionites continued to practise the Law, while the majority of the Church sided with Paul.

    That Paul mostly won the day is arguably the result of historical contingency: the Gentile community became the growth point of the Church, and of course Gentiles were relieved not to be placed under the demands of the Law. The struggle might easily have gone the other way.


  8. 49erDweet
    Jul 16, 2007 @ 01:07:27

    Good stuff, Stephen. Enjoyed it.

    God bless


  9. 49erDweet
    Jul 16, 2007 @ 14:12:24

    As you can tell from my comment on “Babel”, I took the time to read your sermon. It was worth the read.

    Quite frankly, in my view, your political comments were fairly said and appropriate. GWB does suffer some type of disconnect in this area, and may indeed place too much reliance on “man’s” tools and toys. Or maybe not, but only time will tell I suppose. (It is dreadful for us to be too close to bring the clear eye of history to bear on all this stuff, isn’t it?)

    Thanks for the sermon. Thanks for reawakening my sense of awe in God’s word whilst delving into the OT. I shall go back to it with renewed vigor.

    God bless


  10. Stephen
    Jul 16, 2007 @ 14:46:19

    Thanks for the encouraging feedback, 49er. And I’m still receiving appreciative comments from the United church, via my Dad.


  11. Jamie Kiley
    Jul 16, 2007 @ 16:04:19

    I’m open to your perspective; I wonder whether you’re open to mine?

    I am open to the point that there are two different emphases in the two books. However, whereas I accept the idea of “tension” between the two concepts of justice and purity, I balk at the notion of contradiction. From your argument so far, I do not see evidence of the latter.

    But suppose they are in contradiction. You’re arguing that we must accept the contradictions and live in tension. How, then, would you propose we deal with the issue of homosexual marriage? Surely you can’t support (respect, tolerate) those who oppose these marriages; that would go against your view that such people are propagating an injustice.

    I hate to make this an issue of gay marriage, because I know that wasn’t exactly your point with this post, but I think that example illustrates the difficulty of your argument.

    With gay marriage, there can only be one “right” way. It cannot simultaneously, in the same circumstances, be right both to forbid gay marriage and to embrace it. Nor could God simultaneously both approve of and forbid the practice.

    So how can we embrace the “inescapable tension” and tolerate all positions? It seems to me patently obvious that both positions are not equally justified.


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