The With-God Life: Commandments

As I’ve restarted this series of daily devotionals, I find myself drawn more to the Old Testament selections from the lectionary than the gospel and epistle texts. Maybe that’s because I’m in the middle of reading Separated Siblings: An Evangelical Understanding of Jews and Judaism, by former North Park Seminary president Jay Phelan. Growing out of his long friendship with Rabbi Yehiel Poupko, Jay’s book is an attempt “to explore Jews and Judaism ‘with Christian eyes,'” just as Poupko had helped Jay see the New Testament with Jewish eyes. But in the process, I suspect I’ll find new ways to read the Jewish scriptures that make up more than half of the Christian Bible.

For example, today’s reading from Deuteronomy 5, which begins:

Moses convened all Israel, and said to them: Hear, O Israel, the statutes and ordinances that I am addressing to you today; you shall learn them and observe them diligently. (Deut 5:1-2)

What Christians call “Second Law” proceeds to retell what we read yesterday from the Book of Exodus, the ten commandments that Jay calls “the foundational moral document of both Jews and Christians and, for that matter, much of the western world, religious or otherwise” (41). Yet however “straightforward,” those ten core laws “still raise all kinds of questions” for any Jew or Christian (maybe especially Pietists like Jay and me) who believes that mere belief or assent is not enough. However many times we hear them, those commandments

still raise all kinds of questions. How does one practice these commandments? What constitutes “idolatry“? What does it mean to “misuse the name of God”? If one is to refrain from “work” on the Sabbath, how does one define “work”? How does one “honor” one’s father and mother? Even such apparently straightforward commandments regarding murder, adultery, theft, false testimony, and coveting raise questions of application and implication. And this is as true for Christians as it is for Jews. Possessing the commandments is not enough. They are not merely to be inscribed on plaques; they are meant to be lived. But how? (42)

The fact that there’s an entire book of the Law dedicated to reiteration suggests that God’s people have always had a hard time living out words they know.

James Tissot, “Moses Sees the Promised Land from Afar” – Wikimedia

Maybe part of the problem is that we expect the commandments to arrive with the eager anticipation and divine encounter of the Exodus version. (Maybe we imagine that we’d be different than those who followed Moses, that we’d have been transformed by that powerful moment into people capable of living the Law.) But more often, I hear God’s word like the people do in Deuteronomy, with little fanfare or prelude; not in the voice of an almighty and just deity, but in the tired tones of a human whose weakness and flaws I know well.

But if revelation doesn’t always feel immediate and intimate, there’s power in repetition and recollection. As I continue Jay’s book, I suspect that may be something that I’ll learn from monotheistic cousins who share in a collective religious memory older than that of the Church.

Or, as Moses sang at the other end of Deuteronomy: “Remember the days of old, consider the years long past, ask your father, and he will inform you; your elders, and they will tell you” (32:7).

<<Exodus 20:1-4 | 2 Corinthians 5:17-21>>