Other articles from this issue | Version in English | Version in French
The Ten Words — The Decalogue — and their forgotten invitation
We nerd to take another look at texts from the First Testament which for far too long have been misunderstood and misinterpreted by Christians. For US also the Law should he a Revelation of God which frees us through love, putting us at the service of God and neighbour. This is the only way that preaching and catechesis will be truly renewed, because there is a continuity between the two parts of Scripture.
Exodus 20.1-17, erroneously called the Ten Commandments in the catechesis of past centuries, actually begins with two verses which are generally overlooked. Yet in the Hebrew Bible these two verses comprise the first "Word" spoken on Sinai and give meaning to the rest of the passage i.e. the Ten Words.(1) Jewish tradition calls Ex 20:1-17 the TEN WORDS or the TWO TABLETS, one concerned with our relationship with Cod and the other with our relationship with our neighbour; God reveals himself as Father of all in order that each may be brother/sister for others. It is interesting to notice that in the Hebrew the first word in the passage is "1" (the Lord) and the last word is "your neighbour".
Set at the heart of the Revelation on Sinai, Ex 20: 1-17 is a summary of how the People of God should live according to the Covenant. An abbreviated expression of it is the Shema Israel, the Jewish profession of faith:
"Hear o Israel..."
You shall love the Lord your God with all your
''You shall love your neighbour as yourself.."
(Dent 6:5; Lev 19:16).
The Midrash tells us that there are Two Tablets to recall heaven/earth, husband/wife, present world/world to come, two witnesses . . They also remind us that the one God is revealed in the universe through the duality which is one of its characteristics. We must understand the Two Tablets as Jesus (lid; he used them to explain what we must do to have eternal life (Nlt 19:18-19i Mk l0.19; Lk 18:19-20).
Christian interpretation and the far older Jewish interpretation have diverged from each other so widely that even the numbering of the Ten Words differs and the Christian context is changed by being divorced from its original introduction. This forgotten invitation transforms the whole meaning of the passage. Consequently it is vital to return to the Jewish interpretation (which is the one Jesus knew) and put aside the legalistic vocabulary in favour of one denoting Covenant and lovingkindness. In this way the passage will recover its original which is that of dialogue. In catechetical terms, we must first use an image, follow it with a commentary and finally paraphrase those difficult expressions which might mask the real message. After this preparation, the text can be read, either in the original or in a simplified form, according to the needs/abilities of the group.
The Image of Dialogue
A collection of pictures from Jerusalem (Torat Haim — a way of life), includes a very evocative picture representing the Two Tablets. The Tablets with five words written on each, arc given the form of two figures with their heads covered; the one on the right (the first, according to the Hebrew script) clasps the head of the other between his hands in a gesture redolent of love and tenderness.(2) It signifies the loving relationship existing between God and humanity, an individual and his neighbour, the Lord and his people, a father and his child. Their faces close together, they exchage confidences, murmuring secrets in the way lovers do:
"You shall teach . . . your children..." (Dent 6:17) "Tell me , you whom my soul loves..." (Song 1:7)
We find this same message in the too often ignored opening verses: Ex 20: 1-2.
2. The Commentary: Ex 20:1-2
The Ten Words mark the entry of Israel into the SERVICE of God and humanity; in slavery to Pharaoh only a short time before, now wandering in the desert, they are now able to offer this service, Wanks to their rediscovered freedom and the Covenant made with them by their Lord:
"And God spoke all these words, saying,
am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the
house of bondage:"
Five expressions designate the speaker, creating a double image, so to speak. On the one hand, creation by the Almighty, and on the other, paschal freedom through the loving-kindness expressed in the Covenant. Nuances can be detected through the Hebrew:
Elohind: the name which expresses almighty power and justice; it presents God as creator (he will create a people) and legislator (the Covenant is expressed through this rule of life given on Sinai).
I: betokens majesty (Anokhi rather than ani) and reinforces the impression of grandeur.
YHWH: the name revealed to Moses at the burning bush also reveals the other fact of God, the loving-kindness of One who is close to his creation. It is a name without vowels, so sacred as to be unpronounceable . . it is difficult to say, even though Christian translators continue to formulate it as Yahweh, in spite of the efforts of the liturgical lectionaries (which transpose it into -the Lord-). The Jews use Adonai in its place and it has a completely different sound to Lord because it is only used in the context of liturgical prayer.
YOUR ELOHIM: Your God, used as one word, expresses both the transcendance and the immanence of God. It is as if he were saying "I belong to you, I am your own God, and even if I make a decision, you can make me change my mind" (Jewish commentary).
WHO BROUGHT YOU OUT: ...of the house of bondage (Mitzraim)- The Hebrew name for Egypt is used at Passover in the reading of the Exodus; it is
not translated because it has become universalized, meaning all those countries where oppression and servitude arc stilt to he found. The Lord continues to "bring us out" in order to free us for his service and the service of others. It is the liberator speaking to the liberated slave whom he has adopted as his child.
3. A Paraphrase: Ex 20:3-17
Already we can begin to appreciate the atmosphere in which these words of Gild are spoken! It is... like a bridegroom speaking with his bride on the eve of their wedding.
Starting with the Five Words from the first Tablet (Ex 20:3-12), which are concerned with the relationship between the community and its God, a paraphrase might go something like this:
"We love each other and our union must really succeed. It is taken for granted that you will never call anyone else "beloved' and that you will only have my photograph on your desk ar work" (Second Word).
"Love is not genuine without respect: it goes without saying that you will never use my name for evil purposes or make fun of it" (Third Word). "I know your work is very absorbing... but keep one day especially for me, when we can be together, wrapped up in each other. We will call this the Sabbath (truce)" (Fourth Word, which is concerned with time).
"Surround with affection and respect those who brought you into the world and taught you to love me; their love is life-giving, because it shares in the work of the Creator" (Filth Word).
This makes the transition to the Five Words of the Second Tablet (Lx 20: 13-17), as quoted by Paul (Rom 13:8-10).
The dialogue continues:
"And then, all our lives will be devoted to making peace, love and happiness reign around us..." "Remember that you have been a slave and a stranger in the land of Mitzraim' (Egypt). This traumatic experience should have brought you near to all those who are oppressed and who suffer, who have become your neighbours, your companions. They are created in the image of God, and are most precious, because life is a gift from him and therefore sacred." (Sixth Word). "Do not, out of greed, harm them through those they love (Seventh Word), or hurt them through their possessions (Eighth Word); do not injure their good name (Ninth Word); do none of these things, even in desire' Extend your protection to all that belongs to your neighbour (Tenth word)."
4. The Biblical Text
To discover the real depth of meaning in the Two Tablets, they should be read side by side — Five Worth and Five Words. They have been called the two hands of God: one blesses and the other supports and upholds.
These Ten Words of God are the language of love in which the Covenant is expressed. It is question of promises rather than commands. They imply always:
"I have saved you. I am with you. I shall be near you in time of trouble. Go forward without ' fear: you shall . . you shall not ... because I am always there, close by you."
When one's heart is fully open to this dialogue, the whole of life is changed; the bride acts spontaneously according to the dictates of her heart because she has put her whole trust in the one she loves.
5. Christian Tradition
Reacting against a tendency to depreciate the value of the Old Testament in order to give greater importance to the New, Augustine gave prominence to the Decalogue (Ten Words) and this has influenced the Church from the fourth century onwards.
"The soul, under the influence of the two-fold love of God and neighbour, is like a lyre on which is played the sweet hymn of the decalogue in honour of the Divine Master".
(On the Psalms 198)
Ambrose, Gregory the Great and Irenaeus all insist on the continuity between the teaching of the Law of the Covenant and the teaching of the Gospel. There is no question of any other ethic, and Jesus himself declared that he came to accomplish the Law, not to abolish it.
From the ninth century onwards, the Ten Words were identified with the "natural law" in order to distinguish the latter from the law of love promulgated by Jesus Christ; this line of thought was continued by Thomas Aquinas. Jewish tradition says that Noah received seven commandments on how to act according to human nature. Moses goes further. Commentaries explain that the first Two Tablets, written by the hand of God himself, were the Tablets of Moses addressed to the people who were sanctified on Mount Sinai and who answered with one voice:
"All the words which the Lord has spoken we will do (Ex 24:3)."
They failed, however, when they made the golden calf and the second "edition" takes this sin into account. The Second Tablets are the Tablets of Israel — Tablets of forgiveness and redemption. It is these that are spoken of in Ex 20:1-2.
Undoubtedly the person of Jesus is central to all Christian living; we are invited to follow him, but he expects us to accept the invitation of the Two Tablets of the Covenant which is renewed and fulfilled in himself.
If we really believe in the Ten Words of love which the Lord continues to address to us, we will no longer present them as ten constricting commandments, barriers which force us to follow the right way or fences which prevent falls and accidents. The Jewish law is the Torah of life (Torat Haim), a revelation of love expressed through gestures. Its name originates in the language of shepherds and means to indicate the direction to take and the signal to begin the journey, the pilgrimage. The Ten Words are proclaimed in the same tone that Jesus uses to proclaim his Beatitudes on another mountain; the words are new, but the continuity is there for those who accept the invitation to follow him by walking in his footsteps.
" Sr. Marie-11612n° Fournier, NI.D.S, is a catechist who is Directress of the Ein Shalom Documentation Service for Jewish-Christian Relations, Brussels. She has drawn inspiration for her article from Torat Haim, a Commentary on Exodus by Rabbi J. Schwartz; L'univers de la Bible of Andre Chouraqui and the Jewish Commentary entitled: Les dix paroles by Colette Kessler.
1. Ten Words: in Hebrew, Aseret ha-devarim. The word davar means both word and happening or event, and is reserved to words which God speaks, These Ten Words correspond to the ten creative words of Gen ch. 1 and indicate that a new phase in history k being inaugurated. After having created the world and humanity, God creates a people and proposes to make a Covenant with them.
2. Cf. illustration and accompanying text on p. 46.