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The Politics of Scripture

The Politics of Religious Laws—Exodus 20:3-11 (Mark Davis)

The idea that the political aspects of the Ten Commandments are confined to the latter portion and that the beginning portion is only ‘religious’ in nature is unsustainable. The politics of the commands themselves as well as the politics of the conversations in which those commands are embedded continue to be instructive for faithful communities today.

3 you shall have no other gods before me.

4 You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, 6 but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.

7 You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

8 Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9 For six days you shall labour and do all your work. 10 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

We often imagine that the latter portion of the Ten Commandments is political, but the earlier portion is religious. So, discussions of the “politics of the Ten Commandments” usually focus on the inter-communal relations of life, property, or marital sanctity, but not on issues of God’s priority, idolatry, the use of God’s name, or the observance of the Sabbath. A more careful reading of the earlier portion of the commands, however, shows how intertwined the religious and the political are for the people of Israel. Specifically, the “religious” commands are embedded in ongoing conversations about political hot topics that recur throughout the Scriptures.

The prohibition of idolatry, for example, has two deeply political aspects to it. The first is the interplay of power in any act of iconoclasm. In the Hebrew Bible, the chroniclers’ evaluations of Israel’s and Judah’s kings are largely based on whether the kings venerated or destroyed Asherah poles. In the New Testament, with Roman coinage as a ubiquitous reminder of the Empire’s role in the exchange of goods and services, the temple coinage that refused to bear the image of any living things was an act of political resistance through the honoring of this command. Those same political dimensions have been part of subsequent historical struggles over this command, from conflicts between Orthodox and Roman Catholic prelates over relics, to the iconoclasm of the Reformation, to the more recent destruction of ancient Buddhist statues by the Taliban in Afghanistan. The establishment or destruction of “idols” has long been a matter of displaying who is in charge.

The second political aspect of the prohibition of idolatry is the claim that follows the prohibition itself. The God of this command is a jealous God, punishing the offspring of those who violate this command to the third and fourth generation. This claim is part of a hot debate throughout the Scriptures, sometimes focused upon whether or not the extra-biblical proverb is true: “The parents have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” Jeremiah argues that the proverb will no longer be true under the time of the new covenant, that each person will suffer for one’s own sins and not for inherited guilt. Ezekiel declares that the proverb is not true and orders his people to stop making that claim immediately. The debate still echoes in the New Testament in the words of the disciples, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2) The heart of this debate is whether one’s destiny is shaped by one’s ancestors or whether one is responsible for one’s own fate. It is an argument that is still a live one today, often in the guise of ‘nature v. nurture’ debates.

The command establishing the Sabbath is likewise deeply political, both in substance and in the ongoing conversation in which it is embedded. The assumption behind the law is that Sabbath rest is written into the rhythm of creation itself. That is to say, this law is not an imposition of a moral vision but a liberation into genuine humanity vis-à-vis all living things. The point is not to establish “blue laws” so that people are free from work to attend houses of worship. Rather, it is to honor human limits instead of sacrificing them to never-ceasing demands of productivity.

One could argue that honoring Sabbath poses a challenge to the heart of capitalism. One difference between ‘wealth’ and ‘capital’ is that the point of capital is not to possess, but to reinvest. As such, capitalism has no sense of ‘enough,’ no ‘resting place,’ so to speak. Instead, it is driven—in principle, insatiably driven—to produce more, the very thing that the establishment of the Sabbath is trying to mitigate. To a culture of capitalism, thriving on feeding insatiable appetites, Sabbath rest is a strange imposition. The evidence is not just how madly realtors and restaurateurs scramble to accommodate the desires of others who have Sundays off. It is also in the ubiquity of cell phones and other devices that tether us to our work without bounds of time or space. Sabbath is about honoring time and space for rest and restoration.

The context of the Sabbath law was also strongly contested. If the Sabbath day is written into the rhythm of creation itself, then it is not restricted to the people of Israel, but is a genuinely universal law and Sabbath rest is a genuinely universal right for both humans and other living creatures. While it is often unwarranted to impose the language of modernity onto biblical conversations, the rationale for establishing the Sabbath follows precisely the kind of logic on which all notions of universal law or rights are based. An argument based on a universal idea, however, comes with a price. And that price is the recognition that any universal law or right extends to the “other” as much as to one’s own. The inclusivity of this command cuts across all genders, all nationalities, and even all species, which is an affront to the heart of power-based politics itself. The biblical communities—notably Ezra and Nehemiah in their post-exilic leadership—struggled with the universality of universal laws as much as the slave-holding authors of the Declaration of Independence and the self-professed Christian politicians who try to exclude undocumented immigrant children from public education. Declaring a law or a right to be universal has tremendous legitimizing power. Universally enacting a law or a right challenges the nature of power in politics itself.

The idea that the political aspects of the Ten Commandments are confined to the latter portion and that the beginning portion is only ‘religious’ in nature is unsustainable. The politics of the commands themselves as well as the politics of the conversations in which those commands are embedded continue to be instructive for faithful communities today.

D. Mark Davis is the pastor of St. Mark Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, CA. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Iowa in Theology, Ethics and Culture. The author of two books, Talking About Evangelism and Left Behind and Loving It, Mark exegetes the RCL Gospel reading each week at leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.org.


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