Thursday, August 23, 2012

Decalogue: Tenth Command

To be honest, I had not encountered a defense of the Catholic number of the Decalogue (by an Evangelical) until fairly recently. As I pointed out in the post dealing with the numbering issue, I noted that the division of this Command into two is an artificial division. Rome does this because they can bury the prohibition of images behind the ban on idolatry. As we mentioned previously, it was Peter Lombard (ca. 1096 – 1164) who first devised this numbering of the Decalogue. We could appeal, as we did before, to Josephus as a representative of the Jewish numbering, but we can actually do one better. Paul makes this one simple command in Romans 7:7. 

The primary argument this defender of the Roman numbering, which he considered his best argument, was that it was inconsistent with Scripture to list a man’s wife in this command, for that would imply that she was just another piece of his property. Granted, that is an unbiblical position. Even in the 5th Command, we see obedience and respect being enjoined for both mother and father. This is significant. It may be semantic nitpicking, but it seems better to say that the biblical worldview is patricentic, not patriarchal. Job demonstrates this. He was not the center of his children’s lives around whom their world revolved. Rather he was intimately busy with God on their behalf. This is a big difference. One of the greatest evils Israel was guilty of during the time of the Judges was their pagan treatment of women. 

I said all that to say this: Just because wife is listed here, it is not a legitimate assumption that this means she is a piece of property if we view this command as one rather than two. This is true for at least a couple of reasons. 

(1). It neglects the way we all commonly speak. The possessive tense of a noun does not necessarily imply ownership in a dehumanizing way. After all, we all speak of our wives, our husbands and our children, and none of us do this with the intention of being understood as a claim of ownership wherein these people are mere possessions. There is no other way to express it. When I refer to my wife and my car, even in the same sentence, no one understands me to be using the word “my” in the exact same way. And if they do, they’re crazy.

(2). The exact same thing is forbidden in both clauses. This would have to make it one command. If the 6th Command said, “You shall not murder your wife, nor shall you murder you next-door neighbor, we would not construe that as two separate commands. It is only because one has forced the first two Commands together that they are compelled to do it here. No other Command has two clauses for this pretended division to be placed.

(3). When Moses reiterates this Command in Deuteronomy 5, he reverse the order of the clauses.

As we have done so often already, we cite the Heidelberg Catechism. 

“Question 113. What does the tenth commandment require of us?

Answer: That even the smallest inclination or thought, contrary to any of God's commandments, never rise in our hearts; but that at all times we hate all sin with our whole heart, and delight in all righteousness. (a)

“(a) Rom.7:7 What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid. Nay, I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet.”

As far as the actual prohibition is concerned, this is one of the most regularly and flagrantly violated of all the Commands. Hardly a single ad in existence, from the beginning of time, does not operate on a violation of this Command. We are all entice to buy this or that product for no other reason than that someone else (whom we presumably wish to emulate) has one. Very few luxury items would even have the remotest appeal for most people were it not for the sin of covetousness. What inherent quality do most luxury items actually possess, as opposed to more generic examples of the same item, to make them more desirable? The answer to that question is: squat. Wanting to have nice things is no sin and dictating which watches a Christian can wear is straight up legalism. But again, we must ask, how much does covetousness factor in? Do I want some extravagant thing because others will want one? or because I envy someone who has one? I can’t see your heart no you mine. But God can see and if we are honest, we know when we are motivated by envy. 

I’m sure I’m not the only one who has noticed the particularly internal quality of this one Command. All of the others deal with overt outward acts (except perhaps the 1st), but this one deals exclusively with the internal motives and desires of the heart. Also, if we remember Jesus’ words Matthew 6:27-30, it would seem that at least part of this is already subsumed under the 7th Command. And it would be a legitimate use of Christ’s principle of application to say that the rest of this Command would fall under the 8th Command. No doubt, the whole point here is to stress the internal character of obedience to God. An obstinate child, who is ordered to sit down, may be complying outwardly, but in his heart he is still standing up. Proverbs 23:7 and 24:9 show that Jesus’ way of narrowing in on the heart’s motive behind the action was always understood by God’s people. It is a not a New Testament interpretative device. God has always looked at the heart. 

Someone might be tempted therefore to conclude that this interpretation makes this Command superfluous. But that would miss the whole point. Granted, nothing is enjoined here which is not comprehended under foregoing Commands; nevertheless, this Command serves as a general rule of interpretation, according to which as Ursinus writes, “the internal obedience of all the other commandments must be understood, because this is spoken of the whole Decalogue generally.” In other words, this Command reminds us that God is to be obeyed from the heart. It also has the added feature of making the Commands add up to ten. That makes it a simple mnemonic device. You have ten fingers; you can easily remember Ten Commands.

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