This morning, I was playing around with Google Alerts – a service that sends news stories to your email relating to specific key words. I had just set up an alert for “Ten Commandments” and sure enough, within the hour I got my initial list of of newly published stories that related to the Ten Commandments. Most were only loosely related, but there was one that caught my attention. Christopher Rollston at the Huffington Post wrote an article about how the Ten Commandments and the Bible in general are guilty of marginalizing women. Because his article both demonstrates the continued impact the Ten Commandments have on our culture and highlights something that I cover in Ten Essential Words, I wanted to use this oft-cited example to demonstrate a very fundamental mistake people make when talking about the relevancy of the Ten Commandments.

Rollston writes,

The Decalogue is a case in point. “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house, you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male slave, his female slave, his ox, his donkey or anything which belongs to your neighbor” (Exodus 20:17; Deuteronomy 5:21). Because the Ten Commandments are so well known, it’s quite easy to miss the assumptions in them about gender. But the marginalization of women is clear. The wife is classified as her husband’s property, and so she’s listed with the slaves and work-animals. There’s also a striking omission in this commandment: never does it say “You shall not covet your neighbor’s husband.” The Ten Commandments were written to men, not women. … The Ten Commandments embody much that is foundational for modern society, but egalitarian they aren’t.

He goes on to assert how the Old and New Testaments continue this theme of the marginalization of women.  Rollston is not wrong when he notes that in ancient Israelite society “the wife is classified as her husband’s property.”  I write the same thing when addressing the seventh commandment: You shall not commit adultery.

It could be correctly supposed that the intent behind most of these laws was not the welfare of women or even the protection of marriage, but rather the safeguarding of property.  For in most ancient cultures, a wife was largely considered to be the property of the husband; thus some form of protection was needed for that property.  To commit adultery was to essentially steal what belonged to another man.

It should be noted that the laws I am referring to in the quote above are numerous Ancient Near East legal codes that address adultery and not simply the seventh commandment.  Mosaic Law actually contains many safeguards for women who otherwise would have been left abandoned.  But while Rollston concludes that the Bible marginalizes women, I reach a much different conclusion.  So where do we differ?  How do we reach quite the opposite conclusion?

  • First, Biblical theology has long asserted that scripture reflects the commands of God – the words of God – and yet at the same time those commands were recorded by human beings.  And those human beings resided in certain places and lived at certain times.  The Bible can be both the words of God and yet reflect human opinions, different personalities and genres, human rebellion, and numerous ways that, despite our best efforts, humans fall short of God’s commands.  In fact, the story of the Bible is largely the story of humankind struggling with and failing to live out these commands of God.
  • Second, and similarly, while God’s commands transcend culture, their application will always resides within a distinct culture.  The Old Testament is full of wars, kings and queens, prophets, and many other things that were normative in a culture three to four thousand years ago.  The New Testament is set largely in the context of the Roman Empire.  So the commands of God will necessarily reflect what was happening in those cultures.  When God gave the Ten Commandments, those commands represented the timeless moral standard of God, but at the same time they had specific cultural meanings and applications when Moses received them on Mount Sinai.  So, yes, the command “Do not covet” is a command from God, but at the same time coveting had different applications to an Israelite society 3,500 years ago than it does for us today.
  • Third, the challenge for us then, is not to come up with a new set of Ten Commandments that reflect our day and age, but to properly apply the timeless truths of the original Ten.  In other words, we don’t need to toss out the command against coveting because it may have been applied imperfectly in Ancient Near East culture.  Instead, we are responsible to speak to what it means to covet today.  This is exactly the cultural journey that Ten Essential Words navigates.  What did each command mean in their original context, what light does Jesus shed on each command in his day, and how might we apply each command to our modern context.

It shouldn’t surprise us then, that the Ten Commandments don’t give women the right to vote any more than they don’t address iPhone etiquette.  We can choose to see the marginalization that was present in every ancient culture (and many modern ones!) or we can see the ways the Bible actually gave women a voice they didn’t normally have at that time.  Rollston barely acknowledges a woman named Deborah that served as a judge over Israel and fails to mention that Esther served as a deliverer of the Hebrew people, that Jesus’s prominent benefactors were women, or that women also served as the primary witnesses to his resurrection – all unheard of at that time.  It could also be argued that the Apostle Paul calls women to tone it down in the new Christian movement because women had a new-found voice they hadn’t been given elsewhere and were taking many liberties with that voice.

If we fail to take these steps of moving God’s commands from an ancient cutlure to our own culture we will no doubt make the same conclusions that Rollston has made.  And by his own standards, because no previous culture is as enlightened as our culture today, there isn’t much that any ancient history or religion has to teach us.

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