November 2012


As the Ten Commandments move forward through history, one interesting assertion found throughout scripture is that just as the original law was written on stone, one day Yahweh will write them on human hearts.  Speaking of this new covenant, the prophet Jeremiah writes,

I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.

This is an important image in scripture – the image of God writing the law not on stone, but on the human heart.  I summarize this in the introductory chapter of Ten Essential Words:

Stone tablets can break, ink smears and paper crumbles, hard drives can crash, and public displays can be outlawed.  But something written on the human heart has staying power.  That is because when it is written on your heart, it becomes a part of who you are.  The evidence is not so much in your words but in your actions  – in the way you live.  This is what God is getting at when he uses that phrase: that these commands penetrate all the way to the heart level.

As I mention in a previous post, I am reading a book entitled Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament.  The author, John Walton, has many fascinating insights into the meanings behind the language of the Old Testament.  One of his comparative observations involves this image of something being written on the human heart and may shed more light on what the writers had in mind by employing this image.

We most often associate something being written on the heart with memorization.  If I memorize the Ten Commandments, I am writing them on my heart.  Walton points out several difficulties with this interpretation.

First, where this image is used in scripture, it is Yahweh who is doing the writing.  If memorization were the goal, we might expect the language to describe the action of the individual writing them on their own heart.  Next, the Hebrew word we translate as heart, is actually better translated in this context as the entrails or more specifically the liver.  This is a less than inspiring image for us moderns so we stick with the idea of the heart.  When taken together, along with some other grammatical issues, the image being conjured is that of divination, or the reading of entrails of a sacrificial animal.

Now divination is not looked favorably upon in scripture.  So why would the image of reading entrails be utilized here?  Why would this make sense?  Because it would have been a practice that the people were familiar with, being surrounded by cultures who engaged in such activity, as well as being tempted to dabble in such practices themselves.  Hence the need for Yahweh to prohibit it.

In essence, Yahweh is saying you need not engage in divination to understand the revelation of God.  You only need to read the signs that I have already made plain to those who have eyes to see.  In this case, it is not the memorization of Torah that is being emphasized, but the revelation of Torah.  If you want to understand the Ten Commandments, you need look no further than the people of God.  It should be written all over their lives!

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One of the issues that prompted me to write Ten Essential Words was the controversy around the public display of the Ten Commandments.  Though the topic has died down somewhat from a couple of years ago, there are still cases lingering and new ones arising from time to time:

  • In Connellsville, Pennsylvania a battle is currently taking place over a Ten Commandments monument at Connellsville Junior High School.  A lawsuit has been filed for the removal of the monument but public support is growing to keep it in place.
  • The same group that filed the lawsuit at Connellsville, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, has filed a similar lawsuit to have a Ten Commandments display removed near Valley High School in the New Kensington-Arnold School District.
  • In Kalispell, Montana a small Ten Commandments monument remains in place next to a juvenile detention center while the city council determines whether it is appropriate to move it to a public park or remove it completely.
  • In Alabama, judge Roy Moore, who was removed from office in 2003 for his refusal to comply with an order to remove a Ten Commandments monument, seems poised to gain his post back in next week’s election.

In my book, I argue that many of these fights over keeping such monuments and displays intact miss the point.  It seems as though many Christians believe that displaying the Ten Commandments is equivalent to keeping the Ten Commandments:

My concern is more spiritual in nature: that in fighting to keep the Ten Commandments on display, we people of faith fool ourselves into thinking we are living out God’s commandments for the world around us to see.  The Hebrew Scriptures record that Israel often fell into the trap of thinking they were being God’s people simply because they were going through the religious motions – tithing, going to the Temple, pointing to the presence of religious images all around them.  But in reality, the way they actually lived out their lives did not reflect any of these elements of faith.

So my intention as expressed in the book is not to argue that the Ten Commandments should or should not be displayed in public places.

Yet there is an aspect to these cases that embody a troubling trend in our culture.  And it is captured in the name of the group bringing the court cases in Pennsylvania – the Freedom From Religion Foundation.  One of the freedoms the United States was founded upon was the freedom of religion.  I can worship how I want and you can worship how you see fit.  And both can rest assured the the government will not infringe upon our right to worship.  But in the last several years, our freedom of religion has been increasingly redefined as freedom from religion.  It is not religion that needs protection from those in power, but those in power should be shielded from any religious influence.  You are free to worship how you see fit as long as it is confined to your private life and does not offend anyone else.

It is with this new interpretation that we are robbing ourselves of of both historical context and valuable dialogue between people of different faiths, as well as between the religious and irreligious.  Freedom from religion means that we don’t have to confront anything that might make us uncomfortable or grow to understand someone else’s perspective.  And ultimately freedom from religion actually strips us of our freedom of religion.

I guess what I am saying is that as a Christian I don’t need to have the Ten Commandments on display everywhere I go.  But as a citizen of the United States, there are historical displays that have both religious and cultural meaning that need not be hidden away because someone wants total freedom from all religion.  Having traveled to many different countries and experienced a variety of different cultures, it would truly be a tragic loss if all cultural, historical, and religious icons that had a hint of religious meaning were removed from public display.  Now that would be offensive!

Back in 2011 I took a trip to Uganda. While there I was again confronted with examples of well-intentioned charity that, at the least, did little to address the issues facing Africa and at worst only exacerbated the issues of poverty. Of course, I also witness effective and innovative ways of dealing with these same issues.  I have had similar experiences while visiting Rwanda and Guatemala as well. Upon return, I read a book called Dead Aid, which discussed the limitations and even harm of celebrity campaigns to help Africa and the ineffectiveness of foreign aid in general. One quote in particular was telling:

This very important responsibility has, for all intents and purposes, and to the bewilderment and chagrin of many an African, been left to musicians who reside outside Africa.  One disastrous consequence of this has been that honest, critical and serious dialogue and debate on the merits and demerits of aid have atrophied.  As one critic of the aid model remarked, ‘my voice can’t compete with an electric guitar’.

That last line was, of course, a subtle dig at the well-intentioned efforts from the likes of USA for Africa to Bob Geldof to Bono. Now Bono is one of my favorite artists and it is always tricky to criticize the charitable efforts of others.  So it was refreshing that in a recent interview Bono acknowledged how much he has learned about tackling issues of aid and poverty, and how charity comes in many different forms:

“Job creators and innovators are just the key, and aid is just a bridge,” he told an audience of 200 leading technology entrepreneurs and investors at the F.ounders tech conference in Dublin. “We see it as startup money, investment in new countries. A humbling thing was to learn the role of commerce.”

Bono further reveals lessons learned such as the dangers of political corruption in the flow of aid and the role of entrepreneurs in tackling issues of poverty in Africa.  It’s refreshing to see someone of Bono’s celebrity status willing to grow and learn in regards to his philanthropic efforts.

As I have stated before, these are the same lessons I hope the church can also learn as it tackles the social issues of the day.  Good intentions are no guarantee of good outcomes.  We must be wise as serpents, being willing to learn from all perspectives as we grapple with these issues both at home and abroad.