The final six commandments are much more obvious in their social justice purpose than the first four:
12 Honor your father and your mother so that your life will be long on the fertile land that the Lord your God is giving you.
13 Do not kill.
14 Do not commit adultery.
15 Do not steal.
16 Do not testify falsely against your neighbor.
17 Do not desire your neighbor’s house. Do not desire and try to take your neighbor’s wife, male or female servant, ox, donkey, or anything else that belongs to your neighbor. (Exodus 20:12-17 CEB)
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Attribution: צילום:ד”ר אבישי טייכר
Let’s run through these fairly quickly to get a grasp of the context.
Honouring of father and mother was the essential basis of a functioning Ancient Near Eastern society. The nation is built up of tribes, which is built up of clans, which is built up of families. Today in the Western world we largely detach from our parents once grown up and primarily define our identity as individuals, but in the Ancient Near East, you were defined primarily as part of your family. If you’re unable to honour your caregivers and your primary sources of identity, the social fabric is in trouble and your character is understandably under question. Of course, honouring your parents is far from being the same as blindly obeying them. For example, if a parent is abusing you, your sibling(s), or the other parent, the most honouring thing you can do for that parent is to make them realise the consequences for their actions by going to the police.
We don’t kill people because that doesn’t honour their dignity as image-bearers of God. In its original context, it meant murder rather than killing in general – killing an enemy in war or on behalf of the state as punishment for a crime was acceptable. Where Christians will disagree today is on whether even these types of killing are permissible today, in light of Jesus’ commands such as the one to love even your enemy.
Banning adultery in its context may not be as flattering to women as we may think. Today, we can see this and say that it is protection for both parties to a marriage. Nobody wants to be cheated on and it is an affront to the sanctity of that marriage. We should acknowledge, though, that at the time women were little more than property. They were property worthy of protection, for sure, but property nonetheless. Condemning adultery, then, did protect women but was not so far off from the commands not to covet your neighbour’s wife and not to steal; it was an act of taking another man’s property and destroying his sanctified marriage.
We don’t steal because that harms the person we are stealing from. There is an important scenario I want to point out here, though. The Law specifed a pretty significant amount that people had to leave out for those in need so that people would never be forced to steal. We have no such requirements in Canada, so how do we navigate between the harm caused by theft and the necessity of survival for those in need?
Looking at the command to never swear false witness, we should also note Exodus 23:1-3:
1 Don’t spread false rumors. Don’t plot with evil people to act as a lying witness. 2 Don’t take sides with important people to do wrong. When you act as a witness, don’t stretch the truth to favor important people.3 But don’t privilege unimportant people in their lawsuits either.
This is more than a simple and generic “don’t lie.” In particular, it is “don’t lie to help yourselves and others with power at the expense of those without it.” This would be common practice – it is common practice still today – as those with more power are given more trust and influence and so can get away with lying to protect themselves, regardless of harm done to others.
Lastly, I like how CEB deals with the envy command here: It is a desire and trying to take. It isn’t talking about casually wishing that we had a nicer car and then forgetting about it, content with what you have. We’re talking about seeing our lives as incomplete and somehow lesser if we don’t find a way to take what is somebody else’s and make it ours. If we look at some of Jesus’ words in Matthew 5, we can see that this desire and intention to possess what isn’t yours is just as problematic as succeeding in carrying out those desires.